Thursday, April 9, 2015

AFI Top 100: #65 "The African Queen"

Katharine Hepburn & Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951)

Finally, we've reached the "Humphrey Bogart" portion of our journey, my favorite actor of all time. Bogie is in four films on this AFI Top 100 list, and our #65 selection, The African Queen, is the only one that brought him the Academy Award for Best Actor. A harrowing shooting experience for cast and crew probably only overshadowed by the one for Apocalypse Now, in terms of location problems, illnesses, and overall set disasters in order to get the picture in the can.

The story of an uptight missionary, Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), working in Northeastern Africa with her Reverend brother, Samuel (Robert Morley), who learns of the German occupation as World War I breaks out out in Europe. German troops now control their little corner of the continent and invade their small village with the help of other natives, burning it to the ground. Completely without hope and her brother dead from grief, Rose enlists the help of drunken riverboat captain, Charlie Allnut (Bogart), to escape the territoryand attack the German warship "Louisa" in the process.

Immediately the two butt heads, as Rose endures Samuel's gin-swilling while Samuel puts up with her self-righteous complaining... but the two come together to navigate the dangers of the river aboard Allnut's glorified tugboat, the dilapidated African Queen. It doesn't take long for Rose to impress him with her tenacity and determination, and she may be his only chance of survival.

Director John Huston, who directed Bogie in one my favorite films of the era, The Treasure of Sierra Madre (coincidentally, #38 on this list), makes this film equally as gritty without even a tenth of the character development. The chemistry between our stars is solid enough, and there's this wonderful twinge of humor that seeps into the movie and gives it a boost of life. Allnut is just the right combination of crotchety and laid back, as he takes Rose's fervent or unrealistic demands in stride. Huston accomplishes an enormous amount by layering footage the way he does, incorporating on location sequences with miniatures of the African Queen going through rapids or Hepburn and Bogie against a green screen as they careen down a waterfall. It's exhilarating and impressive, even if parts (especially the green screen) come off looking dated.

However, as much as I try to find this movie interesting in and of itself, I have a hard time admitting that it is. The truth of the matter is that while the movie falters a bit in holding my attention, the "fun facts" surrounding the movie are remarkably fascinating. Katharine Hepburn's debilitating bout of dysentery that caused her to vomit in a bucket between takes... The actual African Queen boat sinking multiple times and needing to be raised... Bogart's refusal to work with real leeches, or he and Huston's constant drunkenness... and the overall insanity of this 'on location' shoot that Hepburn herself wrote a whole book about!

And see all these pictures? How they're black & white? Well, this movie is actually in bright old Technicolor, which you'd never be able to tell from these publicity shots released by the studio at the time (frankly, the only usable pictures that I could scrap together). It's a bit of a testament about the popularity, or lack there of, of color in movies at the time. The African Queen was Bogart's first color picture, and in 1951, it very well may have been a hard sell for audiences to see their classically noir movie star represented on multi-colored celluloid. A bit of a publicity rouse, I'd say.

All in all, I love The African Queen because I love Bogart so much. But it's one of my least favorites of his films to watch repeatedly. The action and excitement doesn't really make up for the dull bits, which cover pretty much everything that doesn't include raging rapids. The character dynamics are pretty classic at this point (opposites attract, after all), which of course doesn't help in making their interactions less predictable. How Bogart didn't win an Oscar before this movie, I'll never know. All I can say is that I'll be forever grateful to The African Queen for earning him one before he died.

Rating:  ★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back later this week for #64 on the list, Network — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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