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A Year with Kate: The African Queen (1951)

Episode 27 of 52: In which Kate goes to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston, and almost loses her mind. 

When Katharine Hepburn decides to make a change in her career, she does not screw around. Kate’s first film of the 1950s (after a year off doing Shakespeare) was directed by John Huston, was shot in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff on location in Africa, and costarred Humphrey Bogart. When it opened in 1951, The African Queen was a hit, and eventually scored four Academy Award nominations (only Bogie won).

The story of making The African Queen is as incredible as the film itself. Everyone involved almost died at least once. Kate wrote a book on it (add author to her list of accomplishments), and it’s a fantastic read. Relevant to our interests is the fact that Kate got dysentery and dropped 20 pounds, making her already willowy frame even skinnier, a fact that would not be readily guessed from the promotional art:

"One of these things is not like the other..."

Bogie’s got biceps! Kate’s got curves! What the hell? This has got to be my favorite example of misleading poster art, and not just because Kate looks hilariously like Rita Hayworth. This poster displays the conflicting image shift that happened for Kate in the early 1950s. The African Queen is the film that launched the spinster phase of Kate’s career. But though romantic glamor was a thing of the past image-wise, romance--specifically sex--would become even more important. 

One sentence plot summary: A theologian thrillseeker and a half-cocked Canadian captain run a rustbucket boat down a river in the Congo to bomb the German navy in WWI. Sex and danger after the jump.

Early in the film, Rose Sayer (our own Kate) declares to Charlie (Bogart) that, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” This turns out to be an epic understatement. Neither the Germans nor the Africans (who are given less screentime than the crocodiles) are the villains of the film. Instead, Rose and Charlie fight the river and everything it throws at them--leeches, rapids, mosquitoes, leeches, waterfalls, fever, crocodiles, LEECHES. (The leeches bear repeating.) This is a survival action film, and like the best of that genre the trials the characters go through change them profoundly.

Rose Sayer is the first truly layered character Kate has played in a while. Rose begins the film as a steel-spined, well-mannered spinster. On John Huston’s direction, Kate plays Rose with a “society smile,” a thin-lipped grimace that she stretches towards the uncouth Charlie Allnut that reads as ingrained politeness, intense discomfort, and withering disdain. However, each new challenge from the river strips Rose (literally and figuratively) of her society trappings, revealing warmth and passion underneath. (The poor woman loses more clothing than Gypsy Rose Lee). Rose’s first revelatory moment happens after her first trip down the rapids:

Rosie looks like she just sat on a washing machine during spin cycle. The movie isn’t overtly sexual, but Rosie's big moments are always preceded by danger and sex. First this scene, when Rosie feels “stimulated” when she should feel terrified. Later, after escaping German gunfire, she and Charlie share a kiss tha leads to a sweet scene and a fade to black (wink wink nudge nudge) that consummates their budding relationship. These are fairly subtle moments that get swallowed by the showier dangers, but they set a precedent for Kate’s Spinster phase: what we’ll call the Character Development Deflowering. It will only get less subtle from here.

Like Rosie Sayer, Kate was a survivor. As shaky in quality as Kate’s 1940’s filmography had been, it proved one thing: there might be a Katharine Hepburn type, but there is no Katharine Hepburn genre. As the 1950s loomed and her image shifted from Desirable Star to Asexual Spinster, she still ran the gamut of genre, but with better films. The African Queen was Kate’s first Oscar nomination in almost a decade. By the time the 1950s ended and her spinster phase was done, she’d have three nominations more. That's one hell of a career change.

Next Week: Pat and Mike (1952) - In which Katharine Hepburn proves hitting like a girl is a good thing. (Available on Amazon.)

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Reader Comments (15)

Terrific overview as always.

I like this film but don't love it. Kate and Bogie are hugely entertaining together but the movie didn't pull me in as I hoped it would. It's one of the last of her films that I've seen, excepting the three I'm still missing, and perhaps my expectations, after years of hearing it praised to the skies, were too high.

It is a big template for most of what came in the next decade for Kate and she nails the character. I've read her book on the shooting and agree that it's a great read. I found what went on behind the scenes more interesting than the film actually.

Thanks Anne Marie, that poster is hilarious! It's like they put them in the way back machine with a side of remodeling thrown in. It's the Kate of Philadelphia Story with more bosom than she ever had and Bogart with John Payne's shoulders. Disconcerting but funny.

July 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I also agree that poster is hilarious: That's not Katharine Hepburn and Bogie, that's Katharine Kane and an undercover J'onn J'onzz. (Seriously, I don't quite think Hepburn was ever actually that pale.)

July 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

joel6 & Volvagia -- That poster is too ridiculous and I absolutely love it. Bogie body doubles could be John Payne, J'onn J'onzz, or Burt Lancaster maybe? Kate's giving me a Jayne Mansfield vibe that I cannot shake. Must be the cleavage.

July 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Clearly Rita Hayworth. 1951 is too early for Jayne and at Marilyn was just starting to get noticed. Rita had finished her marriage to Aly Khan and was coming back to Hollywood do to another movie for Harry Cohn.

July 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Re: the poster. Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne?


July 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

Finally, we get to the good stuff again. The African Queen is the movie I usually show to people who say they don't like "old movies." If they watch it all the way through and love it, then I know we will have a great friendship. If they don't like it, then we really can't be friends. :-) Just kidding...sorta.

On paper it does sound kind of deadly. Kate & Bogie aren't exactly hot stuff and it's just two old has-beens floating down a river. But if you force yourself to start watching, then you should come around to the star-acting at the highest level and the, well, vigorous direction.

I also appreciate seeing Kate through Bogie's eyes, and seeing him with a woman he would have been lucky to get in real life if he wasn't a movie star. (But since he was, well, Lauren Bacall). He's as rough as Tracy often was, but sue me, I think he more convincingly falls in love, and ditto Hepburn.

And correct me if I'm wrong but I think this is Kate's first color movie, correct? I often wonder if it is the color camera or real life or the harsh conditions that age her so much. THIS woman is only 10 years older than Tracy Lord?

Dave -- Correct! First color movie (although she did make a Technicolor test at RKO for a never-to-be version of Saint Joan).
As for her aging, two thoughts:
1) She was seriously sick during filming. Dysentery will have that effect.
2) Well, she was forty four, and she did spend a lot of time outside in the sun. Wear sunscreen, kids! Especially if you're fair-skinned redheads who play a lot of tennis!

I also think I may have seen the first signs of the head tremor in this film...

July 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

May I just briefly stick up for Kate's 40s filmography? Not so much for the Demon Seeds and Undercurrents (though I don't think the latter was seriously THAT bad) as for Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, State of the Union and Adam's Rib and -- okay, I thought there'd be more there to choose from.

But still, that's by no means a bad decade for any star. And from her 50s output, the definitive highlight - African Queen - is still no match for Ph Story, while her two (thoroughly delightful) pairings with Tracy were hardly an improvement on their best 40s work, which in turn could hardly be improved upon.

Though I love a couple of her BIG 50s performances (Summertime, Suddenly LS), they were stuck in otherwise pretty turgid prestige packages. I'm looking forward to your write-ups of these, Anne-Marie, but I must confess, I'm gonna miss 40s Kate.

July 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

John Huston made a much better movie years later with the same concept, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, but I must confess that I love Bogart in it. Is it wrong to think he deserved his Oscar over Brando?

July 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal - yes.

Anne Marie -- this is actually the movie that convinced me i didn't like Hepburn. (I just don't like this movie at all) which later proved to not be true. I just saw the wrong movies first.

July 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Actually, on that note of African Queen as a crash-course in Classic Hollywood:
I was already a Classic Hollywood/Hepburn/Bogart junkie when I first watched it and while I didn't hate it, I most definitely didn't love it. For this reason I'd argue against this as an intro for a novice to either of those three movie-magic categories

And I remember at least two other people over the years who hadn't seen many 50s films but had caught the African Queen on one of its zillion Sunday-afternoon TV screenings and absolutely hated it. (I'm still friends with one of these people and we still argue a lot..)

All in all though, I don't think African Queen is necessarily any more accessible/universally appealing than most films from the period. The protagonists' age/prickliness might have something to do with it.

And on a personal note, with a title like The African Queen and a VHS cover not quite as tacky but similar in sensibility to the poster above, teenage me was hoping for some exoticised escapism but was put off by the rough-around-the-edges vision of Africa that Huston presents.

I do love the film now, as I mentioned, but it took several viewings. And it'll take at least several more years before I risk playing it to my non-film-buff boyfriend.

July 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

goran & Nathaniel -- this is not my favorite of Kate's films either, and I do sorely miss 40s Kate. I've already stated (loudly and with feeling) that I don't like her spinster movies. THE AFRICAN QUEEN is not the film I would choose as a crash course in Classic Hollywood, but I confess that each time I've watched it I've enjoyed it more. Plus, the behind-the-scenes stories are just too good. Somebody should turn Hepburn's book into a movie.

July 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Interestingly, Bette Davis was first offered the Hepburn role, but turned it down when informed that filming would take place in Africa (understandably, since Davis, newly married to Gary Merrill, was raising a young family). Her comment was that she could not understand why filming could not be done on a Hollywood back lot as was the usual way then to produce films. I wonder what Davis could have done in this part, and how her sexual chemistry with Bogart may have been earthier, which probably better suited this character and role.

July 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

@ Craig: Bogart and Davis had some great chemistry at WB in the '30s, it would have been very interesting to see her in this.

My introduction to Hepburn was in her spinster roles and I was not a fan. In fact, I've never seen this movie in its entirety because it always bugged the spit out of me. Of course, over the years I've become devoted to The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, and Suddenly, Last Summer (and much of Bogart's earlier work). I really need to give The African Queen another shot.

July 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

As a person who loves KH in Bringing up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story, the young goddess, with the hair down, is older in 1951. I would argue that she had to acknowledge reality and find a persona that would work for her. That picture Anne Marie posted, hair up, chin up,courageous, though loving Kate is the quintessential Spinster/Independent Hepburn we see variations of from here on to the end of her life.
When I was young I enjoyed this film, but felt a certain grief that spinster Kate was the archetype Hollywood forced her into. I am a little more sanguine now, because physically she had to acknowledge aging, and try to age both gracefully and bravely. She becomes more than an actress here, this is an iconic role in the truest sense. It's a fun picture, and the behind the scenes story is a great one. Apparently Bacall brought along a medicine chest that was used by everyone on the set. What a glorious adventure, and it's that spirit for adventure that we celebrate when we speak of KH.

July 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

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