With the number of classic movies appearing on Blu-ray on the increase, it was with great anticipation that I spotted the fully restored version of 'The African Queen' in the US release schedules. Sadly, we won't be seeing this in the UK until September, so it's probably worth splashing out that little bit extra to buy one from our colonial cousins.
'The African Queen' is one of those movies that the general public tend not to get too excited about, but a film collector relishes the chance to get their sticky mitts on a copy. When it appears on television, it's usually a fairly washed out looking effort that does nothing to communicate the Technicolor photography of Jack Cardiff.
I can recall this movie being released to film collectors back in the late 1970's or early 80's on Super 8 film with a magnetic soundtrack and seeing a brand new print (complete with the gorgeous Film Lab smell) projected on a big screen. The colours simply leapt off the screen at you and it was amazingly sharp. Ever since then I've wanted a copy of the film that looks just as good and with the newly restored Blu-ray release that has been achieved. It was well worth the 30 year wait.
Note to kiddywinks - 'The African Queen' was shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, proving again that many a good film was made before 'Star Wars' and widescreen.
There can't be many people who don't know the story of 'The African Queen' but then again, for the 'yoof' of today, here it is in a nutshell.
At the start of World War 1, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) is using his old steamer, The African Queen, to ferry supplies to a mine in East Africa. When English Missionary, the Rev.Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley), dies after an attack by German soldiers Charlie agrees to take Sayers' strong minded sister, Rose (Katherine Hepburn), back to civilization, but doesn't count on her seeking revenge by attempting to sink a German Battleship along the way.
Surely this is the same basic plot as 'Shout at the Devil' which starred Roger Moore and Lee Marvin in the 1970's. Perhaps so, but neither of that movie's stars received an statuette for Best Actor in a Leading role - as Humphrey Bogart did at the 1952 Oscars.
The film focuses heavily on the relationship between the religious 'skinny old maid' Rosie and the gin sodden, scruffy steamboat captain for most of its duration. The two spark off each other tremendously as they bicker, highlighting a class distinction with attendant moral differences that very often leads to excellent comedy.
As Bogie's character takes afternoon tea with Rosie and her brother, the gurgling of his stomach is hilarious with the humour heightened by fleeting sideways glances.
Up until I saw 'The African Queen' I'd never considered that Humphrey Bogart could be good at comedy. He's actually not good - he's superb.
The use of looks continues on the river voyage as Rosie is horrified when Charlie produces a bottle of the 'demon drink' against which she has been completely indoctrinated. It's almost silent movie stuff, complete with rising orchestral stings.
Directed by Hollywood legend John Huston, the movie is very old fashioned in its style and use of music. Shot on location in the Belgian Congo, the production meant that the cast and crew had to play Boy Scout - braving bugs, wild animals and the hot climate.
Many came down with Dysentery - almost all except Huston & Bogart who only drank whisky, avoiding the local water.
It's interesting to note that Technicolor cameraman Jack Cardiff was only allowed to take two lamps with him to light the film and he even had to fight to get them. The producers didn't realise there was a need to counterbalance the harsh shadows thrown by the African sun.
The film was completed in the UK at Worton Hall Studios in Isleworth (now an industrial estate) and many close-ups were shot against blue screen to cut into the location footage. On some early prints of the film, the blue screen effect looked terrible, particularly around the stars' hair, but this has been massively improved upon in the restoration. All shots showing the actors in water had to be shot in the studio as the river water on location was considered too poisonous.
Interestingly, none of the big studios would finance 'The African Queen' so it became an independent production financed by the Woolf brothers. Even when it was completed, Distributors were wary of it as it showed two of Hollywood's biggest stars looking grimy and unglamorous. To think that it then became the biggest hit of 1952 and continues to be viewed as a classic today.
As I was watching the opening titles of the Blu-ray, something seemed a bit odd as I remembered that producer Sam Spiegel had credited himself as 'S.P. Eagle' on previous prints of the film. It appears that in the restoration, he has been given his full name and the titles themselves are crisp with a fine black outline - which is a marked improvement on the wishy washy 'B roll' titles I remember of old. The credits are well worth reading as you'll recognize the names of many crew members who went on to work on things like the Bond movies.
'The African Queen' may look dated in terms of its production by today's standards but there can be no denying that is has what many modern films fail to deliver.
It has a simple, engrossing story about two people who we become involved with and for whom we care. The acting is unquestionably excellent throughout. The scriptwriting fits the World War 1 period nicely with dialogue that is both witty and lively.
Although we may be aware that some of the blue screen shots are exactly that, they do not detract from the roll out of the tale as we know that they are representative of the technology available at the time. It has to be said that the movie looks much better projected on a big screen rather than on a TV as this is the way it was originally intended to be seen - and also deserves to be seen.
One for every serious film collector's collection.
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