The African Queen (1951)
“Fancy me a heroine.”
So says Rosie as played by Katharine Hepburn in one of maverick director John Huston’s most beloved films. For this celebration of Hepburn which is being hosted by Margaret Perry I am happy to discuss the Queen for a variety of reasons. For starters it’s my first recollection of both Hepburn and co-star Humphrey Bogart from childhood. I believe I watched it with my parents at a young age and also because it is a film that one never tires of and this allowed me to watch it once again as I seem to do every few years. Then of course there’s the Bogie mystique and no need to go further there. For this viewing I focused on Kate more than I had ever previously done and I discovered a much greater performance in front of me after all these years and countless viewings than I had quite realized.
I hope it’s safe to say that most of us know the story of The Queen. Kate and brother Robert Morley are working as missionaries in 1914 Africa just as German forces rise to power. With the destruction of the native village and Morley’s subsequent passing Hepburn finds herself boarding The African Queen river boat. Hardly big enough for one let alone two her life is about to take an adventurous turn with the grimy, unshaven and uncouth captain Humphrey Bogart. “A wretched little man” says Morley’s missionary.
The plot line of the film is a simple one with the two leads fighting the river in order to reach a lake patrolled by a German ship The Louisa with the intention of sinking it. Bogart is a jack of all trades (but master of none) and has rigged two make shift torpedoes to do the job. The script itself uses this as a backdrop to creating two wonderful characters that Kate and Bogie bring to life.
Originally published in 1935 the book was written by C.M. Forester. After years of development “hell”, producer Sam Spiegel and John Huston put the film in motion. Many familiar names fill out the crew from Guy Hamilton of Bond fame as assistant director to Jack Cardiff as the director of photography. The script was credited to Huston and James Agee. Huston loved to see the world through a camera so it’s no surprise that location filming was decided upon and proved essential to the film’s success.
The magic of the film is of course due to our iconic leads. Hepburn vs. Bogart. Culture vs. working class. Each performer has their moments during the adventure they have embarked upon. Bogie is hilarious for a change as he plays against his image with the animal imitations and the lisp is pronounced more than ever as he mimics Hepburn giving him orders. This would prove to be Bogies crowning moment for the Oscar season of 1951 where he was finally bestowed the golden statuette.
Katharine’s role here as Rosie is such a beautiful performance. We watch her character grow from the sheltered “skinny Old Maid” she is well on her way to becoming as Bogie so rudely points out in a drunken stupor to the awakening of a middle aged woman who finds love and adventure on the river. Focus on her through the bed netting while she sits beside her fading brother Morley. Her face says as it all. If I had to pick my favorite scene with Kate it would have to be where Bogie plants a joyous kiss on her and realizes he may have overstepped his boundaries. For the next 3 minutes she breaks my heart as her longing for love becomes evident and when she places her hand on Bogies I`m captured. Hepburn has me in the palm of her hand.
Our director John Huston had a long association with Bogart so it should come as no surprise that they again teamed here in a winning picture. Huston had a way of pushing Bogie that not many others could get away with. Look no further than The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon for fine examples of what they had already accomplished. Hepburn would never work with either Huston or Bogie again but along with Spencer Tracy would become regulars at the Bacall-Bogie household. I attempted to read Kate`s book for this article on the making of this film and admittedly had to put it down after barely getting through page 8. It`s there she tells of the cancer ridden Bogie taking Tracy`s hand and saying goodbye to him instead of goodnight. It was the last time they saw him.
Katharine would be nominated for the Academy Award for this effort but lost out to Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. Huston received nominations as director and writer along with James Agee. One could argue that Hepburn remade this film years later in 1975 with John Wayne`s follow up to True Grit, Rooster Cogburn. Perhaps. There is the obvious similarities from the rafting to her banter with the Duke and it does make for an enjoyable film. But it`s no Queen.
As I always say if you haven`t seen this film, go and get it. There is a wonderful blu ray edition available with a documentary and a reprint of Hepburn`s book on the making of it as well. Perhaps you can get past page 8 without reaching for a tissue. And of course if you have seen it, same response. Watch it again and enjoy. Proof positive that `They don`t make`em like they used too.