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Katharine Hepburn: the Making of the African Queen

By Xoxoxoe
In the extremely engaging The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind actress Katharine Hepburn recounts her adventures in Africa while making the film classic The African Queen. She set off with director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall in 1951 for what she still calls (more than thirty years after the fact) the adventure of her life.

katharine hepburn: the making of the african queen

The intrepid Hepburn, always the iconoclast, stylish as always

Hepburn is endlessly self-deprecating, the first person to admit her quirks and foibles, but she also makes it quite clear that she is also persnickety, demanding, and at times, a real pain to deal with. She is, as Spencer Tracy called her, "A rare bird," and more than a bit old-fashioned about her creature comforts and her focus (even as a 40-something woman at the time) on her Father with a capital "F." She asks him for a letter of credit for her big African trip (didn't the successful actress have her own money?) and is very particular about selecting the perfect gift for him — a hand-carved to order ebony cane.
“Heaven to be the first one up and to eat breakfast all alone.”
She knows what she wants and thinks ahead — carrying her own furniture and other accoutrements. She decides to go off on her own to explore the flora and fauna, refusing to help Lauren Bacall arrange their meals (or take the traditional woman's role?) Hepburn was a vanguard for the time with her style and predilection for menswear, but it really paid off in the jungle, protecting her from bugs and being less binding and layered than women's clothing. Where she ran into trouble was with her holier-than-thou urologist's daughter's insistence on drinking lots of water. She ended up getting sick as a dog. Bogie and Huston stuck to whisky and never got sick.
Reading between the lines, she most definitely seems to have had a crush on Huston. She complains about him constantly, but her brief description of her life with Spencer Tracy suggests that she was used to, and attracted to, difficult men. Although she is against the hunting and killing of animals she is beyond thrilled to join Huston on one of his hunting forays into the jungle. Bogie had no interest. She praises Bogie's bravery and professionalism, but it is clear that he was too no-nonsense, direct, and practical for her to fall for him. But she and Bogie did form a lifelong friendship after making the picture. She briefly describes visiting him frequently with Spencer Tracy when he was dying of esophageal cancer.
“To put it simply: There was no bunk about Bogie. He was a man.”

katharine hepburn: the making of the african queen

Bogart and Bacall, having breakfast in their cabin

Some of her statements about blacks and whites are far from poetically correct. But Hepburn is a reflection of the times, and frankly, her class. It is clear from how she approaches the trip and life in general that she comes forms privileged background and was used to having servants and helpers.
Quibbles aside, hers is a fascinating account — it's amazing the film ever got made, with the difficult physical conditions and Huston taking off to shoot elephants whenever he got the chance. Huston's laissez-faire attitude on set and his ability to come up with a classic film makes me want to read White Hunter, Black Heart and his autobiography, An Open Book, next.

katharine hepburn: the making of the african queen

Hepburn, Bacall, and Bogart relaxing between takes

The Making of The African Queen is chock-full of behind-the-scenes photos, too. But it is Hepburn's unique voice and perspective that shine through. What an odd assortment of individuals. What a strange experience. And what a great film that came out of it all.

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