'The African Queen' new on DVD after more than 50 years

"The African Queen" had numerous problems behind the scenes, including dysentery among the cast and soldier ants on the set.
"The African Queen" had numerous problems behind the scenes, including dysentery among the cast and soldier ants on the set. (Paramount Home Entertainment)
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

More than five decades after being released in theaters, "The African Queen" -- director John Huston's beloved 1951 adventure about a gin-tippling boat captain (Humphrey Bogart) and a prim missionary (Katharine Hepburn) -- has finally made it to DVD ($19.99) and Blu-ray ($26.99).

The first, most obvious question: What the heck took so long? Or, as one fan so eloquently put it on an online DVD message board: "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, said several factors contributed to the holdup, most notably the fact that it took several years to locate the original negative, which restorers needed to bring the film quality up to DVD and Blu-ray standards.

Although the wait was long, it's clear that Paramount's desire to treat this "Queen" lovingly has reaped rewards. Every piece of imagery -- from the lush green of the African brush to the sweat beads dotting Hepburn's sharply defined cheekbones -- 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 German patrol boat and, naturally, fall in love, still charms and captivates, primarily because of its magnetic leads. Bogart, who won his only Oscar for 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 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 of the story behind "The African Queen" knows that the production, which took place largely in Africa, was plagued with problems -- from the difficulties of managing the massive Technicolor camera, outbreaks of dysentery among cast and crew, and a mass infestation of soldier ants on the set. A one-hour documentary, "Embracing Chaos: The Making of 'The African Queen,' " the only extra on the release, nicely captures the details of that disorganization, featuring colorful interviews with crew members and film historians. (My favorite piece of trivia? Hepburn had to keep a bucket beside her while filming the piano scene that opens the film so she could vomit between takes.)

Commemorative limited-edition sets of "African Queen" have also been released this week on DVD ($34.99) and Blu-ray ($43.99), featuring such additional material as collectible postcards, an audio CD of the Lux Radio Theater's broadcast of "The African Queen" and 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," which reveals even more personal details about what happened during those happy, wretched, malaria-ridden days spent creating a classic.

More special features -- commentary from a film critic, for instance -- would have been nice to have on the regular release. But given the long and arduous journey it took to get this marvelous film onto DVD, perhaps we should be satisfied with what we have: a gem of a movie, finally preserved in digital form.

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