On Feb. 20, 1952, The African Queen opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York. The sweeping drama was nominated for four Oscars at the 24th Academy Awards, claiming a win for Humphrey Bogart as best actor. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
As charming as the C.S. Forester novel on which it is based, The African Queen is top flight entertainment, delightful, different, always interesting. It is filled with excitement and adventure and sparked by superlative performances from Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
Filmed in Africa by S.P. Eagle, the production is a stunning pictorial display, wonderfully accurate in its atmospheric values and eye-arresting scenery. The backgrounds add considerably to the enormous credibility found in this narrative about the daring odyssey made through the jungle by a missionary’s straight laced sister and a dissolute adventurer.
The script, as adapted by James Agee and John Huston, does full justice to Forester’s beloved work. It is a brilliant writing job, witty, incisive in its characters, warmly human in the unfoldment of its beguiling love story. Huston’s direction is an extraordinary job considering that for the most part he is working with but two players, a condition that is barely noticeable because of the smart dialogue, the tremendously dramatic situations and the vivid action sequences that highlight the dangerous adventure.
The onlooker’s attention bears of no distraction during the 104 minutes of The African Queen — quite a feat of production ingenuity, directorial resourcefulness and acting genius. The picture is an attraction bound to appeal to sophisticated audiences but it also possesses the ingredients of a popular success, drama, romance and action. Certainly it is a film that will be talked about, and this will help its bright box office prospects further.
At the outbreak of World War I, German troops fire on a Congo village and drive off the natives. The shock kills missionary Robert Morley, leaving his sister, Katharine Hepburn, alone. She is taken on the “African Queen,” a decrepit river streamer owned by Canadian Humphrey Bogart.
He proposes to sit out the war in the backwaters, but Hepburn insists on a daring plan to take the Queen down uncharted rivers to a lake, there to destroy a 100-foot German gunboat that commands the only invasion route open to British forces. He protests the fantastic scheme, but Hepburn is a stern woman and convinces him that it can be done.
The rest of the story is the drama of their trip and the loosening of the formal relations between the contrasting pair. As they fall in love, the perils around them increase, and their brave scheme seems doomed to failure. With their boat sunk beneath them they are arrested by the Germans, sentenced to die. They ask to be married before the hanging. Fate takes a hand in saving them, just as it should, for any but a happy ending to this gallant saga would be incongruous.
Proving he is a good enough actor not to play Humphrey Bogart forever, “Bogie” gives the performance of his career as Charlie Allnut. He’s a delightful ne’er-do-well, charming, courteous, quietly heroic. He’s the surprise of The African Queen and the finesse of his portrayal ought to bring new life into his career.
Katharine Hepburn is superb as Rose, the tight-lipped, straight-laced missionary who reacts to the thrill of adventure and to her meeting with a truly brave man. Using a minimum of gesture and intoning the enchanting lines in her extraordinary voice, she makes the girl real, believable and loveable.
Robert Morley is splendid in his brief spot as her brother. Peter Bull, as the captain of the German ship, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell and the others are splendid. Jack Cardiff’s exciting Technicolor photography, the arresting art direction of Wilfred Shingleton, the music of Alan Gray and musical direction of Norman Del Mar are exceptionally fine technical contributions. Ralph Kemplen did the top editing. — originally published on Dec. 26, 1951.