Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A Remake By Another Name

Most movie remakes are, to borrow from Yogi Berra, like deja vu all over again.

And "Mogambo," which was released 60 years ago today, was no exception.

Many years ago, I was watching a movie from the early 1930s on the late, late show called "Red Dust." I had never heard of it before, but I saw it in the listings, noticed that Clark Gable was in it, and decided to watch it.

When I did, I had the feeling that I had seen and heard the story before — and I had. It was, essentially, the same story with only a few deviations. The first movie was set in Indochina, the second was set in Africa, but darn near everything else was the same.

Well, except for one big thing. "Red Dust" had more energy, more sizzle. In spite of the improvements in filmmaking that had occurred in a couple of decades, "Mogambo" lacked something. "Red Dust" made "Mogambo" seem tame.

In "Red Dust," Gable was the overseer of a rubber plantation. In "Mogambo," he was a safari leader.

In both, he was the center of attention from two women, a primary love interest (Jean Harlow in the first, Ava Gardner in the second) and a married woman as a secondary love interest (Mary Astor in the first, Grace Kelly in the second).

Frankly, it was kind of disappointing. I mean, I would have expected this kind of setting with Gable, Gardner and Kelly — and director John Ford behind the camera — to be a cinematic slam dunk, but it really wasn't. Not compared to what it could have been.

Everything turned out the way viewers probably secretly hoped they would — Gable wound up with Gardner, and Kelly remained with her husband. The movie might have been made in Africa, but it was a Hollywood production.

In real life, I've been told, Gable and Kelly had an off–screen relationship that fizzled when their age difference (Gable was more than 28 years older) became too great to ignore.

On screen, though, the sparks — such as they were — were between Gable and Gardner, not Kelly.

I've often wondered if the so–called Hays Code was the reason "Mogambo" was so uninspiring, at least when compared to "Red Dust." The Hays Code imposed restrictions that would seem prudish compared to modern movie standards. "Red Dust" was made in the early days of the Hays Code, when movies could still get away with things they wouldn't be able to get away with for decades.

Perhaps that isn't fair. "Mogambo" did have some things going for it — it was shot on location, for one thing. "Red Dust" wasn't filmed in Indochina — it was filmed on a studio backlot in Hollywood, as I understand it — but Americans wouldn't be familiar with Indochina for another 35 years so it really didn't matter. I'm sure the studio heads figured no one would know the difference, and they were probably right.

Most Americans probably weren't too familiar with Africa, either, in 1953, but they likely had more of an idea of what Africa should look like than they did of Indochina.

Whether they did or not, what they got in "Mogambo" was the real thing, and the cinematography really was remarkable for its time. At the Academy Awards, though, Gardner and Kelly were rewarded with nominations, but the technical aspects were entirely overlooked.

And that, I think, is a shame. Gardner (nominated for Best Actress) and Kelly (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) were good, but I've seen both perform better. Gable wasn't nominated at all, and I have no problem with that. His role in "Mogambo" wasn't one of his best performances.

The material in "Mogambo" wasn't terrible — but neither was it great, and, while I have heard some people describe Gardner's performance as the best of her career, I'm inclined to think that several other performances were better.

I've always felt that Kelly was a rare mix of beauty and talent. There was a vulnerability to her performances that was very appealing, and I thought that vulnerability may never have been so striking as it was when Kelly played the young and lusty Linda of "Mogambo." Her character projected a cool reserve, but there was a smoldering sensuality beneath it.

I guess you could say that about all the roles she played — especially her roles in Hitchcock movies, which always seemed to bring out that quality in her performances.

It was still early in her career, though, and Kelly played a character that was a lot like the one she played a year earlier in "High Noon." She didn't begin to show her range as an actress until a year later, when she made "The Country Girl," for which she received her only Oscar.

I guess the biggest problem I had with "Mogambo" was that it never really made up its mind whether it was going to be a love story or an adventure movie. Ford seemed to want to make "Mogambo" a story worthy of Hemingway — and there were plenty of jungle scenes — but the star power of the cast seemed to pull him back to the love triangle.

In the end, I guess you could say the love triangle won. Again, this is a Hollywood production we're talking about.

But sometimes I think it was more of an adventure story. That's the real problem with remakes.