It is no secret that Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are my two favorite actors. So it may come to the reader’s surprise that I have never seen the African Queen, the only movie that starred them both. I couldn’t believe this major oversight myself. So once I noticed it, I set towards rectifying this hole in my film knowledge immediately.
Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart play a quintessential mismatched couple. Rose (Hepburn) is an English missionary stationed in Africa at the breakout of World War I. Charlie Allnut (Bogart) is a hard scrabble shipman who escaped from Canadian boredom to become his own boss in the jungles. After the Germans come in and destroy Rose’s mission, she teams up with Charlie on a foolhardy mission to torpedo a big German ship and help the British cause. Of course Charlie is reluctant but Rose is determined to helping her home country. They go on a road movie type journey full of bumps and bruises along the way. But the plot is pushed aside for the beautiful back and forth that punctuates Rose and Charlie falling in love.
The comedic overtones in this film actually surprise me a great deal. Houston, the director, is not exactly known for his comic abilities and neither is his favorite leading man, Bogart. Houston even said that through the writing process there was no comedy present on the script, but the interactions between Bogart and Hepburn turned it into a drama with a comedic edge. Bogart is wonderful as a drunk yet well-meaning boatman. He is able to produce monologues without much interaction with Hepburn with such a beautiful affectation that he makes me snort with laughter. Hepburn is of course able to bring comedy to every uptight woman she plays, but she is able to poke fun at her persona as well. There is a scene early on in the movie where Charlie is invited to sit for tea with Rose and her preacher brother. Charlie is obviously out-of-place in this proper and polished setting, but his interference is punctuated by an intrusive growl in his stomach. He acknowledges it right away, but Rose keeps just offering him tea punctuated by an accusative “Mr Allnut” (his last name). Her delivery of the accusative offerings makes her seem both uptight and somewhat amused by this ruffian’s behavior. It is a perfect scene that hints at the relationship to come.
The combination of Houston, Bogart, Hepburn and Cardiff (the cinematographer) in the wildness of the Congo produced magnificent results. This film is more than a standard “road movie” but instead transforms itself into art. A funny, well photographed, art.