Friday, March 11, 2016

Bogie Watch: The African Queen (1951)

A year ago I likely would have watched this movie, enjoyed it immensely without a passing thought, recognized the brilliance of John Huston's direction in yet another movie, saluted Bogart and Hepburn for their genius, summed up the plot to about the 1/2 way mark, and called it a day.  Fair enough.

Nothing traumatic happened in the past several months, but a pal from high school watched the movie with his wife - a smart guy, highly educated, a guy with whom its a pleasure to have a beer or two - and commented on facebook about how ridiculous they found the acting in the movie.  

In 1952, when the Academy Awards were handed out for 1951, Humphrey Bogart took home the Oscar for Best Actor while Katherine Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress and John Huston was nominated for Best Director.  Of course, I'm not one to take the Oscars seriously as so much goes into both nominations and voting then and now, but it's a sign of something that all three were nominated and Bogart took home the statue.  

But I'm also not saying this guy and his wife (or the myriad facebook friends who piled on about "old movies") were wrong.  It's a fascinating bit of insight into (a) how acting styles change vis-a-vis what we'd expect and (b) a modern audience's ability - or lack thereof- to shake loose of the moorings of what they might consider "good" acting to see a dated performance - or one even reflective of speech and mannerisms of years past - and not find the whole thing a bit ridiculous.  It creates a high barrier to entry for the mass audience, I guess.

I wonder, in sixty years, what Leonardo DiCaprio will look like to space-suburbanites watching The Revenant on their Holo-Wall or projected directly into their optic nerve.  Someone's going to find all that grunting and shrieking just hilarious.  That's the nature of the beast.

What I don't think you can do is take on the people in a fb discussion who say without irony that movies "are so much better now than they were in old times".  That path leads to madness.  

Also, before fighting with anyone to support the movie, I'd never actually seen The African Queen (1951) before Wednesday evening.
I am happy to report that the movie is a classic for many, many reasons.  An epic tale of survival.  An unlikely romance.  High adventure shot on location in Uganda and the Republic of Congo.  Class actors sharing the screen for an hour and forty-five.  There's a lot to like here.

It's also just phenomenal use of Katherine Hepburn and the energy she unleashes in the better of her movies.  She's in her forties here, independent, finding characters that defy the magazine-cover post-WWII-era role of the American woman as keeper of home and hearth.  Her character is never a shrinking violet, but she has a deep sense of propriety, the sister of a minister missionary, virginal still in her middle-age, trying to maintain her illusions of domesticity right up til when the Kaiser's goons show up in the missionary village and burn the place, taking the natives with them.  The minister brother cracks, falls ill and passes, leaving Rose (Hepburn) alone to ride out with Charlie (Bogart) on his rickety steam boat.  On the boat she hatches a scheme to sink a German ship patrolling a lake, and the long, treacherous journey down river begins.

I'm not sure Bogart is actually any better here than elsewhere.  From The Petrified Forest on, he's a force in movies, and in 1951/2 the vote may have been one of those "ah, hell.  Let's give Bogart a statue, he's always good." moments .

Huston is an interesting director to me.  I've never picked out a particularly Huston-ian angle to his movies visually or aesthetically, but thematically, he was pushing characters far more than many other directors.  Hell, even the chaos of The Maltese Falcon is a fairly intense character moment for Sam Spade (and it's hard to believe that was one of his earliest directing credits).  He was clearly fascinated with characters at the end of their rope, pushed to extremes and on the fringe, and the fallibility of his characters either saving or dooming them.  Like a lot of movies, I guess.  But a real pressure cooker.

I don't know what to tell you.  This movie is pretty legendary, and I'm not going to argue that status.  I really enjoyed it, and Hepburn in particular.  I am aware she was not the characters in her movies, but it's hard not to believe she was a hell of a person in the flesh.


picky said...

I haven't seen this in many moons, but you've reminded me of my goal to keep buying classic films while I can.

KHep is my all-time favorite actress, so I'm quite a lot partial to her, but you're right. What a force.

The League said...

The good news is that the price is plummeting on DVDs of movies, and on BluRays. And, it seems, the studios have finally gotten hep to the classic movie fans wanting this stuff, but not at the outrageous prices they were charging. So, I'm seeing a lot of stuff coming out all of a sudden, including B-picture stuff and things I'd assume they'll only sell a few copies of. But, yeah, the Bogie set was really reasonable. I think it was about $34 for 4 movies in BluRay.