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The AFI Top 100 Films: The African Queen (#17)

Entertainment 150The African Queen (1957)
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn
Written by James Agee & John Huston (screenplay) and C.S. Forester (novel)
Directed by John Huston

There’s really nothing else quite like The African Queen. Set (and filmed!) in Africa, it tells the story of a missionary’s sister Rose Sayer (Hepburn) fleeing the region after Germany deemed her brother a “hostile foreigner”. His hut is burned down and he is beaten so badly that he remains addled for the few days it takes him to die of fever. With nothing left for her at the village she worked in, she decided to leave on the only transport she could, the titular river-boat captained by hard-drinking grump-meister Charlie Allnut (Bogart).

The pair learns of a rather nasty German submarine sitting in a lake nearby, blocking off access to this part of the region. Not content with merely escaping, Rose decides to do her part for the war effort and blow it up with a home-made torpedo or two. At first Charlie isn’t having any of it, but as the pair travels down the river together they grow closer in mind and spirit. They fight over just about everything, even still, but they look past those differences towards the bond that being in such a terrible situation gives you.

It’s the bond between the characters and the wonderful chemistry between the actors who play them that gives the movie it’s charm. Bogart is really in his element here as Allnut, a crude riverboat captain who’s really only looking to do his job and drink a lot. Hepburn channels her steel spine well into Rose, the high-minded religious woman who seeks to drive Charlie to a higher purpose. And through her uncompromising yet mostly genial nature, she herds him there through the distraction of the bottle and “meager” self-preservation.

When she’s able to channel him into a place where their interests align and things flow smoothly, the effect is electric. It’s like sailing a ship into the current, or channeling base instinct towards a constructive purpose. You’re always shocked by how swiftly and efficiently things get done. That’s the magic between these two at work; you see how well they fit together because of their differences, and it makes you believe in the idea of two opposing yet complementary forces. The id and the super-ego joining to propel the individual towards impossible achievements.

They sure do have to suffer a lot to learn that, though. Not only do they have to navigate each other’s personalities, but they have to deal with the very real dangers of the river as well. Swarms of flies, the tricky rapids and currents that lead the Queen into dead spots that must then be dragged through. The scenes of Rose and Charlie dealing with the elements are incredible, shot with a realism that makes you feel terrible for them and horrified at just some of the many delights the African wilderness can inflict on unsuspecting travelers. Knowing that director John Huston and his stars also had to deal with a lot of tough conditions to film on location only adds to that reaction; Hepburn was sick with dysentery for much of the movie, and they used real leeches for a particularly awful scene.

african-queen

Not pictured: nightmare fuel.

Another interesting thing about The African Queen — and one of the things that makes it a bit more timeless than other films of its type — is it really gives you a sense of the unique geography of Africa without diving into the thorny socio-political and racial issues of the time. You don’t see too many African jungle adventures that don’t need to come with the disclaimer of “Some racist things happen in this movie, but that’s just the way people thought at the time.” It was nice to have that.

The final set-piece — when the Queen and her crew finally reach the lake where the German sub is positioned — skews things in a distinctly Hollywood direction, but it’s still quite well done. The tonal shift isn’t so jarring it negates the realism of what’s come before, and both Hepburn and Bogart are so charming they pull it off with a minimum of questioning. The African Queen represents old-school filmmaking at its finest while still offering something unique to this day. It’s a great adventure worth getting wrapped up in.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Philadelphia Story (#51)

Entertainment 150The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart
Directed by George Cukor
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart (screenplay) and Phillip Barry (original play)

In the very first scene of The Philadelphia Story, we see wealthy socialite CK Dexter Haven (Grant) packing his bags into his trunk angrily. His wife Tracy Lord (Hepburn) follows him out, carrying his golf clubs. She rips out his driver and breaks it over her knee. In retaliation, he puts his hand on her face and shoves her right back through the doorway. It’s shocking, but the chemistry and comic timing of Grant and Hepburn are so good that it comes off funny instead of violent. And it wonderfully sets the tone for the relationship of the divorced couple as well as the movie based around them.

Two years later, Lord is preparing to marry an ambitious businessman (John Howard) even though not everyone’s sure it’s such a good match. Haven has his doubts about it, so he hires two journalists to cover the event — and hopefully ruin the wedding. Just to make things even more awkward, he arrives as a third unannounced guest. What follows is a carefully structured unraveling of the nuptials and everyone’s relationships, so that by the end of the movie even though some things are completely destroyed you have the feeling that everything’s been set right.

This isn’t an easy thing to do. So many things could have gone wrong here. Lord is a severe woman who could have easily come off as cold and mean if not for the wonderfully manic energy, warmth and vulnerability Hepburn brings to the role. Grant plays ‘old money’ down to a T, and even though he spends most of the movie sniping with Hepburn he comes across as affable and smooth. Stewart is the biggest risk here, as one of the hired journalists. I’ve only seen him in noble, nice-guy roles and here he plays someone who can only be described as a jaded asshole. Totally different dressing, but he wears it well.

All of the characters have deep flaws that aren’t only exposed for all to see, but dissected in detail. Hepburn’s socialite Lord gets the worst of it, and it’s no small feat that she comes away as well-regarded as she does. Despite the sniping and constant jockeying for social position, there’s a clear love that shines through between the characters, and I’d like to think this is because of the easy camaraderie between the principal actors. Hepburn, Grant and Stewart apparently never needed another take of their scenes, despite ad-libbing quite a bit. That’s even more impressive to think about when you watch the middle of the film, the alcohol-soaked party and after-party in which the flinty shells everyone’s wearing starts to dissolve. The revelation of character and the easy, organic comedy that’s given equal measure is truly a sight to behold.

The energy ramps down towards the end, once Lord has learned her lesson and the villain (as much as there is one) is dispatched. People start pairing off happily, and I have to say this is the weakest part of the movie. Lord’s character arc is strongest here, and it wraps up well enough, but there’s not much left for the other characters to suggest they’ve made the movements they need to take towards the film’s resolution. So a lot of the emotional notes ring false right when they’re supposed to be truest, which is a bit of a let-down considering how great things were chugging along before.

Even still, Lord’s arc is a really good one. In order to love someone properly, you must be aware of and accepting of their flaws. She wasn’t even aware of how harsh she could be until it was brought to her attention (granted, in a really terrible way by her absentee father) and she learned how to face the consequences of a terrible mistake she never actually made. Having someone leading her by the hand to show her a bit of grace was the very thing she needed to learn how to be graceful herself.

I tend to have a hot-and-cold relationship with the screwball comedies of old; sometimes the frenzied energy just leaves me behind and I simply can’t connect with anything on the screen. The Philadelphia Story is certainly quick, but it slows down to breathe when it needs to and some of the best scenes are when two people take a break to really get to know each other’s point of view. Everyone involved really knows what they’re about, and for the most part it gives the movie a breezy, effortless energy that carries it through quite well. Any fan of Hepburn, Grant or Stewart should definitely give this a look.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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