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African Queen, The (Blu-ray Review)

22 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 3/23/10
$25.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $50.99 DVD Boxed Set, $57.99 Blu-ray Boxed set
Not rated.
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley.

Director John Huston’s dream teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the adaptation of C.S. Forester’s novel was my favorite movie at age 12, so it’s one whose presentation I have followed for many decades. And the easy verdict today is that it has never looked anything close to as great as it looks now (especially on Blu-ray), at least since the original 1951 prints went to that great film bin the sky.

An independent production originally released through United Artists, Queen was, at the time, among the first relatively recent films of stature to show up on TV before the end of the 1950s because most studios didn’t release anything from their post-1948 libraries until 1961. I can remember what a novel kick it was in 1959 to home-view a 1951 movie that had won a major Oscar (the handful of others in this rarefied category were Cyrano de Bergerac, High Noon and The Quiet Man).

Indeed, this is Bogart’s Oscar performance — though how the picture, with its actor-actress-director-writing nominations, failed to get one is a far bigger mystery than why Farrah Fawcett (whose career on the big screen was next to nothing) got allegedly “snubbed” in the most recent Oscarcast’s tribute segment. Producer Sam Spiegel, at his most slick, landed the two superstars and director John Huston for a location shoot — and then realized that he had no money for the rest of the picture.

Spiegel biographer Natasha Fraser Cavassoni appears in the outstanding hour-long documentary (Embracing Chaos) included in this release. And the pricier boxed sets include a reprint of Hepburn’s popular memoir The Making of the African Queen or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind (as well as a 1951 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the Forester’s yarn starring Bogart and Greer Garson). In fact, nearly everyone who has written the definitive bio of the cast/crew principals shows up in the documentary, as well as Forester’s son.

Well, it was quite a story, starting with shooting in Africa with its huge, old-style 3-strip Technicolor cameras in primitive Africa (they weren’t that much smaller than the title boat). There was also lots of rain, especially in the early stages of shooting, and attacking ants. Plus Bogart and Huston saved from the dysentery Hepburn contracted because they had the good sense to prefer booze to the local water. At least the leeches Bogart sports in one of the most vividly remembered movie scenes of all time were rubber.

Speaking of camerawork, Queen was shot by Jack Cardiff, the greatest Technicolor maestro ever (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, the ’56 War and Peace). The 1969 theatrical re-issue prints didn’t do his work justice at all, and though the old CBS laserdisc looks a little better than I recalled, it is nothing like this rendering. You think you’ve seen green? Check out the intensity of the foliage here.

But in the end, it comes down to one of the greatest of all casting coups: Bogart as the gin-loving skipper of a markedly humble vessel and Hepburn as a prim spinster — both of them dodging (then later attacking) World War I Germans and finding unlikely romance in the middle of aquatic muck as crocodiles play cupid. Novelist/film critic James Agee’s script is a jewel, though Peter Viertel came in for some uncredited mop-up and helped concoct the ending that makes this one of the few non-downers of Huston’s major movies. This is a better film than novel – and the wrap-up in particular (a la Martin Scorsese’s for Shutter Island) far surpasses the one in its literary source.

Distribution rights to Queen have changed many times over the years, and it somehow ended up in Paramount’s stable. Given that knowledgeable home viewers sometimes don’t even think that the company’s current DVD/Blu-ray administration has even heard of the pre-1970 movies it owns, it’s heartening to see such a bang-up job here. Now, it’s time for corporate to get going on Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar — or a print of The Quiet Man up to its Oscar-winning cinematography.

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