Clark Gable as Victor Marswell, big game hunter
Kenya, Summer 1952
Release Date: October 9, 1953
Director: John Ford
Costume Designer: Helen Rose
Tailor: H. Huntsman & Sons, London
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
In my home state of Pennsylvania, the Monday after Thanksgiving is considered an unofficial holiday among hunters as the opening day of the state’s firearms deer season, a day when hunters are expected to bag approximately 25% of the season’s harvest, according to the Tribune-Review.
The 1953 adventure Mogambo stars Clark Gable as a hunter on safari in Africa with his eyes on even bigger game than deer: the hearts of Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly.
Victor Marswell – or “this big Congo Casanova,” as Gardner’s Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly derides him – is a refresh of Gable’s earlier role in Red Dust (1932), a steamy pre-Code drama centered on a love triangle between a rugged outdoorsman, a brassy painted lady, and an upper-crust married woman. In addition to recasting the roles of the female leads, Mogambo updated the setting from Red Dust‘s rubber plantation in French Indochina to an African safari.
Eloise Kelly: A weird sort of business to be in, collecting animals. I guess it’s fun for a man, isn’t it?
Victor Marswell: When it’s profitable.
Though a hit among audiences and critics with Academy Award nominations for both Gardner and Kelly, Mogambo‘s production was fraught with its own behind-the-scenes drama, from Clark Gable protesting director John Ford’s treatment of Ava Gardner to Gable’s own far-too-friendly relations with the much younger Grace Kelly. In fact, it was reportedly Gable’s fondness for hunting that kickstarted their affair, as Kelly would often accompany him on hunting trips during breaks in the production.
“He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be,” Doris Day once described Gable. This idiosyncratic combination of masculinity and childish insecurity can be observed in stories from the production, such as Gable’s insistence on hirsute members of the crew or cast – including co-star Donald Sinden – having their torsos shaved clean so that they would not appear to be more “manly” than the bald-chested Gable.
The ever-vivacious Ava Gardner, a year into her tumultuous marriage to the oft-visiting Frank Sinatra, managed to stay out of the rest of the cast and crew’s drama, instead creating her own… often for her own amusement. When the British colonial government complained of her habit of bathing on location with the assistant of young men from the local Watusi population, she shed her clothes and walked naked through the camp. Of course, the famously jealous Sinatra responded by gifting her a shower unit that Christmas.
What’d He Wear?
In his definitive menswear volume Dressing the Man, Alan Flusser defines the bush jacket, or safari jacket, as “a belted, single-breasted shirt jacket with four patch pockets and flaps in tan cotton drill or gabardine.” The safari jacket emerged as popular casual wear for civilians first in the 1930s before enjoying a revival again in the 1970s that found everyone from Roger Moore’s James Bond to Bob Newhart co-opting the look with varying degrees of success and enduring degrees of controversy.
However, there can be no argument made against Clark Gable’s macho hunter sporting exclusively safari clothing when actually engaged on a safari, as worn in Mogambo (1953). Gable’s safari wardrobe was tailored by H. Huntsman & Sons of Savile Row, and it was this experience that reportedly converted Gable into a Huntsman customer for the last decade of his life.
The Safari Shirt
After wearing a navy polo shirt for his introduction both to the audience and to Eloise Kelly, Victor Marswell makes his first appearance in his character’s iconic safari clothing when giving Kelly a tour of the animals that he keeps around. For this tour and subsequent days on safari, he wears a tan cotton drill bush shirt with the long sleeves unbuttoned and rolled up to his elbows.
The shirt has a very wide-pointed collar, epaulettes (“shoulder straps”), and a front placket for the tan plastic sew-through buttons. There are two box-pleated chest pockets that each close with a mitred-corner, single-button flap.
Bush Jacket #1
The first of Victor Marswell’s two short-sleeved bush jackets to appear on screen is the heavier of the two, distinguished by its pointed chest pocket flaps and front placket with four large tan buttons. This jacket makes its introduction during Kelly’s first dinner with Victor and the boys before they are interrupted by a hunt for a rhino (which Kelly mistakes for a kangaroo) and their subsequent evening cocktails that result in a kiss between the two: “Now, wait a minute, Marswell! You’re turning into the original African hot rod.”
This gabardine bush jacket has a shorter collar than his shirt with distinctive shoulder yokes that extend diagonally from his heavy epaulettes buttoned at the neck. The box-pleated chest pockets have pointed single-button flaps, and the large bellows pockets below the belt have rectangular flaps that also each close with a single button. The jacket is self-belted with a double-prong brass buckle.
Bush Jacket #2
Victor Marswell’s more frequently seen bush jacket is a lighter-weight cotton drill that can be visually distinguished by the straight flaps on the chest pocket and a plain front with no placket for the five-button closure.
This lighter cotton bush jacket is styled similarly to the other, with a short, shirt-style collar, diagonal yokes extending from under the epaulettes, and four patch pockets. However, the two chest pockets have straight single-button flaps. The bellows pockets below the belt also have straight flaps that each close with a single button. The self belt closes with a tall brass single-prong buckle. The “action back” is pleated on the sides under the shoulders, and there is a single vent.
Victor typically wears these bush jackets on their own, rather than layered over shirts, but he does wear this one over his long-sleeved safari shirt – with both the jacket and shirt sleeves rolled up – at one point during the group’s adventure.
Occasionally, Victor wears a red paisley cotton bandanna around his neck. The pattern is a typical white-and-black paisley print on the bright red cotton ground.
When Victor does layer over his shirt, he usually opts for the cooler-wearing option of a sleeveless safari-inspired vest. This long, thigh-length vest is styled like his shirt with a large collar, epaulettes, and four patch pockets. The two large patch pockets on the chest have straight, single-button flaps, as do the two very large bellows pockets below the waist where he keeps his Camel cigarettes and lighter.
This vest makes its most prominent appearance toward the end of the safari during Victor’s sincere conversation with Donald that reveals Victor’s own guilt about seducing the young man’s wife. He removes the vest when he gets back to his tent in time for the climactic shooting.
The only non-safari-oriented outerwear that Victor Marswell wears is a yellow oilskin rain slicker with a collar and button front that he wears during an inclement evening spent with Eloise Kelly at his camp.
Victor’s wears khaki gabardine trousers with a long rise and double forward pleats that allow a full fit through the legs. These trousers have tall, slim belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, and two back pockets that each close through a button and are placed high, just below the belt line. The bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
“Well, bless your big, bony knees!” cat-calls Eloise Kelly when she spots Victor wearing shorts with his lightweight bush jacket. The full-fitting, double forward-pleated shorts are styled exactly the same as his slacks with tall, slim belt loops, side pockets, and two highly placed button-through back pockets.
Victor’s cotton web belt is a slightly darker shade than his clothing, closer to true khaki, with the edges trimmed in brown leather and a tall, slim brass buckle. A carrier with five loops has been attached to the right side of his belt to hold five extra .270 WCF rounds for his rifle.
Victor switches between two different pairs of light brown suede boots, as he did with his navy polo shirt. For heavier duty days, he wears a pair of rich tobacco brown cap-toe hunting boots that are tightly derby-laced up the front with two adjustable straps cinched up the leg.
On other occasions, typically ones that call for him to be wearing shorts, he wears a lighter pair of sand-colored reverse calf ankle boots, also derby-style but with nine eyelets laced up the front and a moc-toe. His hosiery includes tall beige socks or gray leg-warmers, depending on the situation.
Victor’s go-to headgear on safari is a dirty beige hat with a pinched crown, wide brim, and thin brown leather band. It’s not as structured as the darker tan fedora-like hat that he wears around camp (seen with his navy polo shirt and above when Kelly is eyeing up his shorts.)
Clark Gable wore his personal timepiece in Mogambo, a 14-karat yellow gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual, ref. 6011. This wristwatch with its faded off-white matte dial and textured black leather strap was included in a 2013 auction of other Hollywood memorabilia. Also on his left wrist is a slim brown woven leather corded bracelet.
Victor wears a gold signet ring on his left pinky, a real-life affectation of Clark Gable who wore signet rings exclusively on that finger through most of his professional career.
What to Imbibe
For late, romantic evenings with sassy vagabond showgirls like Honey Bear Kelly, Victor Marswell knows he can’t go wrong with the classic highball: merely a shot or two of booze topped up with soda, ginger ale, or plain water.
Victor: Kelly, you’re all right. How about a drink?
Kelly: Oh, I’d love one!
Victor: Sorry about no ice.
Kelly: Oh, that’s alright. Doctors say it’s bad for your pouch, anyway.
Victor: Soda or water?
Many drinks and a long, dramatic safari later, Victor returns to his tent to drown his sorrows after deciding to not get in the way of the young Nordley couple’s happiness. He grabs an iron mug, a bottle of Hennessy Three Star, and begins pouring.
County Cork-born officer Richard Hennessy had become familiar with the Charente region of Cognac, France, during his service with the French Army’s Irish Brigade. In 1765, Hennessy opened a cognac distillery in the region and quickly capitalized on the increased demand for cognac and other spirits imported from the European continent. More than 250 years after the distillery was founded, Hennessy enjoys a status as the world’s largest cognac producer with more than 50 million bottles sold each year and a connotation as a luxury brand with hip-hop associations.
Exactly 100 years after the distillery was founded, the founder’s great-grandson Maurice Hennessy introduced the star classification system including Hennessy Three Star, now known as Hennessy V.S., the world’s most popular cognac. The V.S. appellation, meaning “Very Special”, can be confusing for novice cognac drinkers, as it merely refers to the minimum age of a cognac and thus the least expensive variety.
Interestingly, Hennessy Three Star cognac was also Clark Gable’s liquor of choice in the original 1932 version, Red Dust!
As an experienced hunter, the primary tool of Victor Marswell’s trade is a classic Winchester Model 70 bolt-action rifle. Included in an auction of Clark Gable-related items in 2011, the firearm was described to have been made in 1949 and chambered in .270 Winchester Center Fire (WCF).
Since its introduction in 1936, the bolt-action Winchester Model 70 has earned renown among sportsmen and serious shooters as “the rifleman’s rifle” for its quality, reliability, and classic aesthetic. Winchester redesigned the rifle in 1964, some say to its detriment, but the Model 70 still reigned supreme when Gable’s Victor Marswell carried his on safari in Mogambo.
“Over the years it was chambered for just about every rifle cartridge ever produced and it became the rifle of choice for many hunters and shooters,” wrote Range365’s Bryce M. Towsley of the Winchester Model 70. “After a then up-and-coming writer named Jack O’Connor began praising the Model 70 chambered in .270, the rifle and cartridge moved to the top of the heap in the world of serious hunting rifles.”
Stepping back a few decades, it was in 1925 that Winchester unveiled its new .270 Winchester rifle cartridge, a necked-down .30-06 Springfield, as a chambering for its bolt-action Model 54, a predecessor of the Model 70. The high-performing 130-grain round was determined to be suitable for big game in addition to lighter bullets (100-grain) marketed for varmint hunting and heavier rounds (150-grain) offered for larger game like bears, deer, elk, and moose. However, it took nearly 20 years for the cartridge to truly attain its modern reputation.
By the time Mogambo was released, O’Connor was writing about his exploits with his custom Model 70 in .270 Winchester for Outdoor Life magazine, describing his exploits taking his “No. 1” rifle hunting for elk in Wyoming, for blackbuck in India, and for red sheep and ibex in Iran. Thanks to popular writers like O’Connor, the .270 WCF overcame its pre-WWII stagnation and has proven its staying power through generations of hunters.
Once the safari has commenced, Victor also gives Eloise Kelly a loaded Webley revolver, a Chekhov’s gun of sorts that will factor into the film’s climactic finale.
How to Get the Look
There’s truly no place like an actual safari to wear safari clothing. Clark Gable’s choice of Huntsman for the hunting season in Mogambo delivers a classic pedigree to his functional sportswear.
- Khaki short-sleeved, self-belted bush jacket in gabardine or lightweight cotton drill with flapped chest pockets, flapped bellows pockets, and epaulettes
- Red paisley neckerchief
- Khaki gabardine double forward-pleated trousers (or shorts) with tall belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, jetted button-through back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Dark khaki web belt with brown leather trim and brass buckle
- Tobacco brown suede derby-laced cap-toe hunting boots with two adjustable straps
- Beige knee-high socks
- Rolex Oyster Perpetual ref. 6011 yellow-gold wristwatch on textured black leather strap
- Gold signet ring, worn on left pinky
- Tan safari-style hat with pinched crown, wide brim, and thin brown leather band
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I make my contribution to this mixed-up community they call the world.