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ON FILM: Legendary African Queen finally on DVD

By Philip Martin

This article was published March 19, 2010 at 2:03 a.m.

— John Huston’s The African Queen (1951) is one of those films that have been so assimilated into the collective unconscious that they feel ubiquitous,to the point that even those who have never seen it probably feel as though they have. The love story of the prim, churchy lady and the roughneck skipper and mechanic thrown together in the Belgian Congo during the early days of World War I is simple yet odd, an affecting and enduring story about very different middle-aged people who, having more or less given up any hope for personal happiness, find common cause under extraordinary circumstances.

The film would win Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar, and the difficulties encountered in the on-location filming became the stuff of legend, inspiring books by Bogart’s co-star, Katharine Hepburn, and his wife, Lauren Bacall, who journeyed to Africa to lend moral support and ended up serving as a kind of “den mother” for the production, which battledmalaria and dysentery (save for Bogart and Huston, who drank only bourbon during the shoot).

Peter Viertel, who did some uncredited work on James Agee’s script, transposed some of his experiences working on the production into his novel White Hunter Black Heart, which portrayed Huston as a hubristic dictator who cared as much for shooting elephants and macho posturing as for making movies. (Clint Eastwood filmed - and starred in - the underrated film version in 1990.) The African Queen is a movie that has spun off so many myths and anecdotesand iconic images that it seems forever present.

But though it’s turned up on Turner Classic Movies now and then, The African Queen will finally be available on DVD on Tuesday, when Paramount will issue a beautifully restored version on regular DVD($25.99) and Blu-ray.

Maybe you think that can’t be right; maybe you think you’ve seen The African Queen on DVD. Well, maybe you have.

Though the disc has never been of

ficially released on Region 1 DVD - the

sort of DVD that plays in DVD players

designed for the U.S. and Canadian

market - there was a “gray market”

disc available. It wasn’t an authorized

version, and it allegedly was of pret

ty poor quality, but you could find it pretty easily. Sometimes even in reputable electronics stores.

The African Queen was also available on Region 2 DVD - the kind sold in Europe. (This is not the time to get into why there are nine kinds of DVDs sold in the world, and why DVD players are generally set up to play on one or two of these variet

ies. Suffice it to say, if you’re really into Asian video, you can buy an “All Region” DVD player.) The reasons for the movie’s slow appearance onDVD are myriad, but the prime one is rooted in the film’s history, Ron Smith, Paramount’s vice president of restoration, says. Despite the presence of its marquee stars and director, The African Queen wasn’t a studio project - Huston made the film with independent producer Sam Spiegel (credited as “S.P. Eagle”) and British producing brothers John and James Woolf. While Paramount acquired the rights to the film in 1993 when it merged with Viacom, none of the existing archival prints were of sufficient quality for transfer to DVD.

So Smith and his team went back to the original three-strip Technicolor negative, which was still in storage in London.

“In the end we decided to scan the negatives, and to do the entire project digitally at the highest possible resolution,” Smith says. “We ended up scanning the entire film in the U.K., at a place called Cine Site, that’s owned by Kodak, and sending them via a secure server” to Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, Calif., where the individual channels were restored and recombined.

So Smith is in the possibly unique position of having restored a film with which he’s had no physical contact.

“So I never actually have seen the film,” he says. “Nor have I touched it. There may have been another film that was [restored] this way, but I can’t think of what it would be.”

As you might expect, the more than 50-year-old, splicedtogether Technicolor negatives were not pristine - frames can shrink and fade, and the sound mix was harsh and in some places distorted.

Smith says Paramount borrowed a print of The African Queen from the Motion Picture Academy Archive to serve as a reference print. This print was especially important because, a few years before, Paramount had screened it for African Queen cinematographer Jack Cardiff - who died in April 2009 - and recorded his comments as he watched the movie.

“Before we finalized any color, we were able to watch the same print that he watched, together with our restored version, and make our final color corrections,” Smith says, acknowledging that there comes a point when the curator becomes creator, and a filmmaker’s original intent must be guessed at. “You’re trying to make it as good as it possibly could be ... reference prints should be taken as reference, not as gospel.”

MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 03/19/2010

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