Very few performers had such longevity as Katharine Hepburn. After she began acting in the early thirties, she kept going acting right up until 1994 when she made her last film appearances ever in the TV movie One Christmas and Warren Beatty’s Love Affair. Her lasting popularity as an actress meant that the audience could accompany her through her various stages as an actress and not only remember just one but several defining images of her work and personality. There is the sophisticated and witty heroine of such Black-and-White-classics like Bringing up Baby or The Philadelphia Story, the strong woman opposite Spencer Tracy or the loveable, old, grandmother-like Katharine Hepburn with the slightly shaking head. All these images have become a part of motion-picture history – but even though, the most iconic image of Katharine Hepburn may be the one she cultivated during the 50s: the middle-aged spinster who suddenly finds unexpected and overwhelming love for the first time in her life. The ground for this was laid with her performance in 1951’s The African Queen – in this she played Rose Sayer, a missionary in Africa who accompanies a rough boat captain to destroy a German gunboat during World War I. The part was famously declined by Bette Davis because she had no interest to go Africa and only would have joined the project if they had recreated German East-Africa on the back-lot (of course, she would later have to compromise when she did Death on the Nile in Egypt). Katharine Hepburn did not have such problems and joined the crew and the rest of the cast and travelled to Uganda and the Congo to play a role that would turn out to be among the most famous ones of her career. During the shooting, she had to endure constant sickness because of the bad water and spartan living conditions (director John Huston and co-star Humphrey Bogart apparently avoided any sickness by drinking nothing but Scotch or Whiskey) but it’s not hard to imagine her fighting any obstacles that may have come her way. In this way, Rose Sayer was surely a gift for Katharine Hepburn since the two women appear to have so much in common, especially after Rose has left the uptight missionary behind and turned into an almost rebellious and free-spirited fighter. Rose, too, defied convention and found her own spirits and thoughts – even though only after a man got her off her high horse which is another theme that is more than once visible in Katharine Hepburn’s work, a fact that further underlines how well the part of Rose fitted her and how it is almost a perfect synopsis of her entire filmography. It combines her talent for comedy and drama, the witty heroine, the rebellious spirit, the stern spinster, the romantic love interest and the independent woman in one and therefore somehow became the quintessential ‘Katharine Hepburn experience’. It’s not necessarily the strongest work of her career (even though surely among the top) but she beautifully turned it into a blend of her entire career without losing the originality and spontaneousness of this singular performance.
The African Queen, which also holds the distinction of being Katharine Hepburn’s and Humphrey Bogart’s first motion picture in color, has by now deservedly gained its reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. If nothing else, the co-starring of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, both of whom had been selected as the greatest male and female movie legend of all time by the American Film Institute, alone guaranteed this – and it’s true that, despite the gripping plot, the exotic location and the always fascinating theme of ‘David vs. Goliath’, The African Queen is a character-piece that completely rests on the shoulders of its two stars who spend most of the running time alone together on a little boat. Looking back at the career of Katharine Hepburn, her most famous co-star is easily Spencer Tracy simply because of the sheer number of movies they made together but also because of the well-known love affair behind these pictures. But this does not mean that Katharine Hepburn could not lighten up the screen with any other actor – because she did it almost every time. No matter if her co-star was Cary Grant, James Stewart, Peter O’Toole, Henry Fonda, Fred McMurray or Rossano Brazzi – she was always able to both underline the relationship between the two characters and keep the integrity and independence of her own work intact. And her work with Humphrey Bogart is no exception. The uptight, strict and demanding woman opposite the drinking, loud-mouthed and unconventional man may not be a truly original concept but the work of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn carries it to a wonderfully entertaining, touching, engaging and irresistible level. The chemistry between those two pros is the fuel that keeps The African Queen going at every minute – they are romantic and nauseated, companions by fate and lovers by choice, a little crazy, humorous and both entertaining and three-dimensional enough to emphasize the adventure and action of the story while also making their characters believable and engaging. Like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, Katharine Hepburn gives a performance that serves the overall purpose of the picture while never forgetting that this purpose can only be fulfilled by crafting a character that is more than a mere plot-device but stands firmly and strongly on its own, a woman that goes beyond the script and feels truly complete instead of just like a part of a whole.
Right from the start, Katharine Hepburn, like Humphrey Bogart, understands that The African Queen is a movie that mixes adventure and romance with a good deal of humor – humor that comes from the characters’ differences, from their relationship and from the circumstances, no matter how serious they may be (‘I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.`). The chemistry between the two leads first comes from the way they both obviously dislike each other’s characters only to fall in love with them very soon. And at all these times, both actors do their best to find the right sparkle in their interactions that keeps The African Queen entertaining and touching. So far, this review always mentioned both Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart – and it’s true, the structure and nature of the movie depends on both actors and both performances are strongly interwoven and, in most parts, depend on each other – but as mentioned in the beginning, Katharine Hepburn was always able to both develop strong relationships with her screen-partners and create characters that independently stood on their own two feet. As previously stated, Rose Sayer combines almost everything that Katharine Hepburn usually presented on the screen. In the beginning, she plays her with the slight arrogance and self-righteousness that Tracy Lord displayed in The Philadelphia Story but, also like Tracy, she already shows the romantic heroine beneath the surface – in her early scenes with Humphrey Bogart, it’s easy to see her dislike for this kind of man and her devotion to her religious brother but the foundation for their later love can already be spotted. During the first parts of The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn also shows her talent for drama as she plays a woman whose life is falling apart in just a short period of time – the death of her brother, the destruction of the village, the fact that she suddenly became part of a war that is mostly fought on another continent. In these moments, she displays her dislike for the Germans with a bitter hatred that motivates her further actions before the movie begins to take a more adventurous tone. After all, it’s Rose’s plan to sink the German gunboat and even though she may act with a certain naivety, her determination to proceed this goal is real. During the first half of The African Queen, she plays Rose with captivating earnest and disapproval of Mr. Allnut’s behavior – maybe because it was the first time that she played a character like this, she also did it without any exaggeration or some of her typical mannerisms. And somehow, only Katharine Hepburn could sit in a little boat in the African jungle, drinking tea or throwing Whisky overboard without becoming annoying or unlikeable.
During The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn takes her character around for about 180 degrees but she does it without interrupting her interpretation. The basis for this transformation was constantly created by her – her way of delivering the line ‘Mr. Allnut’, her facial expressions when she realizes that he only wanted to get close to her during the night because of the rain or her development of the plans to sink the German gunboat all help to see Rosie and Charlie as a match made in heaven. And when the moment of her transformation finally comes, it’s one of the most original, funny, touching and satisfying moments of Katharine Hepburn’s career – her way of touching her face with the back of her hand and the expression on her face as she marvels about the delightfulness of a physical experience turn Rose into an irresistible heroine. It’s a scene that reminds me of the musical Tommy and the lines ‘I’m free! And freedom tastes of reality!’ – the mirror is broken for Rose, all the feelings and emotions that have been locked up inside are allowed to reveal themselves and surprise herself just as much as everybody else. This is also one of the great gifts of Katharine Hepburn in this part – her ability to constantly surprise the viewer, Charlie and herself. She can constantly change the tone of the movie while always staying true to the character – she can delight the audience with her chemistry with Humphrey Bogart and then a few moments later break its heart when she prays in the boat, expecting to die very soon. In her work, she finds a wonderful balance between all the different kinds of genres that The African Queen covers. And in the end, when she proudly declares in front of the Germans that it was their plan to sink their ship and isn’t afraid of the consequences or her moving reaction shots when Charlie wants them to get married before their execution make it clear that Katharine Hepburn creates one of her most vibrant, full, living, exciting and captivating characters.
Overall, Katharine Hepburn has seldom been so deliciously entertaining, so wonderfully amusing and so dramatically heartbreaking in one movie. Rose Sayer is certainly not a very deep or complex character but there is still something almost magical about watching Katharine Hepburn bring her to such splendid life. For all of this, she receives