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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: The Making of the African Queen

Katherine Hepburn’s The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind is sparing when it comes to the technical details of filmmaking, but it is nevertheless one of the most entertaining “making of” books ever written. Put to pen in 1987, some 36 years after the events it relates, the story is told with a mixture of nostalgia and wonder, as if Hepburn herself can’t quite believe that it happened, but remains eminently fond of the memories. It’s an absolutely delightful read from beginning to end.

Told in a casual, free-flowing style, The Making of the African Queen reads as if you’re sitting in a room with Hepburn as she tells about her adventure making a movie with John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. The nostalgic aspect of the book sets in almost immediately, as Hepburn jumps from talking about how she became involved in the film to the last time she saw Bogart, lingering particularly over the last words he spoke in her presence, which were “Goodbye, Spence,” said, obviously, to Spencer Tracy, who himself gets a few bittersweet mentions at the beginning of the narrative (discussing a brief stop in Italy, Hepburn writes, “Spencer had left the day before for London. Did he leave because he was bored or did he leave because he couldn’t bear to say goodbye? The eternal question.”). Hepburn lets the memory settle for a moment and then pulls back, getting the story back to the literal beginning, when she met Huston, whom she obviously admired but who also drove her very nearly crazy when it became clear to her that they had very different work ethics (though, to be fair, Hepburn does come off as a bit of a micromanager, so she probably drove Huston just as crazy as he drove her).

Despite being one of the defining movie stars of the 20th century, Hepburn displays a charming lack of vanity about herself in the telling of this story, even going so far as to discuss the intestinal distress she endured while making the movie (she half-heartedly apologies for the TMI, explaining that her father was a urologist so such discussions have always been de rigueur for her), noting with good humor that just about the only people who didn’t get sick on location were Huston and Bogart, who had basically pickled their insides with booze and thereby managed to immunize themselves from parasites and the like. The lack of vanity and her generally good-natured, in-on-the-joke view of herself is a large part of what makes Hepburn such a great storyteller (no ghost writer is credited by the book and I could find no outside information about her having had one here) and the book so fun. I think that entitlement is one of the worst qualities a person can have, particularly because people who possess it seem to take for granted that what they’re asking for is above and beyond what any person is “owed” by another. As it turns out, however, entitlement can itself be sort of charming when the person does understand that they’re being kind of unreasonable and openly acknowledges as much. Arriving on location, Hepburn discovers that she’s been placed in a dark, ground floor hotel room, while Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall, are in a suite on the top floor and the occupants of the lovely room next to theirs are... the accountants. What does she do? I’ll let her tell it:

“I nearly fainted with rage and frustration... Without a wasted step, without a thought of them or their rights of possession, and certainly with not a word to either of them – I walked into their room... threw everything into suitcases and demoted them to my room on the first floor... I felt guilty but not quite guilty enough not to dispossess them.”

This is a terrible thing to do (although, at the same time, who puts Katherine Hepburn in the hotel’s worst room?), but there’s something about the way that Hepburn acknowledges that she’s acted badly but just sort of shrugs like, “What can you do?” that makes it funny. She returns to this incident later in the book, saying, “You remember him – the accountant – the rightful inhabitant of my third-floor room. He was most gracious about it all. How could I be so awful? Apparently easily.” What can you do?

At just 129 pages, including a number of photos, The Making of the African Queen is a quick read and an incredibly enjoyable one. It’s a great, light-hearted companion piece to one of the greatest films ever made, and though much more can (and has, in book form and film form) be said about how The African Queen came to be, Hepburn’s version is an entirely satisfying one.

Next Month: Lulu In Hollywood

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