A Great Adventure: Katharine Hepburn & The African Queen

A Great Adventure: Katharine Hepburn & The African Queen

May 21, 2021 | by Shannon

The African Queen
Kate in London, at Saint Paul's Cathedral, April 1951, before heading off to Africa to film The African Queen (1951).

Katharine Hepburn Beats the Jungle with Bogie & Bacall, Steals the Show in Her Pants, Tackles Shakespeare, and Proves that Middle-Aged Actresses Rock. From 1951, it’s The African Queen.

Be sure to listen to my Classic Hollywood Podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.  Episode 49 is all about The African Queen (1951).  Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.
Click to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.

In 1951, Katharine Hepburn found herself in Africa with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Huston.

And she almost lost her mind.

Well, not really, that’s just what Kate liked to say at times [aff. link].

Despite intense humidity, nomadic soldier ants, poisonous black mambas in the bathroom, contaminated water, and an inebriated director and co-star, Katharine Hepburn had a blast filming The African Queen.

Kate at The African Queen company's camp, near the Ruiki River in the Congo.

The Renaissance of Katharine Hepburn

It was just the sort of adventure Kate was looking for.  And the sort of film her career needed.

At age 44, Hepburn was at a turning point: accept defeat in the youth-oriented culture of Hollywood, or prove that middle aged actresses rock.

Being Katharine Hepburn, she chose the latter. 

With The African Queen, Kate began the most artistically fulfilling and varied period of her career: she performed Shakespeare on Broadway, and on tour with the Old Vic Theatre Company in Australia.  She tackled George Bernard Shaw’s difficult play, The Millionairess, on London’s West End.  And with her layered portrayals of mature women in her films, Katharine Hepburn demonstrated that a Hollywood actress’ career is far from over at 40, setting the precedent for the lengthy careers film actresses enjoy today.

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951).

We’ll go through Kate’s admirable accomplishments as she stretched herself as an actress—and how Kate managed to keep her dignity while sharing an adjoining outhouse with the Bogarts in the jungle.

But first, let’s go through the plot of The African Queen.

Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer in The African Queen (1951).

The Plot

Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother Samuel (Robert Morley) are English Methodist missionaries in German East Africa.  Though it’s August of 1914, Rose and Samuel remain oblivious to the fact that World War I has just begun, and will soon effect Kungdu, their village.

It’s Canadian mechanic Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) who finally informs the Sayers about the war.  Charlie brings Rose and Samuel their mail and imported goods on his small steam launch, The African Queen.  On his latest drop, Charlie tells the Sayers that the Germans will probably make it impossible for him to come out their way for a while.

The African Queen
Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) informs Rose and Samuel (Robert Morley) that there's a war in Europe.

Rose takes this as a sign that perhaps she and Samuel should leave Kungdu.  But Samuel is unmoved, and believes they must remain with their congregation.

Not long after Charlie leaves Kungdu on The African Queen, the Schutztruppe—German colonial troops—raid the village, burning down huts and seizing villagers for military service.

Samuel won’t stand for such mistreatment, and he fights back, only to be bludgeoned by a German soldier.  The blow proves fatal, and after hours of delirium, Samuel dies, leaving Rose to mourn alone among the wreckage of the village.

Samuel (Robert Morley) is bludgeoned by a German soldier, becomes delirious, and dies hours later.

Luckily, Charlie Allnut comes back to Kungdu later that day.  He spots Rose, and tells her they must leave immediately.  It’s obviously not safe to stay, and besides, the Germans will soon be after Charlie’s boat and supplies.  Rose agrees, and after burying Samuel, they set out together, down the Ulanga River on The African Queen.

The African Queen
Rose and Charlie begin their journey down the Ulanga River.

What to Do Next

Rose and Charlie must now figure out where they’ll be safest, and how to get there.  In the midst of their conversation, Rose learns from Charlie that the British can’t attack German forces in the area because of a large German gunboat, the Konigin Luise, downriver from their current location.  Rose recognizes a chance to be of great help to the British war effort, and proposes that she and Charlie use his gelignite and other supplies on board to make torpedoes.  Then, when The African Queen comes across the Luise, Rose and Charlie will launch the torpedoes, destroying the gunboat, and clearing the way for the British to enter the region.

Rose tells Charlie about her torpedo plan. He humors her.

In Charlie’s mind, it’s a fool’s plan: apart from the whole, homemade-torpedoes-and-launching-them bit, Rose and Charlie will have to navigate through perilous white rapids on the Ulanga, successfully pass a German fort without being shot to a watery grave, and make it through a muddy forrest of reeds to even get close to the Konigin Luise.

To keep the peace, Charlie agrees to Rose’s proposal, but his true feelings soon become apparent: after indulging in a few too many drinks, Charlie tells Rose he’s not doing any of that. 

The torpedo plan is off. 

The African Queen
Rose pours all the gin overboard...

"Nature, Mr. Allnut."

Once he’s sobered up, Rose reprimands Charlie. 

Her words about the follies of human nature are aimed not just at Charlie’s drinking, but her disappointment in him for going back on his promise to torpedo the Luise:

“Nature, Mr. Allnut is what we’re put in this world to rise above,”

Rose tells him.  Her words strike a cord with Charlie, and he once again agrees to the torpedo plan, this time for good.  Charlie also probably realizes by this point that with the fiery and determined Rose as his traveling companion, he really doesn’t have any other choice.

With each set of rapids that Rose and Charlie successfully navigate on the Ulanga, their confidence in the eventual victory of their torpedo plan grows.

And so do their feelings for one another.

The African Queen
With each obstacle they overcome, Rose and Charlie's feelings for each other grow.

Torpedo Day

By the time they get past the German fort, evading constant enemy fire before navigating yet another set of rapids, Rose and Charlie can no longer deny their feelings for each other.  A kiss seals their love, and emboldens the duo to fix The African Queen’s propellor with an improvised weld of a broken blade.  Their love also helps Rose and Charlie get through the difficult task of manually pulling The African Queen through leech-infested waters.  Finally, a heavy rain brings them to the mouth of the lake where the Luise sits.

The African Queen
Charlie pulls The African Queen through leech-infested waters...

With the Luise in sight, Rose and Charlie build their torpedos, and secure them in holes they’ve cut in the sides of The African Queen.

But on the night of their planned attack, it rains again.  The torrential downpour causes The African Queen to capsize before any torpedos are released.  Rose gets lost in the storm, while Charlie is captured by the Germans, and brought on board the Luise.

Rose and Charlie are brought on board the Luise, and deemed British Spies.

The Return of The African Queen

Charlie is deemed a British spy, and the German captain sentences him to death by hanging.  Charlie, thinking Rose died at sea, is ambivalent to his sentence.  That is, until Rose is found by the Germans and brought on board.  After proudly divulging their torpedo attack plan, Rose too is sentenced to death.

Charlie pleads with the captain to marry him and Rose before proceeding with the dual hanging.  The captain reluctantly agrees, and Mr. and Mrs. Allnut prepare to meet death with a degree of joy in their newlywed state.

But then an unlikely thing happens.  All this time, the Luise has been drifting closer and closer to The African Queen, whose position was never found after the storm.  Before the hanging commences, the gunboat and the steam launch collide, causing the torpedos to go off.  The Luise is destroyed.  Rose and Charlie see their chance to escape, and jump ship.  

“We did it Charlie, we did it!”

Rose exclaims.  And the Allnuts happily swim to freedom on the east shore, where they’ll begin their new life together.

And that’s the end of the film.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year (1942).

Putting Spencer First

After falling in love with Spencer Tracy on the set of Woman of the Year (1942), Katharine Hepburn’s priorities shifted.  Tracy’s well-being, not her career, now came first.  For just about the next decade, Kate based her career decisions off of Tracy’s schedule, opting for film roles that kept her close by his side, or starred her opposite him.  Indeed, of the eleven films Kate made between 1942-1951, six of them paired her with Tracy.

Kate’s decision to put Spencer first was good for the Tracy/Hepburn relationship, and it was certainly beneficial for Tracy’s health: at times, Kate’s presence seemed the only thing keeping Tracy sober, and her nursing the only way to bring him back to sobriety after a binge.  

But basing all her choices around Spence wasn’t so great for Kate’s career: excluding The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Woman of the Year (1942), 1949’s Adam’s Rib—Kate’s seventh film with Tracy—was her only bonafide hit of the decade. 

Time for a Change

The career disappointments, draining caregiver cycle, and a particularly rough patch in her relationship with Spencer, led Katharine Hepburn to the realization that it was time for a change:

“Well, if you don’t improve you slip inevitably backward.  Or you hammer—hammer—hammer on the same spot.  And you become the same old thing doing the same old thing…Get going.  So I [had to] get going.”

Kate decided that the best way to “get going” was to  stretch herself as an actress, to temporarily leave films for the stage, and tackle what many consider to be the true litmus test of an actor’s ability: Shakespeare.

And so in 1950, Katharine Hepburn became the only star of her generation and magnitude with the guts to take on the prose of the Bard of Avon, with the role of Rosalind in As You Like It.

Kate as Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It.

Reaching Out

It was tough work, replete with long hours of study, and, once the play began touring, a lifestyle completely opposed to Kate’s natural preferences.  But she found the challenge extremely rewarding:

“I like to get up early and work in the morning and afternoon.  I like to sleep at night.  But to build my career I would force myself to do a play.  Night work.”

When As You Like It premiered at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, critical opinion was, as usual with Kate’s Broadway forays—with the strong exception of The Philadelphia Story—mixed on the merits of her performance.  As Kate herself later put it, some critics viewed her Shakespearian efforts as “sort of [like] ‘she has a nerve to be doing this.’”  But Hepburn didn’t mind: she was proud of herself for “reaching out as an actress.”  Kate performed her Rosalind to near sold-out houses for 148 performances, before taking As You Like It back on the road for another successful tour.

With Cloris Leachman in As You Like It.

As You Like It proved a career-changing experience for Katharine Hepburn.  The challenges of Shakespeare primed her to accept the role of Rose Sayer in The African Queen, a film that sealed Kate’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. 

But great personal tragedy would also push Kate towards The African Queen.

Kate's Personal Tragedy and The African Queen

After her final tour of As You Like It closed, Kate went home to Connecticut for some family time.  On March 17, 1951, Kate and her father went out for a drive.  When they returned home for teatime with her mother, Kate and Dr. Hepburn immediately sensed that something terrible had happened.

They were right. 73-year-old Kit Hepburn was dead.

It was one of the few times Kate would ever see her father emotionally distraught.  The only comfort Kate and the rest of the Hepburn family could take in the situation was that it appeared any pain Kit experienced in her last moments was minimal.  

Losing her beloved mother was beyond painful for Katharine Hepburn.  As she grieved, Kate was reminded of the Hepburn family motto, to “Listen to the Song of Life,” and seize the day.  Her mother’s passing propelled Kate to take a chance, and accept producer Sam Spiegel’s rather disorganized offer to star in the The African Queen:

“Mother’s death, which was sudden, you see, put things in perspective for me.  She was a vital woman with a lot in life that she had still wanted to do.  And while this movie [The African Queen] seemed like a hopeless mess, I wanted to see Africa, and I wanted to work with Bogie…and John Huston.”

So Katharine Hepburn found herself bound for Africa, adventure, and yet another role that would stretch her as an actress.

The African Queen: The Middle-Aged Romance Nobody Wanted

C.S. Forester’s novel, The African Queen, was first published in 1935.  Hollywood took notice, and RKO became one of the first studios to express interest in Forester’s book, thinking it appropriate film material for the husband/wife team of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester.  But RKO soon lost interest in The African Queen: the story, after all, centered on what many at the time considered a middle aged romance. (In the book, Rose Sayer is actually only 33.)  Not exactly blockbuster material in the increasingly youth-oriented culture of Hollywood.  As one RKO script editor wrote of why The African Queen should never be made into a film, 

“It is dated, incredible, quite outside accepted dramatic screen material…Its two characters are neither appealing nor sympathetic enough to sustain interest for an entire picture…Both are physically unattractive and their love scenes and romance are distasteful and not a little disgusting.  It’s no bargain at any price.  No amount of rewriting can possibly salvage this dated yarn.”

Well that’s pretty harsh.

By 1946, Warner Bros. owned the screen rights to The African Queen, believing David Niven and Bette Davis could turn this “dated yarn” into a blockbuster.  But only a year later, Warner Bros. changed its mind, and tried to sell the property without success.  Reportedly, a big wig at another studio turned down a sale offer from Warners by saying that:

“Not even if Bette went with this!”

would his studio be interested in buying The African Queen.

So not even the inclusion of Bette Davis—one of the biggest stars of the era—could make purchasing The African Queen screen rights worth it.  That really says something about how truly terrible everyone thought The African Queen was.

Director John Huston and producer Sam Spiegel.

Huston, Speigel, and Horizon Pictures

It wasn’t until 1950, a full fifteen years after the book’s publication, that two Hollywood visionaries, producer Sam Spiegel and director John Huston, saw The African Queen’s great film potential.  Savvy to the crumbling studio system and increasing number of theatergoers opting to stay home for television, Spiegel and Huston recognized The African Queen as an intriguing adventure story set in an exotic locale, something audiences couldn’t get on television, and would go to theaters to see.  So Spiegel and Huston, under their young production company, Horizon Pictures, bought The African Queen screen rights, and decided to make the film themselves.

It was Sam Speigel who sent Kate the book, and courted her to play Rose Sayer.  From the beginning, Speigel’s and Huston’s proposed production seemed more than a little disorganized to Kate.  The unique financial arrangements Speigel set up just to buy the film rights and get the production financed were enough to make Kate wonder if she’d even get paid for starring in the film.  But here was her chance to see Africa.  And, as Kate knew, Rose Sayer was a dream part for a middle aged actress intent on not being sidelined:

“Well, I read it.  And it really made me sit up and take notice.  Great part for me—Rosie…but…Who’s going to play what’s his—yes—Charlier Allnut?”

Speigel and Kate both agreed that Humphrey Bogart was the ideal choice for Charlie Allnut.  Using the prospect of working with Kate as bate, director John Huston set out to convince Bogie to accept the role.

John Huston with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall behind the scenes of Key Largo (1948).

The African Queen Lands Two Mega Stars

It was an easy sale for Huston to make to his old pal Bogart, who he’d already directed in such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and Key Largo (1948).  Huston’s laid back pitch to Bogie for The African Queen was indicative of the great humor and ease that infused their friendship:

“Wanna do something?” Huston asked Bogart.

“Yeah.” Bogart responded.

“The hero is a lowlife, and you are the biggest lowlife in town and therefore most suitable for the part.”

Ah, yes.  With such flattery, how could Bogie say no?

Now that he had two mega stars in the leading roles, Huston, as director and screenwriter, had to get his act together and finish The African Queen script.  He co-wrote the majority of the script with James Agee at Santa Barbara’s San Ysidro Ranch, before eventually finishing it with Peter Veirtel on location.  Playing so fast and loose with the script remained a sticking point for Kate, who’d lament that Huston never showed her the final script until her arrival in Africa.

A happy family: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, and son Stephen. The Bogarts didn't believe in long separations, key to why their marriage was a rare Hollywood success.

Bogie and Bacall: a Happy Hollywood Marriage

The adventure of filming on location was a huge reason why Katharine Hepburn agreed to make The African Queen.  But Humphrey Bogart’s feelings on location shooting were the polar opposite.  Bogie had worked hard for his comfortable personal and professional life in California, and he was reluctant to leave it all behind to film a movie in the jungle, on another continent.  He couldn’t bear to be away from his lovely wife, Lauren Bacall—“Betty” to her friends, and their young son Stephen, for the duration of filming.  The separation issue was partly solved by Bogie’s insistence that Betty come with him to Africa.  As Bogart told New York columnist Marie Torre,

“I hate like the devil to take Betty away from our son for such a long time.  The kid’s only two and we’re going to be away at least six months.  But I can’t see it any other way.  My other marriages broke up on account of separations.  Betty and I, we’ve been married six years, and I want to go on.  So wherever I go, she goes.”

I suppose some may view Bogart’s insistence that Bacall “go wherever he goes” as paternalistic.  Personally, I think it’s incredibly sweet that he cared enough about his wife, and the success their marriage, to insist on no separations.  Bogie learned a lot from his previous two marriages, and he wasn’t going to make the same mistakes with Betty.  He loved her too much to risk the potentially detrimental consequences of an extended separation.

According to Kate, it was obvious that the Bogarts had "enormous opinions" of each other's charms. ♥️

How to Make a Marriage Work

And besides, Bacall was on the exact same page as her husband on the matter.  It didn’t make the separation from her two-year-old son any easier, but she knew that going with Bogie was for the ultimate good of their family.  As Bacall shared in her autobiography:

“I have a pain in my solar plexus when I remember how it felt to leave Steve behind— you suddenly say to yourself, ‘Why the hell am I going—what am I dong?’  Then, of course, you know what you’re doing—you’re going with your husband, who believes in no separations in marriage, who is working.  Your life with him cannot stop for your son.  And—admit it—you want to see those unseen places.  So the brain whirs—the heart tugs—the gut aches.  I must have turned around a hundred times to look at Steve and wave and throw kisses and get teary-eyed.”

Is it any wonder that Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart enjoyed one of the most successful marriages in Hollywood?  They were so dedicated to one another, and, as Katharine Hepburn would soon observe of the Bogarts as she got to know them on location, 

“She [Betty] and Bogie seemed to have the most enormous opinion of each other’s charms.”

OH my gosh, I love the Bogarts.

Kate and Bogie at a press conference in London, before heading off to Africa.

The African Queen Press Conference

The first stop for Kate on her way to Africa was London, where she met up with the Bogarts for a press conference.  You’d think that having three of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the same room would divide the attention of the reporters present.  But according to Lauren Bacall, there was no competition: all eyes and ears were on 44-year-old Kate:

“There was a press conference at Claridge’s for which I got myself all done up in a Balenciaga suit and Katharine Hepburn stole the show in her pants.”

A reporter present confirmed Bacall’s retelling of the conference, writing that “Drawing a big crowd of note-takers away from the Bogarts, she [Kate] chattered steadily for about two hours, most of it leg-pulling [that was] solemnly printed the next day.”

The African Queen
Kate and her pants stole the show, according to Lauren Bacall.

So not even the presence of the gorgeous Lauren Bacall, or the alluring insouciance of Humphrey Bogart could detract from the star power of Katharine Hepburn.  That’s pretty impressive.

After London, Kate and the Bogarts next stopped in Rome.  Then, it was, finally, off to Africa.

The African Queen

What The African Queen Was All About

Though Forester’s novel takes place in Kenya, director John Huston decided to film The African Queen in the Congo and Uganda.  According to Huston, the movie required “close jungle and a narrow river,” which would allow for filming at close range.  After weeks of careful location scouting, Huston found both of these conditions met by the Ruiki River, a small, winding tributary of the Congo River.  So small, in fact, that at the time, the Ruiki was unmarked on most maps of the region.  Above the Ruiki were trees and heavy vines, which Huston knew would create the look he was going for in the movie.  Even better—as far as Huston was concerned, the water of the Ruiki was black, caused by tannic acid from the surrounding vegetation, which he knew would look awesome on film.

The African Queen
Huston, cleaning a gun on location. He never did shoot his elephant (thankfully).

In addition to the Ruiki River, Huston chose a village just outside of Buitaba, and lastly, Murchison Falls to round out the location filming.  One assistant director on the film swore that Huston’s selections for The African Queen locations were also perhaps a little selfish, more than a little influenced by the fact that Huston planned to go hunting in the mornings and evenings, and couldn’t get a license to do so in Kenya:

“John wanted to shoot an elephant.  That was what the whole picture about.”

True motivations aside, there’s no denying that Huston’s location picks translated beautifully on film, as anyone who’s seen The African Queen can attest.

The African Queen
Kate and the Bogarts arrive in Stanleyville.

The African Queen: Off the Grid

Before his stars and the majority of the crew arrived, Huston set up camp along the Ruiki.  The camp, which consisted of bungalows for the stars, dormitories for the crew, showers, a dining room, a bar, and even a storage pit to keep exposed film cool, was constructed in eight days by 85 Congolese workers.  Everything was built from bamboo, raffia and palm leaves, without a single nail.  29 women carried water to the camp each day from a spring about a mile away.  The water was then boiled, filtered, and treated with halizone tablets before consumption or use, to prevent disease and sickness.

After Kate, Bogie, and Bacall flew into Stanleyville, they began the intense and lengthy journey to the camp at Ruiki.  As Lauren Bacall put it, Huston chose “the most inaccessible spot in Africa as a location,” and the “villages [we passed on the way became] more primitive as we moved deeper into the Congo.”

Jungle Chic

Jungle living, he discovered on the way to camp, was definitely not Humphrey Bogart’s cup of tea.  Bogie found that none of the clothes he brought were appropriate for the heat and humidity of the Congo.  In fact, Bogie and Bacall had to send most of their clothing back to London, and order tin trunks to keep the constant dampness of the region from ruining what items they decided to keep with them. 

Katharine Hepburn on the other hand, came wardrobe-prepared.  And lucky for Bogie, the two of them were just about the same size.  As Kate remembered,

“…my own wardrobe was much more suitable to the jungle than it has ever been anywhere else.  I may look odd walking across Claridge’s lobby but I’m the height of chic in the jungle.

…To show the extremes of lack [of appropriate clothing]: Bogie was wearing my safari pants and coat, a man’s suit which I had from Abercrombie’s.  A perfect fit [for Bogie]—we just split the pants a bit down the rear seam.”

That’s awesome.

The African Queen
Kate in her bungalow at the Ruiki River camp. In true Hepburn fashion, she deemed her bungalow "the best."

Getting to Know Each Other at The African Queen Camp

When they finally arrived at the camp, Kate was ecstatic about her bungalow, which she quickly deemed “the best.”  In fact, the only thing Kate was less than happy about with her set up was the adjoining outhouse she was to share with the Bogarts.  As Kate comically described the situation:

“I saw the Siamese-twin outhouse for the Bogies and me and my heart sank.  For though I expected to be very intimate with them—I did feel that sitting there together in the early morning would be going a bit future than the ordinary demands of co-starring in a motion picture.”

The African Queen
The Bogarts enjoy breakfast at the Ruiki camp.

Kate solved the problem of privacy by…repurposing the lower half of an aluminum double boiler.  Kate called her ingeniousness with the pot:

“A very excellent solution to this problem.  It may disgust you that I have brought it up at all, but who knows?…some day you may find this information very useful.”

I’m pretty sure only Katharine Hepburn can get away with discussing such subjects.

The African Queen
Huston with Bogie and Bacall behind the scenes of The African Queen.

Filming Begins...Almost

The day filming was set to begin on the Ruiki River, it rained, pushing everything back a day.

But it rained the next day as well, pushing everything back yet another day.  It was a telling start to the shooting schedule, which remained in constant mercy to the elements.

When weather finally allowed filming to commence, The African Queen herself was used to pull four rafts, with all the necessary filming equipment, down the Ruiki River.  The first raft consisted of a “mock up” of The African Queen, in effect a sound stage of the boat with movable parts.  This set up allowed Huston and crew to easily film Kate and Bogie from any angle, while maintaining the illusion that they were onboard the actual boat. The second raft was for camera equipment, lighting, and props, while the third raft was for the generator.  

The African Queen
Kate with the mirror, before it started breaking.

The fourth raft was meant to be a dressing room for Kate.  Good sport that she was, Hepburn ultimately agreed with Huston that this fourth raft was unnecessary baggage and weight for The African Queen to pull.  So they dropped it.  The one luxury Kate did maintain from her dressing room raft was a full length mirror, which she carried to each location.  By the end of filming in Africa, that full length mirror had broken so many times, it was handheld, just a fraction of its original size. 

John Huston referred to The African Queen and this train of rafts as “the strangest flotilla the African waterways had ever seen,” while Lauren Bacall called the sight of this strange flotilla traveling downriver an absolute “riot.”  But it was an effective set up that got the job of filming on the Ruiki done.

The African Queen
John Huston talks to Kate about her interpretation of the Rose Sayer role.

Kate's Inspiration for The African Queen

Just a few days into filming, John Huston sat Katharine Hepburn down for a serious talk.

Her performance he said, was hurting the film.  

Wow.  Those are some pretty strong words.

The problem, Huston felt, was that Kate was playing Rosie too solemnly, bringing the whole picture down in the process.  But he had a suggestion for her: look to former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for inspiration.  Eleanor, Huston explained,  always seemed to be smiling.  No matter how grave the situation, Eleanor smiled and got through it, inspiring all those around her.  Huston believed such a character trait could be the key to Kate’s interpretation of Rose Sayer, and simultaneously lift the film.

“Think it over…Perhaps it might be useful…” he told told her.

The African Queen

Hepburn was receptive to the advice, and after Huston left her alone to contemplate, Kate remembered that

“I sat there.  [And thought] That is the best damn piece of direction I have ever heard…he’s just told me exactly how to play this part…I was his from there on in.”

Kate implemented Huston’s Eleanor Roosevelt suggestion, and brought the smile of a survivor to her Rosie every time the character experienced a set back, which was often.  John Huston was right—such a seemingly small piece of business did lift the film, and makes Rosie incredibly lovable.  In Huston’s words, “From that moment she [Kate] was perfect.” 

The African Queen

The African Queen Sinks

It’s a good thing that Huston could count on Kate for a perfect performance, for the director had plenty of other things to worry about during filming on the Ruiki River.

Such as the time The African Queen sank.  

Yep, that happened.  

Apparently the guy in charge of keeping an eye on the boat wasn’t very good at his job…According to Lauren Bacall, the man had been hired to watch the boat, and he did—he watched it sink.

The African Queen

The cast, crew, and Congolese workers all banded together, and lassoed the boiler of The African Queen with a rope, which they then pulled to lift the boat up from the bottom of the river.  Humphrey Bogart remembered everyone joining in with the Congolese workers, who chanted “hoola-ha” with each pull.  According to Bogie:

“I don’t know how many hoola-ha’s it took to raise the damn thing, but it took two days to get it up and another day to get it back in order.”

Unfortunately, according to Betty Bacall, the day The African Queen sank didn’t get any better after the boat was retrieved…

The African Queen

Ants In Her Pants

Kate and Bacall returned to camp that evening only to find that soldier ants had invaded their bungalows.  As Bacall put it, a thick carpet of these ferocious ants covered the floors, attracted by the the decaying palm leaves, bamboo, and raffia that their bungalows were constructed of. 

At one point during the attack, Kate found herself covered with soldier ants from head to toe, bitten everywhere but her face, neck, and hands.

Somehow, Hepburn found the bright side of the situation, expressing how fortunate it was that her ant bites wouldn’t be visible on camera, thanks to the frequently high necklines and long sleeves of her costuming.

The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart on the other hand, pretty sick and tired of jungle living by this time, found Kate’s eternal optimism irritating:

“Damn Hepburn! Damn her, she’s so cheerful.  She’s got ants in her pants, mildew in her shoes, and she’s still cheerful.  I build a solid wall of whiskey between me and the bugs.  She doesn’t drink, and she breezes through it all as if it were a weekend in Connecticut!’”

Ants in her pants and mildew in her shoes.  It’s literally impossible to keep Katharine Hepburn down.

The African Queen

The African Queen Moves to Butiaba

Luckily, filming at Ruiki finished not long after the soldier ant invasion.  Things were a little less eventful as The African Queen company moved on to Butiaba to shoot the opening village sequences of the film.

But not by much.

The worst thing cast and crew had to cope with at their next location was probably the occasional appearance of a poisonous black mamba snake.  

In the toilet.

No big deal.

The other challenge at Butiaba thankfully didn’t involve poisonous snakes, but it did delay filming.

Huston had worked out a deal with a local chief to use his people as villagers in the opening scenes.

But on the day filming was to begin, no one showed up.  Huston soon found out why.

The African Queen

The African Queen and Rumors of Cannibalism

At the time, rumors of cannibalism in the region were on the rise, and the chief’s people worried that whatever these crazy Hollywood people were up to was a trap.

Huston was sympathetic to their worries, having experienced his own run-in with a cannibalistic hunter while scouting filming locations.  Huston contracted the hunter, not knowing that he literally hunted everything, to provide meat for the small group of The African Queen company traveling with him.  A big pot of stew was usually on the menu, incorporating whatever meat the hunter provided them with each day.  As Huston remembered:

“The pot consisted of an indiscriminate sort of stew comprised of monkey, forest pig, deer and you-name- it.  Eventually someone did.

One afternoon a group of soldiers marched into camp and arrested our black hunter.  We weren’t told why.  They refused to tell us.  But finally King Paul [the local chief] confided to me that villagers had been disappearing mysteriously.  It seems that when the hunter couldn’t find game for the pot, he got the meat in the simplest possible way….the hunter was executed a few days later.  I was thankful that the ‘long pig’ was served before the main group arrived.  Only a few of us were privileged to dine so exclusively.”

The African Queen

Well that’s freaky and gross.

!!!!!!

Luckily, The African Queen crew soon gained the trust of the chief and his people, and filming at Butiaba was completed in about a week.  Then it was off to Murchison Falls for the final leg of location shooting.

The African Queen

Something in the Water...

Murchison Falls was the most trying of the three filming locations.  By this time, the constant battle of man vs. jungle was getting to most of The African Queen company.  Add to this the increased danger of contracting bilharzia, an infection of the urinary tract by parasitic flatworms entering the body through skin pores, after even the smallest exposure to contaminated water, and most of The African Queen camp was ready to go home.

Even Kate, who hadn’t missed a day of filming thus far, found herself on bedrest.  It wasn’t bilharzia, but something in the water quickly infected just about everyone.  As Kate remembered,

“People in the company began to get sick.  Sick to their stomachs…Now I began to get sick…Being a urologist’s daughter, I decided to flood myself with water.  The great cure.  In this case, it didn’t seem to work…I lost 20 pounds and I was thin to begin with.  It was weird.  The doctor on board was totally confused.”

The doctor analyzed the water tank, and decided the filters were probably to blame.  So bottled water was brought in from Nairobi.  Everyone was instructed to drink the bottled water exclusively.

But things only got worse.  

The African Queen
John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, the "weaklings" who never got sick.

The "Weaklings" Who Never Got Sick

Curiously, two people seemed strangely immune to the illness that plagued the rest of the company.  As Kate remembered,

“Now all this time neither Bogie nor John had been sick at all.  They were fine.  Then the doctor decided to test the bottled water.  Yes—you’re right.  The bottled water was polluted.  And I—the queen of water drinking—the urologist’s prize—was the sickest.  And those two undisciplined weaklings had so lined their insides with alcohol that no bug could live in the atmosphere.  Well, Katie, what do you say to that?  There wasn’t much I could say.  I took to champagne.  Well, it really was a very good joke on me.  Especially as privately I had felt so completely superior to that unhealthy pair.”

So when you can’t drink the water, drink the scotch.  (Or champagne.)

Luckily, a clean water source was found, and Kate pulled through.  Filming in Africa finished by late July.  

The African Queen
Kate suits Bogie up with some fake leeches in The African Queen (1951).

The African Queen Moves to London

Due to the danger of contracting bilharzia from water contact, all shots of Rose and Charlie directly in water had to be filmed back in London, at Shepperton Studios and Worton Hall.  Here Bogart was suited up with fake leeches for the scene when Charlie pulls The African Queen through reeds and leech-infested swamp waters.

Kate and John Huston both encouraged Bogart to allow real leeches to be used in the scene.  But Bogie, not particularly enthusiastic about putting the blood-sucking parasites all over his body, said NO WAY.

“You try it first, kid.”

He told Kate.  The conversation stopped there. 

The African Queen

Also in London, Kate’s perennially growling stomach was put to good use: for the scene at the start of The African Queen, when Charlie Allnut’s stomach noises keep him from making a classy impression on Rose and Samuel, it was Kate who provided the sound effects.  As Hepburn proudly shared,

“They got him [Bogart] in close-up, but I provided the background noises.  I was an absolute expert on a growling stomach.  If mine got empty enough it would growl, and I ruined some of my own takes.  So they said, ‘Now—you’re going to be of some use to us.’”

The African Queen

The African Queen Premieres

The African Queen was released just after Christmas 1951, allowing for consideration in the year’s Academy Awards.  The film garnered Kate her fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and brought Humphrey Bogart his first and only Best Actor win.  It was a well deserved and long awaited award, but Bogie generously thanked Kate for making it possible: 

“No one does it alone.  As in tennis, you need a good opponent or partner to bring out the best in you.  John and Katie helped me to be where I am now.”

The African Queen was a colossal hit, earning $4.3 million in the US, and another $6 million worldwide, making it the fourth highest grossing film of the year.  

But despite this impressive box office performance, just about no one got paid.

The African Queen
From the right: Sam Speigel, the producer of The African Queen, with cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

A Shady Character

It was all thanks to the shady business dealings of producer Sam Spiegel.  Spiegel, who stooped so low as to use $43,000 of the film’s budget to pay his own back taxes, did his best to avoid sharing the profits of The African Queen with Huston, Bogart, and Hepburn, all of whom signed contracts guaranteeing them generous percentages of the film’s earnings.  As Spiegel’s attorney Albert Heit put it,

“Don’t ask and don’t tell: that was the way Sam operated.  If you didn’t ask, you didn’t get your money.”

The complete facts of how Spiegel managed to rip off his partner and stars aren’t entirely clear, but a few things are certain: Huston never collected the 50% of the profits due him as Speigel’s business partner and director of the film, while Bogart never received the $600,000 his salary and percentage deal entitled him to.

The African Queen

The African Queen & Kate's Realistic Expectations

It’s possible Kate faired better than Bogie or Huston with her paycheck, as she has nothing but good things to say about Sam Spiegel in her book, The Making of the African Queen.  But then again, Kate was aware of the disorganized nature of the film production from the start, and had realistic expectations about her odds of ever being paid.  So before she even agreed to make The African Queen, Kate decided that as long as Speigel paid her living expenses for the duration of filming, she’d be satisfied: 

“I didn’t mind doing the film for nothing, but I didn’t intend to pay for the privilege of doing it.”

Regardless of pay, Kate always referred to her experiences filming The African Queen as “one great adventure.”  In other words, she loved the whole crazy, frustrating, frightening, joyfully enriching, and life changing experience.

Kate in Summertime (1955).

Artistic Fulfillment

The African Queen further propelled Kate’s desire to step out of her comfort zone.  In the following years, she continued to stretch herself as an actress, performing George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess on London’s West End, and playing more nuanced and mature women in her films, such as Summertime (1955) and The Rainmaker (1956).  Kate even tackled Shakespeare yet again, performing The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Measure for Measure on an Australian tour with London’s prestigious Old Vic Theatre Company.

Kate in The Millionairess on London's West End.

The 1950s were arguably the most artistically rewarding—and certainly the most varied—years of Katharine Hepburn’s career.  And now, happy with the direction her career was taking, and rejuvenated by these challenging projects, Kate was anxious to spend more time with Spencer Tracy, whom she saw surprisingly little of during these years of travel and artistic fulfillment.

More Shakespeare! Kate and Robert Helpmann tour Australia with the Old Vic Theatre Company.

As Kate later said of this time:

“I suppose I had to prove something—to myself.  I felt I had reached out as an actress and felt more fulfilled.  And so I wanted to reach out to Spence.  I knew that he had to help himself, but I also knew that I could help him too—once I had fortified myself.”

Kate, Spence, Sidney, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

As the 1950s drew to a close, the happiest years of Kate’s relationship with Spencer, some of the best film roles of her career, and three Best Actress Oscars, were still ahead.  One of those roles would put her opposite Spence in what proved to be one of the era’s most daring films.  It was also Spencer Tracy’s last.  Join me next time for all about Kate, Spence, Sidney Poitier, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

Stay Updated

Recipes and Red Carpet, Directly to Your Inbox Weekly!

Stay Updated

Recipes and Red Carpet, Directly to Your Inbox

You Might Also Enjoy...

Leave a Reply