African Queen (USA, 1951, John Huston)
I've always had a big mouth and loved the sound of my own voice, obviously, but ever since the whole Cinemania/House Next Door thing cooled off for us, it's interesting to me when I do and when I do not feel compelled to write at length about a film. No doubt, there are innumerable personal factors involved that are not intrinsic to a film itself. At the same time, I have to give it up to a film simply for its sheer power to make me want to respond.
I don't think we should be satisfied with the first answer that comes to mind, however correct. This is a picture starring two of the biggest icons of the silver screen, both of whom appear in pretty much every frame of the movie. The success of the production rests squarely on their shoulders. Not only must the audience be drawn to the personas of both performers individually in equal measure from the outset, the two of them must concoct that special chemistry required to create a third relational entity between them; i.e., the couple, the duo, the pair. The degree to which Bogart and Hepburn achieve this is clearly what has made The African Queen the Hollywood landmark that it is, one of the highest high water marks in both of their illustrious careers.
But the film is not working on on-screen star power alone. We need to fix our attention on the director as well. Almost as super a superstar as the two leads, Houston was at the height of his reputation and perhaps the peak of his powers when he made The African Queen, although this is not to suggest that it is his very best work. But it wasn't suggested here that it is the best from Bogie or Hep either. The point is that Houston's personality is just as much contributing to the film. This time out, it's Ernest meets Ernst. Houston's central sensibility of Hemmingway lite is touched with a touch of the Lubitsch touch in The African Queen.
I suppose I am finally getting to the heart of the matter. And this speaks to how I was caught off guard by the film as well. The African Queen is darn funny. Going in, I was simply ignorant that it would be. I was under the false impression that the film was a serious drama. But it's a hoot! The chemistry concocted is not purely romantic. It's just as much comedic. As I wasn't expecting the latter, it's arrival delighted me. Don't get me wrong. The African Queen is very romantic, the film works splendidly on this level. And this is neat in itself considering that Bogart's animal magnetism is a flat wall of electricity and not an interactive field while Hepburn's is so much static and sparks flying off into space. But boy do they hook up. Throw in the gag mugging by him and the hilarious delivery from her, ya can't beat it.
But I believe there is one more layer. Today the genre of romantic-comedy is so established as a commercial type, it is referred to by the abbreviation rom-com. No doubt, The African Queen is one of the archetypical contributions to the rom-com form. But it is just as much a bedrock case of another genre, the action adventure-buddy picture. And in my view, herein lies the greatness of the film. Not only do the characters crack jokes while they fall in love, they undergo all the thrills, chills and spills of a ripping good yarn. Is this combination of genres what constitutes "screwball comedy?" Perhaps, perhaps not. Research would have to be conducted. In any case, what is presently called for is feminist analysis. Because the key issue at hand is that the female character in The African Queen holds her own as more than a rom-com figure. She is just as much a genuine buddy, an equal partner in the action-packed adventure. On this score, compare The African Queen with Sullivan's Travel's, an even better candidate for screwball status. Also a wonderful film that successfully blends rom-com and adventure, and certainly more substantive than The African Queen with respect to class consciousness, Sullivan's Travel's does not measure up on the feminist front because the female character is not an equal buddy in the proceedings.
In case it is felt that I have merely hit upon the patent difference between Katherine Hepburn's "strong woman" image and Veronica Lake's sex symbolism, allow me to counter that the script has to be there in the first place. Whether the praise should be assigned to the original novel or Houston's screenplay adaptation, I know not. All I know is that by the time The African Queen was made, Hepburn's "ballsy" persona was well established; indeed, much of the humor generated in all those pairings with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracey etc. rests on sexist stupidity about who-wears-the-pants? in the relationship. It is precisely such sexism that is entirely absent in the script of The African Queen and in my estimation therein lies its greatness.
What might be ideologically questionable about the film, however, is the treatment of the setting. The film is an about-face on Conrad. Literally a reversal in direction - they go down rather than up the river - The African Queen turns Heart of Darkness inside out by replacing the desperately isolated male slipping into insanity with the healthy couple forging the bonds of happily-ever-after. Instead of descending into barbarism, they ascend to the cliche middle class semiotic for civilization itself - marriage. Hence, he gives up gin and starts shaving regularly while she steps off of her holier-than-thou pedestal and allows herself to be born again by a kiss. Meanwhile, Africa is reduced to a water ride at the Epcot Center. How prepared we are in 2009 to forgive this 1951 depiction of the c.1915 inter-imperialist war in the colonized region is a topic that I will not investigate in detail here. Suffice to defend the film by emphasizing that it is fundamentally a two-hander, all other characters being little more than briefly appearing plot devices, the Europeans as much as the Africans. On the other hand, I found the presentation of the indigenous animals even more offensive than that of the native people. The beasts are trotted out with stock footage in a celluloid safari that satisfies the worst panderings of the Hemmingway sensibility already noted here.
In the end, though, the film endures through the massive charisma of the two players, the irresistible style of the story-telling and the submerged significance of seeing a man and a woman fight the rapids on equal footing before touching each other.
I think you are dead on with your reference to the film being both a rom com and a buddy action flick. It is the prototype for so many immensely successful contemporary films that have followed a similar program (Romancing the Stone and Pirates of the Caribbean springs immediately to mind). Yes, there are definitely elements of the screwball comedy here, but there is a muscularity to the film, including the deadly serious socio-political context, which is as far as I can recall never an issue in screwball comedies, that most screwball comedies lack. Furthermore, you have also rightly brought attention to the strong female character as a key to the film's significance and success. There are many films out there of this era (in fact, in many ways, the African Queen signals an end to that era) that had strong female characters (the late 30s and 40s were a particularly glorious time to be an actress in Hollywood), but few of them featured a female lead as willing and able to take an equal part in facing the physical, emotional and psychological challenges faced by the romantic couple in question. Hepburn is in EVERY way her partner's equal. Also, just as importantly, this is not a film about one partner being taught how to live in the other's world. Both must bend to the other's will at times in the film, and by the end, their growth is mutual.
Anyways, all that said, here is my original brief review:
The scramble to acquire Africa was a global expression of European nationalism that saw terrible things done to the African people. The frenzy to colonise, capitalise and Christianise the globe reached its peak at the outbreak of World War One, when The African Queen is set. That neither side in this greedy endeavour is particularly noble hasn't stopped John Huston from making a fine film. While nations may be swine, individuals can be heroic.
The only drawbacks to the film are the overuse of stock footage for the African jungle scenes and the ironic coincidence (it's amusing, but a tad unlikely) that closes the film.
I really like the final observation in your first paragraph. It's dead on. It's not that neither one of them conforms to the other. They take turns conforming to each other in equal measure. And while this parity between them is what makes the film morally attractive, its the changes they go through that make the film dramatically interesting because these changes are at the heart of the romance. They are grown-ups, after all. These relatively old dogs can't help but learn new tricks because they fall in love.
And as a final teaser, here's the trailer.