Feminist Film History - The African Queen

I've made pretty good use of my library's "save for later" feature on their website, and I've got a whole subset of Old Hollywood biographies and autobiographies. One of the books on that list, chosen solely on the basis of the title, was The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Nearly Lost My Mind, by Katharine Hepburn. How do you pass up a book like that? Granted, I had never seen The African Queen, but I wasn't going to let that dim my excitement. 

As luck would have it, the movie recently became available for streaming on Netflix, so of course I had to sit down and finally watch it.

It's the kind of film that would be a hard sell for mainstream Hollywood these days. Two slightly over the hill actors - both attractive in their day, but never super dreamy - dress way, way down to boat down the Congo river, overcoming obstacles that don't really lend themselves to the kind of over the top spectacle that are the current stock in trade for blockbuster films.

And yet, watching it, it's delightful! Of course, it helps that the "slightly over the hill actors" are Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, two of the biggest stars of their era, who never fail to bring an excess of wit and charm to their performances. But what really got me was how wonderful the characterizations were, particularly for Hepburn's Rosie.

A brief summary of the film for those who haven't seen it - Hepburn plays Rosie, a missionary living in Africa with her brother. When WWI breaks out, the village where they live is burned to the ground and the villagers rounded up. Her brother dies, and Charlie Alnutt, a drunken riverboat captain, agrees to take her down the Congo to try and reach English territory and safety, and take down a German warship in their way. However, he knows her plan is risky, and figures he'll be able to talk her out of it when she sees how difficult it will be to navigate the river. He doesn't plan on her steely will, though, and after she sobers him up and shames him into keeping his promise, he finds himself falling in love with her as she proves her character while they endure their travails.

This movie is 60+ years old, but that doesn't mean I want to spoil the ending for you. Go watch it! It really is a treat.

Anyway, what really blew me away about the movie was how it treated Rosie. Not only is she intelligent and strong willed, she's not passive. In fact, I'd say she's the one driving the action of the movie. Not only does she make their plan to risk the dangers of the river - which she finds exhilarating in a distinctly, well, sexual way - she keeps Charlie going when he wants to quit, finding solutions to every problem that they encounter and working just as hard as he does to see things through. 

It's also really interesting how it deals with her physically. She spends most of the film wearing a dowdy dress, high necked and long sleeved, which emphasized her lanky frame. One of the few moments where she's not so covered up involves her bathing in her Victorian style long underwear; the sight of her trying to get back into the boat is supremely goofy, with her gangly arms and legs going all over the place and getting her nowhere. She's never an object. Her body is (and I mean this is a strictly non-religious sense) just a vessel for her will and her heart.

Hot stuff, coming through!

Hot stuff, coming through!

Given how difficult filming was, the performances are even more impressive. Between army ants covering her in bites, dysentery giving her (not the mention the entire crew) a serious case of the runs, and myriad technical issues involved in shooting in between regular downpours, she and the rest of the people involved in filming probably suffered significantly more than anyone does in the film itself!

And yet, from the book (which is a sort of extended reminiscence about the filming), you're really left with Katharine's sense of wonder at having been in Africa and experienced the things that she experienced. She fell in love with the place, with the people, with the stunning wildlife there. Reading the book and watching the movie side by side, you really see how much of Hepburn there is in Rosie, and vice versa. Rosie is enthralled with the world around her once she gets out into it, and her gasps of delight after she and Charlie nearly die going over a waterfall seem perfectly in line with Hepburn's vivid description of a failed hunting expedition with director John Huston, during which the entire party was nearly trampled by elephants.

I've recently fallen in love with a podcast called You Must Remember This, and when I saw that they had a podcast on The African Queen and Hepburn and Bogart's careers during the Blacklist, of course I had to give it a listen. It would be amazing if a movie like it got made today because of the premise and casting; it was kind of amazing that it got made then, because both of the stars were subject to serious scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee. 

It's both a testament to their star power and to the power of the Hollywood machine that they were not officially blacklisted, despite doing things that other people in Hollywood did get blacklisted for. They were both members of the Committee for the First Amendment, which was formed to support the Hollywood Ten, and Hepburn was widely criticized for giving a speech at a rally for Henry Wallace, a "socialist" politician (I mean, not really, but anyone who frothing at the mouth over the communist threat in 1947 might as well have been one). In fact, some people thought that her career was ruined by the move.

After Bogie won the best actor Oscar, though, the film became the 11th highest grossing film of 1951, they were effectively back on track, and the studios asked that they be protected from any official scrutiny to keep from impinging on their money making ability. In retrospect, I'm pleased - they weren't doing anything wrong! On the other hand, it's hard not to feel bad for the people who were blacklisted for doing far less because they didn't have fame and money to shield them.

Have you seen The African Queen? Did you like it, or did you love it? 

I would love to hear your recommendations for feminist films from Old Hollywood! I've got my eye on some pre-Code gems, but I would love to hear your suggestions.