The African Queen: Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer

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In (admittedly belated) celebration of Katharine Hepburn’s birthday (May 12, 1907), and following on from the analysis of The Philadelphia Story, it seemed pertinent to take a closer a look at one of the actresses’ greatest: The African Queen. Hepburn (as the strait-laced Rose Sayer) starred alongside the inimitable Bogart, and director John Huston took the duo (along with Bacall’s girlfriend Lauren Bacall) to the Belgian Congo, Africa to film on location – an almost unheard of practice in the early 1950s.

Much has been written about the story behind The African Queen, indeed what went on behind the scenes was almost as interesting as what played out in them. Later in her life, Hepburn wrote a book about her experiences (The making of the African Queen, or how I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, published in 1987). Hepburn’s account, in particular, offers some fascinating (if somewhat convoluted) insights into life on set, detailing – in the actresses’ characteristic, matter-of-fact style – lavatory arrangements, crew and cast ailments and Bogart’s preference for an alcoholic beverage.

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Hepburn’s costumes were designed by Doris Langley Moore. The designer was, unsurprisingly, Hepburn’s first and only choice, as she recounted:

On costumes we’d [Hepburn and Huston] had one talk. I told him that I didn’t want his woman; I wanted Langley Moore and I would go to see what she had in the museum. Also, she’d been born in Africa and knew of missionaries from a grandparent who was one. He said fine. He gave up so easily on his choice, I was taken aback. His lady was never mentioned again. 

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According to Hepburn, Langley Moore – who would go on to found Bath’s Fashion Museum in 1963 – had a large collection of Victorian attire that she allowed the actress to rummage through. Hepburn, by her own admission, was concerned about her age, wishing to remain appropriately dressed whilst remaining true to character. Accordingly, Rose Sayer wore layered linen suits, comprising of prim dresses and blouses, complete with long sleeves and high necklines, accessorised with Sunday best hats, full skirts and nipped-in waists.

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Those full skirts were cumbersome, they dragged in the mud and in the water but Hepburn claimed that they ‘never showed the dirt. You could not tell whether it was wet or dry. Brilliant Doris Langley Moore. A great designer. Just as important – she had common sense’. From Hepburn, praise indeed.

Other problems also plagued the production. There were no real dressing rooms, and Hepburn had to make do with a freestanding mirror that was propped out against the trees and required delicate handling when the crew changed location. In typically stoic fashion, she eschewed make-up, preferring to style her own hair, despite the heat and humidity. The weather also made the brims of hats dip and obscure Hepburn’s face during shots, much to Huston’s annoyance. Wardrobe mistress Vi Muarry had the idea of starching the brims to make them stay; she and Hepburn did it themselves by pressing the water that had been used to boil rice into the hats, which effectively made the brims firmer.

There’s more images over on Pinterest.

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