—Bogart Earns His Oscar!—
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Director: John Huston
By turning his boat into a homemade torpedo, disheveled Canadian boat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) helps Methodist missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) exact revenge on the Germans for killing her brother.
What I Thought
This film is satisfying on so many levels, not the least of which is getting to watch two of Classic Hollywood’s greatest stars throw themselves headlong into roles that they truly seem to enjoy.
Boat captain Charlie Allnut is the exact opposite of everything that Rose Sayer stands for. His very existence is a stark contrast to her life and work. His boat whistle interrupts her hymn sing with the African natives. His discarded cigar distracts her congregation from worship. His booze and river water soaked stomach growls all the way through her tea time. His boat whistle even blasts through Rose’s grief as she sits on her porch, mourning her recently dead brother (Robert Morley).
His response to completely disrupting everything in Rose’s life?
“Ain’t a darn thing I can do about it.”
Charlie Allnut is who he is, and there’s no changing it.
If opposites attract, then these two were made for each other. It’s with incredible joy that we get to watch them boat down the river, fighting all sorts of horrible pests and dangers, as they fall in love. Not for a second do we question why Rose begins to adore Charlie. Neither do we wonder what Charlie sees in Rose. They are two halves of a greater whole. They are the perfect love story waiting to happen. They each lack exactly what the other contains.
They complete each other.
It was Hepburn’s first color film. It was Bogart’s Oscar win. Everyone on the shoot got horribly sick from the water except for Bogart and Director Huston – which they attributed to their massive alcohol intake – and the pain they went through during filming only adds to its realism and enjoyment.
Is it a perfect film? No. But even imperfect John Huston is better than almost anything you’ll find in the theaters today. There was some concern at the time that filmgoers wouldn’t pay to see two “old people” fall in love. Thank goodness we all get to benefit from their lesson learned!
The Bogart Factor
To be perfectly honest, while Bogart is absolutely amazing as Charlie Allnut, it isn’t his best role – it’s just the one that he won the Oscar for. If I had to pick a character that’s more deserving, I might offer up Captain Queeg or even Fred C. Dobbs, but knowing a little bit about how the Academy works, I’m more than happy to celebrate the win for Charlie Allnut.
Out of his entire filmography, this is Bogart’s most playful role as he seems to revel in the goofy silliness of being a slightly-off-his-rocker boatman in East Africa. Did he ever play a character quite like this before? There were countless young punks, gangsters, detectives, district attorney’s, and prisoners, but when else was he able to be a completely, honest-to-goodness, down to earth good guy?
There is no trace of menace or swagger in his performance. All memories of his gun toting, alpha male tough guys are forgotten the first time we see him smile at Hepburn and “Yes, miss!” his way to more buttered bread.
Bogart deserved the Oscar for so many of his iconic roles, and I think he received it here as a nod for superb work, not only in this film, but for an entire career.
With only four major characters, it’s another testament to the film, and Huston’s direction, that we never stop to look at our watch because we’re bored.
Katharine Hepburn is magnificent as Rose Sayer. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, as Hepburn is unmatched for her ability to play women who are both tough and proper at the same time. When I really look at it, Rose is a much more layered character than you might think after first viewing. The sister of a Christian missionary, Rose is a woman who’s given up absolutely every comfort in life in order to live chaste as she supports her brother’s ministry. Then, when the Germans ruin everything that she’s helped to build, the peace loving church organist flips a switch and becomes the revenge seeking guerilla fighter. Plus, I think it’s great that a forty-four year old beauty gets to flaunt her wares in a classic film:
Watching Bogart watch Hepburn as she confesses their entire plot to the Germans at the end of the film is perhaps the greatest love scene from the entire movie. How could anyone not fall in love with Rose after watching her live, love, and fight her way to the finale of this film?
Robert Morley plays Hepburn’s missionary brother, Rev. Samuel Sayer. While Morley doesn’t get as much time to shine here as he does in Beat the Devil, his short appearance, and subsequent death, add just enough weight to kick off the storyline. It’s easy to imagine Morley and Hepburn as real life siblings.
Peter Bull plays the German Captain of The Louisa. Short, but sweet, Bull has one of the better jokes in the film when he condemns Bogart and Hepburn to death within a millisecond after pronouncing them man and wife.
Classic Bogie Moment
This film is a great showcase for Bogart’s talent at comedy. The man who knew how to do a lot with just a little gets to offer up a plethora of wit that’s dryer than the gin that Rose pours overboard. What I love most about his humor though, is that he never over-mugs for the camera. Perhaps my favorite moment of the entire film comes when he helps Rose back onboard The African Queen after she bathes. Just look at the expression on his face as he does his best not to look at her while she climbs over the rail:
Those eyes! Every fiber of his being is working towards doing the polite thing for Rose. How bad must Charlie want to take a peek? How crazy does it make him to get the chance to touch a soaking wet woman after so many months (years?) on the river without a female companion?
We can only imagine what’s going through his mind . . .
The Bottom Line
I know a number of people who say that this is their absolute favorite Bogie film. While I might not agree, I can’t fault them for their choice. It’s a must see with endless re-watchability!
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