52 Code Films – Week #41: “The African Queen” from 1951; “An Unlikely River Romance” for The Second Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy Blogathon

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Today is Sunday, so it’s time for another 52 Code Films article. I conclude every week here at PEPS with a review of the new Code film I watched during that week. I have enjoyed the opportunity to discover many new movies from the Breen Era of Hollywood. Some people might think that one would run out of new movies to watch if he never ventured outside the twenty years of Joseph Breen Code’s enforcement (1934-1954), but, thankfully, this is untrue. There are so many wonderful classic Code films that we can never exhaust them! I probably won’t be able to watch every Code film from the Breen Era, but I can try! This series is a way to make a dent in them by committing to watching at least one new Code film a week!

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Today’s topic is The African Queen from 1951. My father watched this movie a few years ago, and he really enjoyed it. He told us all about it, but we didn’t own the movie ourselves. A few months ago, we were given several old films. Among them was a DVD of The African Queen. Although we were curious about this movie, my father’s reports of leeches and mosquitos in the film made us a little hesitant to watch the movie, despite his assurances that it was a brilliant film. When I heard about The Second Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, I decided that it would be the perfect opportunity to watch this 1950s classic adventure film. Thus, I watched this movie on Wednesday as my new Code film for this week.

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In 1914, a Methodist missionary and his spinster sister have an outpost church in Africa. During the middle of a church service’s hymn, the entire native congregation leaves the church because the mail has arrived. It is a special event when The African Queen, the river boat which is captained by a tough middle-aged Canadian mechanic, arrives in the little village. In addition to delivering mail and newspapers, the trader delivers news that the Germans have declared war on England. The two British missionaries are very disturbed to hear this news. They invite the Canadian to stay for tea, since he is the only white person in the area. However, he soon leaves, warning that he won’t return for a few months because of the German activity in the area. Soon after he has left, German soldiers invade the town. They capture the natives in the village to use them as soldiers, and they set fire to all the huts and to the church. Later that day, the lady finds her brother preparing to plant before the weather turns, despite the fact that crops can be planted any time of the year in Central Africa. The poor minister was so traumatized by the events that he has lost his mind. His sister brings him in the house, but he is mumbling insanely as she tries to put him to bed. He dies in her arms. The next morning, the riverboat captain returns much sooner than he promised to. The Germans destroyed the mines to which he was returning, so he decided to come back here. After burying the unfortunate missionary, he takes his sister on the boat with him. He is very respectful of the lady aboard the small vessel, but he still indulges his habit of drinking gin, much to her chagrin. The two discuss their options at this point, as well as the possible attempts which the British will make to conquer the German troops in the area. The mechanic explains that the best entrance for the British would be through a large lake, but they can’t come in because of a menacing German ship, the Luisa. If that boat were out of the way, they could easily enter. The optimistic woman wonders if the ship couldn’t be torpedoed. She suggests that torpedoes could be made out of cannisters aboard the ship and the explosive cargo they are carrying. If the mechanically-minded Canadian could make detonators for the make-shift torpedoes, they could attach them to the African Queen and sail the boat right into the Luisa, jumping off right before the explosion. The man thinks that the idea is ridiculous at first, since the journey down river to get to the lake is extremely treacherous. However, he agrees to start in that direction, since they have nowhere better to go. When the determined lady is not frightened but exhilarated by going through rapids, he realizes just how intent she is upon carrying out her patriotic plan. Frustrated by her stubbornness, he gets drunk on gin. However, he awakens the next morning with a dreadful hangover to discover her pouring out every bottle of gin aboard the boat! After that, he decides to clean himself up, so he shaves and begins acting like a gentleman. Although he is extremely polite and friendly, she refuses to speak to him. Eventually, he can’t bear her silence anymore. She explains that she is not upset about his “nasty drunkenness” but about his reluctance to aid the war effort. He finally gives in to her idea, and they begin their journey downriver. They have to go through fierce rapids, sneak past a German fort, go over a waterfall, endure mosquitos, avoid crocodiles and hippopotami, and eventually navigate a river which is overrun by reeds and mud. All the while, they have to use a boat with a temperamental engine as they brave the scorching heat and fierce rain by turns. During this voyage, the unlikely pair quickly develop a deep respect for each other which turns to love. Is their joyful romance and brave patriotism enough to sustain them during their perilous journey?

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The Canadian riverboat captain is Charlie Allnut, played by Humphrey Bogart. The missionary’s sister is Rose Sayer, played by Katharine Hepburn. The Methodist missionary is Rev. Samuel Sayer, played by Robert Morley.

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Production Notes

This film was directed by John Huston. It was produced by S. P. Eagle. The production company was Romulus Films, but the movie was distributed by United Artists. The screenplay was written by James Agee and John Huston. It was adapted for the screen from a novel by C. S. Forester. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Actress for Katharine Hepburn, Best Director for John Huston, and Best Screenplay for James Agee and John Huston. Humphrey Bogart won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie Allnut. It was nominated for BAFTA Awards for Best USA Film, Best Foreign Actor for Humphrey Bogart, and Best Foreign Actress for Katharine Hepburn. It was nominated for New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Film, Best Actress for Katharine Hepburn, and Best Director for John Huston.

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Code Compliance

This is a perfect Code film. I was delighted by how wonderfully this film handled some difficult topics. The basic premise from the novel was considered troublesome, since it is implied that Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut have an illicit affair when aboard the boat alone together. There were also concerns about the characterization of Rev. Sayer, since the Production Code Administration feared that the depiction of this missionary could seem satirical. In addition to these fundamental concerns, there was the possibility of violence, gruesomeness, and graphic content during the harsh river journey. I was so pleased to see that this movie handled all these elements with perfect taste and discretion. The romance between the missionary and the mechanic seemed perfectly wholesome and decent to me. Although he starts out as a rough man, he has respect for the religious and moral Rose. She inspires him to mend his ways. At the same time, he inspires courage and love of life in her. They find a beautiful love for each other, but it is unspoiled by cheap implication. If you want to believe that they sinned aboard the boat, that is your privilege. The Code allows you to believe or not believe whatever you want about a story and its characters. The missionary is depicted seriously and reverently. Although there are some very intense scenes in this movie, none of them are unacceptably graphic, disturbing, or disgusting. The scenes with the leeches and mosquitos were much briefer than I had imagined, and I didn’t find them distasteful. They were just vivid enough to give the scene intensity, yet they weren’t distastefully graphic. Everything about this movie was extremely tasteful and delicate. This is a perfect example of how to make an exciting adventure film that it is entertaining and enjoyable for everyone.

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My Opinion

I really loved this film. Before watching it, I knew that it had a great cast and was regarded as a classic, but I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. I was delighted by how entertaining I found it! Like Casablanca, it is a widely-acclaimed film which lived up to all the good things I had heard about it. The acting was brilliant. The interaction between the two characters was very vital and real. Humphrey Bogart was extremely convincing as the tough boatman. Although he seems gruff at first, he soon shows a different side which is very likeable. I haven’t seen many films with Humphrey Bogart yet, but I have appreciated every one of his performances which I have seen. Although I love his performance as Rick Blaine, this is my favorite role of his which I have seen. He is resourceful yet sincere and very tender with Rose. Katharine Hepburn is a determined but gentle woman in this role. There is a tenderness to this character which one doesn’t see in many of her roles. Robert Morley also gave an excellent performance in his brief but memorable role as the missionary brother. One of my favorite things about this movie is the genuinely funny and unique comedy which is interspersed throughout the dramatic film. It keeps the movie from being heavy. The dialogue is very witty and clever. The location footage is beautiful. The real African background makes this story so real. Complete with the period costumes, the authentic river boat, and the footage of wild animals, this movie made me feel like I had just stepped into an H. Rider Haggard novel like King Solomon’s Mines. 

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I highly recommend this film to my viewers. It is a masterpiece. This is one of my favorite films directed by John Huston. His attention to detail and commitment to authentic locations was impressive. Fans of adventure films will enjoy the action of the scenes in the rapids and the other treacherous aspects of the journey. Meanwhile, people who don’t like movies which are too tense or heavy won’t find this film too dark or graphic. At only an hour and forty-five minutes long, this movie’s pace is fast. I would describe this film as dramatic and exciting, but I wouldn’t call it dark or heavy. It has enough romance and comedy to offset the action and keep the tone lighter. Even if you aren’t an ardent classic film fan, I think that this is a movie which you will enjoy. It combines great acting and classic decency with location shooting and Technicolor to provide a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I think that this would be a good introductory classic film for many people who haven’t seen many old movies.

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For the Blogathon

This is my second entry in The Second Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, which has been hosted by Crystal Kalyana of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I have watched all seven Code films that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together, so I couldn’t use one of their collaborations as my new Code film for this week. Instead, I used this opportunity to review Miss Hepburn’s collaboration with another famous actor, Humphrey Bogart. I found them to be a wonderful couple. When I just thought about the pairing, I considered them to be an odd couple. However, I found them to be thoroughly delightful together. She softened him while fortifying his morals, and he sweetened her while giving her hope and bravery. He is a gruff old bachelor, and she is a “skinny old maid.” However, they bring out the very best in each other. Apart, he is a drunken mechanic, and she is a spinster who must be housekeeper for her brother. Together, they become a brave, romantic couple. The way she calls him Charlie is so sweet, as is the way he calls her Rosie. Because they are so happy with their newfound love, they are brave and even silly throughout their trials. The danger is worthwhile because they are together. This is now my second favorite performance with Katharine Hepburn, second only to Holiday. This movie further endeared me to that wonderful actress and made me appreciate Humphrey Bogart in a new way. This is yet another Code masterpiece I have discovered and which I will enjoy for the rest of my life. I can’t wait to see what new favorite film I will discover next!

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This weekend we are hosting the third year of our annual Code celebration, The Third Annual Breening Blogathon! It is running from October 11-14 in honor of Joseph I. Breen’s 131st birthday. Whether you want to breen a film, review a new Code movie, or analyze some aspect of the years when Hollywood was governed by the Code, this is your chance to write about the topics which we always cover. What are your thoughts on the Code? This is your chance to play PCA-member or pretend that you are a member of PEPS. Let’s make this our most successful blogathon yet!

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2 thoughts on “52 Code Films – Week #41: “The African Queen” from 1951; “An Unlikely River Romance” for The Second Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy Blogathon


  2. Pingback: 52 Code Films | pure entertainment preservation society

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