MOGAMBO sounds like it might be a Swahili word, and the MGM advertising wizards insisted it meant “passion”. It actually means nothing in Swahili: it was just producer Sam Zimbalist playing off from the name of the Sunset Strip nightclub ‘Mocambo’, likely in a ‘now what the hell do we call it?’ session before the crew for the 1953 adventure ever set foot in Africa.
It’s a robustly entertaining picture, one of those with many tantalizing behind-scenes spices to toss into the viewpot. After the success of the location-lensed King Solomon’s Mines and The African Queen, the studio gambled a fair slug of money ($3,100,000) on a reworking of Red Dust, done twenty years earlier and set in Indochina. It had been one of the vehicles that made Clark Gable a star (steaming things up with sexy Jean Harlow taking a famous pre-code bath in a rain barrel). Gable had just come off two flops (the fine Across The Wide Missouri and the crummy Lone Star) and he needed a hit. He signed up, as did director John Ford, taking a break from Monument Valley in exchange for a working safari in East Africa.
New kid on the block Grace Kelly and hottie Ava Gardner were cast as the gals fighting over Clark. ‘Mogambo’ could just as well be Swahili for ‘huge balls’ regarding the he-manly behavior of the Great White Hunter type portrayed here by Gable, showing that a few gray hairs and extra pounds did naught but flavor the King’s reign (plus four marriages,one war and enough booze & smokes to kill a whale).
As cameramen Robert Surtees and Freddie Young captured climes, crowds and critters in parts of Kenya, Uganda, the Congo and Tanganyika (Tanzania), Ford was even more testy than usual as he was suffering from eyesight trouble, Grace and Clark got an affair going, Ava was pursued by a distraught Frank Sinatra as their marriage was cracking, and the huge production (300 tents worth) was loaded with armed guards to protect them from the Mau Mau insurgency. Add some bugs. We’ll leave the more salacious details for your own intrepid snooping.
It all looks great in color, and the script has a tongue-in-cheek attitude, which is fortunate, or the steamy romance and bravado would be harder to swallow. Nothing noticeably Fordian in it beyond competence, but he did get good work from everyone. As the guide for an expedition into ‘gorilla country’ (this was before we knew much of anything about the poor, doomed giants) Gable is able, and the scene where he’s tied to a hut and used as target practice for native spears is classic Hollywood hokum. Kelly conveys a properly timid cool exterior, as wife of the English twerp who is after the apes (Donald Sinden, mercilessly abused throughout by the Professionally Irish director). Of course, she melts for the guide once the party is far enough into the bush. Surprisingly, the best is Gardner, as a brassy, love-jilted showgirl along for the triangular-hell-of-it. She shows off a fine way with a wisecrack, looks ravishing and aced a Best Actress nomination. Kelly likewise picked up a nod in the Supporting category.
Raking in $8,200,000, hitting #8 spot of the years audience pleasers, it was Gable’s most profitable post-war hit, ending his slump. Running 115 minutes, it also features Eric Pohlmann, and Laurence Naismith.