The most depressing thing, for me, about seeing John Huston’s classic film The African Queen was not coming out of the theater to see an add for Disney’s Jungle Cruise, but watching the movie and recalling a scene I’d just seen extracted from the new Marvel Black Widow movie. Allow me to elaborate: In 2015’s Age Of Ultron, there was one of those rare moments of a thing called “character development” where Black Widow tearfully confesses that part of her training involved a full hysterectomy—a little reminder that the besides being a plot-armored quasi-super-hero, she’s also a human being.
This little moment was controversialized by the perverse childless weirdos who dominate “journalism” and who cannot ever allow the possibility that a woman might find considerable meaning and value in fulfilling a woman’s biological role, i.e., having children. And so, in the new movie, one of the (now apparently dime-a-dozen) Black Widows recalls the same incident as a flippant joke.
The African Queen is a love story, first and foremost. It’s also an action-adventure-war picture, because Hollywood used to adore that sort of broad crowd-pleaser. The action-adventure stuff is what happens in the movie, but it’s about love. To wit, old maid missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), upright and uptight but genuinely strong of character, finds herself fleeing German advances in Africa at the dawn of WWI with the low-class, crass and vulgar Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), and the two strengthen each other through a burgeoning affection and shared purpose—which is of course a sort of last ditch, long-shot heroic gesture against the Hun. Talk about “they couldn’t make that today”.
Having grown up with late-era Katharine Hepburn, I was not a fan, and it wasn’t until years later when I saw things like Bringing Up Baby (where she’s basically a manic pixie dream girl) and The Philadelphia Story where I began to realize that she could genuinely act—in a role that didn’t have her as an uptight New England patrician. And I suspect it may have been this role that guided her career into that mold because she’s so, so good at it. Yet the beauty of this part is her transformation: She knows what’s right and she is steadfast, but she also has feelings which occasionally, fleetingly break through to the surface; when she “warms up”, as it were, she allows herself more emotion, but if anything is more determined and uncompromising.
On the flipside we have Hobo Bogart, who is also the sort of actor you could easily forget could actually act because he was so good at the hard-boiled detective thing. But here he’s not suave or cool or heroic, rather a kind of unprincipled drunk living a life of ease. (I actually had some concern about The Flower seeing him in this condition.) This movie is, essentially, a buddy comedy/road movie, and our principles are the oddest couple.
They’re both way too old for their roles, of course—Hepburn was mid-40s, Bogie was mid-50s—but it doesn’t much matter. Nor does the fact that they’re supposed be English. (Well, in the book Charlie is cockney, but for the movie they switched that to Canadian.) The effects, largely consisting of actually being in Africa and rolling the cameras, are quite good, with the exception of some of the rear projection shots where the two stars are not actually on the boat because, holy cow, can you imagine sending your middle-aged superstars to shoot the rapids?
Two things, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t work too well for me. I’m a fan of technicolor but I don’t like the palette used here. It feels a little degraded, like—well, like Kodacolor always seemed to get after about six months. (Seriously, movies shot in the ’70s—the prints would get super grungy looking by the second run, beyond normal wear and tear.)
The other thing I didn’t care for, on the whole, was Allan Gray’s score. It has some very good moments, but I noticed it a lot and it seemed sort of jarring or misplaced. There’s a scene early on which felt positively riff-able: Bogie and Hepburn are getting on the boat and there’s a pretty grim strain playing. I could just hear Tom Servo saying “Thrill! To the getting-on-the-boat-scene!” I mean, I got that it was kind of a big deal because Hepburn’s leaving her home and the Germans are probably menacing some people somewhere, but there’s nothing at the moment that justifies it. I guess I felt, at a lot of points, like the music wasn’t well integrated. Sometimes it just be that way.
Minor nitpicks, however. This really is a movie for all ages: Their physical journey is entertaining, both fun and funny, with director John Huston never missing a chance to have something exciting happen; and each event along the way, reveals their emotional journey, which is dramatic and moving.
Unlike most of the great old directors, Huston didn’t have a short “golden” age where he produced masterpieces. Obviously The Maltese Falcon (his first film!), Key Largo and Treasure of the Sierra Madre were classic ’40s flicks, but in the ’50s he had this movie and both Moby Dick and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; in the ’60s, Night of the Iguana; in the ’70s, The Man Who Would Be King, and even into the ’80s, The Dead, Prizzi’s Honor and Under The Volcano (which I hated—but it’s not always about me).
African Queen would not even be nominated for best picture (which went to the over-rated An American In Paris), and John Huston would lose both directing and writing awards to A Place in the Sun (which won six of its nine nominations). For his only Oscar, Bogie would beat out Frederic March (Death of a Salesman), Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun)—all heavyweight dramatic roles, making me suspect that the Academy was feeling sheepish about not having awarded him sooner. Hepburn would lose out to Vivien Leigh (Streetcar) and would have to console herself with her 1933 Oscar (Morning Glory) and her three subsequent wins (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Lion In Winter, On Golden Pond) and seven other nominations. This may be my favorite role of hers, however.
As I suspected, the Boy loved it. The Flower did have some issues with Hobo Bogart, but she also loved it.