Saturday, July 2, 2011

The African Queen (1951) at the Brattle

This passage comes from the book Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer:

In the early 1950s the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tried something old. Like many another venue for productions of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Shaw, the Brattle had become a film house in the early 1950s. But it was a film house unlike any other. It had a rear-screen projector, rather than the standard setup that beamed movies on a screen above the audience. And it had owners who believed that the past could be more alluring than the present.
 In April of 1957, the Brattle screened Casablanca (1942), 15 years after it had come out and 3 months after Bogart died. Kanfer goes on to show how the posthumous cult of Bogie starts at the Brattle and spreads across the country gathering followers along the way. Having seen Casablanca (1942) at the Brattle and having seen The African Queen (1951) , another Bogie film, there too, I think this is pretty darn cool. It makes me love the Brattle more than I do already.

For a whole week, the Brattle showed a restored 35mm print of The African Queen (1951) starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston. In cases like these, I'm glad I haven't yet devoured all the great classics because I got to experience viewing The African Queen for the first time on the big screen. Not having seen it in its previous condition, I can't tell you how the restored print compares however I can tell you that I saw was strangely beautiful. A Technicolor film showing dirt and grime in all its glory. 

The trifecta of Huston-Hepburn-Bogie just works. The director and the two stars were a scrappy trio. Hepburn had an adventurous spirit and her natural mischievousness made her a perfect fit for playing Rose Sayers. Stefan Kanfer says that Hepburn enjoyed hanging around heavy drinkers John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps because she was in a long-term, albeit extramarital, relationship with hard drinker Spencer Tracy and knew what to expect. Hepburn didn't drink much on set herself but maybe she should have. She believed in drinking lots of water and ended up getting very sick after ingesting contaminated water. Huston & Bogie staved off the sickness by sticking to the booze. Perhaps Bogie's portrayal of the gin-loving Charlie Allnut was easy peasy for him and perhaps the sober version of Charlie, after Rose throws away all his liquor, required a little more work. It all comes together to make one beautiful picture.

I enjoyed this film very much. I was a bit thrown off by that first scene in the church when all the native Africans are trying to mimic the sounds of an English hymn as Katharine Hepburn and Robert Morley try to sing eloquently over their drones. It did set up the comedy aspect of the movie though. While Rose and Charlie are in a lot of danger, it's a very light-hearted movie. Because there is such a strict focus on those two characters you get plenty of time to understand them, care for them and laugh at their wild antics. While this film was also screened at the Somerville Theatre, I'm glad I watched it at the Brattle, the so-called originating point of the cult of Bogie.


  1. aint it nice when your first viewing of a classic is on the big screen? i saw Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Casablanca, Faster Pussycat...Kill!Kill! Sahara and the silent Nosferatu in that manner :) African Queen is not in my list of fave Bogie flicks but it is enjoyable and really its the 2 stars that sell it all to ya. without them it woulda never worked. the Brattle sounds awesome, we sure dont have anything like that around here :(

  2. I just saw this at the Brattle too, and it was my first time seeing it! Very fun movie, I loved the Bogart/Hepburn pairing and on-location shooting.

    And I didn't know that about the "Cult of Bogie" beginning at the Brattle, very cool!

  3. What a great experience, seeing a classic film for the first time on the big screen it was meant for. I've seen African Queen enough I could quote from it line by line! I really enjoyed your post, and love the picture of Hitchcock with the caption shushing cellphones!

  4. I just wanna say that I like seeing you write about your local theaters in addition to talking about movies. I like learning about old theaters and it sounds like Boston's got its share.

  5. The African Queen is one of my favorite films, and I'm so jealous that you got to see it on the big screen. Glad it enjoyed it!

  6. Paulie - It's not the best film but I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Ooohh to see Faster Pussycat Kill Kill on the big screen. Yowzah! That would be great.

    Alex - That's so cool that we had twin experiences! Isn't that awesome about the Brattle?!

    ClassicBecky - Wow! I really want to be able to quote those fantastic lines that Hepburn utters after going through her first set of rapids! Isn't that poster great? The ironic thing is I took that picture with my cell phone. Ha!

    Rich - That's the nicest comment ever! Thank you. I'm glad you are enjoying these posts.

    Meredith - It was a great experience. I'm very lucky to live in the Boston area.

  7. Raquelle, I had to come back and agree most emphatically that Hepburn's "mere physical experience" quote is one of the best! My actual favorite line from Queen is "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." Only Hepburn could have given that line with just the right accents on the right words!

  8. I was never able to enjoy this one. The romance feels forced, and the action too cliched. One of the few movies where I agreed with the revisionist book "The 100 Best Movies Ever Made Mostly Suck", the author of which, as you can probably guess, hated it.


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