Before they wed, Humphrey Bogart didn’t believe his marriage to Lauren “Betty” Bacall would last. How could he? They had two obstacles he felt would be insurmountable—their age gap and the fact that she was an actress. Bogart had three failed marriages behind him that were destroyed in large part because of the career ambitions of his wives.
He loved her so much that he married her anyway, figuring himself a fool and hoping for five good years.
But Bogart was wrong—it wasn’t only her fights with Jack Warner that kept Bacall mostly off the screen in those years—it was her devotion to being a wife first, mother second, and actress third.
By the time filming began on The African Queen, they were six years in, had a two-year old son, and when Bogart signed up to film on location for six months in Africa and the United Kingdom, there was no question that Bacall was going with him.
And so a quartet of legends packed up and headed for the Congo—leads Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, director John Huston, and Bacall, along for the ride.
Katharine Hepburn wrote an entire book filled with tales from the set—how she was violently ill and threw up between takes during an early scene when her character plays the piano. How Bogart and Huston were never sick because they drank only liquor, no water. Huston’s obsession with shooting an elephant. How Bacall made herself useful—cooking, tending to minor wounds of the crew, and helping them write letters home.
Huston received a letter during filming, informing him that his daughter Angelica had been born back in the states.
Hepburn marveled at the love between Bogie and Bacall, who both became lifelong friends after their time making the Queen:
“[Bacall] and Bogie seemed to have the most enormous opinion of each other’s charms, and when they fought it was with the utter confidence of two cats locked deliciously in the same cage.”
The filming, as expected, was wrought with setbacks and problems. Location films were extremely rare at the time, and only someone as ambitious and crazy as John Huston would’ve attempted such a thing.
Add to that the fact that no one was certain that audiences would want to watch a love story between a spinster in her mid-forties and a dirty, down on his luck river rat in his early fifties.
It was a gamble, but oh, how it paid off.
One of the best films ever made according to the American Film Institute, The African Queen opens at the dawn of World War I when the Germans burn down an African village, stranding British spinster missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn). She’s rescued by Charlie Allnut, a Canadian who delivers the mail in his old beat up boat The African Queen.
Charlie intends to hide out from the Germans until the dust settles, and he tells Rose that the German steamship Louisa is blocking the British troops at the mouth of Lake Tanganyika.
Stalwart and naïve, Rose decides that they will find the Louisa and sink it with a torpedo that Charlie will DIY from material aboard the Queen.
Charlie thinks she’s nuts and tells her so, but she wears him down until he agrees to begin what can only be a suicide mission, figuring he can talk her out of it somewhere along the way.
And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime for two people who society had long ago tossed into the “loser” bucket. Charlie and Rose face rapids, mosquitoes, leeches, and German sharpshooters in their hairbrained quest to sink the Louisa in service to the British empire.
And poor Charlie has to face it sober after Rose pours all his gin overboard.
The film is adventurous, patriotic, romantic, and funnier than Huston and the screenwriters originally intended. But the interplay between Bogart and Hepburn was magic, and Huston wisely went where the chemistry led him.
Shall I tell you if Charlie and Rose succeeded?
I shall not—it’s enough to know that they fall in love, and the rest you’ll have to find out for yourself.
The African Queen was nominated for four Oscars (Bogart, Hepburn, Huston, and the screenwriters) and after losing out for Casablanca, he finally won the Best Actor statue, his wife and biggest fan cheering loudest of all in the crowd.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen, film, 2010.
- Hepburn, Katharine. The Making of the African Queen or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, 1987.
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