This year I’m taking part in the ’31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon’, which is hosted by Aurora over at ‘Once Upon A Screen’. For my contribution, I will be providing a detailed account on Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar snub with “The African Queen”.
While on tour for “As You Like It” for the Theatre Guild, at the concluding chapter of 1950, Katharine Hepburn wanted to acquire projects that would broaden her range, and help expand her acting ability. She had already succeeded in disseminating her talent by performing in various Shakespeare productions, most previously being “As You Like It”, and knew that she could transfer her dramatic potential over to the big screen.
At the time, Hepburn was residing at Irene Selznick’s house in Beverly Hills. She was enjoying the congenial environment of Irene’s house, and relishing the things that she loved doing like swimming and tennis. One day while at Irene’s, the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was Sam Spiegel. Sam annunciated over the phone that he was planning on working on a picture with John Huston, titled “The African Queen” by C.S. Forester. Upon asking her if she had read the book, Katharine replied “No”, and Sam retorted “I will send it to you”, as he was anxious to know how she felt about it. As soon as it arrived, Hepburn delved into the book, finding it fascinating as she progressed through each page. She could easily see herself in the role as Rosie. Although, Rose Sayer was English, Katharine knew she was quite adept at portraying an English character, as she has done so before. Immediately she called Sam, and told him that she was impressed with what she read, and was curious of who was going to play the role as Charlie Alnutt. “I’ll come to see you” said Spiegel. When he arrived, they dissertated the full degree of the subject, and discussed all the possible candidates for the role as Charlie. Considering the fact that Charlie had a cockney accent helped narrow it down a bit, so they forged through all possible players. Finally they came to a conclusion. Humphrey Bogart was really the only one that could portray the role as Charlie Alnutt, and if he was to portray a Canadian, the result would be fireworks. As Spiegel was leaving, Hepburn asked him where the filming of the picture would take place. Even though he hesitated at first, Sam said Africa. Katharine agreed with that, as after all the title of the film was called “The African Queen”.
A few days later a bunch of flowers arrived at the door for Katharine, inscribed was “You are unique Katie darling”. Hepburn was elated. She was even more euphoric when she found out that Bogart agreed to be in the film. Katie was enthusiastic about working with Humphrey Bogart. At this stage she had never met him, but had always been an ardent supporter. The starting date for “The African Queen” was fast approaching, but after several problems with the script, they were awaiting for the revised copy. Days past and still no script.
When the day arrived, Katharine departed for London with Phyllis Wilbourn and Constance Collier. Katharine’s mother had recently passed away so she was feeling very melancholy about that, and the late arrival of the script. The only thing she was receiving were warm telegrams of condolences on the sudden death of her mother. More obstacles ensued when they disembarked in London. First up she was desperately needing to use the bathroom so she asked Miss Dipper, the publicity lady if they had any bathrooms in the gas station, the answer was a blatant no. The hotels were the only places that had restrooms, and you couldn’t use them unless you were staying at the hotel. She begged and pleaded, but only to no avail, so she had to forbear it for a while. Also she needed to call her old friend in England, so she could avoid the terror of arriving in London and having nobody care less or realizing that they were in town. They scoured around for a telephone booth until finally they found a booth on the side on the road. Hepburn called her friend only to discover that the number she was trying to call had been disconnected. After a slight altercation with the operator on the other end of the line, Hepburn then decided to hang up, and try to focus on finding a toilet, but first of all she had to return to the publicist. Luckily Miss Dipper had some errands to make, and that gave Katharine the opportunity to dissect the whole vicinity for a restroom. The pain was exacerbating, and she definitely had to find a bathroom very soon. In a vast distance, across the highway, she distinguished of what looked to be a stone wall with a park behind it. She scurried over there as fast as she could thinking that the park would have amenities, but it was just a barren reserve with nothing in sight. In severe desperation she had to resort to cowering behind the wall.
The following Monday there was to be a large press conference for the assembled cast and crew, where they would discuss costumes. Michael Benthall sought advice with the costumes from Doris Langley Moore, who had a costume museum. The advice given was that the clothes must look real and not like a fancy dress party. Humphrey Bogart was present with Lauren Bacall. Hepburn became acquainted to both Bogart and Bacall, drank wine, and discussed production, and the script that still hadn’t arrived. On Wednesday, April 18th, Hepburn visited Doris Langley Moore in her costume museum. She explored Moore’s fascinating collection including Victoria’s underpants with a fifty inch waistline. Katie borrowed the different costumes to take back to the hotel to show John Huston. Shortly after Hepburn and Bogart’s costumes were carefully chosen.
On May 13th, “The African Queen” company were scheduled to leave for Rome. Leaving Phyllis and Constance in London, Hepburn boarded the flight, and met up with the others, minus Bogart and Bacall as they were already there. In Rome she stayed with Fran Rich, who was studying sculpture. While in Rome, she engaged in some sightseeing activities with Fran. Spencer Tracy was in Naples at the time, and a few days after arriving in Rome, Fran drove Katharine to Naples to meet Spencer, picked him up, and drove him to the Grand Hotel where he was to stay. After a few days with Spencer, Katharine departed Rome for Africa.
The plane consisted of eight berths. The Bogart’s shared the lower berth while Hepburn occupied the top berth. Dramas arose again for Katharine on the flight. For years Hepburn had a major concern in being able to make it to the bathroom especially with over excitement. Everywhere she went there was always a distance between her and the restrooms. When she climbed up onto her berth she had discovered what looked to be a cardboard pot, so she thought that any bathroom troubles were provided for. After reading for a bit she switched off the light, and went to sleep. Four o’clock came, and mother nature came calling, so she quickly grabbed the pot. To her horror the pot wasn’t really a pot, it had a hole in the bottom. What a disaster. The sheets and the mattress were soaked, resulting in Bogart and Bacall copping it in the lower berth as well.
Finally they arrived in Africa. Their first destination was Leopoldville, which is practically on the equator. On arrival they were welcomed to a deluge of photographers, French speaking Belgians, a hot hotel with no air conditioner or panes of glass in the windows, beds covered with mosquito nets, bugs, and limited water supply. The crew were to be up at 4:00 am the following morning to head to Stanleyville situated on the Belgian Congo. They were met by Peter Viertel. In her book “The Making Of The African Queen” Hepburn described Viertel as an absolute angel who was helpful and kind to everyone. He sort of became their savior while they were there. Katharine liked Stanleyville, and thought it was a charming little town. Peter guided them to the Pourquoi Pas Hotel, nestled right on the Congo. The Pourquoi Pas was more commodious than the accommodation in Leopoldville. It had two large sections, the meals and dining building and the sleeping building, all pitched under a capacious three stories. Adjoining the hotel was an outside staircase that led up to a spacious room with a porch over looking the river, that was the Bogart’s room. Located on the ground floor on the street was a dark and dreary room with no privacy. That room belonged to Katharine. Indignant, Hepburn stormed to the manager about the rooms. “Who the hell has arranged the rooms?” she shouted. No response, and no action. She asked who else in the company was housed there? Again no answer. She found out by herself that the accountant and auditor had a lovely and peaceful room next to the Bogart’s. In frustration and anger, she barged into their room, and quickly threw everything in the suitcase that was laying on the floor and ordered for the stuff to be sent down to her room.
After a few more days in Stanleyville, the company were to travel to Biondo, and were going to be treated to proper clothes for the jungle on their arrival. The other cast and crew had already received their clothing, but there was nothing for Katharine. She didn’t care as she was much more comfortable in her own wardrobe, and thought that her items must be late. A few days passed and there was still nothing for Kate. By now she was starting to feel left out, and started to develop a rather choleric mood. While in Stanleyville, Hepburn’s mood worsened when she had to endure one of Stanleyville’s tempestuous thunderstorms. The after mass of these storms cause mud roads, which can be a problem. Luckily the “African Queen” crew never had to face that situation, but they did get soaked in the mud roads, which did cause some difficulty, but Katharine was thankful that she was dressed for the weather. When it wasn’t stormy, it was sunny, and the extreme African heat seemed to worry most of the crowd, but it didn’t seem to worry Kate. She played golf, rode a bicycle, and did whatever exercise she could. Hepburn had always suffered from bad skin, so in the extreme heat she would wear her large straw Mexican Sombrero, adorned with long sleeves and turtle necks. She also applied special cream to her face each night to help stop infections, it seemed to work, and she was well protected from the sunlight.
In the sweltering heat in Africa the crew were warned not to drink the water, it’s known to be poisonous, and even brushing your teeth in it is a risk, but while Katharine took cautions about drinking it, she found the water to be spectacular, describing it like honey, and great to shower in. It really moistens and rejuvenates your skin instead of drying it out, but while she enjoyed showering in the water, it was not always easy to be able to take a shower, and if she did, she would sometimes have the company of a snake, or have the ominous task of removing spiders and ants from the tub, and dodging the flying objects and lizards that may drop down on you from above.
Katharine was welcomed to a modish, capacious bedroom with two French windows and a balcony that looks over the Congo. The room was congenial in presence. It was adorned with two comfortable chairs, a wardrobe and a desk. The bed was covered by a netting, and a straw pillow for sleeping. At night, she would hear the sound of drums playing from the native village across the river, which delivered a charming and peaceful sound to their bungalows. The only thing Katharine found hard to adjust to was the late breakfast, which was always delivered to her bedroom on a tray. Hepburn was always an early riser, and was accustomed to eating early, but she found everything to be done in slow motion. Another problem she encountered was the different languages spoken. There was a mixture of Swahili and broken French, and nobody that could speak or understand fluent English, so for them to understand the cast and crew members was a constant battle. Although the locals were amicable, and chauffeured them around. They sometimes invited them to play golf at their club, which was situated in the jungle.
One of those days, Katharine, Bogart, and Bacall, visited the fishing village. To get to the village they had to hire a motor boat, and the one that they hired was hot after having the engine exposed all day. Anyway one of the locals came to start the engine, and upon starting it a huge explosion occurred, resulting in the whole thing going up in flames. The flames were at least twenty feet high, putting one of the men in danger until Bogart stepped in and put the fire out by smothering it with a blanket.
During the next five days, Katharine retired to her room in the afternoons, studying her script. Most days it was too hot to do anything but take a nap and wait for the day to approach that they leave for Biondo. When the day approached they peregrinated to Biondo, and their camp which was set out right in the middle of the jungle near the Ruiki River. Once they reached Biondo they encountered a priest who owned a tiny chapel and schoolhouse. The vicinity of Biondo was small, and the Ruiki River was only sixty feet wide and curving very black water which epitomized the beautiful reflections of the lush green banks. Their first location was the burial for Robert Morley’s character Rev. Samuel Sayer, who was to portray Rose’s brother in the film. The only way to travel to the destination was by The African Queen itself, it was two or three miles up the river, and only accessible by boat. After much chaos trying to reach the burial, they found the right section and examined the area so they could start filming the scene the next day, their first working day.
The following morning Katharine awoke to the sound of heavy rain. She got up and started to prepare breakfast when she looked outside and observed the black sky, hoping that they wouldn’t start filming today. Seconds later Bogart appeared with his hair all tousled and standing up on end, and then came Lauren following him in a green robe. Suddenly John Huston emerged and announced that it’s time to amass everything and start preparing for the first day of shooting.
Filming started, and so did the array of disasters that would ensue. Firstly they discovered that there were no chairs, dressing rooms, and toilets. Katharine had to set up a dressing room in the middle of the jungle, and hang mirrors on the trees. For the toilet situation, Hepburn and Lauren would have to sneak off in the trees, often pursued by curious natives. Lauren Bacall took over the food duty, preparing tin food for over forty people, but the eating hours would be late. Then there were altercations with the weather. In Uganda and The Belgian Congo the weather was very hot, and filming in this heat was unbearable and often hard to concentrate on the scene. Then they had to brave snakes, spiders, ants, all sorts of insects, and sicknesses during the vicissitude of filming.
A few days into filming Katharine got sick, and wasn’t capable of doing anything but sleep. As soon as she recovered, she continued on with filming in the hot heat, and then another sickness occurred, but she kept on working as she knew she was needed, doing the best she can with great difficulty. Every time she ate she would throw up, and eating hot food was very hazardous, so she decided to drink plenty of water, and so did many others, which resulted in most of the cast and crew falling down with sickness. Later they found out that the water was polluted.
Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart ignite the screen in this classic indelible masterpiece directed by John Huston. The story takes place at the beginning of World War 1 in Kungdu, German East Africa in the year of 1914. Rose and Samuel Sayer ( Katharine Hepburn and Robert Morley ) are brother and sister British Methodist missionaries who have been residing in Kungdu for ten years. Charlie Allnut ( Humphrey Bogart ) is the mail deliverer. He hails from Canada, and is rough and ready in appearance, so the Sayers hold little tolerance for him.
After the War breaks out, Samuel is beaten by a German soldier, and later becomes delirious and dies. Shortly after Charlie returns and helps Rose bury her brother before setting sail on Charlie’s boat “The African Queen”. On their journey down the river they strike many obstacles including Queen Louisa (actually Königin Luise in German), which patrols a large lake downriver, effectively blocking any British counter-attacks.
“The African Queen” premiered on December 23rd, 1951 in Los Angeles, in order to qualify for the 1951 Oscars. Humphrey Bogart attained the Oscar for ‘Best Actor In A Leading Role’ while Katharine Hepburn was nominated for the same title, but lost to Vivien Leigh, who obtained the Oscar that year for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.
I personally feel that Katharine was robbed of the Oscar as she was more deserving of it than Vivien. While Vivien Leigh didn’t have to endure any location filming, or very minimal if any, Katharine Hepburn travelled to Africa, and survived crew and cast illnesses, mechanical errors, inclement weather, and snakes, ants, and other insects in their allocated areas.
Bogart and Hepburn not only give great performances, they are also wonderful together, and they make the on-screen relationship between their characters believable and interesting – it’s great to watch as it develops. The adventures that they find are that much more entertaining for the way that you come to care about them. The story itself is exciting, too, with a lot of ups and downs for the heroes. Topping it off are the wonderful settings, with a lot of fine shots of wild animals and jungle scenery – there is always plenty to look at, and it also sets off the action nicely.