What is a women’s picture? In recent years this has been a more difficult concept to distinguish, being that the increased crudity of all American (in particular) cinema has led to a blurring of cinematic behavioral gender lines. What once were regarded as films highlighting women in the leading roles, and focusing on their characters and concerns to the minimal consideration of the male perspective were a traditional and honored area of commercial cinema; a feminine antidote to the more male targeted genres of war, horror, westerns and gangsterism. However, in recent years, there seems to be a misconception in the film world that in achieving a perceived equality with men (as championed by the unfortunately necessary Women’s Liberation movement), women don’t achieve that equality by standing side by side with men and claiming their own identity, but rather “becoming” more like men; which in itself is a regressive and subservient stance- entirely the antithesis of the intention of “Liberation”. If more recent developments in women’s roles in American films leads to a proliferation of female versions of male “buddy” films, mindless action bloodbaths or crude frat house comedy, this is hardly an evolutionary step for either women or the cinema; neither is elevated by an imitative move toward copying cultural bottom rung conceptions or public images.
Oddly enough, in traveling back to more restrictive big studio times, there emerges a film- from an (as initially considered) unlikely source -that could be regarded as the cultural viaduct between the distinguishing qualities between “women’s” and “men’s” films.
Buoyed by the success of “The African Queen” and their own “King Solomon’s Mines”, both of which eschewed the conventionality of backlot filming for a richer, more immediate location shooting, MGM returned to the Dark Continent under the directorial supervision of John Ford with 1953′s “Mogambo” a Technicolor remake of the 1932 Victor Fleming film “Red Dust” starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor. Originally set in a rubber plantation in Indochina, the story has been transplanted to an African safari complex which also captures animals for the world’s zoos. (Elements obviously borrowed by the later Howard Hawks production of “Hatari!” are evident.)
Clark Gable plays Victor Marswell, a veteran safari guide and hunter, the man in the center of a triangle of love/lust, dividing his attentions between the earthy Kelly (played with a devilish sense of fun which makes her all the more sexy, by Ava Gardner) and the prim Linda (Grace Kelly, whose performance is typically two-note, either stiff propriety or quick and over-the-top hysteria, which begs the question: were these the imposed limitations demanded of her by her directors or was this truly the shallow wealth of dimensions of her performance arsenal at this time in her short screen career?) whose sense of , as Vic puts it “sheltered background”, creates a fragile shell masquerading a seething cauldron of sensual desire thinly disguised by the propriety (This was one one of Hitchcock’s most important manifestations of his blonde ideal: the whore under the ice cube.) of her class status and background.
Despite the strangulating limitations imposed by Production Code standards to not as overtly present the material in the steamier rendition of it’s Pre-Code counterpart, John Ford’s production cannily uses the similarly constrained moral primness of Grace Kelly’s persona to elicit a dynamic tension between the good-time character Kelly and the proper but hypocritical Linda, but this tension between character types also undoes a most important component of the central love triangle (Actually a rectangle if we include Linda’s husband, the astonishingly clueless husband Donald, played with cheerful cluelessness by Donald Sinden, which actually makes him a rather sympathetic cuckold, not at all keeping with the triangle dynamic that should be central in the viewer’s attention.) which is the believability of Vic’s discarding the willing and able Kelly for the rather simpering ninny that is Linda. Several references are made to Vic’s lack of marital status (clearly unconvincingly loaded questions meant to set up motivations for a play at another man’s wife) but if we are to believe that visions of domesticity rage through this Great White Hunter, there is no real evidence of it through his behavior, or at least none that would explain this seeming paradox of his character. As a matter of fact, as an object of desired domestic bliss, Linda is an impractical choice as she seems incapable of any direct action except to be irresponsible and shrill, (Kelly’s derisive remark about Linda’s “Louisa May Alcott” personality is right on the money) more often acting in an irrationally reckless manner that not only puts herself and others in danger but a great deal of the animal kingdom as well.
The picture, however, is entertaining on its own level once you realize that the real safari depicted isn’t concerned with gorillas (they are inappropriately geographically positioned if one is to believe the Kenyan backdrop anyway) but with the hunt for the human heart. It is clear from the beginning, from their initial meeting and skirmish, that Vic and Kelly are a perfect match (something Kelly realizes very quickly as well, enriching her character with the constant frustration of having to closely observe Vic’s inexplicable attraction to the vacant Linda) and it is the path taken by the film to increasingly put off that meeting of hearts (at least openly) until the last moments of the film. Such is the drama, the suspense and the ultimate entertainment of “Mogambo”; an adventure in which love is the ultimate trophy.
Now, John Ford may not be the first director one would conjure when considering a purely romantic film, yet his acknowledged core of sentimentality is one of the strengths distinguishing his entire oeuvre, infusing an additional layer of signature humanity to not only his 1952 masterwork “The Quiet Man”, but the emotionally charged and romantic elements of such films as “Rio Grande”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “The Long Gray Line”, (even) “The Searchers” and especially his wartime masterpiece “They Were Expendable” which managed an extraordinarily credible level of romantic sentiment between John Wayne and Donna Reed, making full use of the intensified visceral resonance resulting from the experience of developing emotional intimacies during the fragile and temporary conditions imposed during warfare. In his films, Ford clearly has an attachment to those female characters who demonstrate what might be best labeled a natural “strength in softness” meaning that they are subject to the caprices of what might be recognized as characteristics of sentimental femininity, but also emboldened with an innate inner resolve to attach themselves to the elements driving Ford’s favored masculine code of honor; this is demonstrated in the continued use of one of the director’s favorite actresses Maureen O’Hara, who embodied these characteristics, as opposed to the character of Hallie Stoddard played by Vera Miles in Ford’s 1962 interesting but problematic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” who is one of the director’s least memorable heroines as she betrays every elemental sense of loyalty important in Ford’s vision,both emotionally and idealistically. Fortunately, with “Mogambo”, the director is working with material that not only allows for the development of his favored male-female dynamic, but is blessed with a pair of lead performers that are up to the task of a feature length pas de deux in which the characters play an emotional game of chess, in which Kelly openly displays her feelings which are apparent to everyone, except to Vic who is blinded by his own conception of the feminine ideal which he finds in Linda, and only awakens out of his stubborn adulterous pursuit when just at the precipice of revealing all to Linda’s husband Donald, he finds the occasion to, as Kelly puts it, go “noble”.
Clark Gable has one of his best roles as Vic Marswell, but it is Ava Gardner as Kelly who is the revelation in this film. Though her handling of the lighter aspects of the material should be no surprise to anyone who had seen “One Touch of Venus”, she suggests perhaps the most fully balanced personification of the Fordian woman, at once tender and tough, sentimental yet practical, and most generously willing to ally herself with her romantic rival Linda in an selfless effort to protect the sanctity of Linda’s relationship with Donald, which Linda is so callously willing to discard. For the film to succeed it is most important for the character of Kelly to be fully realized and understood, and certainly as presented, her’s is the only character in which we are witness to a deeper exploration of personality than the shallower archetype portraits of the rest of the cast: as depicted as Great White Hunter, Unsophisticated Sexual Innocent, Career Blinded Husband. In this matter, the film is greatly aided by the performance of Philip Staunton as Vic’s right-hand man Browny, who acts as both confidant and counselor to Kelly, and as a sympathetic observer to the fractured dynamic between Kelly and Vic, acts as a constant Greek Chorus through a catalogue of priceless reaction shots; a marvelously humane performance by a disgracefully underused actor. (Staunton would unfortunately pass away prematurely while performing onstage at the tender age of 53.)
The sympathetic attention by Brownie toward Kelly is mirrored by the director Ford as she is the only character shown to have substantial depth; acting against what Vic initially casually dismisses as her “playgirl” attitude by being the only member of the safari to be affected by the presence of religion, and at one point seeking confessional guidance (though, significantly, we do not hear what she is unburdening herself of); a conflicted spirit which is alluded to earlier in a friendly conversation between Brownie and Kelly in which he astutely inquires about where she got her “scars”, the inference clearly made that she is far more complex and built of sterner stuff than Vic, at the time, gives credit for. On the other end of the spectrum, there are no such allusions toward Linda who is generously described as being sheltered, but in fact is portrayed as weak, disloyal and emotionally immature; shaking off both her spousal solidarity and the attempted friendship shown by Kelly; coming to a climax when a jealous Linda hysterically shoots Vic in the arm. leaving the resourceful Kelly to show her true worth by quickly inventing an alternate version of what has transpired to Donald and the rest of the safari party that absolves Linda of all adulterous culpability and preserves the harmonious adoration of the rather decent Donald toward his wife. Here, Kelly reveals her true nobility in a crisis to Vic (something she complimented him on just minutes before) and it’s this selflessness that finally makes the stubborn hunter realize that the woman he had previously expressed a fondness for ( though he doesn’t acknowledge it, his boyish declarations to her that “You’re alright, Kelly” are probably the closest he’s ever come to an expression of meaningful affection) is, in fact, every bit his equal and her own splendid person as well; a harmonious realization that leads to a rather rushed but emotionally rich conclusion to this most satisfying of “women’s/men’s” pictures.