In our trawl through Humphrey Bogart’s oeuvre we’ve been sticking to the best known movies—he acted in over seventy films. The African Queen is one of the most famous. It is relatively exceptional in several ways. For one thing it was shot largely on location in Africa, an unusual choice at the time—and the shoot has entered Hollywood mythology as one of the most gruelling, with cast and crew enduring privations in stark contrast to their pampered LA lifestyles. The equipment of the day was bulky and temperamental, particularly the large Technicolor cameras used in this shoot, so it was not a trivial decision to ship the entire production out to the Belgian Congo. Bogart and director John Huston were the only members of the cast or crew not to get sick, which Bogart ascribed to their prodigious intake of whiskey. Much of the rest of the movie was shot in UK studios, again, an unusual choice.
The demeanour of Bogart’s character is also atypical. He is heroic, and in the end he shows marked courage in the face of death, but his demeanour is anything but. He plays a cheeky, chirpy, dishevelled riverboat operator named Charlie Allnut, grinning, joking and willingly doffing his hat to those more respectable than himself. His character was written as a cockney, but Bogart was unwilling to attempt the accent, so he was made a Canadian—presumably to keep him under the general purview of the British Empire, but he makes precisely zero effort to sound like a Canadian either and sticks amusingly to his usual accent (‘ya doity rat!’). It probably is one of his best roles as an actor, although as a movie star his best work is in the films noirs like The Big Sleep. In this flick Bogie shows us that underneath the glamour he’s still Humphrey, an actor committed to his craft—and more interested in serving the story than perpetuating his own mythology. He plays opposite Katherine Hepburn, as an English missionary’s sister, Rose Sayer, portrayed with the actor’s usual upper-class New England dialect.
The plot advances in two parallel arcs. The two protagonists set out to do some damage to the Germans in East India during the early months of the First World War, while along the way they discover a chalk-and-cheese attraction, and fall in love, despite their many differences of class, religion, and lifestyle. They weren’t a typical screen couple, which would more usually feature a middle-aged male lead like Bogart pairing off with someone young enough to be his daughter, but the audience was willing to buy into Sayer’s romance with the coarse and obviously unsuitable Allnut, despite Hepburn’s advanced age—forty-three, at a time when most women actors retired or played ‘character’ roles from their mid-thirties. The film was a great success, critically and commercially,
I found it entertaining to watch. Most Golden Age movies strike me either as essays in style, or as comedies, which is how I experienced The African Queen, although I’m sure it was received as a serious drama at the time. It’s an adventure movie, clearly, but that doesn’t preclude some thoughtful writing or acting, and Bogart won the Best Actor Oscar for his part—astonishingly, his only Oscar. Having been watching films informed by Stanislavski’s pursuit of psychological naturalism for several decades now, it can be hard to avoid feeling a distance from the characters in Golden Age pictures—there is really no effort to conceal the artifice or contrivance of their production. For this reason my emotional engagement with a flick like The African Queen will always be limited, but next to comparable contemporary movies (action or adventure stories with no shred of credibility), it oozes style and charm.