Humphrey Bogart's son reflects on 'The African Queen' and why the film couldn't be made today: 'It's just a different time'

Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut and Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer in the 1951 classic, The African Queen, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut and Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer in the 1951 classic, The African Queen, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)

Humphrey Bogart made more than 80 feature films during his decades-long Hollywood career. But according to his son, Stephen Bogart, there are only five movies that people need to watch to understand the legendary actor’s place in movie history. That list includes High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, the latter of which is returning to theaters for a 70th anniversary screening on July 18 and 21 as part of the TCM Big-Screen Classics Series curated by TCM and Fathom Events. Directed by Bogart’s friend and frequent collaborator John Huston, The African Queen offers viewers the rare chance to see the actor — who defined black-and-white glamor for so much of his career — in glorious color.

“I remember him more in black and white anyway,” admits the younger Bogart, who was only 8 years old when his father died of esophageal cancer in 1957. “Which is strange! My life wasn't black and white growing up, but that's how I perceive him. And I do love black-and-white movies. You don’t see them much now, but they added a lot to the craft of filmmaking and I think they were a lot harder to direct. But it’s true that The African Queen is one of the rare times where you see my dad in color, and it is different. It makes the film more relatable to people because we live in a color world.”

The African Queen also stands apart from the other four films on Bogart’s must-watch list, because it’s the lone comedy — albeit one that’s fused with plenty of action. Based on C.S. Forester's 1935 novel and shot largely on location in Africa, the World War I-era story stars Bogart as riverboat pilot, Charlie Allnut, who tries to transport Methodist missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) after her brother is killed by German soldiers. While sailing downriver aboard the titular vessel, the odd couple duo plot a bold attack on enemy ships… and fall in love in the process. “I never really thought of it as a comedy, but I understand where you're coming from,” Stephen Bogart muses. “His relationship with Katie is funny, even if they don't play it as funny."

According to multiple accounts — including Hepburn's own memoir — making the movie wasn't all that funny, either. Almost the entire cast and crew got sick while filming in Uganda and the Congo, save for Bogart himself. His son says that was due to the fact that the actor only drank bourbon the entire time he was in Africa. "Neither John Huston nor my father got sick," he says, chuckling. "Huston was one of the first directors to go on location, and I think that my father probably thought of it as a great adventure."

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12:  Writer Stephen Bogart attends The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Metrograph special screening of
Stephen Bogart attends a special screening of The African Queen in January 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images/The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) (Lars Niki via Getty Images)

Accompanying Bogart on his grand adventure was his third wife, Lauren Bacall, who was 19 when she met and fell in love with the 43-year-old actor on the set of 1944's To Have and Have Not. Stephen Bogart was born in 1949, and his parents made the choice to leave him in Los Angeles while they flew to Africa. In a macabre incident that he recounts in his 2012 memoir, Bogart: In Search of My Father, the younger Bogart says that his governess died on the tarmac of the airport as his parents' plane took off.

"How often does that happen," he jokes now. "My mother landed and they said, 'Guess what? The governess died.' And my mother said, 'I'm going to Africa,' so my grandmother flew out [to L.A.] instead. I can't blame her — you think she wanted to be in L.A. with a screaming kid or in Africa with Bogie? I think the choice is obvious! I'm actually surprised they didn't try to work her into the movie somewhere, but he main assignment was to go out there and help out where she could and have fun."

Huston's on-location photography and Bogart and Hepburn's dynamic chemistry still makes The African Queen fun to watch 70 years after its release. (Bogart would win his first and only Oscar for the film.) But the movie is also very much a product of its specific era, and finding ways to discuss pop culture from the past is a still-evolving conversation at TCM. Earlier this year, the classic movie channel debuted the series Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror, which took fresh looks at films like Gone With the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, evaluating what made it into the frame, and what was left out.

In the case of The African Queen, the most notable omission now is the lack of any Black characters in significant roles. Instead, the movie — like Forster's book — is centered almost exclusively around two white heroes, and the white soldiers pursuing them. Bogart acknowledges that a contemporary version of The African Queen couldn't make the same creative choice. "It wouldn't be made that way today," he says. "I don't know how you make it differently, but it would have been made differently. A lot of films would have been made differently today versus back then, and that's not necessarily bad and it's not necessarily good. It's just a different time."

(Original Caption) An Oscar for Bogart...Humphrey Bogart receives his
Humphrey Bogart accepts his Best Actor Oscar for The African Queen in 1952. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection/The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) (Bettmann via Getty Images)

As the younger Bogart notes in his book, both his mother and father were among Hollywood's most prominent progressives during the 1940s and 1950s. In one famous incident, he personally intervened when his neighbors circulated a petition asking Black actress Lena Horne to leave her home. "He was not into prejudice," his son says. "There was no room for that: you are who you are as a person. That's how he lived his life publicly and privately."

Besides the movies themselves, movie stars are different today as well — a change that's often remarked upon both inside and outside of the industry. Appearing on WTH With Marc Maron earlier this month, Quentin Tarantino spoke wistfully of the passing of the rugged actors he grew up with in the '60s and '70s. And Bogart's specific screen image as "the strong, silent type" — a category that also includes John Wayne and Gary Cooper — is often cited as a kind of male hero that's seen less and less onscreen. (Just ask noted film buff Tony Soprano.)

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart star in John Huston's 1951 classic, The African Queen (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart star in John Huston's 1951 classic, The African Queen (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)

In his book, Bogart wrestles with the kind of masculinity his father is seen as embodying, something that he believes the actor himself never thought about when he was alive. "I think he just was," Bogart says simply. "You're allowed to be a caring male nowadays. They weren't allowed to be that before, at least not publicly. It's the evolution of who men and women are. Men are allowed to be caring, they're allowed to be upset and they're allowed to cry. And women are allowed to be strong and to kick some butt. There's nothing wrong with any of that."

Surveying contemporary Hollywood, Bogart doesn't see any actors who specifically remind him of his father, but he does cite Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie as two performers that share his same devotion to the craft of acting. "I'll go see every DiCaprio movie, and I'll go see every Jolie movie," he says. "I think they're great in everything."

He's also impressed by Dwayne Johnson, who stars in Disney's upcoming Jungle Cruise movie modeling an outfit that's strikingly similar to Charlie Allnut's African Queen river clothes. (Jungle Cruise is based on the Disney theme parks attraction of the same name, which opened in 1955 — four years after The African Queen hit theaters. "You'll have to talk to Disney about that," Bogart jokes about any potential connection between the two.)

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in Jungle Cruise (Photo: Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection)
Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in Jungle Cruise (Photo: Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection) (©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection)

"That guy is no fool," Bogart says of Johnson. "He was devoted to wrestling and he's gotten a lot better as an actor. He's got a personality, and it comes across on screen. I like Dwayne Johnson: I respect what he's done, he seems like a really good person and I definitely want to see Jungle Cruise." He also can imagine a world where The Rock and Bogie would meet for a glass of tequila and bourbon respectively. "They'd get along — absolutely."

The African Queen returns to theaters on July 18 and 21. Visit TCM Big Screen Classics Series for showtimes and tickets.

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