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Robert Morley's onscreen opening credit reads: "with Robert Morley as The Brother." As noted in contemporary sources, Warner Bros. purchased the rights to C. S. Forester's novel in 1946. At that time, Bette Davis, Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland were mentioned as possible stars. According to Variety news items in 1949, John Collier wrote a screenplay for Warner Bros. that was based closely on the book, then bought the rights to the book and screenplay from Warner Bros., planning to produce the film himself. Instead, he sold the book and script to Horizon Enterprises, which was co-owned by John Huston and Sam Spiegel (credited onscreen under his frequent pseudonym, S. P. Eagle). In Huston's autobiography, however, he recalled having bought the script directly from Warner Bros. Some modern sources claim that Columbia originally bought the novel as a vehicle for Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton, and that at one point David Niven and Paul Henreid were each considered for the male lead.
As noted in the onscreen credits, The African Queen was shot mainly on location in the Belgian Congo (which was identified in the film as German East Africa, the name by which it was known during the story's World War I time period, and which went by the name of Zaire from 1960-1997, when it took on its current appellation, The Democratic Republic of Congo), in Uganda and on the Murchison Falls on the border of Lake Albert. According to United Artists press materials and Huston's autobiography, the director built a camp to house the cast and crew in Biondo, outside the town of Stanleyville, which included a bar, a restaurant and several one-room bungalows.
Press releases report that, because the African Queen launch used in the film was too small to carry cameras and equipment, portions of the boat were reproduced on a large raft in order to shoot close-ups of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Interior and water-tank scenes were filmed in London, as were most of the scenes containing secondary characters. Robert Morley shot all of his scenes in London, including the footage of him preaching, which was then edited together with shots of the natives praying, that had been filmed in Africa. Although the onscreen credits state that some scenes were shot at the Isleworth Studios in London, press materials name the studio as Worton Hall.
Modern sources add the following information about the production: While Huston and James Agee began to adapt the book into a new screenplay, Spiegel secured a loan from Sound Services, Inc. and co-financing from United Artists Corp. and London's Romulus Films, Ltd., which was co-owned by brothers John and James Woolf. At that point, Romulus secured the European distribution rights to the film, while United Artists was awarded distribution rights in the Western hemisphere. During the writing of the screenplay, Agee suffered a serious heart attack, and uncredited writer Peter Viertel wrote the film's final scenes with Huston. Forester had written two different final scenes for his book, one of which was published in England and the other in America. In the more widely published American version, "Rose Sayer" and "Charlie Allnut" are turned over to British officers, who then blow up the Louisa. In Collier's script, the African Queen hits the Louisa and destroys it, after which Rose and Charlie walk down the beach to inform the British Army that their way is now clear. In a modern interview, Viertel stated that since he and Huston wanted Rose and Charlie to be together at the final scene, they anticipated possible censorship problems by inventing a way for the couple to be married on the German ship.
Hepburn, in her written account of the film's production entitled The Making of "The African Queen," or How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, described the first day of shooting, which required five cars and trucks to take the cast, crew and equipment three and a half miles from Biondo to the Ruiki river, at which point they loaded everything onto boats and sailed another two and a half miles to the shooting location. Press materials and contemporary articles detail the various perils of shooting on location in Africa, including dysentery, malaria, bacteria-filled drinking water and several close brushes with wild animals and poisonous snakes. Most of the cast and crew were sick for much of the filming. In a February 1952 New York Times article, Huston declared that he hired local natives to help the crew, but many would not show up for fear that the filmmakers were cannibals. Huston advised Hepburn to play Rose by keeping in mind Eleanor Roosevelt's slightly superior, but polite, public bearing, and in Hepburn's book she called the suggestion the "best piece of direction I have ever heard."
Modern sources add the following names to the crew credits: Boom boy Kevin McClory; Cooks M. Van Thoms, Mme. Van Thoms; Camp manager Geoffrey Dunes; Katharine Hepburn's personal asst in Africa Tahili Bokumba; and Pilots Alec Noon, John "Hank" Hankins. The film had its premiere in Los Angeles on December 26, 1951 in order to qualify it for that year's Academy Awards. Although the picture earned nominations in the Best Actor (Bogart), Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Director and Best Screenplay categories, only Bogart won.
Shortly after filming was completed, Belgian fan magazine Cine-Revue published an article allegedly written by Lauren Bacall, who had accompanied her husband, Bogart, on location, which included behind-the-scenes photographs. According to a March 1952 Daily Variety story, Romulus Films protested the publication of the photos, which they said "dispelled the film's illusion" by exposing private shooting information. Bacall denied having written the story. An August 1952 Variety item announced that Berlin's film trade union requested that The African Queen be withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival because of its "anti-German tendencies."
In October 1952, Daily Variety reported that agents Michael Baird and Alvin Manuel were suing Horizon Pictures, Inc., Horizon Enterprises, Spiegel and Huston for ten percent of the film's profits plus seven percent interest. The agents claimed that in 1949, Horizon promised them the ten percent in return for setting up a co-production deal with Romulus. A February 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item announced the Jack Broder's Shamark Enterprises had put an attachment on funds due to Horizon from United Artists for distribution of The African Queen. The attachment stemmed from a suit Broder brought against Horizon for $120,000 in commissions due for helping finance earlier films. In December 1952, Spiegel and his wife Lynne began divorce procedures which entailed ascertaining all of Spiegel's assets. As a result, full disclosure of all financial records of The African Queen were made public. A Los Angeles Examiner article detailed the profits and salaries paid out to parties including Bogart, Hepburn, Collier and Romulus. Horizon Enterprises sued United Artists in 1955, according to a November 1955 Daily Variety article, for $61,859 still owed to them as part of the distribution deal. The dispositions of these suits are not known.
In 1953, Viertel published the book White Hunter, Black Heart, a thinly fictionalized account of his experience writing the script for The African Queen with Huston. The book follows the exploits of a tyrannical director who stalls the production of his African-set film by obsessively hunting an elephant. It was made into a film in 1990 by Clint Eastwood and starred Eastwood and Jeff Fahey. In an August 1990 letter published in The Times (London), John Woolf protested the film's portrayal of Huston.
Although Hollywood Reporter stated in January 1952 that a sequel to The African Queen was being discussed, none was ever made. On March 18, 1977, the CBS network broadcast a television pilot based on the film, also titled The African Queen, but the series was never produced. On December 15, 1952, Bogart reprised his role for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast, which co-starred Greer Garson as Rose. According to a 1990 news item in Variety, the boat that stood in for the African Queen, the Liemba, was purchased by a Bogart fan and brought from its mooring in Lake Tanganyike, Africa to Key Largo, FL.