Three giants of American movie-making grace the frames of The African Queen. Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were already legends (or well on their way to becoming such) when they teamed to make the now classic 1951 adventure comedy, one of the great stories in movie history.
There was never anyone like Katharine Hepburn, not anywhere in movies, not anywhere on Earth. An individual down to the marrow of her classy bones, she was the definitive star. The daughter of a prominent Connecticut family (her father was a well-known surgeon and her mother one of the first Suffragettes), Hepburn early on was taught by both that she was unique, that all the Hepburns were unique and capable of achieving great things. Failure was not an option in the Hepburn home and so, even as a child, Hepburn determined that she would be a success, didn’t matter at what as long as she made a name for herself. And make a name she did! With her fiery red mane, her quavery-wavery voice fluttering up into the air like butterflies gone wild or descending the depths into gravelly despair, her Yankee schoolmarm smarm, her style, her common sense charmed even non-believers. She grabbed Hollywood by the ears and kept tugging ’til she made it to the top of the mountain remaining there for the rest of her life until frail age and Parkinson’s Disease retired her to her country home in Old Saybrook in 1994.
She is, to this day, considered as solidly American as Mount Rushmore or The Washington Monument. Comparing herself to New York City’s Flatiron Building, she said, “People are used to me, I guess. I’ve been around forever.”
The only performer in movie history to win four Best Actress Academy Awards (for Morning Glory, 1933, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967, The Lion in Winter, 1968 and On Golden Pond 1981), she stamped her trademark Hepburn magic on what remain some of the greatest movies ever made: Alice Adams, The Philadelphia Story, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Little Women, Summertime, and so many more! Some consider her to be the greatest actress of all time.
Humphrey Bogart was almost ready to throw in the acting towel, so discouraged was he by his lack of success in Broadway theater when his pal, Leslie Howard, tagged to reproduce his stage role in “The Petrified Forest” in the Warner Bros. movie adaptation, insisted that Bogart reprise his own role as menacing badman, Duke Mantee. Howard’s ultimatum: “No Bogart. No me!” The studio agreed and so was born “Bogie”, one of the greatest screen icons ever created.
There is no describing the effect and impact Bogart had on America, not only on its movies but on its culture as well. His deep, wounded, soulful eyes. His scarred, lisping sneer (the lisp said to have been the result of wartime shrapnel lodged inside his cheek). Suddenly, everybody started talking like him, acting like him — guys sported fedoras and trenchcoats, gals began to melt in their seats whenever he appeared on the screen. Bogie was everyone’s hero, even when he played “bad”. For decades, Humphrey Bogart symbolized the toughness of this country, and the heart. To this day, he remains one of only a handful of actors whose legacy lives on inviolately. His movies made Bogart eternal. (An interesting aside: when The Brattle Theater launched its classic film series, it was Bogart it chose as its first featured artist).
If John Huston had not made even one movie, he still would have become one of the legendary lions of all time. A larger-than-life, big game hunting, hard-drinking, womanizing, life-loving bear of a man (both figuratively and literally; he towered over everyone at 6′ 4″), Huston was cut from the same cloth as that other purveyor of American machismo, Ernest Hemingway, and together, the two of them (Huston in film and Hemingway in literature) dominated the better part of the 20th centruy as symbols of personal and professional freedom and American individuality. Do it up big. Do it up loud. And tell a rousing good story or two in between!
So imagine, if you will, the power of these three tall trees of talent: Hepburn, Huston, Bogart coming together in the intolerable jungles of Africa to bring to life The African Queen. Mythical…
Based on the C.S. Forester novel of the same name, The African Queen tells the story of stalwart, no-nonsense missionary, Rose Sayer (Hepburn), unwittingly cast out into the wild after her brother is killed and their mission post destroyed by marauding mercenaries. Her only help is the less-than-gentlemanly, potty-mouthed, gin-swilling boatman, Charlie Allnut (Bogart in a stunning Academy Award-winning turn). To say that these two make for unlikely boat-fellows is to understate the case for the Bible-thumping Yankee prude is nothing short of appalled by the hygienically-challenged, crude jungle rat she finds herself stuck in a boat with, and one of the many delights of the film is wondering how these two are ever going to make their destination without first strangling each other to death. It is a tribute to the skill of both actors, and to John Huston’s perfectly balanced direction (slow-paced when it needs to showcase character development, quicksilver when it needs to up the action to nail-biting intensity in the war intrigue scenes, sweet when it needs Rose and Charlie to soften their stance) that the film, unlike the African Queen itself, sails so merrily down the stream. It is one of those movie creations whose heart beats soundly from start-to-finish. There is not a misstep in it. It will always be one of the best movies there is.
The rigors of making The African Queen have been nicely documented in John Huston’s autobiography, “An Open Book” and in Hepburn’s delightfully kooky (much like herself) memoir, “The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind”
Huston always insisted, if he could, on on-location shooting. He disliked the claustrophobic, phony look and feel of studios, and most of his films take place in the Great Outdoors that he loved. So off to the jungle they all went! The actors and crew were subjected to all manner of unpleasantness: bugs, dysentery, wild animals and of course, the ugly tropical heat. No one was spared, and the leeches that cling to Bogart in the man- overboard scene, were real and unscripted (Huston decided to keep them in for effect!)
It is well-known that Hepburn had a penchant for control and for trying to take the reins of a film from its director. And John Huston, a control freak if ever there was one, was not about to be told what to do or when to do it by anyone much less A FEMALE!! So here you have Miss Bossypants trying to push Mister Six Foot Four around and you can guess who lost that match. But Huston won Hepburn over to his side, even charming her into coming along on some of his frequent hunting trips. They remained lifelong friends.
The adversity they the film company faced, all the many challenges and setbacks and fights, only served ultimately to make one helluva good movie.
Oh! And let’s not forget the always welcome Robert Morley whose presence makes every movie more wonderful. Morley is no mere footnote in any film he plays in! One of this reviewer’s all-time favorites!
So come to the theater, take your seats, you lovers of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and treat yourselves (even if it is not for the first time) to two great actors, one great director and one doozy of a splendid, noisy, old boat called The African Queen.