Ava Gardner is Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month of November. The Gardner film series begins tonight with a presentation of about a dozen movies in which the sultry actress can be seen in starring and supporting roles, and in lots of bit parts as well.
I’m not a fan of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), a well-regarded film noir that earned the director an Academy Award nomination, but Gardner is excellent in a star-making turn and so is Elwood Bredell’s black-and-white cinematography.
Albert Lewin’s generally dismissed Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is actually quite affecting, in large part as a result of Gardner’s performance as a woman who finds love in death. Though not as gripping or atmospheric, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is reminiscent of William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie, released three years earlier.
Ava Gardner is the embodiment of ethereal glamour as an American nightclub singer incapable of love. Whether or not you find her performance dramatically effective, you’ll definitely be able to understand why James Mason’s mysterious “Flying Dutchman” falls madly – or rather, eerily – in love with her. One key problem with the film: it remains unclear why his feelings are ultimately reciprocated
Show Boat: Superb portrayal of tragic ‘mulatto’ Julie LaVerne
Considering Ava Gardner’s work in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, released in the United Kingdom early in 1951, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who saw that movie when Gardner, billed above leading man Howard Keel, poignantly brought to life the tragic “mulatto” Julie LaVerne – a role initially intended for Judy Garland – in George Sidney’s remake of Show Boat (1951), adapted by John Lee Mahin from the epoch-making 1927 Broadway hit, itself based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel.
A feast for the eye (cinematography by Charles Rosher, art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith) and the ear (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s songs, musical direction by Adolph Deutsch), Show Boat is also notable for being a remake that is superior to its talkie predecessor: directed by James Whale, Universal’s 1936 version starred Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, and, from the original Broadway cast, Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne. (A mostly silent 1929 version had starred Laura La Plante, Joseph Schildkraut, and Alma Rubens; Morgan played Julie in a talkie prologue.)
Of course, it’s impossible to rate Morgan’s stage work, but on screen Julie LaVerne belongs to Ava Gardner – even if with her singing voice dubbed by Annette Warren. The final sequence, in which we get to see Julie, a pitiful shadow of her former self, from a distance blowing a goodbye kiss to the at-last-reunited young lovers (Keel and Kathryn Grayson) as the Cotton Blossom sails down the Mississippi and William Warfield belts out “Ol’ Man River,” remains one of the most moving big-screen grand finales ever.
Curiously, although Gardner’s voice wasn’t deemed good enough for the film, it’s the one heard on the cast album recording.
As an aside, Lena Horne played Julie in a specialty number featured in MGM’s 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By, singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” And in recent decades, some have asserted that the role should have gone to her. Clearly, those people haven’t watched Show Boat; even if Horne were to succeed in being as affecting as Ava Gardner, she would have been badly miscast as Julie. Whereas Gardner, with the appropriate make-up, could pass for a light-skinned person of mixed black/white ethnicity, Horne could never have passed for white. And that would have ruined a key plot point in regard to Julie’s eventual fate.
In all, Show Boat was a career high for the director, and stars Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson. Though generally not nearly as admired as other 1950s MGM musicals – e.g., Singin’ in the Rain, The Bad Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Show Boat remains one of the best entries in the genre. Perhaps the best of its era.
Also in the Show Boat 1951 cast: Joe E. Brown (in a role originally – as in, nearly a decade earlier – intended for Walter Huston, and later on for Eddie Foy Jr.), Agnes Moorehead (instead of first choice Ethel Barrymore and, later on, Mildred Natwick), the dancing couple of Gower and Marge Champion, and Robert Sterling.
Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
5:00pm The Killers (1946)
An insurance investigator uncovers a string of crimes when he tries to find a murdered boxer’s beneficiary.
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker Dir: Robert Siodmak BW-102 min.
7:00pm Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). Director: Albert Lewin. Cast: James Mason. Ava Gardner. Nigel Patrick. Sheila Sim. Marius Goring. Mario Cabré. John Laurie. Pamela Mason (as Pamela Kellino). Abraham Sofaer. Color. 124 mins.
9:15pm Show Boat (1951). Director: George Sidney. Cast: Kathryn Grayson. Ava Gardner. Howard Keel. Joe E. Brown. Agnes Moorehead. Gower Champion. Marge Champion. Robert Sterling. Leif Erickson. William Warfield. Color. 108 mins.
11:15pm Knights of the Round Table (1953)
Queen Guinevere is torn between love for her husband and Sir Lancelot.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, Anne Crawford Dir: Richard Thorpe C-116 min.
3:00am This Time for Keeps (1942)
A newlywed goes to work for his disapproving father-in-law.
Cast: Ann Rutherford, Robert Sterling, Guy Kibbee, Irene Rich Dir: Charles Riesner BW-73 min.
4:15am Sunday Punch (1942)
A young girl copes with a boarding house full of boxers.
Cast: William Lundigan, Jean Rogers, Dan Dailey Jr., Guy Kibbee Dir: David Miller BW-76 min.
8:45am Joe Smith American (1942)
Nazi spies in search of government secrets kidnap a munitions worker.
Cast: Robert Young, Marsha Hunt, Harvey Stephens, Darryl Hickman Dir: Richard Thorpe BW-63 min.
Ava Gardner is back on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday evening (well into Friday morning), with four releases from the 1950s followed by the “Find Ava” section – seven titles from the ’40s in which Gardner had bit roles.
The two highlights of the evening are John Ford’s Mogambo (1953) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954).
Mark Robson’s The Little Hut (1957) is a watchable comedy, while George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction (1957), a soap-operaish melodrama set in India, is the evening’s embarrassment. Both co-star Stewart Granger.
Mogambo: One & only Best Actress Oscar nomination
Another Ava Gardner career highlight also being shown on Turner Classic Movies is John Ford’s 1953 mix of romance, humor, and “exotica,” Mogambo, a sizable hit ($8.268 million worldwide; approx.) which found the actress reunited with her The Hucksters leading man, Clark Gable (at age 51 during filming, and 21 years her senior).
Partly shot in Central Africa (Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania), the movie itself isn’t exactly great – it’s certainly less engaging than two other early 1950s Africa-set adventures, King Solomon’s Mines and The African Queen. Yet Mogambo is noteworthy for featuring the only Ava Gardner performance to have been shortlisted for an Academy Award.
Unlike Maria Vargas, Mogambo‘s warm-hearted, short-tempered, loud-mouthed showgirl Eloise Y. Kelly is a Hollywood cardboard, cracking jokes and/or expressing heartbreak as seen and/or heard in movies since features became a thing in the mid-1910s. What makes Eloise unique is Gardner’s movie star exuberance, whether squabbling with Gable (“Waaayll, bless your big, bony knees!”) or falling into a mud puddle while playing with a couple of big babies (an elephant and a rhinoceros).
Effortlessly stealing the film from her two-legged co-stars – Gable, Best Supporting Actress nominee Grace Kelly (as Gable’s other, 28-year-younger, romantic interest), Donald Sinden (as Kelly’s husband, and a much more captivating figure than Gable) – she even succeeds in holding her own opposite her four-legged co-stars. A truly remarkable feat, especially considering that Gardner was going through a rough patch, at one point traveling to London to undergo an abortion (without the knowledge of then-husband Frank Sinatra).
Red Dust + Mogambo remake that should have been
Mogambo was written by John Lee Mahin, whose extensive list of credits include MGM’s 1951 adaptation of Show Boat – in which Gardner excels as the tragic part-white/part-black Julie LaVerne – and the original on which Mogambo is based, Victor Fleming’s 1932 pre-Code classic Red Dust, itself adapted from Wilson Collison’s 1928 play of the same name.
The French Indochina-set Red Dust also starred Clark Gable (31 at the time), with, in a hair color/role reversal, Jean Harlow as the fiery no-nonsense blonde and Mary Astor as the decorously carnal brunette, plus Gene Raymond (a much more captivating figure than Gable) as Astor’s husband.
If the world were a fair place, we would have had a 1974 Mogambo/Red Dust remake with 52-year-old Ava Gardner in the Gable role (but now as a wildlife preservationist), plus Jan-Michael Vincent as the Gardner/Harlow character and Robert Redford, though at age 38 a little too old for the part, in the Kelly/Astor role. Mia Farrow would have played Redford’s demure wife.
But in case you haven’t already noticed, we don’t live in a just world. In 1974, Ava Gardner was stuck playing Charlton Heston’s neurotic wife in Mark Robson’s Earthquake. On the positive side, the costly disaster flick turned out to be the biggest box office hit of her career.
For the record, Gardner found herself vying for the 1953 Best Actress Oscar alongside Leslie Caron (Lili), Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity), Maggie McNamara (The Moon Is Blue), and eventual winner Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday).
The Barefoot Contessa: Most effective Ava Gardner showcase + lawsuit
Gardner should have been nominated for her antiheroine in The Barefoot Contessa, a classy, great-looking production that failed to impress a number of critics, who found it verbose and overlong.
Perhaps some of those critics should give the film a second look. Despite its flaws, it’s one of Mankiewicz’s best, in addition to boasting Ava Gardner’s most charismatic performance in the role of a Spanish dancer – inspired by Brooklyn-born Margarita Cansino (a.k.a. Rita Hayworth) – destroyed by Hollywood stardom and a failed marriage into European nobility.
A curious aside: as explained in Kenneth L. Geist’s Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the filmmaker was sued by a woman claiming that The Barefoot Contessa was a rip-off of her unpublished novel, The Cannibal, which had made the rounds in Hollywood some years earlier.
The novel was purportedly based on the life of little-known French-Polynesian dancer Anne Chevalier, who, after being discovered by F.W. Murnau, was featured in his 1931 docudrama Tabu: A Story of the South Seas – Chevalier, however, never became either a Hollywood star or a member of European nobility. The suit was eventually dismissed.
Of note, Julie Christie, who apparently didn’t watch Mankiewicz’s 1954 release, would end up just as disillusioned in John Schlesinger’s 1965 Swinging London drama Darling. Christie was at least handed a Best Actress Oscar for her troubles; Gardner wasn’t even nominated.
Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
5:00pm Mogambo (1953). Director: John Ford. Cast: Clark Gable. Ava Gardner. Grace Kelly. Donald Sinden. Denis O’Dea. Color. 116 mins.
7:00pm The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Ava Gardner. Edmond O’Brien. Marius Goring. Rossano Brazzi. Valentina Cortese. Elizabeth Sellars. Warren Stevens. Franco Interlenghi. Mari Aldon. Enzo Staiola. Bessie Love. Color. 130 mins. Letterbox Format.
9:15pm Bhowani Junction (1956). Director: George Cukor. Cast: Ava Gardner. Stewart Granger. Bill Travers. Abraham Sofaer. Francis Matthews. Marne Maitland. Freda Jackson. Edward Chapman. Lionel Jeffries. Color. 110 mins. Letterbox Format.
11:15pm The Little Hut (1957)
A neglected wife is shipwrecked on a desert island with her husband and her would-be lover.
Cast: Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger, David Niven, Walter Chiari Dir: Mark Robson C-90 mins
1:00am Young Ideas (1943)
A widow’s grown children try to break up her romance with a college professor.
Cast: Susan Peters, Herbert Marshall, Mary Astor, Elliott Reid Dir: Jules Dassin BW-77 min.
2:30am Swing Fever (1943)
A bandleader with hypnotic powers tries to train a boxer.
Cast: Kay Kyser, Marilyn Maxwell, William Gargan, Nat Pendleton Dir: Tim Whelan BW-81 mins
4:00am Pilot #5 (1943)
While their buddy flies a suicide mission, World War II airmen recall the events that led him to this noble sacrifice.
Cast: Franchot Tone, Marsha Hunt, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson Dir: George Sidney BW-71 mins
5:15am Lost Angel (1943)
A girl raised to be a genius gets lost and discovers the simple pleasure of life.
Cast: Margaret O’Brien, James Craig, Marsha Hunt, Philip Merivale Dir: Roy Rowland BW-91 mins
7:00am Hitler’s Madman (1943)
The Nazis take revenge on a Czech village after one of their most sadistic commanders is assassinated there.
Cast: Patricia Morison, John Carradine, Alan Curtis, Howard Freeman Dir: Douglas Sirk BW-84 mins
8:30am Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)
A night club employee dreams he’s Louis XV, and the star he idolizes is his lady love.
Cast: Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Virginia O’Brien Dir: Roy Del Ruth C-101 mins
10:15am Blonde Fever (1944)
A woman fights to save her husband from a sluttish waitress.
Cast: Philip Dorn, Mary Astor, Felix Bressart, Gloria Grahame Dir: Richard Whorf BW-69 mins
Ava Gardner returns to Turner Classic Movies this evening. TCM’s Star of the Month will remain on TV all the way to late afternoon Friday.
The movies themselves may not be exactly great, but Gardner’s presence should be more than enough to make them worth at least a look.
Henry Koster’s The Naked Maja (1958) has Anthony Franciosa as Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Perhaps Francisco Rabal was unavailable? (Luis Buñuel’s deliciously sacrilegious Nazarin came out in 1959, so Rabal may have been busy working on that, who knows?)
You may think that in order to make the two Americans – Gardner is the other one – less absurd as Spaniards, the production opted to cast equally incongruous Italians in supporting roles, among them Amedeo Nazzari, Lea Padovani, Massimo Serato, and the usually excellent Gino Cervi. But no. The Naked Maja was actually shot in Italy. Hence, the Italian contingent.
Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959) is another message movie – about the end of the world thanks to all those nuke nuts out there – whereas 55 Days in Peking (1962) may well be Nicholas Ray’s very worst effort. A badly miscast Charlton Heston stars.
Jack Conway’s The Hucksters (1947) isn’t one of the director’s best, but some of the drama is good and the cast is mostly impressive. In addition to Ava Gardner, this tale of love and ambition in the world of advertising also boasts Deborah Kerr, Clark Gable, Sydney Greenstreet, and Edward Arnold.
Among the “Find Ava” offerings are She Went to the Races, Three Men in White, Two Girls and a Sailor, and Music for Millions. I’ve seen the last two, but don’t recall spotting Ava Gardner in them.
Schedule (PT) and synopses from the TCM website:
5:00pm The Naked Maja (1959)
Romantic biography of the Spanish painter Goya and his relationship with the Duchess of Alba.
Cast: Ava Gardner, Anthony Franciosa, Amedeo Nazzari, Gino Cervi Dir: Henry Koster C-113 mins
7:00pm On the Beach (1959)
After a nuclear war, U.S. sailors stationed in Australia deal with the end of civilization.
Cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins Dir: Stanley Kramer BW-134 mins
9:30pm The Angel Wore Red (1960). Director: Nunnally Johnson. Cast: Ava Gardner. Dirk Bogarde. Joseph Cotten. Vittorio De Sica. Aldo Fabrizi. Arnoldo Foà. Finlay Currie. Rossana Rory. Enrico Maria Salerno. Uncredited: Nino Castelnuovo. B&W. 99 mins.
11:15pm 55 Days At Peking (1963)
An American major leads the defense against Chinese revolutionaries in 1900 Peking.
Cast: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven, Flora Robson Dir: Nicholas Ray C-162 mins
2:00am The Hucksters (1947)
A war veteran fights for honesty in the advertising game.
Cast: Clark Gable, Deborah Kerr, Sydney Greenstreet, Adolphe Menjou Dir: Jack Conway BW-116 mins
4:00am She Went to the Races (1945)
A pretty scientist with a system for horse-race betting falls in love with a trainer.
Cast: James Craig, Frances Gifford, Ava Gardner, Edmund Gwenn Dir: Willis Goldbeck BW-86 mins
5:30am Two Girls and a Sailor (1944)
Singing sisters create a World War II canteen and become rivals for the same man.
Cast: June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, Van Johnson, Tom Drake Dir: Richard Thorpe BW-124 mins
7:45am Three Men in White (1944)
Young doctors compete for a prestigious position as Dr. Gillespie’s assistant.
Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Van Johnson, Marilyn Maxwell, Keye Luke Dir: Willis Goldbeck BW-85 mins
9:15am Music for Millions (1944)
A pregnant musician awaits her husband’s return from World War II.
Cast: Margaret O’Brien, José Iturbi, June Allyson, Jimmy Durante Dir: Henry Koster BW-118 mins
11:15am Maisie Goes to Reno (1944)
On a trip to Reno, a Brooklyn showgirl tries to stop a soldier and his wife from divorcing.
Cast: Ann Sothern, John Hodiak, Tom Drake, Marta Linden Dir: Harry Beaumont BW-90 mins
1:00pm The Great Sinner (1949). Director: Robert Siodmak. Cast: Gregory Peck. Ava Gardner. Melvyn Douglas. Walter Huston. Ethel Barrymore. Frank Morgan. Agnes Moorehead. Curt Bois. Ludwig Stössel. Uncredited: Kenneth Tobey. B&W. 110 mins.
3:00pm East Side West Side (1949)
A chic New York couple is torn apart by a seductive model.
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck. James Mason. Van Heflin. Ava Gardner. Cyd Charisse. Nancy Davis. Gale Sodergaard. William Conrad. Dir: Mervyn LeRoy. BW-108m.
Ava Gardner’s Star of the Month tribute on Turner Classic Movies wraps up tonight.
The best bets are John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana and John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, both released in 1964.
The former is one of Tennessee Williams’ overheated melodramas, but it’s also one of Williams’ most touching and complex. Surprisingly, Gardner, only 41 but looking about ten years older, is one of the film’s weak elements; her performance feels artificial and completely out of place especially considering that Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, and Oscar-nominated Grayson Hall create flawless characterizations.
Unfortunately, the dishonest, moralistic ending – to please braindead studio executives, censors, and audience members – nearly ruins the whole thing.
Seven Days in May depicts the workings of a military coup in the United States. Three actors with liberal credentials (at least back in the 1960s) – Burt Lancaster (an ACLU card-carrying member well into the 1980s), Kirk Douglas, and Fredric March – star in this taut political drama that earned Edmond O’Brien a best supporting actor Oscar nod. (In my view, March, as the U.S. president, is the cast member that deserved the supporting actor nomination.)
Ava Gardner doesn’t have much to do in Seven Days in May – her role is tantamount to a cameo – but, however briefly, she does lighten up the screen.
John Farrow’s Ride, Vaquero! (1953) shows that Howard Keel could be a quite effective dramatic actor when given the chance, while Robert Stevenson’s My Forbidden Past (1951) – “A beauty with a skeleton in her closet seeks revenge on the suitor who jilted her” – sounds like it could be fun. Scene-stealers Melvyn Douglas and Lucile Watson are both in the cast.
‘Ava Gardner: The Gypsy of Hollywood’
August 2019 update: In The Barefoot Contessa, North Carolina-born Ava Gardner plays an American-accented Spaniard. Coincidentally, later in the 1950s Gardner settled in Spain. In her autobiography, she attempts to explain the reasons for the move: “I don’t know if it was the climate, the men, or the music, but as soon as I set foot in Spain, I had a crush on this country.”
Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been the country’s sociopolitical system. At the time Spain was one of the poorest countries in Europe, ruled by right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, who had been in power since the end of Spain’s civil war in 1939. The fascist generalissimo would remain as head of state until his death in 1975.
Ava Gardner’s Spanish years are discussed in Sergio Mondelo’s 2017 documentary Ava Gardner: The Gypsy of Hollywood (also spelled “The Gipsy of Hollywood”), which TCM will be presenting on Ava Gardner Day. According to its synopsis, the 52-minute film “explores the motivations behind [her move to Spain] and contrasts Gardner’s glitz and glam lifestyle with the hardships faced by the Spanish people under Franco’s rule.
Schedule (PT) and synopses from the TCM website:
5:00pm The Night of the Iguana (1964)
A defrocked priest surrenders to the sins of the flesh in a Mexican hotel.
Cast: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon Dir: John Huston BW-118 mins
7:00pm Seven Days in May (1964)
An American military officer discovers his superiors are planning a military coup.
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner Dir: John Frankenheimer BW-118 mins
11:15pm The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
A self-appointed judge cleans up a corrupt western town twice.
Cast: Paul Newman, Roy Jenson, Gary Combs, Fred Brookfield Dir: John Huston C-123 mins
1:30am Ride Vaquero! (1953)
Ranchers in New Mexico have to face Indians and bandits.
Cast: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Anthony Quinn Dir: John Farrow C-90 mins
3:15am Lone Star (1952)
A frontiersman helps out with Texass’ fight for independence from Mexico.
Cast: Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Broderick Crawford, Lionel Barrymore Dir: Vincent Sherman BW-95 mins
5:00am My Forbidden Past (1951)
A beauty with a skeleton in her closet seeks revenge on the suitor who jilted her.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, Melvyn Douglas, Lucile Watson Dir: Robert Stevenson BW-70 mins
6:15am The Bribe (1949). Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Robert Taylor. Ava Gardner. Charles Laughton. Vincent Price. John Hodiak. Samuel S. Hinds. John Hoyt. Martin Garralaga. Tito Renaldo. B&W. 98 mins.