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Preservation fit for a queen: 'The African Queen'

As a film preservationist, Ron Smith tries to treat every movie with respect.

Even if he's not inclined to.

"I've done work for outfits with schlock-riddled movie libraries. I've worked on horror films, films with gratuitous sex and violence. I've tried to treat them like they're Raiders of the Lost Ark."

But Smith, vice president in charge of product for Warner Motion Picture Imaging, had no need to psych himself up to prepare The African Queen for last month's release on DVD and Blu-ray.

"When you get a chance to work on a movie of this caliber, it's really a thrill. A dream come true," Smith said in a phone conversation from Los Angeles. "I do know how lucky I am."

Lucky because 1951's African Queen is one of the greatest American films.

Written by James Agee and directed by John Huston, it stars Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut, the crusty, unwashed operator of a small, smoke-belching riverboat — the African Queen — plying a river in the African Congo in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, Charlie and a spinster missionary, Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), set off on a mission to sink a German warship. Along the way the gin-swilling Charlie and the teetotaler Rose fall in love.

Bogie won his only Oscar for the film, and Hepburn, Agee and Huston all received nominations. The film holds down No. 65 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest movies.

Bogart and Hepburn head the AFI's lists of the greatest American movie stars, and this is their only film together.

The African Queen has never been on DVD in the United States because the American prints of the film had deteriorated so badly.

A pristine negative sat for years in a vault in London but was considered too valuable for even cautious film technicians to work on it. (The movie was financed by London-based Romulus Films, which explains why the fragile negative remained in England.)

"An original three-strip Technicolor negative is like a priceless work of art," Smith said. "What value do you put on it? What happens if it's lost or damaged while being shipped to an American lab?

"We decided that the best idea was to find a place in the U.K. that could scan the negative. Then that digital copy would be sent to the U.S. for restoration."

Actually, we're talking about digital copies. A classic Technicolor film has three black-and-white negatives that run simultaneously through the camera. One is shot through a red filter, one through a green filter and the third without a filter.

When combined in the laboratory, these three negatives provide astoundingly vivid colors. Because of Technicolor's rich, super-saturated hues, it was the film process of choice for big Hollywood productions, especially musicals, of the '40s and '50s.

Smith and his colleagues had to restore all three negatives, or rather the digital copies of the negatives.

To this day, Smith said, he has never seen The African Queen projected from film on a theater screen. He has experienced only digital copies.

"This is the only film I know of where an extensive restoration has been done without actually handling the original negatives. But it worked."

Smith and his crew spent much time eliminating microscopic pieces of dirt on the film's surface and covering up scratches, water spots and hairs.

"All of that is hand-done, frame by frame," he said. "It took almost a year with a dozen people in the U.K. and twice that many here in the States."

Then the three negative images had to be painstakingly aligned.

Color correction was sometimes tricky, Smith said.

"Working one frame at a time, you can miss the big picture. So every now and then you look at what you've done so far and ask yourself, 'Well, what have we got?'

"Your eye changes a bit from day to day, so when doing color correction you sometimes need to get up, walk out and give yourself a break. You may see only one frame at a time, but the audience will see it as a continuously moving experience."

Spending almost every day working on the film, Smith came to appreciate what director John Huston put his actors and crew through. Shooting in Africa, they faced malaria and dysentery, rampaging elephants and attacks by soldier ants.

"Bogart and Huston decided they wouldn't drink the water and instead drank alcohol," Smith said. "Hepburn did drink the water and got violently ill from dysentery. There are scenes of her playing the piano in the church where she has a bucket on the floor beside her. Between takes she'd throw up."

Scenes of Bogart and Hepburn wading to tow the boat were shot at a British soundstage. "Any time they were in water it was in the studio. The streams in Africa were full of leeches. No leeches for the movie stars."

Repeatedly watching the film gave Smith respect for Huston's craft.

"It's such a fascinating film because it's really put together very expertly. There are scenes where the guy talking on the left was filmed in Africa, but the guy he's talking to on the right was filmed in a British studio. And yet it's seamless.

"Robert Morley, who played Rose's missionary brother, never made the trip to Africa. He shot all his scenes in London, and a look-alike stand-in handled long and medium shots in Africa."

Preservation fit for a queen: 'The African Queen' 04/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 1:40pm]
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