The Big Picture

  • Humphrey Bogart’s legacy as one of Hollywood’s leading men during the Golden Age is unmatched.
  • His chemistry with Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen exemplified wholesome drama with a backdrop of historical conflict.
  • Bogart’s career was shaped by director John Huston, and his 1951 Oscar win for The African Queen solidified his identity as a beloved leading man.


After defining Hollywood’s Golden Age, few have matched the legacy of Humphrey Bogart as one of the most visible examples of a leading man in the industry. His stature in films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep represented over a decade’s worth of American culture. The likable anti-hero and cynical detective were given a face alongside other actors who fit a similar profile. In 1951, that legacy was made official with Bogart being the last actor born before 1900 to receive an Academy Award. His Oscar-winning turn in The African Queen helps us understand who he was to his generation and perfectly captured his arc.

The African Queen starred Bogart alongside Katharine Hepburn in a romantic adventure through the continent, as well as through each other’s emotions. Their chemistry stood as the type of wholesome drama that galvanized those who appreciated love stories with the backdrop of historical conflict. The story takes place during the beginning of World War I and the circumstances brought these Hollywood veterans into distinct performances from a bygone era.

RELATED: 10 Best John Huston Movies, According To Rotten Tomatoes


What Was ‘The African Queen’ About?

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Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a Canadian mechanic, meets Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) in the wake of German troops invading their area in Africa. They make their way through a river, trying to survive as they learn more about each other’s backgrounds. They agree to turn their vehicle into a torpedo boat in spite of their lack of military might. Their adventure reaches a German ship, where they’re put on trial for their lives. After a guilty verdict by a German officer, they accept death as the last thing to drive them apart before pleading for marriage as a favor. At the last moment, they are saved by the torpedo and both escape, presumably to start a new relationship together.

How Did John Huston Help Humphrey Bogart’s Career?

A well dressed woman and a rough looking man sit in a small boat
Image via Horizon Pictures

Director John Huston was a key figure in Bogart’s career, and received his second Academy Award with The African Queen. His previous projects included some of the turning points in Bogart’s career. After moving away from the one-dimensional ’30s gangster role, Huston was credited with the script for High Sierra and directed The Maltese Falcon, both films that pivoted Bogart in a more commercial direction thanks to Huston. By the end of the decade, Huston helped Bogart in a different phase of his career arc with The Treasure Of Sierra Madre, a character change that defied his career. That same year, both of them solidified their identity with Key Largo, which remains an example of how Huston and Bogart prepared for The African Queen.

Bogart won Best Actor for this seemingly off-brand role, yet it makes more sense given the competition. Dark subcultures were explored with Marlon Brando being eligible for A Streetcar Named Desire and Fredric March for Death Of A Salesman — unlikely candidates for an era that would reward Gary Cooper and John Ford, the types that were triumphant during the ’30s and ’40s. It was Bogart and Hepburn that stayed consisted with the 19th century generation of entertainment. A duo not just representative of the past, but also the brighter side of the Americana aesthetic still popular in the ’50s.

The perception of Bogart remains difficult to remain pin down due to its complex identity associated with American media. To understand his Best Actor of 1951 award, there are a few hints in past roles that bring him toward The African Queen. By Key Largo, he made a distinctive performance contrary to Edward G. Robinson, a representative of Bogart’s early career. That role could help viewers, namely younger generations, who aren’t familiar with his legacy as to how a conventional anti-hero became the beloved protagonist in Casablanca and The African Queen seemingly from opposite ends of the spectrum. The helpful indicator was Key Largo, since it allowed Bogart to set himself up as the likable leading man in his 50s roles. The detective persona was distinctly ’40s and none of those films won awards or synced up with his ’50s era. That’s not to say the 19th century and its personalities weren’t represented after Bogart’s Oscar. His achievement also involved the legacy that was carried by Ford, Cooper, and similar men who also captured that ethos surrounding their time in the Golden Age.

Humphrey Bogart Defined America’s Leading Man

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According to author Raymond Chandler, there was a distinct archetype that could be described within the “American language.” This man was what Bogart adopted on screen and became a symbol of Hollywood more broadly. What’s unique about him is not only did he embrace a phase that manifested into a genre of its own, he took on roles from both Chandler and author Dashiell Hammett. These writers described a personality that would be used as a model for actors at a convenient time in American history. The men of the Great Depression and post-war era had qualities popularized by Hammett and Chandler. It’s a man who learned from the dog-eat-dog world of the Wild West and the organized criminal scene after the urbanization at the turn of the century.

As the last actor to win from the 19th century, the Academy Award for The African Queen became more significant in retrospect. James Cagney, a precursor of Bogart, was also born in 1899 and embodied the archetype that would dominate the ’30s. However, none of these won him an Oscar like Bogart’s run in the ’40s. Instead, it was Yankee Doodle Dandee that captured the actor’s identity like many others of his era. A fitting performance since it was more Academy-friendly than gangster films, an identity change that also happened to Bogart’s career. For him, he already adopted the ’30s gangster in The Petrified Forest. With the turn of the decade, Bogart’s possibility of getting the Oscar had just increased.

The significance of Casablanca played a huge role. Not only had the cowboy archetype been surpassed, a more complicated one had been adopted. One that would share similarities with others for the rest of the decade. “I stick my neck out for no one,” he says as Casablanca’s Rick Blaine. An attitude that would sync up with his detective persona in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Many liked this sardonic nomad who seemingly can’t trust society as long as it remained in a fallen state. None of these dark noirs reached the heights of Casablanca; however, there was a film that symbolized Bogart’s role in American culture as well as a mainstream name by the Academy in the ’50s. The line in a pivotal scene, “I fight nobody’s battles but my own,” from Key Largo was closer to Blaine, yet he dropped that and became more like the persona he took on at the end of The African Queen.

‘Key Largo’ Was A Stepping Stone For Humphrey Bogart

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Key Largo saw Bogart embody the 19th century archetype and American model that was rewarded with The African Queen. He was distinctly a war veteran like the reputation of his actors who also contributed to the commercial friendly protagonists of the ’40s. Bogart was also caught in an identity crisis opposite Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore, choosing the latter over the former. The military friendly, selfless man who believes in FDR’s words quoted in the film that, “we are not making all this sacrifice of human effort and human lives to return to the kind of world we had after the last world war.” The theme in Key Largo was he had yet to claim his persona like the one in The African Queen. His qualities were masculine and visibly likable, yet he had to shed his anti-hero side, represented by Robinson as the antagonist, in order to be the complicated romantic type that won in 1951.

The ’50s still consisted of leading men like Cooper in High Noon and Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. However, they were no longer taking the stage alone. They were sharing it with a younger wave. That’s not to say they were entirely original in their archetype. They were filling in their role rather than replacing the model. Whereas Bogart was aging out of the young rebel, others had representation that overlapped with the Hammett and Chandler characters that manifested as Hollywood heroes. Chandler described this man as one “with rude with, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” A bio that binds the early and late Golden Age.

Brando and James Dean emerged like the young gangsters of the Great Depression era who were masculine by that standard. The model was taken by Bogart with a less cowboy aesthetic to fit the decade he was finding a home in. As the times change again, the industry found men that were caught in another identity crisis where the model could take in personalties that were distinctly 20th century. That wave was made visible with A Streetcar Named Desire sweeping multiple awards the same night as Bogart’s victory. With Brando at the helm, his generation was about to reap the rewards of a new decade, but it wasn’t without the prominent roles of their ancestors from the previous age.

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