Thursday, April 7, 2011

The African Queen (April 8th, 9th and 10th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[THE AFRICAN QUEEN screens Friday April 8th at 9 pm, Saturday April 9th at 7:25 pm, and Sunday April 10th at 4 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady Jr.

I think I actually first saw John Huston's romantic-comedy-adventure classic on a big screen as a 16mm treat in elementary school. I fear to think what today's elementary schoolers get to watch at assembly these days. Probably R-rated Judd Apatow-Farrelly Brothers comedies about overly dramatic black transexuals (by stunning coincidence, also entitled THE AFRICAN QUEEN). I can't say I remember how this 1951 great went over with the rest of the juvenile audience, the future Cuyahoga County employees and up-and-coming alcoholics who were my peers. But I sorta liked it then, and with time and maturity I really like it now. It still plays nicely, this legendary, much-imitated romantic adventure teaming Hollywood legends Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

He's Charlie, a hard-drinking skipper of a tramp steamer in East Africa during World War I. She's Rose, a prim, starchy British missionary (Amazing Movie Fun Fact: the actress modeled her characterization after Eleanor Roosevelt). After invading German troops kill her brother, the two take a sometimes grueling river trek to safety in the title vessel, which Charlie finds himself having to spruce up and make more presentable (same with himself) to satisfy Rosie. They fall in love along the way, despite their downstairs-upstairs backgrounds and squabbles.

Most imitations of this archetypal crowd-pleasing storyline usually incorporate a lot of bickering and flirting, a la ROMANCING THE STONE. But what I liked about this production was Charlie's underlying shyness and sweetness around a proper dame like Rose. He's a nice, easygoing guy despite his rough edges, not a macho, punch-through-walls action-hero. This is one of the very few movies in which Bogart smiles and doesn't look scary doing so. It was Bogart's only Oscar-winning role.

It's interesting how the script, stops short of depicting Rosie and her brother's Christianity as intrusive and ineffective - later films would be more anti-missionary, you betcha - but slovenly Charlie seems better adapted to the tribal environment and culture. Yes, there really are black Africans in THE AFRICAN QUEEN - Huston didn't mess around and shot on location in Uganda and on the Lulaba River - but they are mostly passive background characters. At least they aren't treated with contempt or mockery.

James Agee, an eminent film critic (meaning, what, unemployed most of the time? Yes, I have issues), wrote the script, but word I have is that it was fairly humorless, adapted straight from a C.S. Forester novel. Director Huston injected the rich humor, with the help of constant boozing and drunkenness that he and Bogart kept up for the duration, at least in part to fortify their systems against rampant tropical sicknesses that were felling the rest of the movie crew left and right. That's the story, anyway. Hollywood must have constant tsetse-fly plagues ever since, judging by TMZ.com.

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