Movie Notes: The African Queen (1951)

OK, I promise to lay off the movies for a while after this one. I discovered the pastime of movie-watching rather late in life and now I’m finding it hard to tamper down my enthusiasm.

The African Queen was directed by John Huston. It stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

I had heard of Hepburn and Bogart before but never seen them. I thought they were both supposed to be beautiful, like true Hollywood stars. However, they are actually quite ugly, especially Bogart. And old. Hepburn undergoes a Betty-la-fea transformation in the movie and becomes beautiful by the end. Unlike today’s makeovers, hers isn’t achieved with makeup and clothes. The movie is set in Central Africa during WWI, and both stars look sweaty and grimy the whole time. It’s only through acting that Hepburn transmits the transformation of going from being a dried-up spinster to a happy woman who has reclaimed her sexuality.

Hepburn and Bogart are both excellent actors. Unfortunately, Bogart couldn’t do a Cockney accent, so from a Cockney boatman – which would have made so much sense in the movie – he was turned into a Canadian.

I’ve been thinking about why I like these old movies so much and now I realize it’s because they aren’t hectoring me. Today’s movies remind me of what Hepburn’s character is at the beginning of the film: preachy, humorless, ridiculous, and barren. Even Frozen 2, whose biggest audience is aged 3, reads like a syllabus in a course titled “The Evils of Whiteness and Colonialism” at some rich-kid college.

In The African Queen there are some cartoonishly evil Germans but that’s the extent of the movie’s political message. Very good movie. I’m glad I found it.

20 thoughts on “Movie Notes: The African Queen (1951)

      1. Aha! You should not, of course, take my recommendations for any kind of high standard: I have plebian tastes 😉 But I ended up seeing a fair number of old movies when I was younger, because I had a huge adolescent crush on Peter Lorre. He is the most charming bug-eyed scoundrel ever to light up the silver screen! I remember watching Casablanca, and thinking there was far too much Bogart and Bacall onscreen, and that it would have been a better movie with more Lorre 😀

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          1. Casablanca is fun, too, especially the Peter Lorre bits 😉 But I am a terrific prude and never could stomach the part where the central romance that everybody swoons over is adulterous.

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          2. We re-watched Casablanca a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. Definitely worth a watch.

            Speaking of Peter Lorre. If you’ve never seen it, I would also recommend “M”, which was Lorre’s big film hit in Germany directed by Fritz Lang. It’s a pre-cursor to the Hollywood film noir era that Lang helped to shape.

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              1. “original comment on the M. ”

                It’s a german expessionist(?) 1931 movie about a child killer…. part of the conceit is that street beggars and criminals track him down (heightened police presence is very bad for their business) it’s a great movie but….

                It was remade as an Austrian mini-serial a couple of years ago, some good scenes (and one horrible abusive mother) but it went horribly off the rails in the last episode….

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              2. Yes, “M” is considered expressionist, though it is not as loopy/otherworldly as some of the other expressionist films. One of the interesting aspects is that the police are nearly as corrupt as the criminals and the criminals wind up being more effective in tracking down the murderer than the police. There is a great scene near the end where the criminals put the murder “on trial” and Lorre gives a tremendous performance begging for his life.

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    1. ” I liked the Maltese Falcon ”

      I remember seeing Casablanca with a friend (it came on Turner movies during a visit – we said ‘why not?’ and watched).
      At the end… we just kind of shook our heads….

      The Maltese Falcon though was great. Mary Astor is a hoot and half and makes the movie. She won an oscar for another movie that year (in which she was also great) but many think it was really for the Falcon….

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      1. I remember one of the oddball things about watching Maltese Falcon was that it was the first time I’d ever noticed how much people smoked in old movies. Like a bonfire of green branches!

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  1. Much of the movie was actually filmed in central Africa, and that was apparently quite an adventure in itself. Catherine Hepburn wrote a book about it (which I haven’t read): The Making of the African Queen, or: How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.

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  2. I think you raise a good point about morality. I was recently watching Miss Congeniality on a flight, and was quite entertained to see what was allowed in a movie even in the 90s. Stuff that would be considered too unwoke now. 🙂

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