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African Queen Still Reigns

Holding forth about actors a few years ago, John Huston allowed as how there were good ones and bad ones, and then there were a few like splendid thoroughbreds: All you had to do was judge their gait and you could see they had class.

In this category, he placed Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. He didn't mention any movies, but he must have been thinking about their performances in his own justly celebrated classic, "The African Queen" (1951).

Huston went on location in the Congo to make the movie, which won Bogie his only Oscar and inspired a spate of parodies (remember Sid Caesar, Alfred E. Newman and practically everyone else dragging that boat down the river?). It was the worst popular film of 1951, and that rather surprised everybody since Bogart and Hepburn were supposedly past their prime at the box office and the plot didn't sound so hot when you described it.

Indeed, it didn't. Apart from an opening scene in which Miss Hepburn's missionary brother (Robert Morley) keeled over, and a closing scene of unmatched melodrama, the movie consisted entirely of Bogie and Kate floating down an obscure river while World War I was breaking out. They fell in love, of course, but who wanted to see Bogart and Hepburn when Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh were across the street in "A Streetcar Named Desire"?

Well, apparently lots of people did, and still do. Last year the Los Angeles Times asked its readers to vote on the movie they'd most like to see again, and "The African Queen" won. (Runners-up were "Gone With the Wind," "Citizen Kane," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Wuthering Heights")

On the evidence of the poll, The African Queen" has been re-released nationally. The response has been uneven. It opened a week ago in Chicago, did disappointing business and has closed except for three drive-in engagements. (It may be back in a few houses next week.)

It's hard to account for the slow business. "The African Queen" was the best movie playing in the neighborhoods last week and an ideal family film. Yet moviegoers avoided it by the thousands, deciding instead to spend their good money on slop like "The Ambushers." It's not as if "The African Queen" was highbrows or anything; the audience I saw it with enjoyed themselves so much that they applauded at the end. 'That doesn't happen often in my neighborhood.

Perhaps many in the audience, like myself, were seeing the film for the first time. We discovered that its reputation is deserved: It is an almost perfect illustration of how much a really good movie can please. Things happen on the screen that makes you happy. You get involved.

This was a movie that respected its audience and respected its genuine desire to be well and intelligently entertained. By contrast, "The Ambushers" and other mass-produced "entertainments" are obviously made by people with little imagination and no real passion for craftsmanship. Much of "The African Queen's" success probably can lie credited to those thoroughbreds, Bogart and Miss Hepburn. They took what was probably intended to be a adventure film and turned it into a comedy (and even a statement on human life) by bringing their own personalities into play.

As it now stands, the movie bears little relationship to the C. S. Forster novel that inspired it. Nor did the script (mostly by James Agee, with help from John Collier and Huston) have much humor in it. Pauline Kael reports that Huston gave credit to Bogie and Kate: "They were just naturally funny when they worked together." Miss Hepburn, on the other hand, gives the credit to Huston. "The humor didn't just grow, it was planted. The picture wasn't going well until Huston come up with the inspiration that Rosie, my role, should be played as Eleanor Roosevelt."

Whatever the case, the many scenes Bogie and Kate play together are superb. Bogart, as the gin-swilling proprietor of a banged-up riverboat, created a strange little laugh for his role. He was shy, amused and intimidated by this Bible-reading missionary lady who washed out her unmentionables each and every night. And the laugh, meant to conceal his unease, also serves to display the thoughts of a taciturn man. He does not often laugh at the things Rosie finds funny.

Miss Hepburn's role presented a difficult problem. She had to be aloof, yet she had to be human. She had to be a perfect lady, even during the long days and nights when they were all alone on the river. Yet it had to seem natural when, at last, she lowered her defenses and took Bogie into her arms. Huston was right when he decided the role had to be played like Eleanor Roosevelt. Who else was so much a lady, so proper yet so warm, so balanced between being perfectly normal and being perhaps a shade eccentric?

Having struck sparks with the Bogart - Hepburn combination, Huston then had the nerve to direct the picture in the vein it was going anyway. He went for humor of a quiet kind. He was not afraid of "obvious" shots like the famous one showing the gin bottles, emptied by Rosie, floating away one after another down the river.

And at the end, when the plot called for melodrama, Huston pulled out all the stops. After Bogie and Hepburn have been shipwrecked, captured, married and led to the gallows, who but the crustiest realist can object when the African Queen achieves her mission after all - or when Bogie, afloat in the water, just happens to reach over and find the Queen's name painted on the first board he touches?

At one point Bogart philosophizes. "Well, Rosie, here we are, floating down the river like Anthony and Cleopatra on their barge." He was right. The gin-soaked river captain and the proper lady missionary have become royalty in the history or movies.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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