Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mogambo (1953)

Mogambo  (John Ford, 1953) It's good to be The King.  When you're Clark Gable, King of Hollywood, you can forgive a lot of shortcomings on the acting front.  Mogambo, situated in Africa, and for a large part photographed there, makes Gable the King of the Jungle and no less predatory than some of the denizens.  If the film has a shortcoming, and it has a few, it's that it depends so much on Gable's charisma to carry what is essentially an under-written "man's man" of a role—one who will take a woman in his arms and plant one with a mere change in the barometer, his, hers or Nature's.  Gable's Vic Marswell is so fragile in his moods, he's practically bi-polar, swinging from cranky to rapacious to "I don't care," running hot and cold and more than a little unreadable either way.  And for the women in the film, Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly (a plucky Ava Gardner), a recklessly adventurous widow, and Lina Nordley (Grace Kelly, still in her neurotic, fragile period), wife of Marswell's current client, it creates a weird triangle that I.Sosceles himself couldn't figure out.  Maybe it's the heat of Africa, or maybe it's the wild life of the wildlife, but both of these women, with lots going for them, still neurotically slam themselves like meteors into Winslow's orbit.  And while the heat and flash are nice, things burn out mighty quick.  And the only explanation is "it's Gable," in a writer's shorthand that defies logic, common sense, or understandable motivation (other than box-office).  It's just assumed that any woman's going to throw themselves at the King, no matter how much of a tiger trap he might be.

That shaky "given" aside, it's a nice adventure entertainment, directed by John Ford with a painterly eye trained on a new canvas.  The Technicolor cinematography—by Freddie Young and Robert Surtees—is absolutely gorgeous, whether in the blinding sunlight of a native village, or the shadowy slats of a "civilized" encampment.  Ford is a long way from the locations he favored in his Westerns, but adjusts, employing his fascination with native culture in the same diversions of including the faces of the tribes, distinguishing them from each other and, in a single set up, putting the flavor of the place on obvious display.  He's truly recharged and energized by Africa, his camera roaming all over, finding the picturesque and telling details.*

And it's interesting to note (to me, anyway) that Ford is essentially making a Howard Hawks movie:  a group of professionals and semi-professionals trying to eke out a living (and a kind of focused community) despite their differences.  Hawks and Ford would knowingly tip their hats to each other in their projects—if it didn't interfere with their own process—and there are a lot of the Hawks hallmarks here—the group sing-along, the loaning and sharing of a cigarette as relationship sub-text, the strong females (one of whom is "just one of the boys"), and the alpha male who has a code, few words, and manages to mangle them around the opposite sex.**

Even if the emotions run a little too high and there's way too much drama to get any real work done, there's a lot in Mogambo to like, that is pleasing to the eye.  The story's not much, but it sure is interesting to see how Ford tells it.

Gardner and Kelly-revealed in their environments

* One of my favorite shots is a simple one of Gable and company walking the high grass on a trapping trip, shot at ground level, looking up through the wisps at the party.  How much less interesting would that shot have been from any other angle?  How much less would it have said about the conditions there, while making the most of the surroundings?  Ah, I'm probably getting all "academic" here.  Ford probably shot it that way to avoid seeing a garbage heap in the distance.  

** Hawks made his own version of the "African trapper" story—Hatari—ten years later with John Wayne (although internet sources say Gable was to co-star "but who believes the Internet?") with a more cohesive group (the kids have the relationship problems, not the leader) turning the story into a metaphor for a filmmaking crew).  The differences are night and day—in style and atmosphere—despite the similarities in subject matter.  In Hawks, the relationships are background, while the job is scenter-stage.  In Ford, it's the other way around.  They'd make an interesting double-bill.

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