The African Queen starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, debuted for Academy Award eligibility in 1951, and was released wide in 1952. A call comes to her friend's home, where she's staying...there's a script based on a novel...nothing new...but set in Africa! On page 7, Hepburn writes of her initial meeting with Producer Sam Spiegel, wherein a raft of English actors were discussed for the part of Cockney Charlie Alnutt, and finally Spiegel says, "What about Bogarthe could be Canadian." And there it was, decided. Did getting Hepburn mean Spiegel could now stand a chance to get Bogart? We know that the Brits put up 250,000 (about $8 million in today's dollars) only after their Film Finance Board overcame demands for Brits to be cast in the British author C.S. Forester's bestselling 1936 novel about Brits in World War I East Africa. But while Producer Spiegel chatted up the excited and eager Miss Hepburn in the kitchen that first day, he had bubkes except a script, a director (the already almost-legendary John Huston), and now a star. But this star, this force of nature Miss Katharine Hepburn, wanted to film this Technicolor all-outdoors vehicle for some major Hollywood egos on location. "We'll see," equivocates a rapidly thinning producer; "we'll see it in Africa," responds Miss Famous Actress with Fans, and guess where they filmed it. Getting to Africa took days on planes, weeks on boats. Miss Hepburn acts as costume lady, invents a solution to wilting-chapeau syndrome (super creative, impressed me a lot), seamstresses, does hair... "Those jerks" are Bogie and John Huston, Hepburn's costar and director. But beginning on page 81 and ending on page 83, Miss Hepburn the journeyman actress recalls Director Huston's performance notes on Rosie Sayer's unsmiling, serious countenance. And Miss Hepburn the journeyman actress, writing at a distance of thirty-five years, still lights up at the memory of receiving her entire performance in a short, simple, perfectly observed and conveyed image from a genius of image-making. Time pressed on her, those years so clear in memory but so distant in time, still eagerly sought by the Fans: It's strange being a movie actor. Spiegel the producer has gone. It's hard to get old and lose people, and places, and memories that meant something are increasingly one's own unshareable treasures. Katharine Hepburn was a star, but more, she was a genius because she had an answer to that question, one that most people (I think) can agree with and buy into.
Because this isn't a book about the making of "The African Queen." It's a book about whatever relationship Katharine Hepburn had with the film's director, John Huston. (Given Hepburn's track record, I'm guessing that Lauren Bacall came along for the shooting of "The African Queen" for reasons other than merely accompanying her husband -- smart girl). Whatever happened between Hepburn and Huston during the making of "The African Queen," I'm guessing Hepburn didn't come out the winner in the relationship, and thus she wrote a book that was -- is -- a playful slap at Huston. There are even smirk-worthy moments, such as Hepburn having a bucket by her feet for puking between takes while Bogart and Huston, who had spent a majority of their time in Africa in a drunken stupor, remained in perfect health. When Hepburn has still has disdain for Huston, she takes to observing Lauren Bacall and says, "Let's look at Betty Bogart ... Among the sparsely detailed stories of the pain in the ass that it was to film this picture in Africa, with the equal pain in the ass John Huston at the helm, something happens. Hepburn loves the cabin that Huston has built for her, and she throws her arms around him ... She "doesn't remember" what they talked about but "it was magic." When they wander down and join the rest of the cast and crew, Hepburn notes that "Betty was disgusted with me," and "there's a lot to be said for sinning." So, what happened?! And the next day, the cast and crew remark that Hepburn has fallen under Huston's spell as she takes off on a game hunting safari with him. Eventually, after a day of filming and puking, Hepburn goes back to her cabin and falls asleep, while Huston and company go get lit up at some local Congolese cantina. A wasted Huston wanders into Hepburn's cabin that night, and this happens: " 'Just stay alseep, Katie dear. It doesn't matter if Katharine Hepburn was gay or straight, swung both ways with Tracy, checked out Bacall or seduced Huston. Decent book, so long as you can tolerate Hepburn's staccato style and you're not looking to find out anything about what it was like to make the movie.
She will describe a room by listing nouns: "Heat-- hotel-- French-speaking Belgians-- no panes of glass in windows-- porches-- high ceilings-- blinds-- mosquito nets over the beds-- painted cement floors-- dark, spare bathroom-- watch the bugs-- watch the water-- thoughtful people-- took care of us afternoon and evening." For the most part, a coherent picture emerges, but sometimes you loose your place, or can't make the leap from one of her thoughts to another. Her views of the native Africans are jarring, though typical for the times.
If you're a fan of Hepburn, Bogart, or classic movies, you will enjoy this book too.
The Making of the African Queen OR How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind (1987) by Katharine Hepburn is the actress's recollections of her great African adventure some thirty years after the fact. She tells us straight off that she never kept a diary, but later in life she often wished she had because "when you've lived as long as I have...you can't even remember the plot of many of the movies you've made--or the plays--really not anything about them or who or why." So, the reader might be tempted to take her memoir with a grain of salt. Of course, as with many celebrity books, one is also tempted to wonder if Katharine Hepburn really did write this. Hepburn tells us that she always wanted to go to Africa and she certainly didn't want to miss out on any adventures while she was there--up to and including going on an elephant hunt (she didn't shoot any and neither did any in her party) with John Huston who was a very poor shot and certain NOT to be much protection if there was any danger. If I have one complaint about her memoir, it is that it is less about the making of the movie than it is the use of the movie's production as a backdrop to Hepburn's memories of Africa.
Ever since I learned that Kate Hepburn wrote about her experiences in Africa filming The African Queen, Ive wanted to read it. Her descriptions of John Huston are also great fun. Shes got some great candid shots of the Bogarts and Huston, as well as various shots from around the set. Katie, whats happened to you? John has fun. John, says Bogie. Yes, Im making a picture, but Im seeing life at the same time. Yes, BogieIm a pretty good shot. So the rest of that day was spent trying to findinventa material that would stick to Bogies skinny frame.
I've given it a 3 because after all it is a topic of interest for me and therefore insightful, and also to be fair to Hepburn she confesses up front to not being a writer and only wrote the book on the insistence of other people.
Known for her headstrong independence and spirited personality, Hepburn's career as a Hollywood leading lady spanned more than 60 years. Hepburn challenged herself in the latter half of her life, as she regularly appeared in Shakespeare stage productions and tackled a range of literary roles.