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The Films of John Huston: The African Queen

September 6, 2010
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The African Queen is kind of an odd duck in the Huston pantheon. And I’m not just saying that because I love the phrase “…is an odd duck.” Seriously! The next time you’re with your friends and see a flabby middle-aged man, balding, with glasses and a briefcase looking like he’s regretted every decision he’s ever made in his life, point at him and say, “That’s an odd duck.” Guaranteed laugh everytime.

Anyway, African Queen. It’s Huston’s first “comedy,” or at least there’s a great deal more humor in it than you’d expect from Huston coming off The Red Badge of Courageand Key Largo. And much of the laughs come from the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

Actually maybe it’s more notable for being Huston’s first stab at a romantic drama. I don’t know, it’s weird. On the one hand, you have Katharine Hepburn who was known for screwball comedies, then you have Bogie who was known for being the stoic hero. The two don’t naturally seem to go together in the first place, but then Huston reverses their roles and makes Hepburn the wise-cracking tough guy and Bogie the straight man.

The Plot: Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother are British missionaries in German East Africa on the eve of World War I. All but isolated, their only contact with the civilized world is crude slob of a deliveryman Charlie Allnut (Bogart), who brings them supplies and mail with the use of his dilapidated boat, The African Queen.

The war breaks out, and, after some manhandling from the Germans, Rose’s brother dies. With nothing left, Rose joins with Charlie and the two voyage downriver, careful to evade German fortresses and gunboats, crocs and leeches, and the other’s personality.

What’s Good About It: I’m not a fan of Katharine Hepburn (who, if you ever see Dick Cavett’s interview with her, was every inch of bitch in real life as she played on screen), but she and Bogie do have chemistry. Hepburn was born to play the uptight, domineering Rose, and Bogie’s happy-go-lucky hard-drinking Charlie was probably the closest he ever came to playing himself. It also earned him his only Oscar.

The locations stand out as well. Huston insisted on shooting in Africa, specifically Uganda and the Congo, and the flora, fauna, and, yes, leeches, are all real (though the latter were chemically treated leeches flown in from London). Huston did the same with Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and both times the decision added immensely. It’s a joke watching many old movies’ use of back projection because it’s so phony it sticks out like an odd duck. But here, when you see trees, water, and hippos pop up in the background, they actually look like they were in the original shot.

What’s Wrong With It: A lot of grandparents love this movie, and everyone talks about it fawningly and it won a bunch of awards, but this isn’t among my favorite Huston films. I don’t think he was cut out for comedy or romance, and his real talents for adventure are squandered here.

It’s still a fun watch, but I don’t think it belongs among the ranks of FalconSierra Madre, orAsphalt Jungle. But then it’s not as free-floatin’ B-flick as Across the Pacific or In This Our Life, either. It’s a lighter but denser film. Something nice to put on for a while if you’re in a Bogie mode.

Inevitable Hustonism: Huston agitated the censors by portraying an unmarried couple co-habiting. Doubtless he allayed their concerns by proving Katharine Hepburn was a man.

Tales from Production: Bogie allegedly was the only member of the crew who didn’t get sick when shooting in Africa. A fact he attributed to a daily intake of whiskey.

Trivia: In Huston’s autobiography, he notes that C.S. Forester was never satisfied with the novel’s ending, despite having written two, one for the American version and one for the English.

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