Mogambo (1953) & Ava Gardner's Hot Mess

Ava Gardner's a Hot Mess, Clark Gable Pulls Off Safari Shorts Twice, and Grace Kelly's Not a Princess Yet. It's 1953's Mogambo.
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1953’s Mogambo is a beautiful and entertaining film, to say the least.

Directed by John Ford, Mogambo stars three of Classic Hollywood’s most iconic stars: Ava Gardner, Clark Gable, and Grace Kelly.

Mogambo gave Ava Gardner a chance to show she could act, something Ava’s studio, MGM, didn’t allow her to do frequently enough.  Ava’s performance in the film is as touching and humorous as it is charismatic and full of star power.

But the fun and drama behind the scenes of Mogambo demonstrates why MGM was satisfied to capitalize on Ava’s great beauty and tempestuous personal life, rather than seek out films that would underscore her talent.

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You can rent or buy Mogambo here on Amazon [aff. link].

Let’s go through the plot, then we’ll go behind the scenes of the film.

Gable as Vic Marswell and Ava as Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly.

Mogambo: The Plot

Mogambo takes place in Africa.  We first meet big game hunter Victor Marswell, played by Clark Gable. He’s one of those man’s man characters that Gable always played so well.  Vic is full of life, charisma, and magnetism.  Then we meet Ava, who matches Gable frame for frame with her zest for life, charisma and magnetism.  Ava is Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly, a good-time girl who finds herself on safari because she’s supposed to meet a Maharajah in Africa. 

But he never shows up.

So Vic and Honey Bear, who hit it off right away, get together instead.

Even on safari, "Honey Bear" Kelly is always perfectly dressed.

Meet the Nordleys

Things are looking good for Vic and Honey Bear for a whole day.  But then the Nordleys, an English couple who’ve come on safari to study gorillas, show up.  They’ve hired Vic to be their guide. 

And Linda Nordley is Grace Kelly.  Which means she’s gorgeous.

Now Honey Bear’s got some competition for Vic’s attentions.  Vic is floored by Linda, who isn’t at all what he expected to meet when he first agreed to take the Nordleys on safari:

“Well, the wife of the last scientist who was here weighed about 180 pounds of pure muscle, had a good start on a mustache, and every time she spoke to her husband, every lion in the territory took off!”

Vic and Linda are immediately drawn to each other. Never mind about Honey Bear. Or Linda's husband...

A Classic Love Triangle...on Safari

Linda’s beauty is clearly a surprise to Vic, and he’s immediately drawn to her classy gorgeousness.  And Linda is attracted to Vic too, though she doesn’t want to be and is completely torn between her loyalty to her husband, and this pull she feels towards Vic.


And don’t forget Honey Bear.

 She’s a smart dame, and picks up right away on the sparks between Vic and Linda.  So we have a classic love triangle, set on safari in Africa.  While Honey Bear makes clever and caustic remarks to try to hide her hurt at being thrown aside for another woman, Vic and Linda try not to look at each other longingly in public.  Still, Linda’s husband (played to bland perfection by Donald Sinden) is the only one in the camp who seems to have no idea about the physical attraction and tension between his wife and the big game hunter.


So which stunningly beautiful woman will end up with Vic? 

And does anyone get mauled by a gorilla?

Watch Mogambo to find out.

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Mogambo: Gable's Take Two

Mogambo wasn’t the first time Clark Gable played this role.  Literally.  Names and locale were changed, but Gable had already played the Vic Marswell character back in 1932’s Red Dust.  Mary Astor and Jean Harlow had played the Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner roles, respectively.

What a compliment to Ava that she was chosen to fill the shoes of the legendary Jean Harlow, and what a compliment to Gable’s eternal appeal that he could pull off the exact same role TWICE, 21 years apart.

Honey Bear gives Vic a hard time over his safari get-up. But Gable completely pulls it off.

Clark Gable: The King of Hollywood

I should probably be outraged that in Hollywood culture, Gable could do this while no one else from the original cast of Red Dust was even offered a role in the remake. 

But I’m not.


Clark Gable is the King, and if you can pull off walking around in safari shorts with your chest exposed at age 31 and still pull it off at age 52, massive props. 

Louise Brooks once said about Clark that he didn’t take himself too seriously, and that he wore his crown:

“at a humorously apologetic angle.”

Well said.

It’s certainly another reason why Gable fans like me don’t get mad about the King playing romantic leads right to the end of his career.

In the film, Linda and Honey Bear battle for Vic's affections and basically hate each other. But in real life, Ava and Grace became good friends while filming Mogambo.

Ava and Grace: BFF’s Forever

Despite the warring females they play in the film, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly became good friends while making Mogambo

But it didn’t start out that way.

When filming began on location in Africa, Ava brought then husband Frank Sinatra along.  Anyone familiar with the Ava/Frank marriage knows that it was an incredibly tempestuous, passionate relationship, full of ups and downs.  One minute they were screaming at each other, the next they were making up.  Never a self-conscious pair, Frank and Ava did all this fighting and loving completely in the public eye.  As Donald Sinden (he’s the guy who plays Grace’s husband in the film in case you forgot.  Don’t worry if you did, again, he’s beyond bland) shared, while filming Mogambo in Africa:

frank sinatra ava gardner
Ava and Frank on their wedding day in 1951.

“…a great row broke out [between] Frank and Ava…you should have heard the language and the screams and shouts…Cursing and screaming like wild creatures…I put my head out of my tent to see what the devil was going on.  And I see Clark Gable and Grace Kelly are sticking their heads out at the same time!  And there were things being thrown from Ava’s tent, pots and things, flying out of the tent; they were throwing them at each other!  Then, suddenly, silence.  The argument was over, and the next thing you heard was the bed creaking.”


Ava and Grace behind the scenes of Mogambo.

A Hot Mess on Mogambo

When Grace Kelly witnessed the highs and lows of the Sinatra marriage on the Mogambo set–which usually involved copious amounts of alcohol–she reportedly told a friend:

“Ava is such a mess it’s unbelievable.”

But after spending more time with Ava on location, Grace came to admire Ava’s free spirit and complete lack of inhibitions. Despite her “cool blonde” screen persona, Grace was a lot of fun herself, and was always ready for a laugh.  And boy did Grace have a lot of laughs hanging out with the witty and adventurous Ava Gardner.

Ava candidly played with this baby elephant, and then the footage was included in the film.

Ava Gardner Changes Grace Kelly's Life

Ava Gardner would play a significant role in the life of Grace Kelly: Grace’s meeting of future husband Prince Rainier can be traced back to Ava.

Ava introduced Grace to Rupert Allan, the journalist who eventually convinced Grace to attend the Cannes Film Festival, where Grace met Prince Rainier.  And, as we know, the rest of that famous romance is history. 


The Real Life Ava

Friends of Ava’s quite unanimously agree that in Mogambo, we catch a glimpse of what Ava was like in real life: no other character Ava played throughout her lengthy career came as close to the fun-loving, quick-tongued, beautiful Ava Gardner than Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly.

So next time you watch Mogambo, remember that you’re getting a taste of what it was like to hang out with Ava Gardner.

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That's it for Mogambo

That’s it for Mogambo.

Join me next week for all about 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.

2 Responses

  1. Like Shane, I watch this movie every time it comes on, I was drawn to Ava like a moth to a flame, as an African American I’m sure the non-Anglo Saxon part of her ancestry had a lot to do with it. Much like Rita Hayworth I found her intoxicating and extraordinarily sensuous….one of my top five Killer Babes of all time. Grace was truly a great beauty but no competition for Ava in the arson department. In Mogambo I thought her upper class English lady portrayal was spot on, this is my favorite Grace movie, I’ve seen those flashing eyes driven mad by lure of the flesh a time or two. I thought Hollywood made big mistake not just with Ava but with other starlets that they seems hellbent on paring with men from the 30’s and 40’s old enough to be their fathers. Clark was in great shape in 1953, he could still pull it off and he was the King (smile).

    1. Thanks for reading Charles! I completely agree, Grace is such a beauty, but Ava has that extra something that just makes her shine. You simply can’t take your eyes off her in this film. And so true! Gable’s generation of actors just kept going and going, even as the leading ladies got younger and younger. Some, like Gable, pulled it off, while others definitely did not. Gotta love the King!

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