Saturday, October 27, 2012

Short Take: The African Queen

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

About as much goes wrong as goes right with the 1951 comedy-adventure-romance The African Queen. But what goes right is often inspired, and it’s undeniably one of the most charming films to come out of Hollywood. The setting is colonial Africa during World War I. Humphrey Bogart stars as the captain of a small river steamboat, and Katharine Hepburn plays opposite him as a spinster missionary. Bogart’s character brings her and her brother (Robert Morley) mail and supplies. However, after the Germans destroy the mission and the brother dies, he packs her up into the boat, hoping to evade the Germans and bring her to safety. She has different ideas, namely using the explosives on board to destroy a gunship that patrols a nearby lake. He grudgingly assents, and the two fall in love making their way down the river. The film works marvelously well as a romantic-comedy showcase for Bogart and Hepburn. His coarse, working-class manner plays off her fine-boned, bourgeois primness hilariously. The arc of the two characters coming together, from wariness to respect to love--each stage with its own set of tensions--couldn’t be better shaped or played. Neither actor has had a better performing partner onscreen. Unfortunately, the director, John Huston, never finds a tone that convincingly handles both the romantic and adventure elements. The film is too breezy for the adventure story to have much urgency. The comedy material also feels discordant with the location footage; the documentary realism seems a drag on the sparkling artifice. (About half of the film was shot in Africa.) By the end, Huston gives up trying to make the adventure material work, and plays it for absurdity. He seems to intuit that viewers just want to watch the two stars and smile. The script, adapted from the novel by C. S. Forester, is credited to Huston and James Agee. (The uncredited John Collier and Peter Viertel also contributed.) The color cinematography is by Jack Cardiff, and the overwrought score is by Allan Gray.

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