The African Queen – Denny Ledger’s Take

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It was a problematic story, even when author C.S. Forrester was writing it, with its publication coming in 1935. He was not satisfied with the ending, either of them, as the American ending had one outcome, and the English edition having another.

The film rights had been optioned twice before, with Columbia wanting it as a vehicle for husband and wife Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster and Warner Bros. considering it for David Niven and Bette Davis. No film was made on either occasion.

Producer Alexandra Korda said of it, ‘a story of two old people going up and down an African river?’ he scoffed, ‘who’s going to be interested in that?’

As it happened, producer Sam Spiegel and director John Huston were very interested. Spiegel convinced Katherine Hepburn to sign on and Huston called his old friend Bogie and it was third time lucky.

The issues that had plagued the story from the beginning, however, would only get worse through the production. Yet, if anyone was crazy enough to undertake the film, it was Spiegel, and in particular, Huston.

Huston worked with writer and film critic James Agee on the original screenplay, yet shortly after it was completed, Agee would suffer a heart attack. A few years later he would die from another.

Writer Peter Viertel was brought in for the second draft to be completed in Africa, although he would ultimately leave the project, telling Spiegel he ‘didn’t give a damn whether he received a screen credit or not’ and promptly left.

His concerns were not so much with the screenplay, but with Huston himself, who he had noted was ‘more eccentric than ever.’

Shooting a motion picture was not the only shooting Huston was interested in while in Africa, but also big game hunting, with his eye on one elephant in particular.

Five years later Huston would make Moby Dick, and his obsession with the elephant would bear more than a passing resemblance to Captain Ahab’s quest for the white whale.

Problems were rife in the screenplay and on location, where shooting would start in December 1950 on the Ruiki River in the Belgian Congo, a slow-moving tributary choked with decaying vegetation. It was a Tsetse fly area, there were crocodiles, hippopotamuses, a hornets’ nest, snakes, scorpions, spiders, mosquitoes, flies, army ants and a plethora of other deadly animals and insects.

There was a range of tropical diseases, including malaria, dysentery, amoebic dysentery, sunstroke and some which went un-diagnosed. During the shoot, nine members of the crew had to be sent home with dysentery, malaria, or both. The local help were lepers who spoke Swahili.

They then moved to the Lualaba River, a black river, coloured due to the tannic acid from the surrounding vegetation.

The colour of the water wasn’t the only peculiar fact about the location. It was also a branch on the Congo River so remote that it wasn’t marked on most atlases. There were temperatures of up to 85- degrees and high humidity, which caused clothing to droop and need re-starching, as well as mold.

The film itself is set in German East Africa, September 1914, starting out at the 1st Methodist Church, Kungdu, where Hepburn’s Rosie Sayer and her brother Reverend Samuel Sayer, played by Robert Morley, run the Methodist missionary. It isn’t long before Bogie’s Charlie Allnut, the Gordon’s Gin swilling skipper of the African Queen, brings the news of war, to be followed shortly after by the arrival of German Imperial soldiers who burn down the missionary and beat the Reverend, where he later dies of fever.

After burying her brother, Rosie joins Charlie on board, only to become a guerrilla on a suicide mission, to Charlie’s initial reluctance, to destroy a German gunship to help the war effort.

If there were problems off screen, they were matched on. At one point in the film, where Charlie wades through the river, pulling the Queen behind him, he worries about the currents, which should be the least of his problems. He mixes his gin with river water before drinking it, which, if not bad enough, then goes into the river and declares, ‘I swallowed half the river that time’, would that not of killed him in all seriousness!?

Charlie and Rosie then decide to bathe in the river, with no second thought of the crocodiles, hippopotamuses and diseases.

The locale and river were mirrored by the verbal sparring of Bogie and Hepburn, serving as the redeeming feature of the picture.

These were two of American cinema’s most prestigious and respected actors, and both here are at their best, clearly relishing their roles. Off screen, Hepburn’s cheeriness irked Bogie something chronic, she in return deemed him, as well as Huston, as nothing but reprobates. Bogie and Huston were more than happy to play the roles they had been assigned and not let her assumptions down.

Charlie and Rosie are polar opposites, coming from very different backgrounds, with Charlie in particular aware of a class divide. However, it is the gradual acceptance and respect that grows between them that earns our fondness for them and the picture.

They are two halves that make an eventual whole, each bringing to the table what the other lacks. Each give as good as they get, but this is by no means a simple man-meets-woman love story, but as rocky a ride as they are experiencing on the dilapidated steamer itself.

Huston would later say of the shoot, ‘the things that happened would make a book in itself.’

In fact, there were to be two books written about the shoot. The first was by Viertel, who wrote White Hunter, Black Heart, published in 1953, and was a very thinly disguised account of, not just the making of the picture, but of other stories from Huston’s past, including a hilarious anecdote about a fist fight with Errol Flynn at a party hosted by David O. Selznick.

In 1987 Katherine Hepburn’s The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, was published.

With four Academy Award nominations, for Best Director and Best Screenplay (with James Agee) for Huston, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Hepburn, and Bogie for Best Actor in a Leading Role, not to mention success at the box office, it seemed the ordeal of the production had paid off.

On the night of the Academy Awards, A Streetcar Named Desire was already the big winner, collecting three of the four acting honours, with just the Best Actor in a Leading Role award left, with Brando up against Bogie amongst others.

Bogie would walk away with the award, his second nomination, after Casablanca, twelve years before. He would be nominated once again for The Caine Mutiny in 1954. He would lose out to Brando for On the Waterfront.

No elephants were harmed during the making of the picture.

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Katharine Hepburn – The Making of the African Queen

Honorary Allnut Fix:

Don’t be fooled by the title – the only person responsible for Hepburn’s near-loss of sanity was John Huston. If Hepburn’s to be believed, the least important components of this film for Huston were, in order: The script, the wardrobes, and the actors.

Written as a polished version of a private journal (although how polished can it be when it regularly references vomiting and bowel movements), The Making of the African Queen is an incredibly insightful look behind the scenes of one of Hollywood’s greatest films.

Yes, if this memoir was restricted to only Hepburn’s anal retentive observations about the quality of life while living in Africa and working with John Huston, we might be left to believe that this was the most miserable period of her life. Hepburn’s charm though, comes with her ability to immediately poke holes in her own ego and readily admit when her fellow collaborators were in the right despite their own peculiar attributes and tendencies.

Filled with glorious black and white photos from Hepburn’s own collection and well known studio stills, The Making of the African Queen is an incredible chronicle of Hepburn’s fascinating working relationship with Director Huston as she learns to cope with, and appreciate, the eccentric auteur’s unique lust for life and occasionally confusing style of directing.

Hepburn badgers him endlessly about the script. (Who needs a finalized script until filming begins, right?) She fussily cares for him along the way like a three-way cross between a beleaguered sister, a frustrated wife, and a devoted assistant. (Hepburn fixes the buttons on the fly of his pants, accompanies him on an elephant hunting excursion, and dutifully joins in to help the cast and crew resurrect The African Queen after the ship sinks to the bottom of the river.) And in the book’s most telling moments, Hepburn reveals Huston’s brilliant, blunt, and simple style of direction that led to some of her most famous scenes from the film. (Yes, he cruelly made her mourn the loss of her film brother for an extended prank, but the “stiff upper lip” direction formed 95% of what makes Hepburn’s acting great here!)

What about Bogie? Well, he’s around. Bacall was on the trip, so they were often off doing their own thing while Hepburn was exploring Africa. Hepburn though, treats Bogart more like a minor character in the book. She loves his acting and professionalism. She enjoyed his endless needling off-screen and learned to respect him as a private man who had a hard time letting people into his inner circle. And in the end, she couldn’t have been happier to support him in his much deserved Oscar win for the role of Charlie Allnut.

What one will take away the most from this book is Hepburn’s dedication to her craft and her determination to make sure that she gave this film her very best. Whether she’s carefully pouring over the script to make sure it feels authentic, or lugging a full length mirror through the jungle to make sure her wardrobe and hair are the best that they can be, we see an actress that is willing to give her all for a role – even if that means acting through a severe case of the runs and losing 20 pounds in the process.

And did I mention the pictures?

The behind-the-scene moments portrayed are priceless, and the double page spreads are worth the price of this book alone. Even at her physical worst, Hepburn is so stunningly G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S.

If you’re a fan of Hepburn, Bogart, Huston, or The African Queen, this one’s definitely worth a read. To close, I’ll leave you with perhaps one of the most satisfying bits from Hepburn after the whole adventure had wrapped:

“Now, what do you suppose ever happened to Charlie and Rose? Where did they live? Did they stay in Africa? I always thought they must have. And lots of little Charlies and Rosies. And live happily ever after. Because that’s what we wanted them to do. And every summer they take a trip in the old Queen – and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. . .” 

I couldn’t ask for anything more.

The African Queen – Ashley’s Take!

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(From the Bogie Film Blog – I’m dropping you mid-post into Ashley’s blog today for just a taste of what her film knowledge can bring you! As I’ve never seen It Happened One Night, here is yet another reason why I needed a new voice around! Add it to the Netflix queue!)

Well, hello Bogie, in glorious technicolor!

I had forgotten since my last viewing that The African Queen was shot in technicolor, so seeing that was a nice surprise, although black-and-white Bogie is just as fun, if not more so. There seemed to be a nice homage to the famous Frank Capra film of 1934, It Happened One Night. The great scene in which they take a bath in separate sections of the water leading to the two returning to the boat with Rose insisting that Charlie looks away while she enters the boat. When she is dressing and preparing for bed, Rose puts up a sheet reminiscent of Claudette Colbert creating the divide in the bedroom between she and Clark Gable shared in It Happened One Night. Whether or not this was intentional, it appears as a fun homage. Hepburn and Bogart shared amazing chemistry. As their relationship deepened, it was fun to see the effects they had on each other as their personalities changed. During the scene in which they discover that Charlie’s body is covered in leeches, it is clear that the two have developed profound feelings towards each other and they do not merely tolerate each other like they once did, but that they feel deeply towards each other.

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You can read Ashley’s post in its entirety at Ashley’s film blog here. And don’t forget to check her out on twitter here, and her Letterboxd site here!

*To check out more guest blogs, head on over to The Bogie Film Blog section, Take 2 here!*

Robert Morley

Morley Beat the Devil 2

Birth Name: Robert Adolph Wilton Morley

Birthdate: May 26, 1908

Date of Death: June 23, 1992

Number of Films Robert Morley Made with Humphrey Bogart: 2

The Lowdown

Someone unfamiliar with Morley’s work could be easily misled by reading his many encapsulated bios online. The word pompous shows up so often that one might think critics and biographers were contractually obligated to use it.

Yes, Morley was unabashedly British in some of the most stereotypical ways. From the way he seemed to revel in dancing his tongue around inside of his mouth with the most airy of English diction – to the way that he would slightly cock his head backwards and to the side, nose slightly raised, in many of his performances (and even publicity shots) as if to present himself as better than – Morley was keenly gifted at playing the entitled Englishman who was well aware of how lucky you were to be in his presence.

The great misdeed in only using the word pompous when it comes to describing Morley’s roles occurs when writers fail to include the words incredibly likable along with it. Morley’s deftness at incorporating mischievousness into his pomposity made him the classic king, preacher, ringleader, sidekick, and cameo actor that audiences loved to be driven crazy by.

Only appearing in two films with Bogart, Robert Morley makes an enormous contribution in both. Playing polar opposite roles, it’s hard to imagine that his characters from The African Queen and Beat the Devil wouldn’t actually have quite an interesting and lively conversation together – stirring one another up with their shared spark for personal obsessions that might teeter precariously close to mania.

Check out all the great roles Morley played here on IMDB, but if you want my opinion, start with the two films listed below.

The Filmography

The African Queen – 1951

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Morley plays Katherine Hepburn’s missionary brother, Rev. Samuel Sayer, the recipient of Bogart’s rare and much-welcomed riverboat deliveries deep in the heart of Africa. Have you ever wondered how so many people in this world can put up with, and even be swayed by, over-the-top and stuffy conservative evangelicals? Morley’s work here is a testament to his likability despite his exasperating pretentiousness, and doggone it, I’d go listen to that guy preach. While he 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 ground the storyline in a deep foundation of believable emotion and motivation for the two lead characters. It’s easy to imagine Morley and Hepburn as real life siblings, and watching them chatter about and take care of one another at the beginning is a major highlight of the film. You can read my original write up on The African Queen here.

Beat the Devil – 1953

Morley Beat the Devil

The only complaint that you’ll read about Morley’s performance in this film is that it’s hard not to imagine Sydney Greenstreet in the same role. Morley spends 90 minutes cavorting and scheming alongside of Peter Lorre as Mr. Peterson, in a very Greenstreet-ish role. Morley joins Lorre, Bogart, Ivor Barnard, and Marco Tulli as one of Hollywood’s best cast group of criminal ne’er-do-wells who are desperately trying to make it to Africa so that they can pull off a uranium swindle. It’s a complete about-face from his role as the missionary preacher in The African Queen, and I think that Morley is able to add a much greater sense of deviousness to the character than Greenstreet might have been able to pull off. Mr. Peterson is a character that needs someone a little less likable than Greenstreet – someone who could edge a bit closer to “annoying” and “pompous” than Greenstreet might have been capable of at this point in his career due to the sheer joy he could inspire in audiences with every appearance alongside of Lorre. There’s an especially fun scene in Beat the Devil where Jennifer Jones tells Morley that she and her husband are headed to East Africa on a spiritual journey in an attempt to exorcise their lifetime of sins. Whether it was in the original story, or thrown in as a nod to Morley’s character from The African Queen, it plays out very funny as we watch his face go aghast at the thought that Jones is using religion to con him. You can read my original write-up on the film here

* ‘The Usual Suspects’ is an ongoing feature on the blog where we highlight some of Bogart’s most talented costars and directors who worked with Bogart on at least two or more films. You can the rest of the entries here. *