Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The African Queen (1951) ***

The_African_Queen_(1951)

Something happened to Katharine Hepburn in the 1950s that was both a blessing and a curse: she started playing a lot of spinsters. Some of these spinsters were painful to watch (think The Rainmaker and Summertime), but thankfully her turn as Rose Sayer in The African Queen (1951) was the perfect vehicle for her maturing talents. She had adept screenwriters (James Agee and John Huston); an accomplished director (John Huston); an award-winning cinematographer (Jack Cardiff); and, an age-appropriate co-star (Humphrey Bograt)—all of these essential elements allowed Hepburn to turn Rose into the best spinster portrayal of her storied career. 

Based on C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen, aqthe story takes place at the beginning of WWI in 1914 in German East Africa.  An old-maid missionary (Hepburn) finds herself in a difficult situation after her Methodist minister brother (Robert Morley) is beaten by German soldiers and later dies of a fever.  Alone in the middle of the jungle, Rose is rescued by rough-looking steamboat (a very small one, named, you guessed it The African Queen) captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart), a man who delivers supplies and mail along the Ulanga River.  After learning that the boat is carrying the necessary supplies to make a torpedo, Rose attempts to convince Charlie that they should make one and then use it against a German gunboat as an act of patriotism (he’s Canadian, which at the time was still a part of the British Empire). While attempting to dissuade Rose from her suicidal plan, Charlie often finds himself at odds with the headstrong nature of his prim companion. What ensues is an adventurous love story between complete opposites in the middle of the African jungle.

Most people who have read Forester’s novel will tell you that the movie is ten times better. This is not to say that screenwriters Agee and Huston changed a lot when they African 5 Ginadapted the book, because they only made a few minor changes—most notably turning Charlie into a Canadian instead of a Cockney Londoner because Bogart couldn’t pull off the accent—but because the story plays better on screen than on the page.  They received an Oscar nomination for their crisp, smart dialogue and their ability to turn a somewhat turgid book into a sweeping adventure story. Writing lines for two completely opposite personalities can be challenging (you don’t want one to dominate the other too much) and that’s where I think Agee and Huston do a great job.  Perhaps my favorite exchange is this one:

Charlie: A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it's only human nature.

Rose: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

The characters’ words never seem forced and they always sound appropriate.  I wish more screenwriters wrote dialogue like this.

John Huston also received an Oscar nomination for his direction of the film.  While he and Bogart were cut from the same cloth, dealing with Hepburn in the middle of the jungle could have been a nightmare if he hadn’t approached her in the right way. He obviously was successful in this endeavor because Hepburn later huston_hepburn-e1316696277793-550x431said that it was “the goddamnedest best piece of direction” she ever received.  As if dealing with two of Hollywood’s biggest stars wasn’t enough, the film was shot primarily on location in central Africa (although for safety reasons all of the scenes where Bogart and Hepburn are in the water were filmed in a studio water tank).  Just the logistics alone were bad enough, not to mention the fact that it was being filmed by huge Technicolor cameras.  Sickness ran rampant on the set and the weather conditions were unbearable at times.  In the end, it turned out to be one of the best films of Huston’s career. 

Besides the off-beat love story, what is most remembered about the movie is its cinematography.  Can you really shoot a film in the middle of the African jungle in anything other than Techthe-african-queen-katharine-hepburn-everettnicolor?  Vivid and lush, the color pops off the screen.  Cinematographer Jack Cardiff was known for his experimental use of Technicolor. His use of the dye-process color system made him the go-to cinematographer for the likes of Powell & Pressburger and Hitchcock.  Yet, he was also extremely adept in his lighting techniques.  There’s a story about how Bogart told Cardiff that it had taken him years to get the lines on his face and that he didn’t want Cardiff to wash them out with lights. Bogart might have kept his lines, but Hepburn never looked better in color.  Rose was supposed to be 33-years old, while Hepburn was in her mid-40s when the picture was shot; yet, I can’t recall a color film where Hepburn looked so real—her take me as I am (with limited lighting hijinks) made her look like the beauty she was.  What makes this even more impressive is that throughout most of filming Hepburn was extremely ill with dysentery—and still she looked good, which no doubt she owed to Cardiff’s mastery.

Finally, what I think makes this Hepburn’s best spinster role is that her co-star is Bogart.  Slightly seven years older than Hepburn, Bogart looked like the kind of man who could fall for an aging old maid.  Rough and grizzled, Bogart had the necessary praq1esence to stand next to a woman who could be perceived as domineering.  Perhaps this is why he won his only Academy Award for this role—he stood his own against one of the most powerful actresses to grace the silver screen.  When you compare his Charlie to the likes of Rossano Brazzi in Summertime (1955) and Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956) it’s easy to see where those films faltered while The African Queen thrived. While Hepburn received Academy Award nominations for all three of these films, this was the one she seemed the most believable in, which I believe is a direct result of who her co-star was.  I believe this is the inherent reason why The African Queen endures while Hepburn’s other spinster films are often pushed aside and/or forgotten. 

26 comments:

  1. Can you imagine this film with a different leading lady or leading man? Or director? Impossible! This film is perfectly perfect as is! Hepburn did start to own those spinster roles at that point (heaven forbid a woman over 40 be sexy!) and agreed this was her very best. Bogey looks happy,too. So nice to see a man of his age with a mature woman ("Sabrina" was downright painful to watch). Classic Hollywood was a tough place for a woman to live longer than 36! Thanks for the great post, Kim!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. FC: No, I can't imagine anyone else playing Charlie and Rose! The director is up for discussion, though. Hepburn learned to adapt as she got older--something Stanwyck should have done if she wanted to continue making films. Instead, she got relegated to TV, which is a shame. Meryl Streep reminds me of Hepburn in this way.

      Delete
  2. I re-watched this last December for a 60th anniversary tribute and it still hasn't lost any of the magic from thr time I saw it over and over again as a kid. It's just great moviemaking...independent moviemaking, as many people often overlook.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right, Ivan, it has aged well and is still a joy to watch.

      Delete
  3. It says something, I think, that this is one of my least favorite Bogart movies and not one that I think of immediately for Hepburn, but I still find a lot here to enjoy. I don't love the conclusion, and while I may not buy into the lasting quality of the relationship between our leads, I absolutely believe that they would bond together quickly and develop a sort of mutual dependency in their situation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The ending does take a bit off the shine of the film for me, but I still think it's one of Bogart's best films.

      Delete
  4. "The African Queen", like Rose and Charlie, gets better with age. Absolutely my favourite Bogart performance. He could not possibly be any better.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I agree, Caftan, I think he is great in this.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Another fine review, Kim. I especially enjoyed the story about Cardiff (who was, indeed, a brilliant cinematographer). As for AFRICAN QUEEN, I hope I'm not booted from the CMBA, but I have never been a big fan. (Among Kate's spinster roles, I prefer THE RAINMAKER). There's a funny bit in ROAD TO BALI, where Hope & Crosby are going through the jungle and spot Bogart lugging the boat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are forgiven, Rick. While I find Lancaster sexier than Bogart, I still cringe when I watch him with Hepburn in The Rainmaker.

      Delete
  7. Great point about why Kate's portrayal in this film is timeless: Bogart. She drew a vulnerability out of him and he did the same for her. David and I saw this one the big screen last year and Cardiff's cinematography is showcased beautifully!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lucky you, Gilby. Hepburn and Bogart brought at the best in one another here, which is why I think he won the Oscar.

      Delete
  8. "I expect he'd like to be buried in the shade".

    That's my favorite line from the film, delivered by a tired and sweaty man who's resigned himself to having to do something he'd rather not.

    It's probably been 25 years since I saw this on TV. It wasn't available on DVD until very recently, so I never saw it again. I may need to track it down and watch it again.

    Very good review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I watched on Netflix streaming recently, but I think it's off now. I like the line, too. Those few beginning scenes really prepare the viewer for Rose and Charlie's personalities.

      Delete
  9. Excellent review, Kim. You put in one of the great movie lines of all time -- "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above." I've used that line on my sons a few times. But nobody could do it justice like Katharine Hepburn! And seeing Bogie as a butt-scratching, not too bright kind of bum was such a departure -- he was just wonderful. I've got to pull out my copy and watch it again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Becky. I love that line, so I just had to put it in the review.

      Delete
  10. Love the review! Apparently everyone but Huston and Bogart got quite sick on this shoot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was the cases of alcohol they brought along! Thanks for stopping by--come back again!

      Delete
  11. The African Queen, is one of my favorite love stories. I loved the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. I could not imagine any one else in the roles of Charlie and Rose. Wonderful review!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Dawn. Bogart and Hepburn certainly had chemistry. And, you're right, I can't see anyone else playing Rose and Charlie, too.

      Delete
  12. Kim, Thanks for a really interesting and informative look at "The African Queen." I've always been curious about Hepburn's book titled "The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind" and am wondering if you've read it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Eve. I've read excerpts of the book, but never the entire thing. I think you can get it pretty cheap on Ebay and Amazon.

      Delete
  13. It's been too, too long since I've seen this film. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks...you should watch it soon!

      Delete
  14. I am really happy you liked this one. I was starting to think I was alone in enjoying it.
    Did you see the excellent feature on the making of The African Queen". That story is maybe even better than the movie. Did you know for example that the reason Hepburn looks so frantic playing organ during the opening sermon was her dysenteria? They could do no long shots because she was constantly vomitting her guts out. Or that the entire crew had to make do with the jungle for sanitation except for Hepburn who had her own personal loo on a raft trailing the expedition? It must have been a crazy film to shoot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hepburn kept a journal about the filming of The African Queen that is a hoot to read. No, I haven't seen the feature about the making of the movie, but I've read a lot about what went on. Huston and Bogart, apparently, were drunk most of the time.

      Delete