While filming “The African Queen” in Uganda and what was then called the Belgian Congo, Katharine Hepburn battled soldier ants, got chased by elephants and handled Humphrey Bogart’s toupee.
You’ll discover all this and more in the DVD extras accompanying Paramount Home Entertainment’s marvelous restoration of John Huston’s classic 1951 romantic adventure. Amazingly, this is the first time an authorized version of this peerless film has been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. Bootlegs have been available for years.
The rich, saturated colors were drawn from the original three-strip negative and the project was overseen by the film’s great cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, who died last year.
Hepburn and Bogart (who won an Oscar for his performance) are in practically every frame of this film -- and no two stars were ever more commanding together. Bogart’s river rat Charlie Allnut and Hepburn’s prim missionary Rosie Sayer set out to torpedo a World War I German gunboat in war-ravaged East Africa. Temperamentally at odds, they inevitably become as moonstruck as Papageno and Papagena in “The Magic Flute.”
Included in the extras package is a reissue of Hepburn’s wonderful memoir, “The Making of The African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.” As she tells it -- and you can just hear her angular vibrato resonating from her every page -- the shoot was almost as exciting as the movie.
Hepburn adored Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall, who was along for the ride. Kate even helped Bogie put on his toupee.
“He hated it,” she recalled in her book. “(He) liked to play with a hat or cap on ... I put on my makeup and I put on Bogie’s hairpiece for him. Did my own hair.”
Hepburn had a contentious relationship with Huston, sort of like Rosie’s relationship with Charlie. The most indecorous moment in the memoir comes when Hepburn is describing the director’s jungle living quarters: “I never did see him go to the outhouse. Maybe he never did. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit. Would explain a great deal.”
But she also credits Huston with inspiring her performance when she was floundering. She was playing Rosie with undue gravity and Huston suggested she play her more like Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Eleanor Roosevelt felt she was ugly -- she thought she looked better smiling. So chin up,” Huston advised. Hepburn’s response: “That is the goddamnedest best piece of direction I have ever heard. He just told me how to play this part .... I was his from there on in.”
The DVD featurette “Embracing Chaos,” on the making of “The African Queen,” is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen. Produced by Nicholas Meyer and directed by Eric Young, it’s crammed with terrific clips and interviews, including ones with Cardiff, Martin Scorsese and Huston’s son Tony, that flesh out the film’s madcap history.
We learn, for example, that Bogart and Huston were eager to go to Africa to escape the heat from the House Un-American Activities Committee, against which they had demonstrated in Washington. Also, that Bette Davis was once interested in playing Rosie and that Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton were considered as co-stars.
James Agee, who shared credit for the screenplay with Huston, is given his rightful due. (Rosie and Charlie were patterned on Agee’s own parents.) So is Peter Viertel, who worked on the script in Africa but didn’t receive screen credit. His thinly disguised novel “White Hunter, Black Heart,” ultimately made into a film with Clint Eastwood in the Huston role, is my favorite book about the making of a movie.
Two other interesting tidbits from the DVD:
In the film’s ickiest scene, the leaches clinging to Bogart’s torso were, contrary to legend, fake.
While virtually everybody on the film, including Hepburn, got violently ill, Bogart and Huston never had a single sick day. That’s because they never drank the water, only booze.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).