In 1932, Ava’s mother, Mollie, took Ava to see “Red Dust” starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow at the Howell Theatre in downtown Smithfield. Little did Mollie or Ava realize that Ava would later star with Gable in the successful remake of this picture: “Mogambo.”
Actress. (b. Jan. 24, 1922, Smithfield, N.C.; d. Jan. 25, 1990.) One of Hollywood’s legendary “love goddesses,” this green-eyed brunette beauty combined feline grace with passionate intensity, and while she never claimed to be (nor was ever recognized as) a great actress, she held her own in a number of memorable films. Gardner was born into a poor family, and had no loftier ambition than to become a secretary in New York until her picture (left) was seen by MGM’s East Coast talent executive. A screen test was arranged (deliberately silent, because her Southern accent was so thick) and she was judged to have potential. She flew west to Hollywood and cheerfully signed a term contract with the studio, which promptly enrolled her in acting classes and took hundreds of publicity shots of her before she ever stepped on a movie set.
Gardner spent several years playing undemanding bit parts at MGM such as We Were Dancing, Joe Smith, American, Kid Glove Killer, Calling Dr. Gillespie (all 1942), Pilot No. 5, Hitler’s Madman (both 1943), Swing Fever, Three Men in White, Maisie Goes to Reno (all 1944), and She Went to the Races (1945). She even appeared briefly in an MGM “Our Gang” short, Mighty Lak a Goat for which her scene was reportedly directed by then husband Mickey Rooney. In 1943 she was loaned to lowly Monogram Pictures to play the ingenue in Ghosts on the Loose; aside from being mauled by the East Side Kids and ogled by Bela Lugosi, her responsibilities were minimal. It took another loan-out assignment, that of a femme fatale in Universal’s Hemingway adaptation, The Killers (1946), to make audiences sit up and take notice. Her good reviews prompted MGM to try her opposite the King himself, Clark Gable, in The Hucksters (1947), in which she played a self-assured nightclub singer. Gardner acquitted herself nicely and was promoted to full-fledged stardom.
In most films, her presence was basically decorative, but she contributed memorable performances to Show Boat (1951), as Julie, the beautiful mulatto, for which she performed several Jerome Kern songs that made it to the soundtrack album but were redubbed for the film itself), Mogambo (1953), opposite Gable in this remake of his earlier success Red Dust with Gardner snagging an Oscar nomination for her interpretation of the tarttongued character played in the original by Jean Harlow), and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954), in a part she seemed born to play, an earthy Spanish dancer who’s transformed into a screen goddess-but destined never to find personal happiness.
In 1957, life imitated art once again. Gardner divorced singer Frank Sinatra that year (they had married in 1951 following a tempestuous courtship) and, after playing American expatriate Lady Brett Ashley in the film adaptation of The Sun Also Rises adopted her character’s lifestyle and moved to Spain, where she was surrounded by adoring European jetsetters and matadors. Years of these hedonistic pursuits took their toll on her beauty; by the time she’d turned 50 she looked at least 10 years older. But as a mature, worldly actress, she delivered several interesting, multilayered performances. Her other husbands were actor Mickey Rooney (whom she wed shortly after joining Metro) and bandleader Artie Shaw.
In later years Gardner lived in London, but spent one season as a cast member of the TV series Falcon Crest (1985) and shortly before her death completed an autobiography, “Ava”, which was published posthumously in 1990. More than one obituary declared her the most beautiful woman who ever stepped in front of a camera, and she was once in fact “voted” The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
OTHER FILMS INCLUDE: 1947: Singapore 1948: One Touch of Venus 1949: The Bribe, East Side, West Side, The Great Sinner 1951: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, My Forbidden Past 1952: Lone Star, The Snows of Kilimanjaro 1953: The Band Wagon (in a cameo as herself); 1953: Knights of the Round Table 1956: Bhowani Junction 1957: The Little Hut 1959: The Naked Maja, On the Beach 1960: The Angel Wore Red 1963: 55 Days at Peking 1964: Seven Days in May, The Night of the Iguana 1966: The Bible 1969: Mayerling 1972: The Devil’s Widow, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (as Lillie Langtry); 1974: Earthquake 1975: Permission to Kill; 1976: The Blue Bird 1977: The Cassandra Crossing 1979: City on Fire; 1980: The Kidnapping of the President; 1981: Priest of Love 1985: The Long Hot Summer (telefilm); 1986: Harem