DVD review: The African Queen

If ever a movie was worth waiting for on DVD, it’s The African Queen. Because the film’s ownership was split among a handful of companies, on both sides of the Atlantic, and because it required an expensive restoration, it’s taken much longer than it should have to reach the marketplace…but now it’s here, and it’s great.

The restoration is superb. It’s even possible that the film looks better than it did in 1951, because with today’s technology—

—it’s possible to reduce film grain and achieve perfect alignment of the Technicolor negatives. Down Below is a background piece on the restoration process.

One could scarcely ask for a better treatment of a classic film. The elaborate packaging includes a facsimile reprint of Katharine Hepburn’s wonderful book from 1987 about the making of the film (which is now, oddly, out of print) as well as a collectible featuring replicated 35mm frames of the Technicolor matrices that, when combined, create the vivid look of the picture. A separate CD offers the Lux Radio Theatre presentation of the movie from 1952 with Bogart repeating his role and Greer Garson filling in for Hepburn.

An hour-long documentary, made by Sparkhill, on the making of the film offers everything one could ask for: home movie footage taken on location in Africa, plentiful behind-the-scenes photos, archival interviews with John Huston, Katharine Hepburn, and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and newly-shot conversations with biographers, film historians, the one surviving cast member (Theodore Bikel), the son of novelist C.S. Forester, and best of all, a handful of Brits who worked on the film, including assistant director Guy Hamilton, camera assistant Desmond Davis, and script supervisor Angela Allen. Their memories of working under the most extreme conditions, in Africa, are priceless—topped only by macho director Huston recalling the location shoot as being “very pleasant.”

Finally, there is the film itself, which is every bit as charming, and enthralling, as ever. Like any good movie it represents a combination of ingredients—a good story, an exotic location, skillful presentation—but without question it is the performances of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn that make the film so vivid and memorable. Audiences had never seen Bogart play a part quite like Charlie Allnut, and Academy voters rewarded him with a long-overdue Oscar. In years to follow Hepburn played her fair share of spinsters and grand dames, but she hadn’t ventured into that territory at all before taking on the role of Rosey. (To see a mediocre, watered-down version of this same concept, watch Hepburn and John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn.)

With a screenplay by James Agee and an uncredited Peter Viertel, and seamless, unshowy treatment of the material by John Huston, The African Queen deserves to be called a classic, and remains a superb piece of entertainment.

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April 2024