Monday, December 10, 2007

Welcome -- The African Queen (1951)

Hey everyone,

I'm very sorry I don't have a new review ready as of yet. I'm working really hard on an Enchanted review. Alas, finals are kicking my ass. However, I expect to have it finished before the week is over. I might even post one of my final papers - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as seen in Film-Noir- on Wednesday night.

On the docket of Women's films to watch this week:

The Three Faces of Eve (1957) - starring Joanne Woodward. She won an Oscar for her performance as a woman with split personalities. Can't wait!

La Vie En Rose (2007) - starring Marion Cotillard. I love bio-pics and I love Edith Piaf. What's not to love? I hope those are my sentiments after the film.

For now, here is a review I wrote recently for John Huston's The African Queen (1951), which may be published in the near future on DVD Up Close. It's not exactly a woman's picture, but...I don't care.


The African Queen (1951) - Carlton R2 DVD, released 7/16/2001

Charlie Allnut: A man takes a drop too much once in a while; it's only human nature.
Rose Sayer: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

John Huston was one hell of a fella. He directed forty-seven films, acted in over fifty movies and television shows, wrote a great deal of his own screenplays, and occasionally took on the role of producer and cinematographer. He also traveled the world, got married five times, fathered a few kids (including Anjelica Huston), drank a lot, smoked a lot, won two Oscars, and -- kept a monkey as a pet. It only took him fifty years.

Throughout his career, Huston’s films dealt almost entirely with the ethical questions of right and wrong, good and bad, and “to be or not to be.” I feel that because he was an immoral man in many ways, Huston felt the need to explore these themes in his work in order to better understand and decipher the difference between them in his own life. And, since they’re universal questions, these particular themes are easily transferable in cinema, which is why he was able to work in so many different genres. Huston created every kind of film – everything from film noir (Maltese Falcon, 1941 and Asphalt Jungle, 1950) to musicals (Annie, 1982) to bio-pics (Moulin Rouge, 1952) and even war documentaries (Battle of San Pietro, 1945). He could do it all and he could do it well.

One of his best cinematic and philosophical efforts is the 1951 romantic-adventure film, The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart (as Charlie Allnut) and Katharine Hepburn (as Rose Sayer) headline the movie as a jolly, drunken, go-with-the-flow riverboat captain and an educated, independent, spinster missionary in East Africa. In order to escape from the Nazi’s after a whirlwind of events, Rose must join Charlie on board his ship, The African Queen, to survive. Together, they hatch a plan to sink the German ship, Louisa, to join in the efforts of their country (England) and fight back. Morals collide on the tiny boat as puritanical Rose and lackadaisical Charlie go head to head with one another.

Judging by the brief character descriptions I just presented, I’m guessing one could easily define the moralistic battle between Rose and Charlie. Though that is extremely important to the story, I think their relationship is the most significant aspect of the film to take away after watching it. Katharine Hepburn was truly a rarity among actresses of her era (or any other era for that matter) because she stood the test of time in cinema - graduating from a young woman (Morning Glory, 1931) to steadfast leading lady (The Philadelphia Story, 1940) to mature woman (The African Queen, 1951) and lasting all the way into old(ish) age (On Golden Pond, 1981). Most actresses have ten good years in Hollywood before being cast aside for the next round of lovelies. Men possess the gift of growing more charming and handsome as they grow older which grants them a much longer lifespan as a leading man. One can frequently see a forty or fifty year old man romancing a girl half his age. Therefore, it’s not unusual to see a fifty year old Humphrey Bogart as the leading man in a romantic-adventure film. What is unusual is to see Humphrey Bogart taking a loving interest in Katharine Hepburn - a woman who was only eight years his junior during the making of the film. He was fifty-two and she was forty-four. Hollywood doesn’t often foray into the realm of mature, adult love, but The African Queen stands as a beautiful testament that they should do it more often.

I appreciate the delicate balance each of the main characters, Charlie and Rose holds with one another. Unlike other romantic-adventure films where the male character is totally in charge of the helpless little lady, Charlie respects and accepts Rose's intelligence and skills in her own area without defeminizing (or emasculating) her in the least. He teaches her how to steer the boat while he handles the mechanical side of things and they both take turns cleaning, cooking, and frankly, masterminding their plans. The same can be said for Rose, who respects the wise intellect of Charlie as well as his know-how about mechanics and the way the world works from a blue collar standpoint in society. She never emasculates him either. In order to go down the river of no return, sink the German Louisa ship, and survive the God forsaken jungle, they both need each other and their individual strengths to do it.

The respect and admiration they share for one another might make it sound like their love story is kind of cold and heartless, when in fact, it is the exact opposite. Charlie invites Rose aboard his boat, The African Queen, because her god-fearing Reverend brother recently died of heartbreak and fever after German soldiers burnt down the African village he and his sister built from the ground up over ten years ago. Rose has never been in a romantic relationship before. Sub text shows that Charlie’s been involved in far too many. They're both honest about their situations from the get-go.

Yet, there are no specific points or scenes that declare "oh this is where they fall in love" or "this is where they start flirting." Their loving relationship grows organically and feels pure. It's not contrived or manipulated. By the time it's hinted at that they have made love, you feel just as happy as they do because, despite their individual strengths, they really do need each other to survive the world, not just the situation they're in. Opposites do attract.

Unfortunately for us, Huston is a vastly underrated filmmaker. Despite his prolific and generally successful career as a director, he is seldom recognized as one of the great cinematic creators of the twentieth century. In the mid 1960’s, critics started disregarding his work because they didn’t feel he was an auteur – that his framing, style, and the cinematic tone of his work wasn’t embedded with his own personal signature. They weren’t necessarily wrong, but I feel they were a bit too quick to judge. Quick judgment is what caused Huston to be one of the underrated filmmakers of the twentieth century.

Huston, like a great deal of classically trained Hollywood filmmakers, believed in telling the story 1st and embedding style 2nd. I suppose that means he wasn’t an auteur in the traditional sense of the word, but Huston certainly possessed style and particular themes (man in “crisis” being the biggest one) were definitely prevalent in all of his work. I highly recommend Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Moulin Rouge (1952), The Misfits (1961), Night of the Iguana (1964), Fat City (1972), and The Dead (1987). Though all of his films, except for Annie (1982), are all definitely worth seeing.

The Carlton DVD presentation is beautiful. They preserved the "film" like quality of the print while also improving the Technicolor presentation and removing the graininess. It’s presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:33:1. The audio is a bit muffled at times and at other times a bit too loud. I also noticed a few pops and hisses, but over all, everything is audible, sometimes too audible.

There are some neat extras as well, including an audio commentary with one of the best cinematographers to ever live, Jack Cardiff (see The Red Shoes, 1948), as well as an on -set stills gallery (15 photos), poster gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. Cardiff’s commentary sounds just like it should - like an old man reminiscing about the good ol’ days. He shares production stories, what it was like to work with Huston, Hepburn, and Bogart, and reveals a few of his cinematography tricks.

Currently, there is no R1 DVD release of The African Queen. Warner Bros. has been promising a release for the last few years, but nothing has come of their promises yet. For now, the R2 Carlton DVD is definitely worth picking up from because of the transfer, the audio commentary by Jack Cardiff, and the simple pleasure of possessing this DVD on your shelf. If you have a region-free or PAL compatible DVD player, I would certainly pick this up! Worth it!

On a final note, I highly recommend checking out Katharine Hepburn’s book: “The Making of the African Queen or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind” for her up close and often humorous account of her experience filming this American classic.


yusufyusuf said...

Nice blog...

A. Dowd said...

Good review. I've always wanted to see the film and now I want to see it more. I particularly like your opening paragraphs on Huston-- a nice assessment of his accomplishments, his history, and his reputation.

I'm sure you already know of these, but here's a few films this year that, as a feminist feilm theorist, you owe it to yourself to check out:

-Offside. Possibly the best movie I've seen all year, this makes a clear-eyed, compassionate and completely persuasive argument for abolishing gender aparteid in Iran. The right people saw this thing and I think public policy might actually change. It's THAT accessible.

-Trade. By contrast, the worst movie of the year, this one deals with the oppression of women, too, but it does so in the most exploitative way imaginable. Basically, it's a chase/buddy picture that asks us to get off on the titillating possibility that a 13-year-old girl might be raped. Sick shit, but I think an important text for any serious student of women's cinema.

-4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Saw this at the CIFF. A strong-willed, resilient, compassionate female protagonist raging against an oppressive, sexist regime. A queasy ordeal of a film, but also a moving portrait of female solidarity. Think we're getting it in March at the LMK.

-Beowulf. Hard to take seriously, but the film's depiction of women (especially Anjelina Jolie's unholy mama) is interestingly, ahem, "problematic." Literally demonizes feminine sexuality. Fear of castration also rears its, umm, head, but that's an entirely different, umm, hang-up. Sorry!

-Lake of Fire. Not exactly a Woman's Film, but Tony Kaye's amazingly thorough, 2.5 hour documentary on abortion does express a deep empathy for the women faced with that choice.

-Hostel, Part II. Eli Roth tortures women for two hours, then tries to pull a "empowering" switcheroo in the I Spit On Your Grave inspired finale. Degrading for all parties involved. But would make for a fascinating gender politics dissection.

There are others I'm sure I'm forgetting, but those were the ones that lept to mind. I mainly mention them cause I'd love to hear your thoughts on them.

Okay, peace!