Having by happenstance seen the classic 1951 film, “The African Queen,” the other night, I began immediately to read a book on one of the living room shelves, “The Making of ‘The African Queen,’ by the actress Katharine Hepburn.
The subtitle, “How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind,” is not completely accurate. The eccentric Hepburn is in command throughout this book of about 130 pages. And although the book appeared 36 years after the film’s release, Hepburn’s eye for detail at age 75 is astonishing.
“. . . there are some happenings you can’t forget,” she wrote in circa 1987, or 16 years before she died. “This happened to me with “The African Queen.” I remember it in minute detail — I can see every second of its making and of me at the time. . . . ”
Once I became accustomed to Hepburn’s unique writing style — jumping suddenly from past to present and back again along with the unusual punctuation — I began to enjoy the book. Her eye for the odd behavior of the director John Huston and the daily goings-on of the male lead Humphrey Bogart aka Bogie and Bogart’s wife Betty, who is better known as the actress Lauren Bacall.
For example, she writes about Bogart:
“Bogie was funny. A generous actor. And a no-bunk person. He just did it. He was an actor who enjoyed acting. Knew he was good. Knew his lines. Always was on time. Hated anything false. Hated his hairpiece as he began to need one . . . .”
But much of this book is about Hepburn’s impressions of her first visit to the Dark Continent and how she dealt with the language barriers, the weather, the food and bad water and the bug. bilharzia, which almost brought the film to a halt.
The Riuku River, a tributary of the Congo, served as the primary film location. In a later location in Uganda, the proper Ms. Hepburn startles the film crew by going on an elephant hunt with Huston. Bacall wanted her to stay and help the crew prepare food, but, no.
“Live dangerously,” Hepburn wrote about the incident. “There’s a lot to be said for sinning.”
The film won an Oscar for Bogart and nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Hepburn) and Best Director, (Huston).
As for the boat itself, The African Queen, it was discovered in Cairo in the 1970s, purchased, refitted and now is docked at Key Largo, Florida. Shortly after Hepburn wrote her book, the boat was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.