This Summer We’re Channelling: Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly in “Mogambo”

Ava Gardner in “Mogambo”, 1953. MGM


It was in film noir that Ava Gardner had her breakthrough performance, as beautiful, sultry, double-crossing Kitty Collins in The Killers (1946). The ultimate femme fatale role was made for Ava Gardner and The Killers set her off to stardom. But it was in Mogambo, six years later, when she looked her most beautiful and most natural. Shot on location in Africa and brimming with its director’s verve for the great outdoors, John Ford’s safari adventure film reeked of British colonialism for its critics, but for the large audience stood for adventure and romance, in no small part due to the star-power of the actors. And if you are a true movie goer, then you will ignore the tiresome scolds who criticise the film for what it is not and let yourself the freedom to respond to everything that was that made the adventure genre the world of fantasy that grown-ups still believed in.

Ava Gardner is Eloise Kelly, a show girl who winds up stranded in the hunting outpost of Victor Marswell (Clark Gable), a big-game hunter, who also runs a safari, and the two soon start an affair. She is a natural fit for Gable. Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) is an English anthropologist, who hires Victor to take him and his wife into the African wild for their gorilla documenting safari. Grace Kelly is in the role of the wife, Linda, outwardly stiff and prim, but secretly harboring a lust for Victor. A love triangle unfolds on the background of the beautiful and rugged African landscape.


Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner in “Mogambo”, 1953. MGM


Helen Rose was the costume designer and it’s more than safari clothes that we get to see. In his brilliant book, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet remarks: “When Betty Bacall makes her first appearance in Murder on the Orient Express, she’s wearing a full-length peach-colored bias-cut velvet dress with a matching hat and egret feather. […] Now, Tony Walton (who did the clothes) knows that nobody gets on a train dressed like that, but what people actually wear when getting on a train is the last thing we would have considered, the object was to thrust the audience into a world it never knew – to create a feeling of how glamorous things used to be.” Things get glamorous in Mogambo as well, from elegant gowns and red lips, to strands of pearls, high heels and chunky gold link bracelets. It was a different time, when women dressed up for dinner, even on safaris. It was a different time for movies, too, when making a movie was an adventure in itself and when the quality of stardom had yet not been degraded. “There’s no one like Ava Gardner,” photographer Terry O’Neill recalled, “who was incredible looking and didn’t need a posse of stylists fluttering around her.” The glamorous looks in Mogambo work up the imagination just as the utilitarian looks – khakis, safari shirts, jodhpurs, midi skirts with riding leather boots, linen jackets and scarves – work up the active spirit. This merging of styles, set against the wild landscape and rugged beauty of Africa, becomes a romantic symbol of elegance and adventure.


Grace Kelly and Clark Gable in “Mogambo”, 1953. MGM

Ava Gardner and Clark Gable in “Mogambo”, 1953. MGM


The safari jacket was part of the westerners’ clothing in Africa. Initially part of the equipment of European soldiers serving in warm climates starting from the 19th century, for its comfort (it kept the heat out) and practicality (its beige colour was a great camouflage in the desert), the safari jacket entered the civilian gentleman’s wardrobe in the 1930s. Ernest Hemingway often wore one. Before Yves Saint Laurent made it universal, it was the films of the 1950s, which shaped the audience’s romanticised vision of Africa, that made the safari jacket the symbol of explorers and adventurers in far-flung locations. Nobody wore it more sensually than Ava Gardner in Mogambo.


“Mogambo”, 1953. MGM


Grace Kelly makes her entrance in her own safari suit, with soft skirt, white gloves, satchel bag and pith helmet. The look says ladylike demeanor, even if there are elements that hint of an individual sense of style, like the lapel-less shirt underneath the safari jacket. This was Grace Kelly and Helen Rose’s first film collaboration and the latter would become one of the three costume designers, along with Oleg Cassini and Edith Head, who would help the actress shape up her personal style.


Ava Gardner and Clark Gable in “Mogambo”, 1953. MGM


The two leading ladies are dressed similarly, but they wear their outfits differently, which reflects their different personalities. This is what costume design did so well in classic films: informing on the character and plot without standing out. Linda wears everything by the book, everything is refined, very posh and very English about her. Eloise’s style is more relaxed, unstudied and carefree: turned up sleeves and trousers, popped up collars, hair cut short – she is very confident of her attractiveness.

Ava and Grace were both nominated for the Oscar for their performances, but Ava outshines the perfect and unassailable Grace, and she steals the show from both Gable and Kelly. Feisty, red-blooded and cool, Gardner is enticing and she also has the best lines in the movie.

It’s interesting how the choice of costumes subtly reveal the plot and character traits, like making a well placed remark. It seems like the roles are switched when Grace is wearing the purple dress and Ava is wearing the white dress (below). Linda is the tempted wife and Eloise is the seductress with a heart of gold. What a scene that is! And Ava in the white dress is a sight to behold.


“Mogambo”, 1953. MGM


But there are glimpses into a different trait of Kelly’s character that goes unnoticed at first sight, for example in the way she casually ties her unbuttoned safari jacket, well into the storyline (she wears it buckled up when she arrives). In the midst of wilderness, she loosens up, willing to break free from her cool and collected self. Hitchcock would be the one who would exploit this quality best in his films with Grace Kelly: “The subtlety of Grace’s sexuality – her elegant sexiness…conveyed much more sex than the average movie sexpot. With Grace, you had to find it out – you had to discover it.”

We also get to glimpse into the real Grace Kelly from simply looking at the way she wears a headscarf off set – as a top when she rides a horse. That look is as modern today as it was ahead of its time back then. “You trusted Grace’s beauty. You knew it was natural, unpretentious,” said Howell Conant, Grace’s favourite photographer and the one who took some of the most disarming photos of her. In this image from the set of Mogambo, what we see is Grace Kelly not as the star who had cast her spell on audiences everywhere, but simply smiling and carrying herself. Stars back then were individuals and that had nothing to do with the movie industry.


Grace Kelly and Clark Gable in “Mogambo”, 1953. MGM



The safari style in “Hatari!”

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