Katherine Hepburn’s gigantic smile is probably one of the most inherently cinematic things of the 20th century, same goes for Humphrey Bogart’s charm and bravado, and part of what’s so great about seeing the two of them together in African Queen is that, being well into middle age and perfectly aware of what they do best, of the influence they’ve had and what’s worked for them and what hasn’t, they’re playing roles here that depart from the sort that made them famous: Hepburn plays the chaste missionary of sorts, she and her brother run a schoolhouse-church thing in Africa for natives, as opposed to the quirky, lithe, rebellious minx-type character she played in Bringing Up Baby and Philadelphia Story; Bogart, on the other hand, plays a flawed, humble, aw-shucks kinda boat captain, breaking away from the smooth, fast-talking, world-wearied man’s man of The Big Sleep or High Sierra or even, to an extent, In a Lonely Place.
And it’s amazing.
The whole movie is basically the two of them on a boat, coasting down a river during World War II after Nazis came by and burned the property surrounding Hepburn’s schoolhouse, and I think I’m inherently drawn to claustrophobic stories but this is interesting all on its own. I noticed the claustrophobia thing in Stephen King’s work: his novels tend to revolve around characters struggling in confined places. In Gerald’s Game the hero is handcuffed to a bed, in Misery the hero is trapped in a room, the heroes of The Shining are trapped in the Overlook Hotel, in Under the Dome they’re trapped under a cube, the climax of Carrie has a bunch of people trapped in a gymnasium, Cujo is about a woman and her son trapped in a car while a rabid dog lurks right outside (Cujo, incidentally, is way underappreciated—and I almost feel bad citing it as one King’s best novels because he says it was written in a hot cocaine-fueled streak that he barely remember es; Mike Stoklasa wasn’t wrong when he said cocaine is practically the coauthor of King’s 1986 opus, It).
I guess part of the reason I’m attracted to those kindsa stories is because they demand that the storyteller put their best foot forward. Like if you’re gonna forego the convenience of switching up the scenery now and then, of mixing up the look of your story, then you’ve really gotta spin some gears when it comes to characterization. Get your characters talking about interesting shit, in an interesting way.
And that’s basically what happens in African Queen. Bogart’s piloting this little boat that’s got like three hundred bottles of gin and some piece of artillery. He and Hepburn plan to launch it into a massive German boat and sink it. This will be their little contribution to the British war effort.
So that’s our plot: there’s a boat fulla bad guys out there and we gotta blow it up. The story, though, is what’s so compelling: the way that Hepburn’s uptight missionary character loosens up, and the way Bogart’s character kinda…I guess his arc is that he becomes more courageous (which is interesting insofar as his characters’ arcs tend to move in the opposite direction: a hardened dude learning how to soften up and let people through his shell). And then the heart of the story is about how they fall in love with each other—and what’s interesting about the love story is that it’s not like this conflicted thing that simmers and simmers until the last scene and then gets consummated with a rabid kiss.
They start hooking up in the middle of the movie, and then for the second half they just go about their self-appointed mission as lovers. Romantic teammates.
That, too, is a sign of our storyteller (John Huston, in this case, who recently blew my mind with Treasure of the Sierre Madre and, prior to that, kinda put me to sleep with Maltese Falcon) stepping up to the plate. The love story would be such a helpful device to propel the story along to a gratifying end. But to give the audience, in the middle of your movie, what they would be willing to accept as a payoff at the very end is a sign of huge confidence.
And the ending really is gratifying. It’s touching, it’s clever, it’s outlandish and very Hollywood. Delightful. (Except, I guess, for the fact that we can easily imagine how not-fine our heroes circumstances’ will become in the moments after their triumph.)
Another thing about claustrophobia: now that I’m living in an apartment in Little Havana where, if I should choose to do so, i can hole up and just read and write and watch movies all day, I feel like I’ve achieved this fantasy that I’ve always had—it’s weird—where I go into a confined space and just work, focus, study, get shit done. I guess what’s bad about the claustrophobia of this movie, though, is the feeling of tedium (on the characters’ part, not the viewer’s). Hepburn’s character has a little Bible that she reads, and that seems to help her pass the time, but the only thing Bogart’s got is the gin, and after blacking out one night he wakes up to find that Hepburn’s poured most of it into the river.
But anyway: my whole idea of being insanely productive in a confined space really is a fantasy because, here I am with my little confined space in Little Havana, and yeah it’s made me a tad more productive than I would have been if I were still at my dad’s house, but I’m not accomplishing anything quite on the scale of what I imagine I’d be accomplishing in this weird pro-small-spaces fantasy.
Anyway: The African Queen is delightful, I love it. There’s an hourlong documentary about it on YouTube where some talking heads address the fact that, at this point in time (early 1950s), both Hepburn and Bogart had been stars in the public consciousness for twenty years. Both of them had to work prodigiously hard to get to where they were (Hepburn’s career seems particularly fraught with highs and lows; she took lots of risks) and one of the things that audiences of the day might have been taken aback by is the fact that this was a major Hollywood movie that was probably safe to produce, considering that it featured two A-list celebrities and the filmmaker was a guy of enormous repute, but also kinda risky, or at least new, in that the entire cast is comprised of middle-aged actors. There isn’t a sexy young person in sight. Hepburn is of course fucking radiant, so that’s maybe a slight exception, but Bogart is Bogart (I think I read somewhere that a director once asked him how such a hideous man could be so handsome) and everyone else is just John Doe. Hepburn might have belonged tot he first generation of female Hollywood stars to find rewarding, spot-lit, substantive roles in major studio films during middle age. I’m wondering if her career is regarded as a particular perk or checkpoint for women in Hollywood.
Just got the Bette Davis bio but I think Hepburn might be next.