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Considered an underdog film at the time that the studio didn’t know how to market, The African Queen floated into movie theaters with great success, even earning an Oscar win for Humphrey Bogart and Oscar nominations for Katharine Hepburn and director John Huston.
1. The book was almost adapted earlier.
Bette Davis and husband-wife duo, Charles Loughton and Elsa Lancaster, were interested in starring in adaptions of C. S. Forester’s 1935 novel. After John Huston mentioned his desire to direct the piece, producer Sam Spiegel bought the rights with Humphrey Bogart in mind for the lead. It was considered an independent film, which was especially rare during the studio era.
2. The lead changed to fit Bogie.
Originally, the male lead had a cockney accent. However, Spiegel wanted Bogart and the part changed to accommodate him. Katharine Hepburn said, “[Can] you imagine anyone but Bogie playing the part? He was really it – hook, line and sinker.” Hepburn didn’t know Bogart or Huston at the time, but also got the part through Spiegel, after he sent her the book to read.
3. They shot parts in Africa.
It was especially rare at the time to shoot on location, and even more rare to go to Africa. Hepburn felt that the movie had to be made on the continent for authenticity sake, but she also just wanted to travel there. In fact, she accepted the part before the script (which she wasn’t quite satisfied with) was even finished. She even played golf while there. While many scenes were filmed in Africa, some had to be shot in California.
4. Bacall joined the trip.
Bogie and Lauren Bacall were married in 1945, and the two made quite the Hollywood romance. Hepburn remembered, “She and Bogie seemed to have the most enormous opinion of each other’s charms, and when they fought it was with the utter confidence of two cats locked deliciously in the same cage.” Bacall didn’t just come for the view though. She assisted with getting food for the busy crew and acting as a nurse when many fell ill.
5. Robert Morley wanted to work with Hepburn.
Hepburn was surprised Morley accepted his part because, as she put it, he was a “big London star”. In fact, Morley joined the production late because he was performing in The Little Hut in London, and a double was used for the burial scene. When Hepburn asked why he accepted the role, he said it would be “rather fun to play your brother”. Too bad his character didn’t last long.
6. They stayed out of the water.
Bilharzia is a bug found in polluted water that can enter a host through their pores. Even worse, they can cause boils in the urinary tract and in some cases, be fatal. As a result, scenes that required the leads to be in water were filmed in a tank at the studio. However, the first water tank burst, but thankfully, no one was injured.
7. Bugs were a bug.
Thankfully, the leeches used on their bodies were rubber. However, real bugs were still an issue. Bogie got a jigger between his toes. A local was able to remove the pest though, which was important, as incorrectly doing so could have led to blood poisoning. Soldier ants were also an issue. After being away, Bogie and Bacall returned to their hut to find it covered in ants. Hepburn was bitten severely by ants when they invaded her hut, but her costumes covered the bites.
8. Hepburn found inspiration from Mrs. Roosevelt.
Huston worried that if Hepburn played her part too angrily the changing relationship between the leads wouldn’t feel natural. So he likened her character to Eleanor Roosevelt and called out the smile that she often wore when visiting the wounded, despite her insecurities about her beauty. The direction helped Kate, and she called it the best pierce of direction that she ever heard. “I was his from there on in,” she said.
9. The film inspired a book.
Peter Viertel was an uncredited screenwriter for The African Queen that was brought in to help craft the ending of the film. Viertel was so influenced by the experience that he crafted a fictional account entitled White Hunter Black Heat and ran the manuscript by John Huston for his approval. Huston suggested changes, which to his surprise made the Huston-character less likable. The novel was adapted in 1990 with Clint Eastwood as the Huston-character.
10. HUAC influenced the film.
In the 1940s, McCarthyism’s spotlight fell on Hollywood. Links and perceived links to communism ended or derailed the careers of actors, writers, and directors. Even Huston, Bogart, Bacall, and Hepburn were suspected of having ties to Communism because of their ideology. Some view The African Queen as their response, since the main characters come up against and prevail over the Germans.
11. There were multiple “boats”.
A boat built in 1912 was purchased and named The African Queen. However, it was impossible to fit the crew for lights, camera, and sound on the boat, and so parts of the boat were built on a raft that had enough space. It wasn’t easy work, and they had to deal with engine problems, tangled propellers, hornets, other boats in the way, and even their own boat sinking. There was also a small miniature boat used for shots of them going through rough rapids.