Sunday, 11 October 2015

The "They Remade What!?" Blogathon: "Red Dust" (1932) and "Mogambo" (1953)

Original release poster for Red Dust
Wilson Collison's 1928 play Red Dust had been gathering quite a bit of dust of its own on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shelves since 1930 as a fifteen-page treatment of a "very purple melodrama about a poor little slaving whore." At various times, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer had been considered for the lead until screenwriter John Lee Mahin and producer Paul Bern settled on turning it into a comedy starring Jean Harlow and John Gilbert, with Jacques Feyder occupying the director's chair. Since Harlow's first film as an MGM contract player, Red-Headed Woman (1932), had proved to be just controversial enough to ensure its firm success, the studio figured that pairing her with Gilbert would help his ailing image. 

While Mahin was working on the script in late July 1932, he reportedly saw Clark Gable in William A. Wellman's Night Nurse (1931) or George W. Hill's Hell Divers (1932), depending on the source, and decided that the 31-year-old actor would be much better with Harlow than Gilbert. Production supervisor Hunt Stromberg agreed, but considered they would need "a stronger, more macho director" to handle Gable, described by Mahin as having "the eyes of a woman and the build of a bull." As a result, the "sweet, delicate" Belgian-born Feyder, who had made an acclaimed French silent version of Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin in addition to Greta Garbo's last silent film, The Kiss (1929), was replaced by the "robust" Victor Fleming, regarded as more of a "men's director." Once Gable was hired in favor of Gilbert, the script had to be rewritten to suit him, meaning that production did not resume until late August of that year.

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable
In Red Dust (1932), Gable has the role of Dennis Carson, the rough-and-tumble manager of an Indo-Chinese rubber plantation who finds himself giving shelter to Vantine (Harlow), a wisecracking prostitute on the run from the Saigon authorities. Although Dennis says he is sick of whores being the only women in his life, Vantine wins him over with her frankness and sense of humor and they soon develop a friendly, casual relationship, calling each other "Fred" and "Lily." Vantine eventually falls in love with Dennis, but he continues to see her as just a pleasant distraction from the plantation's harsh environment.

In the meantime, a boat arrives bringing Gary Willis (Gene Raymond), a young engineer hired as the plantation's new surveyor, and his sophisticated wife, Barbara (Mary Astor). Dennis is immediately attracted to Barbara and turns rude to Vantine, feeling that her presence lowers and vulgarizes him. After Gary recovers from a bout of malaria, Dennis sends him on a lenghty surveying trip down the river so he can have some time alone with Barbara. Over Vantine's jealous eye, Dennis and Barbara soon begin a steamy affair and he eventually convinces her to leave Gary for him. When Dennis visits Gary out in the jungle, however, he learns how much the engineer loves and depends on Barbara and realizes that he cannot break up their marriage. That night, he takes up with Vantine again in order to turn Barbara against him and succeeds only too well: in a moment of madness, Barbara shoots him. When Gary rushes him, Vantine says that Barbara shot in self-defense to protect herself against Dennis's advances. After Dennis sends the Willises away, Vantine nurses him back to health and he finally realizes that she is in fact the right girl for him.

Clark Gable and Mary Astor
Filmed on the same sets as W. S Van Dyke's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Red Dust was an instant crowd-pleaser, becoming the fourth top grossing picture of the year. The cast was generally praised for their performances in the film, but the quality of Jean Harlow's comic style seemed to take critics completely by surprise. Richard Watts Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune, for instance, wrote that "In the new film she is called upon to go in for the playing of amiably sardonic comedy and, by managing it with a shrewd and engagingly humorous skill, she proves herself a really deft comedienne."

Red Dust essentially introduced what would be an oft-repeated Gable character, "the guy who might be briefly impressed by a lady, but who is enduringly amused, attracted, and frequently loved by the tart with the heart of gold." In the figure of Jean Harlow, the film also created for Gable the ideal woman on-screen, "the pal with whom he could also enjoy great sex as an added bonus, for whom he started to search off it." Red Dust did a great deal for Gable's macho image, too. For the majority of the film, he appears damp and unshaven, with his collar undone and his sleeves rolled up, occasionally wearing no shirt at all. Fleming's biographer, Michael Sragow, argues that "What makes Gable so sexy in Red Dust is that he isn't the John Gilbert great-lover type: he's fresh in every sense. When he comes with seductive patter or a bold and winning gesture, he's not overly practiced."

[Red Dust] is as lusty, funny, and sad as it should be. It wrings humor and pathos from the unfairness and ruthlessness of love, and hopefulness from the varieties of love.
(Michael Sragow)

Original release poster for Mogambo
When Dore Schary became MGM's head of production in the early 1950s, the studio began a policy of recycling some of their titles and properties from out of the past. As one of their biggest hits from the Pre-Code era, Red Dust was inevitably one of the first pictures to be thought of for a fresher, more updated version. With the recent success of King Solomon's Mines (1950), shot almost entirely on location in Africa with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, it was decided that the Red Dust remake would be taken out of its Southeast Asian rubber plantation setting and placed in the "Technicolor-friendly" landscapes of the Serengeti Plain and the Kagera River.

John Lee Mahin was still active in Hollywood at the time and had maintained a good relationship with MGM over the years, so he was the logical choice to adapt his own screenplay. Hired to guide the production was one of the most highly regarded creative figures in Hollywood, John Ford, the four-time Academy Award-winning director of The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952). Although he had never seen Red Dust, Ford liked Mahin's script and was intrigued by the idea of shooting in Africa. Stewart Granger, who claimed the idea of remaking Red Dust in an African setting was his own, was initially considered for the male lead, but studio executives then thought this adaptation would be the perfect vehicle for reviving Clark Gable's career, which had taken a downturn in the last three years, and possibly restored his long-lost status as "King of Hollywood."

Ava Gardner and Clark Gable
Ford originally wanted Maureen O'Hara, for the Harlow role, but the studio ended up casting Ava Gardner. To portray the part created by Mary Astor, Ford would only take Grace Kelly and had to fight the MGM hierarchy to get her. They had thought her "ordinary, drab and uninteresting" in her appearance in High Noon (1952) and proposed Deborah Kerr instead. However, when Ford showed Metro some color tests he had done with Kelly, they were so impressed by the results that not only did they give her the role, but also signed her to a long-term contract. Finally, to play the role originated by Gene Raymond, MGM cast Donald Sinden, a rising star from the British stage with only one previous film credit.

Mogambo (1953) follows the same basic plot of Red Dust, except the characters now have new names, personal backgrounds and occupations. To avoid problems with the censors, Mahin also cleaned up the steamy original, dropping most of the sexual banter between the Gable and Harlow characters in favor of witty insults exchanged by the women competing for his affection. In Mogambo, Gable is Victor Marswell (a nod to Red Dust's director Victor Fleming), a mellow and hard-working Great White Hunter and trapper who manages his own reserve and lodge. Gardner is Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly, a former showgirl who finds herself stranded in safari country after her maharajah suitor returns to India. Sinden plays an English anthropologist named Donald Nordley and Kelly is his prim wife, Linda. Just like Dennis in Red Dust, Victor falls in love with the refined lady, but in the end he realizes that the vulgar playgirl actually understands him better.

Grace Kelly and Clark Gable
Mogambo was the biggest African film venture to that time, requiring 67 days of location shooting in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the French Congo. Ford and producer Sam Zimbalist were the first to arrive, quickly followed by a  company of nearly 600 people, "from cast and crew to drivers, bearers, pilots, guards, guides, hunters, chefs, servants, nurses and tribal extras." On site, there was a camp of about 300 tents, including a hospital, a restaurant, a wardrobe and makeup department, a recreation tent and a portable movie theater. There was also an airstrip so that supplies and mail could be flown in and film stock flown out.

Premiering at the Radio City Musical Hall in New York, Mogambo was a critical and commercial triumph, becoming the eighth highest grossing film of 1953. Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly were especially praised for their performances and both received Academy Award nominations (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively). The success of Mogambo also put the "King" Clark Gable back on top and re-established him as a romantic lead, despite the fact that he was in his 50s. Ironically, Mogambo was Gable's next-to-last film for MGM, followed only by Betrayed (1954), after which the studio decided not to renew his contract. From this point on, he worked as an independent player and on subsequent films he began to require a share of the profits in addition to his normal salary. As a result, he became one of highest paid actor of the 1950s and consistently rejected the contract renewal offers made by a regretful MGM.

Mogambo is full of magic, deeply intimate, and emotional exchanges between its characters. Time and time again they gaze into the off-space, into Africa, seeking meaning, and then turn back to surer comforts of human society.
(Tag Gallagher)

Posters for Red Dust and Mogambo
Visually, Mogambo can never compete with Red Dust. John Ford's stunning Technicolor shots of the African backdrop make the exotic jungle come alive on the screen (even if it slightly resembles a wild life documentary at times). However, if we are to consider the film as a whole, Mogambo pales in comparison to Red Dust, which is livelier, wittier and overall better acted. Clark Gable still holds his manly allure in Mogambo, but the film contains only a faint shadow of his performance in the more torrid and sexually charged atmosphere of Red Dust. Furthermore, he does not seem to be as attached to Victor Marswell as he was to Dennis Carson. Besides, the safari shorts look quite awful on him.  

I think the main problem with Mogambo is actually its leading ladies, starting with Ava Gardner. Do not get me wrong, she looks beautiful in the film; however, she fails miserably at generating any of the tension that is palpable between Gable and Harlow. While Gable and Harlow "burn up celluloid" in Red Dust, Gable and Gardner barely produce a spark in Mogambo. And then there is Grace Kelly, who looks ravishing even in a safari suit, but whose character has very few redeeming qualities. Gable's dalliance with Kelly, which supposedly continued behind the scenes as well, is also rather chaste compared to his liaison with Mary Astor in Red Dust (a certain scene after their are caught in the rain springs to mind). 

Mogambo is a fairly enjoyable film to watch, but I will always choose Red Dust over it, mostly because of Harlow. As far and I am concerned, nothing can beat Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Their on-screen chemistry is absolutely magical and completely unique. Their relationship was never anything other than platonic and I think that is why they played off each so perfectly, especially in Red Dust. Clarence Sinclair Bull, MGM's production still photographer, once said: "I've never seen two actors make love so convincingly without being in love." I could not agree more.


This is contribution to The "They Remade What!?" Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. To view all entries, click HERE.



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SOURCES: 
Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing" by Lee Server (2006) | Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (2002) | Grace: A Biography by Thilo Wydra (2014) | Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince by Mark A. Vieira (2010) | John Ford: The Man and His Films by Tag Gallagher (1986) | Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow (2013)

2 comments:

  1. Great post as usual!! I've seen Red Dust and my library has Mogambo. I need to check it out soon...

    Thanks so much for participating!!! I had a lot of fun :)

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    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, you should check out "Mogambo" some time. It's not as good as "Red Dust," but it's still enjoyable enough.

      Thanks for hosting. :)

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