Nether Regions 02.23.10: The African Queen
Posted by Chad Webb on 02.23.2010
One of the greatest films to never be released on DVD won't be out of print much longer....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
The African Queen
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, and Robert Morley Directed By: John Huston Written By: John Huston and James Agee Running Time: 105 minutes Theatrical Release Date: December 23, 1951 Missing Since: 1999 Existing Formats: Bootleg DVDs, VHS, and TV airings Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Not Hard to Find, but Never Legitimately Released
On March 23rd, The African Queen will finally be released on DVD, and Blu-Ray for that matter. For years and years it has been one of the best films to never receive an official DVD release. I would not exactly label it as rare though. If you wanted to track down a copy just to see the film, it did not require much work. Chances are various websites had bootleg versions of the DVD, but if that wasn't enough, TCM aired it regularly, and libraries commonly carry the VHS. But the fact still remained that a motion picture which remained on the AFI 100 Years...100 Movies list for its inception and anniversary update, never received the treatment it deserved. Of course the extras should be fantastic, but the main bonus of the DVD release is the polished picture and sound. I sincerely hope that the DVD announcement causes new audiences to experience this John Huston hit.
The African Queen is available as a region 2 DVD, so if you own a universal DVD player, or live in Europe, you have no problems other than the audio/video quality. The delay up until now was caused by a conflict with the rights, which have changed hands, but are now firmly with Paramount. An unauthorized region 1 DVD from Castaways Pictures was released and available to purchase on Amazon and the Barnes & Noble website. Perhaps it is fitting that a film which encountered so many obstacles just to be made was then forced to overcome similar obstructions to find a wider audience on DVD. With all these copies floating around, what will change when it is "officially" released, other than the technical specifications? The main thing is that people will be able to walk through their favorite stores and spot it on the shelf randomly one day and decide to buy it whenever they want, with ease. Knowing that it will always be there makes all the difference.
The VHS cover, which is similar to the upcoming DVD artwork.
The African Queen was blockbuster entertainment before that phrase was commonplace in cinema. It has been revered for so long not just because it was difficult to come by, but because it has everything a film should possess including action, comedy, chills, adventure, and romance. Once I started to become a film buff, it was one of the first titles my father suggested I seek out. It is great for those who are hesitant to give "old movies" a chance. Just about anything with Bogie will do the trick, but this has a few added perks in Katherine Hepburn, Director John Huston, and the incorporation of multiple genres. At its heart, The African Queen is a love story, a tale of an unlikely pair that find one another in the face of war, but it triumphs at every angle.
The story is set in the German-controlled section of Africa during the outset of World War I. A Canadian man named Charles Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) travels up and down the east-African river system delivering supplies to colonists and missionaries that live there, and he's a nice guy, but doesn't take very good care of himself. This is not a turn on to Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn), a prim and proper English lady who relies on manners and a daily cup of tea. She stays with her brother Samuel (Robert Morley), a Methodist priest, in a small village. During one visit, Charlie explains that war has broken out between Germany and Britain, but Rose and Samuel decide to remain, only to witness the village burned to the ground by the Germans. Samuel becomes delirious with fever and soon dies, but Charlie returns, and the two set off in Allnut's boat, "The African Queen."
Upon discussing their situation, Charlie mentions that they do not have many choices of where to go or what to do. He talks about a large lake downriver, which is patrolled by the German gunboat Louisa to prevent British counter attacks. Rose, wasting no time in wanting to defend her country, suggests that they modify some oxygen tanks on "The African Queen" into torpedoes and effectively sink the Louisa. Charlie initially laughs off her request, but she persists. He explains that negotiating the river is almost suicidal due to crocodiles, dangerous rapids, and a German fort. Ultimately, she persuades him, and he promises to head down the river and follow through with the plan. And so they set off on a fabulous quest in hopes of reaching safety, but along the way they begin to develop feelings for each other.
Bogie don't want no stinking leeches!
The making of The African Queen is just as intriguing and fascinating as the film itself, and I do not mean that in a derogatory way either. The experiences of the cast and crew remind me of Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now in that the events behind the scenes and on screen represent one large twisted and epic saga. Fortunately this was not Lost in La Mancha, where Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote was never finished. Director John Huston embraced every day's shooting with a "never say die" attitude . He was a little crazy, but then again, many top artists in his field are/were. His antics around the making of this picture are loosely chronicled in Clint Eastwood's 1990 White Hunter, Black Heart, a movie that should only be viewed as a curiosity if you know the real history. It is fairly mediocre and watching Eastwood impersonate Huston is rather distracting, but some nuggets of truth do indeed slip in.
That was based on the book by Peter Viertel, which concentrated heavily on Huston's obsession with shooting an elephant, but I'd recommend Katherine Hepburn's personal diary of the production more. It is called The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. She writes like she talks, which makes the book infinitely enjoyable, but it's not very long either, and has plenty of neat photographs. She mentions the rampant sickness, army ants, sinking boats, endless mud, unpredictable weather, Black Mamba snakes, and much more, but she still comes concludes the account with an optimistic outlook on the whole period. The stories could be a column all of their own, but through all that madness, what was eventually captured through the cameras was electric.
By 1951, both Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn were already icons. In Bogie's case, Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were under his belt. He was nominated for an Academy Award with Casablanca, but The African Queen would be the reason for his one and only Oscar. He made 6 films with John Huston, a close and personal friend of his who gave a eulogy at his funeral. He referred to the role of Charlie Allnut as the best of his career, and he's not far off. Allnut was a character that was out of Bogart's element, much like he did with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He was marvelous in almost all of his films, but his best stand alone performances are undoubtedly with John Huston.
Charlie Allnut is not the lowlife degenerate that Fred C. Dobbs was, but Allnut is not exactly debonair either. He is an unshaved, disheveled, and commonly drunk schlub, but a loving one most of the time. He would much rather exhaust all the supplies of food and gin in his boat instead of taking too many unnecessary gambles to get to safety. It takes the willpower and confidence of Rose to persuade him. What makes Bogart's turn so glorious is observing him react to Rose's outlandish ideas for boating down the Ulonga-Bora River. Both actors play off each other remarkably well, and the fondness for their efforts here results partially from how splendidly their characters grow in the midst of the adventure and their time together, stuck on the small dilapidated boat.
Charlie and Rose preparing to sleep.
Katherine Hepburn was well into her 40's by this time, and while Bogart only received one Oscar nomination prior to The African Queen, this would mark her fifth, and she had won previously anyway for Morning Glory. Landing the part of Rose Sayer, a prudish and religious lady, was somewhat of a risk as well seeing as how that era of Hollywood normally dismissed women at her age. Hepburn's grace and warmth as an actress are incredibly stunning, as she brings such affection, humor, and zeal to the table as Rose. There is no female in history that can pull off a romance better than Hepburn. Allnut and Rose are opposites, but the duo was so strong a team that the viewer never wanes their belief in them. One of my favorite moments occurs when she reacts to hearing Allnut's name of Charlie. Her smile is irreplaceable. She could switch gears from tenderness to gusto with no trouble.
The "odd couple" relationship produces some memorable moments over the course of the dynamic journey. For instance, when they decide to bathe, they must do so out of sight from the other, yet they exchange subtle prying glances regardless, and Charlie must help Rose out of the water with his eyes closed because she can't pull herself back inside. The most rousing sequences are surely the trips down the rapids, and even having seen the film multiple times, one still feels anxious as the boat wrestles with the water and rocks. The trudging through the weeds and mud is also quite suspenseful, as the thickness of the terrain slowly engulfs them even as Charlie pulls the boat while wading in the dirty water. He emerges with leeches all over his body. Bogart refused to have real leeches placed on him, but Huston wanted his genuine emotions for the scene. Ultimately, rubber leeches were used for Bogart, and real ones were placed on the breeder. Still, Bogart's expression is hilarious and seemingly authentic.
The supporting team is pretty thin, but the players who do appear make their presence known standing next to the two powerful stars. Robert Morley is moving in his minor contribution as Samuel Sayer. The look on his face when the village is set on fire is extremely sad, but it appropriately sets the stage for the future proceedings. The German villains are unforgettable, especially the Captain of the Louisa, depicted by Peter Bull. Respected thespian Theodore Bikel is the First Officer, but Bull has the legendary line: "By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution." It never gets old.
Originally, Columbia Pictures bought the C.S. Forester novel as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester. Instead, they would go on to make Vessel of Wrath in 1938, but it was a box office failure. Later, David Niven, Paul Henreid, John Mills, and James Mason were all considered for the male lead, while Bette Davis was approached for the female lead. She could not accept due to pregnancy, and when she was finally willing and able, Hepburn was chosen and ready to go. As an added bit of trivia, Disneyland would model their "Jungle Cruise" after this film.
One of the best stories to arise from the shoot was Hepburn's intense anger toward Huston and Bogart for drinking so much. She pledged to drink only water. This resulted in a severe bought of dysentery. To make matters stranger, Bogart and Huston were probably the only ones who did not get sick from the water because they simply drank alcohol all the time. Bogart said "All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus, and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead." For all his drinking, hunting, and difficult moods to contend with, Huston still managed to assemble a masterpiece from the chaos. He took his cast and crew to the Congo, Uganda, Zaire, Turkey, as well as England and Southern California for the filming. He strove for realism in terms of the locations, and these labors helped to instill a distinctive atmosphere.
"Proceed with the execution."
Huston keeps the pace moving briskly, yet relaxed at the same time. Nothing is wasted, and that is the important factor. One can praise the cast and the locations all they want, but it is the unswerving flow that has helped The African Queen survive so durably without a proper DVD release. Every scene is pertinent to the story and time deliberately. Another superb Hepburn quote from her memoir of the shoot is "The hysteria of each shot was a nightmare." It takes an extraordinary sort of human being to generate something special from such a mess, but that was Huston. His cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, is one of the greatest of all-time, and his talent is on display full force in the jungles of Africa and on the perilous river. He injects a rich and vibrant flavor that is unique and infectious to the eyes. Allan Gray provides the score, which was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It gets the blood pumping as a stimulating and seamless blend of music and mood.
Huston's adeptness as a director extended to his stars as well. At first, Huston and Hepburn did not get along. At one point, Huston entered Hepburn's bungalow and said her performance was too "serious minded", and advised her to emulate Eleanor Roosevelt. While deciding, Hepburn said "That is the best piece of direction I have ever heard." John Huston is responsible for countless great films. The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, and Key Largo are just a handful. He might not have been as strictly regimented or easy to deal with as other filmmakers, but in the end, he was a master at his craft, even if it meant jumping a few hurdles and going over some bumps to come out where he wanted. He was nominated for Best Director and for Best Writing, Screenplay with James Agee.
The African Queen does have some detractors, and the most common argument is that the story lacks realism, and is contrived. Calling an adventure tale like this contrived would be like calling Indiana Jones contrived. The ohrase "reading too much into it" would apply to that statement. If that thought crosses your mind while watching this, you are simply too hard to please, which is a shame because this piece of cinema is increasingly compelling, amusing, energetic, and even valuable as a movie that just makes you feel good.
British producer Alexander Korda said this to African Queen producer Sam Spiegel: "A story of two old people going up and down an African river… Who's going to be interested in that? You'll be bankrupt." Apparently a lot of people were. Thankfully he was wrong. Despite the $1.3 million dollar budget, the film raked in $4.3 million during its first release by touching so many lives, and henceforth became etched in the cinematic history books as a definite classic.
So the last family owned DVD rental store in my area is going out of business. I only visited the store when I needed something on short notice, but the owner was nice and they had strange sections that suited my film buff tastes. I happened to be in the store when the "Going out of business" sale started, so I was able to get first pick on a number of things, particularly Charlie Chaplin's films, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel box set, and the list goes on because I spent too much money. It was only a matter of time before this guy closed his doors, but I still enjoyed being able to browse there every now and then. While Netflix is more convenient, it is still sad to see all these businesses go away.
I got a chance to watch the Elimination Chamber pay per-view, and I thoroughly enjoyed the two chamber matches, but having Batista come in and win the title was just dumb. Was it needed for that feud? I don't think so. It kind of cheapened what we see beforehand, and now it makes it obvious that Cena must win it back at Wrestle Mania. Whoopee. The Smackdown chamber match was better, and I was glad to see Y2J win. The HBK interference was what it was. I'll be buying Wrestle Mania 26 regardless, but I'm really not sure what I'm excited about aside from Chris Jericho facing Edge.
Last week I provided you with my predictions for the 2011 Best Picture nominees. This week I present you with 10 more films I am looking forward to in 2010. I tried to make this list unique. You'll notice I excluded some of the more obvious choices in hopes of stirring up more interest in some of the lesser known releases (at least lesser known at this point). These are in no particular order:
--Red: This film is directed by Robert Schwentke and stars Bruce Willis as a a former black-ops agent whose life is threatened, so he reassembles his old team. The cast in this is outstanding, and it sounds like a lot of fun.
--Buitiful: The new film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu stars Javier Bardem follows a man involved in illegal dealings that is confronted by his childhood friend, a policeman. He hasn't done anything since Babel, and I have always been a huge fan of this guy.
--Paul: Superbad helmer Greg Mottola takes just about every comedy star you can think of in his new film about comic book geeks who encounter an alien outside of Area 51. This has Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, which is intriguing, but it also has a bunch of other notable faces.
--Black Swan: This thriller from Darren Aronofsky stars Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, and Vincent Cassel. The premise deals with a ballet dancer and a rival, but it's Aronofsky, so I'm in no matter what.
--The Social Network: I must admit, I am curious about this bizarre project, mainly because David Fincher is directing it. The story about the founders of Facebook stars Jesse Eisenberg, Rashida Jones, Justin Timberlake, and more.
--Mother and Child: The new film from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, who made the wonderful hyperlink drama Nine Lives. This focuses on three different women, and the cast includes Naomi Watts and Samuel L. Jackson just to name a few. I admire Garcia's abilities, and hope he scores more fans.
--The Fighter: David O. Russell stands at the helmed for this boxing film centering on the early years of Mickey Ward. It stars Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. The cast is terrific, but with Russell's antics on set, one never knows what to expect.
--Love Ranch: This is about a married couple who opens the first legal brothel in Nevada. The couple is portrayed by Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci. It's Pesci's first notable role since 1998's Lethal Weapon 4. I like Pesci and hope this return is a success. It's directed by Taylor Hackford (Ray).
--Hesher: This is about a loner who hates life. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman, but this sort of role seems right up Gordon-Levitt's alley. The director, Spencer Susser, is a newbie.
--Jack Goes Boating: The directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman is one I will not miss. He was a theater director, so he is not completely new to the position. He stars in this with Amy Ryan, and the plot focuses on a limo driver's blind date.