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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

John Huston's The African Queen

It's hard to imagine a more unlikely couple, but it worked.
There is a phenomena in moviemaking commonly referred to a "chemistry." It has to do with a certain, largely indefinable, personal magnetism between two stars (usually of the opposite sex) that lifts a film from the ordinary to the exceptional. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh had it. So did Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Winslet and DiCaprio nearly saved the Titanic with their steamy formula. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman also come to mind as do Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (on screen, if not in real life). Perhaps one of the best known and oft-repeated examples of film chemistry was that of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn; or perhaps topping even that, Bogie and Bacall. Speaking of these two couples, perhaps the strangest chemistry experiment of all time was Director John Huston's mixing Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn together in his 1951 film classic, The African Queen.
Two powerful screen talents. Mixing them could just as easily
have blown up in John Huston's face.
Director, John Huston, 1951.
It would seem that some film stars got better grades in chemistry than others in that Bogart could be mentioned as the male half of several such couplings (Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman and Key Largo with Bacall, for instance). Had it not been for this unexpected combination, and an excellent script by Huston and James Agee, which brought them together, The African Queen would have been little more than an overblown, second-rate, adventure film. Of course, we can't slight Huston's role as chief chemist, given his long, illustrious careers on both sides of the camera. The best reasoning as to why there sometimes develops this chemistry between two stars (but more often does not), has to do with the talent of the two and their ability to convincingly pretend to fall in love. And of course, sometimes (as with Tracy and Hepburn) it's not pretend. It's interesting also to note the Bogart's wife, Lauren Bacall, never left her husband's side during the long, arduous filming of African Queen, especially when he was around Hepburn.
The chemistry at work.
The book, by C.S.
Forester, 1935
Referring to the on-location filming of The African Queen in what was then the Belgian Congo (today, The Democratic Republic of Congo) as "arduous" might be considered an understatement. Treacherous might be more accurate. The cast and crew had to battle perils including dysentery, malaria, bacteria-filled drinking water and several close brushes with wild animals and poisonous snakes. Most of the cast and crew were sick for much of the filming, except for Bogart, who drank only whiskey. Huston tried hiring local natives to help the crew, but many would not show up for fear the filmmakers were cannibals. The script, based on the 1935 novel of the same title by C.S. Forester, has the couple also surviving harrowing rapids, a trip over a waterfall, an attacked by a horde of mosquitoes, and becoming lost in stagnant shallows. Thick reeds bog down the boat, forcing Charlie Allnut (Bogart) to pull it through the water only to find, when he boards the boat again, dozens of leeches covering his body. Then there's the constant threat of the Germans with forts and gun emplacements along the river. The movie is set in 1914, during the prelude days of WW I.
Heat, humidity, dysentery, flies, wild animals, snakes--
fun and games mid-summer on the Congo.
Most of the action takes place aboard the African Queen. Scenes on board the boat were filmed using a large raft with a mockup of the boat on top. Sections of the boat set could be removed to make room for the large Technicolor camera. This proved hazardous on one occasion when the boat's boiler – a heavy copper replica – almost fell on Hepburn. It was not bolted down because it also had to be moved to accommodate the camera. The small steamboat depicted in the African Queen was built in England in 1912, for service in Africa. In April of 2011, it was fully restore and is now on display as a tourist attraction at Key Largo, Florida.
The steam boiler amid ship in the film has been replaced with a diesel engine in the restored version.
The African Queen opened on December 23, 1951 in Los Angeles, just in time to qualify for the 1951 Oscars. The New York City premiere had to wait until February, 1952. The film earned an estimated £256,267 at UK cinemas in 1952, making it the 11th most popular movie of the year. It earned an estimated $4 million in US and Canadian box office receipts. The film was budgeted at one-million but ended up earning some ten times that. Although The African Queen was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Direction, only Humphrey Bogart took home an Oscar.

Robert Morley played the missionary brother of
Rose Sayer  (Hepburn). He's killed by the Germans
in the early part of the movie.

Check out the film's trailer below.

Katherine Hepburn as you've never seen her before...or since.
Wading through the weeds...and the leeches.

Dumping Charlie's gin
 (it was really just water).

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