BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE AFRICAN QUEEN

By • Apr 17th, 2010 •

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THE AFRICAN QUEEN is one of these iconic films that is endlessly point-expansive. It does not exist in our minds without some knowledge of the adventures that accompanied it. This is augmented by the inclusion, in the deluxe edition, of a copy of Katherine Hepburn’s book of recollections about making the movie.
Sam (S.P. Eagle) Spiegel’s legendary bluff – calling each of the three major talents (Huston, Bogart and Hepburn) and telling them the other two were in, resulting in all of them accepting the offer based on their belief that the others were aboard.

Jack Cardiff’s request to bring just two lights with him on location, which the producers, mind-bogglingly, thought was unnecessary (“Isn’t the sun out all the time in Africa…”).

Everyone coming down with serious, debilitating illnesses (amoebic dysentery and malaria, to name a few)… everyone that is except Bogart and Huston, who confined their liquid intake on location to alcohol.

Hepburn doing her scenes at the organ in act one while periodically heaving her guts into a pail just out of camera range (it is widely believed that the tremors she experienced for the rest of her life originated here).

Huston moseying off to shoot an elephant while he should have been focusing on the film (which became a novel by Peter Viertel called ‘White Hunter, Black Heart’, which in turn became one of Clint Eastwood’s less successful but nonetheless fascinating movies, in which he portrayed Huston).

Bogart’s young wife, Lauren Bacall, prowling around the set cooking everyone’s meals and wearing such skimpy outfits that the local Africans’ nickname for her was ‘the woman with no clothes.’
And on and on it goes.

To which we now must add the gallant restoration done in-house by Paramount, about which I had the pleasure of speaking with Ron Smith. He and his team have done a miraculous job with the film. I saw it back in ’51 when it opened, and later when it was revived, and it never looked as good as it does now on BluRay. It’s one of the handful of releases each year that justifies BluRay’s existence. Gone are the gossamer spider-web halos around people due to back projection studio shots. There’s a fine example of how one such shot involving Ms. Hepburn was utterly cleaned up in the excellent documentary that comes with the feature. What’s always so frustrating with a pristine restoration/clean-up such as this is that unless you’re shown what they were given to work with, you cannot understand the magnitude of the accomplishment. Check out this single telling comparison in the doc and then multiply it exponentially…

Ron Smith: Certainly anything with the green screen or yellow screen – Jack [Cardiff] called it a yellow screen – it sort of has this luminous quality which may have been helpful in getting a back lighting effect, but it sure seemed to pollute everything that was translucent, like the water, for instance, and Katherine Hepburn’s hair in particular. We tried to get it as consistent as we could without getting in the way of the story telling (Editor’s note: Wait till you see it! Ron Smith is being as modest as Jack Cardiff was [see below]. As far as I’m concerned, they licked it entirely.)

Bob Harris and I had an interesting conversation about this [the restoration process], and he said something very true – you can get 95% of the way there on the budget you’re given, and then to get each one of the those percents that approaches a hundred beyond the ninety-five is going to cost you almost as much as it did to do the entire movie. Really, they had to take it out of our hands…had to take it away from us. We held on to it for an extra month, and sort of dismissed the additional time as “Yeah, yeah, just another week…it’s in QC…” It’s hard to let go of those things, to just do them and do them and try to get them as close as you can to whatever the next level is.

Jack Cardiff, who I knew fairly well (my son visited him in England and had the honor of holding his Academy Award), downplayed his contribution to THE AFRICAN QUEEN, saying that under such deprivation conditions he was unable to do more than provide standard coverage. Of course it’s a far greater achievement than that. Even the makeup on Kate (despite their efforts to deglamorize her as much as possible) and Bogie reverberates with the look of Cardiff’s Technicolor close-up shots in THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS, PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, and others. You can feel him lurking around the frames, which have been polished into deep, saturated, gratifying hues.

Ron Smith: The only thing Katherine Hepburn hung onto, when they tried creating her look, according to what I’ve heard, and from Jack as well, was the lipstick. She just didn’t want to sacrifice the lipstick, and for us, anything we can cling onto that’s a constant as a color guide is great. So just having that lipstick, or the hat-pin, or the band around her head, was really key in getting the right balance, particularly early on in the film.

We actually recorded Jack’s comments while he was watching a print of the film that is owned by the Academy a few years ago. My associate Barry Allen at Paramount was going over to London and thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could get his comments about the film.’ They were mostly about the density. “This should be warm. We were in Africa after all…” Then the Academy loaned us the same print he watched. We tried to keep it as warm and gold as we could.

With all this pre-history and post-history, one sooner or later has to get around to the film itself. Personally, even detached from its compelling back-story, I still like THE AFRICAN QUEEN a lot. Mainly that is due to the relationship between the two protagonists. Despite all the torment and chagrin endured on location, and all of the many wonders accomplished by the director, the cinematographer, and the restoration team, it finally lands on the actors’ shoulders whether this film stands up in a new century. Both thesps were nominated for Academy Awards that year, and Bogart won. Those virtues certainly have resisted the mercurial nature of time.

The music, however, has not held up. At first the composer is merely lost, fumbling for the right mood, the results sounding generically sub-par for its time. Then, around the 20-minute mark, when Bogie and Kate climb aboard the African Queen, there’s an orchestral swell that, rather than heralding the impending adventure awaiting them down river, evokes something closer to a Morlock attack from THE TIME MACHINE. Directly following that flourish are some foolish, wacky comic compositions as the journey gets under way, cues that must have been barely tolerable even in ’51. Later in the film, some passages are more effective, but the score is, in balance, a detriment to the film, and if the separated tracks exist, blasphemy though it may be of me to suggest this, I for one would vote for a serious rethink on the music.

Act one is a bit touch and go. I love Robert Morley, but not here. His part is underwritten, and while he goes for what he’s been given bravely, he misses the mark, coming off as a caricature. Hepburn suffers by association in her scenes with him. Fortunately, by Act two, she and Bogie are on the boat, and all is smooth sailing from then on – dramatically speaking that is.

There is much that is memorable in their dialogue as well as in their performances. Bogart’s line “Psalm-singin’ skinny old maid” was lifted as a tribute in THE PROJECTIONIST (1971 – on DVD from Image Entertainment), a film I co-produced, in an improvised scene where Chuck McCann, playing a lonely theater projectionist, does impressions inspired by movie stills taped to the walls of his morgue-like projection booth. When he reaches Bogie, that’s one of the key, immortal lines he summons up.

EMBRACING CHAOS: MAKING THE AFRICAN QUEEN is an excellent documentary, produced by Nicolas (TIME AFTER TIME) Meyer and directed by Eric Young. It is thoroughly researched, with a good sampling of talking heads, from Scorsese to Norman Lloyd, and snippets of Jack Cardiff from different time periods. Most thrilling is their lead-off B&W footage of Bogart & Bacall about to embark for the shoot, chatting with an interviewer about what lies ahead, never imagining it will be as wild a ride as came to pass. It’s a wonderful companion piece to the feature.

In wrapping up our phone conversation, I couldn’t resist asking Ron Smith about Hepburn’s skin tone in the first act, when she was gamely playing the organ while sick as a dog. Did it present any particular challenge for the restoration team?

Ron Smith: Trying to make her less green, I guess. (laughs) We tried to keep her as colorful as possible.

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3 Responses »

  1. I’ve wondered for years about Bogie’s teeth in this film. They seem more protrusive here than I remember elsewhere. He used his teeth and smile a lot to develop his character. Were they his or prosthetics. It’s possible that Jack Cardiff’s close-ups helped emphasize them, but they seem to push his upper lip out further than I remember.

  2. The lip scar which caused Bogie to give that devil-may-care attitude was caused when he was in a skiing accident as a young man. The protruding teeth and receeding gums was caused by years of heavy smoking and drinking, eventually leading to his throat cancer.

  3. The African Queen is one of a handful of films that compel me to sit my happy ass down & watch it from beginning to end, every time it’s shown. So I’ve seen it….oh….100 times? I can’t wait to see it in Blu Ray! A timeless, adorable film…what a partnership. They don’t make ‘um like this anymore.

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