By the time cast and crew of “The African Queen” arrived in England in 1951 after their grueling shoot in Uganda and Congo, “all of them, except for Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) and Huston (director John Huston) had gotten sick,” recalls Theodore Bikel. “They were pretty worn out.”
And looking at the film — newly restored for a Paramount Home Video DVD and Blu-ray release on sale Tuesday — you can see why. An actress who made a career of never letting us see her sweat, Katharine Hepburn most certainly does, as does her co-star, who won an Oscar for his performance. A film that has become legend is brought vividly back to life in this newly struck edition.
“You can feel the heat and see in their faces how incredibly hot and miserable this shoot must have been,” says Ron Smith, vice president for Restoration for Paramount. “Especially Bogart. Just standing there, talking with Kate early in the movie, leaning on a railing, you see the sweat just pouring down his face and body.”
On the new DVD, the perspiration glistens and the makeup streaks, but the cast never wilts in this epic-comic romance of World War I Africa. “It looks ... significantly richer and fresher than before,” writes Jeffrey Wells on his movie buff’s blog, Hollywood-elsewhere.
And it’s all thanks to Technicolor, Smith explains. The “three strip” film process for color movies of the era used three separate pieces of celluloid to capture the color spectrum. Film that appears black and white until it is “decoded,” it survived almost 60 years in better shape because regular color negatives fade more quickly.
“But when you don’t align the three strips together properly when you’re making a print of the movie, you lose the sharpness,” Smith says. “All I’d ever seen was sort of milky, foggy images. That’s what we wanted to correct here.”
One of Hollywood’s most beloved films is not stored there, but in England, as Huston, Bogart and Co. made what was, for its day, a European-financed independent film. Smith’s technicians had to have the film strips projected, then digitally converted. That digital data shipped stateside before they could clean it up.
“I never realized how sharp it would look,” Smith says. “There’s a crispness there that really brings home the reality of shooting a film in Africa.”
Bikel, 85, is the last surviving credited member of the cast. He recalls his double good fortune related to “The African Queen” that includes missing the toughest part of filming — in Africa. As the first officer on the German gunboat Luisa that Bogie and Hepburn travel down river to sink, his scenes were shot on soundstages and in water tanks outside of London.
“Queen” also was Bikel’s first film and led to a 60-year screen career that includes “The Defiant Ones,” “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and the recent Israeli coming-of-age drama “The Little Traitor.” A folk singer and stage actor at the time, Bikel relishes a photo of him playing guitar on the set to cast and crew in between takes. It’s part of the DVD’s special features.
Bikel learned the screen actor’s motto, “Less is more,” on the Shepperton soundstages and in the water tank there. He recalls marveling over Bogart’s ability to hear lines “mumbled to him by a script supervisor” while getting into makeup, “then delivering this perfectly built performance by the time the camera rolled.
“And from Katharine Hepburn, I learned how one should behave on a film set. She was American New England Brahmin aristocracy, so gracious, a true noble lady,” Bikel recalls. “With that nobility came a simplicity, too. She peddled around the set on a bicycle. When we did water scenes, at night, shooting in the cold, she rowed up in a boat. With brandy and rum — ‘So that you don’t catch cold, dear.’”