By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; 12:00 AM
More than five decades since its release in theaters, and after years of queries and complaints from classic movie buffs distressed by its absence from DVD, it has arrived. "The African Queen" -- John Huston's beloved 1951 adventure about a gin-tippling boat captain (Humphrey Bogart) and a prim missionary (Katharine Hepburn) careening down a Belgian Congo river on a barely stable boat -- finally makes its debut today on DVD ($19.99) and Blu-ray ($26.99).
The first, most obvious question: What the heck took so long? Or, as a fan once eloquently put it two years ago while posting one of the many incredulous comments found on online DVD message boards: "I can't believe that 'Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie' is available on DVD, but not 'African Queen.'"
Ron Smith, vice-president of restoration for Paramount Pictures, says the hold-up can be attributed to several factors, most notably the fact that it took several years to get access to the original negative, something restorers needed to bring the film quality up to DVD and Blu-ray standards.
While the wait may have been unnecessarily long, it's clear that Paramount's desire to treat this "Queen" lovingly has reaped the desired rewards. Every piece of imagery -- from the lush green of the African brush to the sweat beads that dot Hepburn's sharply-defined cheeks -- looks crisp and vibrant. And the story itself, which follows our mismatched-yet-made-for-each-other duo as they attempt to torpedo a World War I-era German patrol boat and, naturally, fall in love in the process, still charms and captivates, primarily because of its two magnetic leads. Bogart, who won his one and only Oscar thanks to this picture, alternates believably between good-natured drunkard and grizzled belligerent in the part of Charlie Allnut, while Hepburn brings a notable lack of vanity to her Academy Award-nominated role as a middle-aged woman finally finding liberation in a romance born on a river. One of the many great, small pleasures of "The African Queen" is simply hearing the way Hepburn repeatedly lets Charlie's name -- "Mr. Allnut" -- roll off her oh-so-civilized tongue.
Anyone with rudimentary knowledge about the backstory behind "The African Queen" already knows that the production of the film, which took place largely in Africa, was plagued with problems, ranging from the difficulties of managing the massive Technicolor camera, to outbreaks of dysentery among cast and crew, to a mass infestations of soldier ants on the set. The one-hour documentary "Embracing Chaos: The Making of 'The African Queen'" -- the only extra included on the collections -- does a nice job of capturing the details of all that disorganization, featuring interviews with members of the crew and film historians who do a colorful job of recounting the tale. (My favorite piece of trivia? The fact that Hepburn had to keep a bucket beside her while filming the piano scene that opens the film, so she could vomit between takes.)
The commemorative limited-edition sets of "African Queen," also out today on DVD ($34.99) and Blu-ray ($43.99), provide additional materials (collectible postcards, a CD that contains audio from the Lux Radio Theater's broadcast of "The African Queen"), including a reprint of Hepburn's out-of-print memoir, "The Making of The African Queen, or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind," that tells us even more personal details about what happened during those happy, wretched, malaria-ridden days spent creating a classic.
Yes, additional special features -- like a commentary from a film critic, for example -- might have been nice. But given the long, arduous journey it took to get this marvelous film onto DVD -- a journey that, like both the plot and production of "African Queen," stand as incontrovertible proof that nothing is ever easy -- perhaps we should just be satisfied with what we have: a gem of a movie, finally preserved forever in digital form.