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Film Friday: «The African Queen» (1951)

In honor of Katharine Hepburn's 109th birthday, which was yesterday, this week on "Film Friday" I have decided to bring you one of her best-remembered films. This also happens to be one of my personal favorite films, classic or otherwise.
Original release poster
Directed by John Huston, The African Queen (1951) begins at the outbreak of World War I in a small village in German East Africa, where the Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his spinster sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn) work as Methodist missionaries. The Sayers' only link to the outside world in Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a drunken Canadian boat captain who brings them mail and supplies from their native England aboard his tramp streamer, the African Queen. When German troops invade the mission village, Samuel is wounded and soon succumbs to jungle fever. Shortly afterwards, Charlie returns to help the grieving Rose bury her brother and the two then set off downriver in the African Queen.

During their atribulated journey down the Ulanga River, Rose conceives a plan to avenge Samuel's death. The river runs into a large lake where a German ship, the Königin Luise, is known to be anchored, patroling the area for any British attacks. She and Charlie can make their way to the lake, convert the African Queen into a torpedo boat and head it toward the Königin Luise, diving off just before it hits. Charlie regards her idea as suicidal: to reach the lake they would have to pass an enemy fort overlooking the river and navigate several dangerous rapids. However, Rose is adamant and eventually persuades him to go along with the plan. It is not long before a war of nerves begins, with Charlie complaining about Rose's refined, teetotaling attitude and Rose getting revenge for Charlie's drunkenness by spilling his every bottle of gin into the water. Nevertheless, they find themselves falling in love with each other. When they are about to put their plan into motion, a strong storm strikes, causing the African Queen to sink. Charlie and Rose are captured by the crew of the Königin Luise, whose captain (Peter Bull) sentences them to be executed as spies. Charlie asks the German captain to marry him and Rose before the execution. After a brief weeding ceremony, the Germans prepare to hang them, but a sudden explosion sinks the ship, which has struck the overturned hull of the African Queen and detonated the torpedoes. With Rose's plan a success, the newly married couple happily swims to safety on the west shore of the lake.

Rose Sayer: Dear Lord, we've come to the end of our journey, and in a little while we'll stand before you. I pray for you to be merciful. Judge us not for our weaknesses, but for our love and open the doors of heaven for Charlie and me.

The unique adventure of Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut first reached the public in an novel written by English author C. S. Forester in 1935, two years before initiating his popular Horatio Hornblower series, a 12-book collection of seagoing tales. At one point, RKO Pictures planned to adapt The African Queen for British actors Charles Laugthon and and his wife Elsa Lanchester, but the project was ultimately shelved. A reader at the studio found the story "dated, incredible, quite outside acceptable dramatic screen material. [...] Its two characters are neither appealing nor sympathetic enough to sustain interest for an entire picture. [...] Both are physically unattractive and their love scenes are distasteful and not a little disgusting. It's no bargain at any price. No amount of rewriting can possibly salvage this dated yarn." In 1946, Warner Bros. acquired the property with Bette Davis and David Niven in mind for the lead roles, but nothing came of that either.

Although no studio had ever really believed in the project, director John Huston, who had always been a fan Forester's novel, saw great possibilities in a screen adaptation of The African Queen. He wanted to purchase the rights to the book with his producting partner, Sam Spiegel, for their independent company, Horizon Pictures, formed in 1949. Warners was willing to sell it to them for the "reasonable sum" of $50,000, but they struggled to gather the necessary money. Certain that The African Queen would "give John the kind of commercial hit he had when he made The Maltese Falcon in 1941," Spiegel finally worked out a deal with Sound Services, Inc., a company that rented sound equipment to filmmakers, for them to provide Horizon with the $50,000 to buy the property. Spiegel guaranteed he would pay back the loan with interest in a year's time and, "as a sweetener," also promised that Horizon would use Sound Service equipment to make The African Queen, giving them full credit on screen. To finance the picture, an arrangement was made with brothers James and John Woolf, who ran the British production company Romulus Films.

Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer
An early version of the script was prepared by British short story writer John Collier, whose Hollywood credits included Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Her Cardboard Lover (1942) and Deception (1946). Once Horizon acquired the rights to the story, Huston asked his friend James Agee to help him write the screenplay. Agee was a poet, novelist and film critic who had singled out Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) for special praise in his reviews for the Nation and TIME magazine. He had never attempted a screenplay, but agreed to fly out to California to work with the director. Before they could finish the script, however, Agee  a heavy drinker and smoker like Huston suffered a heart attack after playing a game of tennis with his new boss and was forced to withdraw for the production. German-born scenarist and author Peter Viertel, who had co-written We Were Strangers (1949) with Huston, was brought in to replace him.

Meanwhile, Huston set about finding the ideal actors to play prim-and-proper Rose Sayer and rough-and- ready Charlie Allnut. Katharine Hepburn was the first one to be approached for the female lead. One day in 1950, while she was appearing in stage production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It in Los Angeles, Spiegel sent her a copy of Forester's novel. "I read it. What a story! I was thrilled," she recalled. Huston and Spiegel then went to visit Hepburn, who was staying at Irene Mayer Selznick's house at the time, so they could discuss the project and possible leading men to play opposite her. Since Charlie was supposed at have a Cockney accent, Huston initally felt they should hire "an authentic cockney." But then Spiegel suggested Humphrey Bogart, who had previously worked with Huston in the aforemention The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, in addition to Across the Pacific (1942) and Key Largo (1948). "There was no one who could compete with him in personality or looks," Hepburn late wrote. "They had him be a Canadian. Can you imagine anyone else in the part? He was perfection."

Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut
After that conversation, Huston called his old friend: "Bogie, I've got a helluva property with the worst low-life character in the world as the hero and you're Hollywood's worst form of life. How about it?" The director had decided early on that he wanted to film The African Queen on location in East Africa, but Bogart had an immense dislike for travelling. Nonetheless, he trusted Huston and eventually accepted the role. "Before I met John," Bogart told a reporter, "my range was Beverly Hills to Palm Springs. Now the Monster wants me to fly twelve thousand miles into the Congo. And the crazy is that I've agreed to go." 

Bogie had never wanted to go to Europe — just had no curiosity about it — but I was longing to go, to see and do everything. Bogie liked his life as it was; going to New York was all the travelling he wanted to do. Finally Sam Spiegel told Katharine Hepburn that he had Bogie and John — told John that he had Bogie and Katie — told Bogie that he had John and Katie — and The African Queen was put together. I was wildly excited, but Bogie knew that John would find the most inaccessible spot in Africa as a location and he dreaded it.
(Lauren Bacall, Bogart's wife and leading lady in four pictures) 

Huston was looking forward about going on location in Africa and insisted about shooting The African Queen in Technicolor, even though that would bring additional difficulties and expenses to the production. He believed that color would add to the exoticism of the locale, making the film more appealing to audiences. "I had to do this film on location," Huston explained. "I wanted these characters to sweat when the script called for it. On a sound stage you fake it, but in Africa you don't have to imagine that it's hot, that it's so hot, that it's so humid and wet that cigarettes turn green with mold; it really is hot and clothes do mildew overnight and when people sweat it isn't with the help of a make-up man. Africa was the only place to get what I was after."

Huston and Bogart during filming
Once they arrived in Africa, Huston and Spiegel began scouting the dense jungle areas by plane in search of a dark, winding body of water to stand in for the Ulanga River described by Forester in his novel. After flying over 25,000 miles of African terrain, they finally found what they were looking for in the Ruiki River, in what was then the Belgian Congo. Surrounded by decaying vegetation, this was such a remote area that its location was not even marked on most atlases. The lake where Charlie and Rose confront the Königin Luise is a small offshoot of Lake Albert at Murchison Falls in Uganda. The mission village of Kungdu was erected on the shore of the same lake.

Production headquarters were set up at Biondo, outside the town of Ponthierville, where 85 locals were instructed by Huston to build a camp within eighth days. Bacall, who accompanied Bogart on the trip to Africa, described their challenging living conditions: "The bungalows, of which we had one, were made of bamboo and palm leaves, with small screen windows and curtained closets. Patio with hand-made furniture of the same ingredients. There was one large building with a dining room for the company and an adjoining bar. [...] Outdoor privie and showers. The showers consisted of a tin barrel overhead filled with water. When a chain was pulled, the water came through specially constructed hole. [...] We had drinking water to brush our teeth in, a basin to wash in, and that was it."

Bogart hated Africa immediately and was miserable throughout filming, complaining about everything from the heat to the food. Hepburn, on the other hand, thought the country was "utterly divine." In a later interview, Bogart remembered, "While I was griping, Katie was in her glory. She couldn't pass a fern or berry without wanting to know its pedigree, and insisted on getting the Latin name for everything she saw walking, swimming, flying or crawling. I wanted to cut our ten-week schedule, but the way she was wallowing in the stinking hole, we'd be there for years." To Bogart's irritation, Huston loved being in Africa just as much as Hepburn. According to Bacall, the director would go off hunting whenever it rained, determined to shoot a elephant. "John really became a great white hunter in Africa," she wrote, "he believe he was one and he adored it; he didn't care how long he stayed. That was John. Bogie was different he wanted to be back in civilization." 

A view of the apparatus necessary to allow
 filming on the African Queen
Filming in Africa was "very slow, the sun very hot." The cast and crew faced constant dangers, including torrential rains, wild animals, poisonous snakes and scorpions, crocodiles, armies of ants, contaminated water and food that was less than appetizing. "We decided first night out that it was advisable not to ask what we were eating," Bacall wrote, "we didn't want to know." In addition, there were technical difficulties that caused several delays during production: cameras and lamps would get caught on overhanging shrubbery boats would get caught on submerged logs, or hornets would attack the cast and crew while shooting. To complicate matters further, there was a language barrier between the film people and the locals that frequently led to wild misunderstandings. 

In Africa at that time, moving heavy film equipment and supplies was a tricky undertaking. The roads in the area were at best just narrow paths cut out between jungles. For shooting on the river, they built the steam powered African Queen; another boat for towing the Queen with a generator, lights and reflector platforms; followed by a raft with heavy camera equipment and a small crew from Britain; another raft with props and sound equipment; and finally a floating makeshift dressing room/toilet for Katharine Hepburn made with bamboo. Hepburn had insisted on having the privacy of a dressing room, but after having it dragged up the river several times it was clear that it was totally impractical, so she valiantly gave it up.
Bogart and Hepburn during a break from filming
Bogart's personal relationship with Hepburn in real life was strikingly similar to the one between Charlie and Rose in the film: "he was the hard-drinking cynic, she was the preachy spinster." He was annoyned when Hepburn, a strict teetotaler who had tried for years to control her partner Spencer Tracy's heavy drinking, ranted for hours about the evils of alcohol and the need for temperance. They suffered the same illnesses and dangers in the compound as in the film. They began with prejudice and suspicion and endured many hardships. Confined in a narrow space and an isolate setting, they overcame mutual hostility and eventually became very fond of each other. Bacall and Hepburn also became close friends. "Our friendship would happen slowly," Bacall wrote. "But very surely. And would become one of the most affecting, influential and treasured friendships of my life and for always."

Both stars agreed that Huston was a brilliant director. Hepburn wrote: "He was an amazing character. He had flashes. And those flashes were brilliant when he told me to base my character of Rosie on Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the hospital of the wounded soldiers, always with a smile on her face. He had felt that I was playing Rosie too seriously, and since my mouth turned down anyway, it was making the scene heavy. Since I (as Rosie) was the sister of a minister, my approach to everyone and everything had to be full of hope. A smile. It was indeed a FLASH of brilliance. In short, he had told me exactly how to play the part." Huston also showed Bogart by gesture and expression what Charlie should be like; the actor became enthusiastic and said, "John, don't let me lose it. Watch me. Don't let me lose it."

Huston, Agee and Viertel had a great deal of trouble with the ending of The African Queen. They rejected the ending originally conceived by Forester: when Charlie and Rose are captured, the German captain decides it would "uncivilized" to execute them and, flying a flag of truce, delivers them to the English, after which the couple plans to get married by the British consul. Viertel asserted that this conclusion did not satisfy either the writers or the Hollywood censors: "I worked with Huston on several endings, which were supposed to please the Breen Office, as well as ourselves. As the characters had slept together without being married, the code required they end badly, if not happily. But as the material was essentially comic and romantic, neither Huston nor I felt a tragic ending was in keeping with the rest of the piece. Therefore the bogus wedding ceremony was devised on board the German ship. Prior to that we had various other endings: one that I recall was to have the film end with the couple arguing in the water, once they had lost the African Queen."

The African Queen opened on December 23, 1951 to critical and commercial acclaim. The New York Times wrote, ""Just offbeat enough in story, locale and star teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to stimulate the imagination. It is a picture with an unassuming warmth and naturalness that can have a bright box office chance through good selling and word-of-mouth. [...] Performance-wise, Bogart has never been seen to better advantage. Nor has he ever had a more knowing, talented film partner than Miss Hepburn." At the 24th Academy Awards, Bogart won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as Charlie Allnut. In his acceptance speech, he stated, "Its a long way from the Belgian Congo to the stage of this theatre. Its nicer to be here. Thank you very much." The film received three other nominations: Best Director, Best Actress (Hepburn) and Best Screenplay. 

By Myself and Then Some by Lauren Bacall (2013) | Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn (1991) | John Huston: Courage and Art by Jeffrey Meyers (2011) | Tough Guy With a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer (2011)


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