Ava Gardner was the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Of that, I am sure. In her time, which was the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood had other stunning women, but none had Gardner’s sass, her exuberant sex appeal, and breasts that the movie industry’s hallway monitor, known as the Breen Office, considered downright subversive. For the movie Mogambo, the theme of which was adultery, Joseph I. Breen had significant objections, but the very first item of concern he raised in a letter to MGM was “a bad breast shot of Ava Gardner.” As Gardner herself could attest, there was no such thing. “I was beautiful,” she said of herself.

Breen’s epic oxymoron took place in what the script synopsis for Mogambo called “darkest Africa”—Kenya mostly, Tanganyika and Uganda also, and several days in the Congo. Gardner was shot from the side, her breasts seemingly enveloped in chrome and swooshing out like the fins on a Caddy Eldorado. It was the style of the day, the sweater-girl era of the 1950s when vile Communism and lurid sex lurked everywhere. Gardner, an avowed liberal and perceived libertine, personified a bit of both. She was married to Frank Sinatra, whose friends were often liberal, sometimes Black, and occasionally criminal.

Frank Sinatra and Gardner in Nairobi, where she was filming Mogambo. They spent their first wedding anniversary on a plane on the way there.

The part she played in Mogambo, the synopsis said, was of a “breezy, brassy American show girl” nicknamed “Honey Bear.” It had originated with Jean Harlow in Red Dust, set not in British Africa but French Indochina. For both films, the screenwriter was John Mahin, working off a malleable 1928 play by Wilson Collison, a Midwesterner who, it appears, never got to Vietnam. Whatever the case, The New York Times didn’t much like his play. It called it “another of those plays of the tropics … where passions are primitive, and men wear their shirts open in the front.”

On Broadway, it closed in a week. In Hollywood, it has run forever.

The Lead-up

America had changed between Red Dust (1932) and Mogambo (1953). It beat the Depression and won the war, but it was oddly more anxious. It feared Communists, in particular, and fluoride in the drinking water (a Communist plot to undermine the health of Americans), and—somewhat presciently—the waning stability of the conventional American family.

The men who created and ran the motion-picture industry had yet another fear: that they would be outed as Jews, specifically as the personification of the amoral Jew—the Jew as pimp, the Jew as seducer of Christian girls (all of them virgins), the Jew whose libido was as capacious as his greed. American Nazis, as subtle as their German cohorts, distributed a leaflet in 1938 calling Hollywood “the Sodom and Gomorrah where International Jewry controls Vice-Dope-Gambling where YOUNG GENTILE GIRLS ARE RAPED …

A poster for 1932’s Red Dust, starring Jean Harlow as the showgirl who inspired Gardner’s part in Mogambo.

Even if Americans were not quite as familiar with that stereotype as Europeans, the Jews of Hollywood definitely were. Almost to a man, they had been born in Central or Eastern Europe. To a man, they came from families that had been one step ahead of the recurring pogroms. They wanted to make a buck, but once they had done so, they wanted little to no association with the seamier side of the picture business, its origins in lewd and suggestive nickelodeon flicks or the silent films that followed. They did not want an industry that offended the sensibilities of the Midwestern pastor or the big-city priest.

L. B. Mayer, whose name was on the studio’s door—Metro Goldwyn Mayer—was in total agreement. “I worship good women, honorable men, and saintly mothers,” he told one of his writers.

Not surprisingly, Mayer and his landsmen created a watchdog, an industry censor. They did so because others were already doing so—states such as Maryland and Ohio, for instance—and so, too, had the Roman Catholic Church, with its National Legion of Decency, as severe as the Inquisition and nearly as lethal. Catholics who disregarded the Legion’s C (for “Condemned”) rating stood in peril of having committed no less than a mortal sin.

Clark Gable and Gardner in a scene from Mogambo, directed by John Ford.

The film industry’s own censor board lacked jurisdiction beyond the grave, but in the here and now its authority was absolute: no film could be distributed without its seal of approval. The industry chose as its chairman a prune of a man by the name of Will H. Hays. The censorship board soon became known as the Hays Office.

“I worship good women, honorable men, and saintly mothers.”

Hays was not only a central-casting censor but in fact had created the very organization known as Central Casting. He had been the dour postmaster general of the United States, chairman of the Republican National Committee, campaign manager for Warren G. Harding, and, in a mitzvah for the studio chiefs, a Presbyterian elder.

Hays’s first job was to sweep up after the purported rape and murder in 1921 of an actress named Virginia Rappe. She was 30 years old and weighed maybe 90 pounds. Her alleged assailant was the actor Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle. He was 34 years old, weighed around 260 pounds, and was earning $1 million a year from Paramount. He was abundantly innocent, not that that mattered any to the Hearst press. His nickname was “Fatty” and William Randolph Hearst went to town. Fatty was doomed.

Joseph I. Breen, supervisor of the Hollywood production and advertising codes, in 1934. His first item of concern for Mogambo was “a bad breast shot of Ava Gardner.”

By the time the newspapers were finished reporting on Arbuckle’s purported orgies and drug abuse, one had to wonder how he had managed to stay so pudgy. It took three trials to exonerate him, but by then Arbuckle had earned a place in American mythology. His alleged depredations included the rape of Rappe with a Coke bottle. (The details, while fictitious, were gripping … and durable.) Arbuckle’s innocence aside, the damage was done—to Arbuckle himself and to the movie industry in general. Arbuckle was through and the industry was in trouble.

Its fix was the “Hays Code.” Promulgated by the Hays Office, it was full of “shall not”s, many of them having to do with sex. By 1934, the office had passed to Breen, who made Hays seem like a good-time Charlie. Breen was studiously Catholic, a lapsed anti-Semite, and a man who knew sex when he saw it—which was virtually everywhere. (“The fact is these damn Jews are a dirty, filthy lot,” he once observed.) No picture could be distributed without his seal of approval, and that seal is why the female lead in Red Dust went from being a bawdy prostitute in 1932 to a mere showgirl in 1954. It had taken 22 years, but she was finally wearing a bra.

The Making Of

The second iteration of Clark Gable (who starred in both films) was also spruced up. For Mogambo, he wore bespoke safari outfits of tan and taupe, fit for the bush as well as the Manhattan display windows of Abercrombie & Fitch, outfitters of Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and other big-game showboaters. Helen Rose, chief of MGM’s costume department, even put him in shorts. As Gardner comments in the film, he had the legs for it.

Gable outside the New Stanley Hotel, in Nairobi, during the filming of Mogambo.

Gable, at 52, had not yet gone to beef and was as attractive as he had been two decades earlier. But while Gable was still Gable, Gardner was no Harlow. She was a different type entirely, not a peroxide blonde, not with a flapperish body, and not a gifted comic actor, either. She was an astounding beauty, but Gable didn’t love her, although they once had had a brief affair.

He did, however, love Carole Lombard, and married her during a break in the filming of Gone with the Wind. The Gable-Lombard marriage, in 1939, was something of a royal wedding—the so-called “King” and the uncrowned “Queen.” (Gable and Lombard’s marriage, apparently as magical in reality as it was on the sleek pages of fan magazines, ended in 1942, when TWA Flight 3 slammed into a Nevada mountain. Lombard was aboard, returning from a war-bond drive; she was only 33 years old and had been terrified of flying.)

While Clark Gable in Mogambo was still the Clark Gable of Red Dust, Ava Gardner was no Jean Harlow.

Red Dust also featured Mary Astor, an actress of porcelain sexuality. As she would later be in her most famous role—Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon—she was sexy in the manner of a porn-film librarian. In Red Dust, she’s married to a man who has the excitable energy of a cocker spaniel and the sex appeal to match. All it takes is a glance for her to swoon for Gable, and he, in as much of a rush as she, reciprocates. They’re in each other’s arms in a flash, pre-Code adultery at its most hurried.

Gardner on set.

Just as Gardner took the Harlow role uptown, so did Grace Kelly with Astor’s character. She’s decked out in safari outfits designed especially for the movie, but her role is, if possible, even sillier. She’s beautiful and seductive but something of a ninny, screaming and gnawing her knuckles when frightened, a bit like a silent-screen actress fighting off the lecherous landlord.

Mogambo was Kelly’s first major role, not top-billed (that went to Gable) but third-, which was good enough for the time being. She had been around—with a standout supporting role in the previous year’s High Noon, and, before that, plenty of schlock TV, some Broadway, and a career as one of New York’s highest-paid models. She had also made the rounds of countless New York parties, where she had earned a reputation for having a reputation. It was hardly a surprise, then, that the tabloids whispered that she was having an affair with Gable. She denied it and he denied it, but Bunny Allen, the so-called white hunter assigned to the film, apparently did not get the memo. In his memoir, the barely written Wheel of Life, he records seeing Gable and Kelly holding hands in the jungle and exchanging “nice eye messages.”

Soon, Kelly’s billing jumped to No. 1. She went on to star opposite some of Hollywood’s foremost leading men—Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, for instance, and Bing Crosby in High Society, joining him for the final chorus of “True Love,” a dollop of musical sherbet as the song concludes. That was her last picture—she was already the consort of Monaco’s Prince Rainier III, whom she married in 1956, closing her film career. The wedding was an international event, with foreign correspondents hurrying down from Paris. Gardner was a guest; Sinatra, too much of a spectacle, chose to be elsewhere. Twenty-six years later, possibly on account of a mild stroke, Kelly lost control of her car and spilled off a Côte d’Azur cliff. She was only 52. As with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, she never got old.

Grace Kelly, Gable, and Donald Sinden in a scene from Mogambo.

By 1954, Gable was on the extended downward slope of an amazing and durable career. Even so, for Mogambo he remained star enough to require his own bodyguards and to have filming shifted when a rumor reached the Kenya location that the Mau Mau, a terrifying insurgency with an eye for celebrity, was intent on killing him. But the true measure of Gable’s stardom was related by Donald Sinden, who played opposite Kelly as her irritatingly naïve husband. On his first day of filming, Sinden was abruptly marched back to the hairdresser’s tent so he could have his chest shaved. Gable’s chest was shaved bare, he was told, and so, at the King’s insistence, would be everybody else’s.

Just as Gardner took the Harlow role uptown, so did Grace Kelly with Mary Astor’s character.

Mogambo was the sort of movie only Hollywood could make. It cost $3.1 million, and it entailed the clearing of the jungle; the building of airstrips; the hiring of private armies; the engagement of soldiers of fortune; the mobilizing of Land Rovers and dugout canoes; and the transporting of hairdressers and tailors, physicians and accountants, a pianist, a player piano, animal trainers, enough tents to house Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and, for the titillation of white America, the proud and semi-naked warriors of the Samburu, Wagenia, Bahaya, and M’Beti tribes of Kenya, the Belgian Congo, Tanganyika, and French Equatorial Africa. (They received billing.) It was as if MGM was going to show the Brits how to establish an empire.

Gardner and Kelly with a local actor on set.

The film itself was a vestige of European colonialism, even a paean to it. The whites are mostly good, the Blacks are mostly submissive, and the Mau Mau’s insistence on Kenyan independence from Britain is never acknowledged. As the shooting progressed, the British were establishing concentration camps to contain the obstreperous and occasionally murderous Kikuyu, the dominant tribe, killing well over 100,000 of them and administering the usual tortures, including rape. MGM went to Kenya to film a fictional country—at peace, idyllic, and as if the 1920s and Pimm’s Cup colonialism had never ended.

Mogambo was a vestige of European colonialism, even a paean to it.

Filming was difficult. The rains came—and stayed. The location had to be moved to confound the Mau Mau, although at least two of them were discovered among the extras, and the black panther needed for the shoot arrived so old and threadbare from South America that MGM’s nimble makeup people had to touch it up.

The delays and mishaps vexed the director, John Ford. He was on his 53rd movie and notorious as a disciplinarian. He brooked no histrionics. He suffered no foolish delays. He had only the most distant relation to his own temper. He did not drink when on a shoot, but he did afterward, to the point of blindness. He wore dark glasses. He could hardly see, and he could not abide Sinatra, who as a younger man had dodged the World War II draft while Ford, at the age of 48, had finagled his way into the navy and, in the end, onto Omaha Beach.

Gardner and Ford on set.

Gardner, a Christian-raised Southern girl, was up-front about her sexuality; she loved being naughty. During the filming of Mogambo, she went twice to London to see doctors, both times to have an abortion. The second time, she sneaked off without telling Sinatra and awoke after the procedure to find him at her bedside. He was in tears.

The End

Sinatra’s glory days were behind him. No longer could he make the girls swoon, as he did with bobby-soxers in the early 1940s—Sinatra riots, they were called. The fervor for him was so great that it became an arduous chore to clear out the Palace Theater after a performance—and to wipe down the moistened seats. But by 1954, he was sung out and strung out, a skinnymalinks, as the Brits would say, who was no longer of interest to teenage girls and, in an era of Burt Lancaster, William Holden, Gary Cooper, and Marlon Brando—not to mention Gable himself—of little interest to women of any age.

Sinatra was out of work, out of prospects, a gaunt, pathetic figure who was becoming best known as Mr. Ava Gardner. He was mocked as a has-been and belittled as Gardner’s sex toy, humiliated when crowds cheered for Gardner but ignored him. And he was broke, the money gone and precious little coming in. The records were not selling, his appearances limited to what he called “the provinces”—St. Louis, Montreal. Gardner was trying to convince Harry Cohn, the gruff and hugely disliked head of Columbia Pictures, to give the part of Maggio in From Here to Eternity to Sinatra. She promised Cohn a free picture.

Gardner and Sinatra in Milan, in 1953.

Ford did not think much of his movie—“tits and tigers,” he called it. Mogambo nevertheless received several award nominations, including an Oscar nod for best actress for Gardner. (Kelly won the inevitable Golden Globe.)

When Sinatra came to Kenya—airfare provided by Gardner—he’d fire off self-mocking telegrams to Cohn, some sent under assumed names. He did not want to appear to grovel—which, of course, was what he was doing. He was living off Gable. He was a man who collected slights, his future so bleak Gardner cited it as one reason for her abortion.

He’d sit on his camp chair, morose and volcanic, while at night the “natives” would chant their odd songs, the lions would roar, Ford would vent his huge Irish hurt on some poor underling, and Sinatra, “good in the feathers,” Gardner claimed, made love to the world’s most beautiful woman and waited in the jungle for word from Harry Cohn.

Richard Cohen is a former op-ed columnist for The Washington Post