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‘African Queen’ steams back with restoration

Academy Award-winning pic gets Paramount makeover

“The African Queen” paired screen legends Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, earned Bogey his only Oscar and lives on (in legend, at least) for everything director John Huston put his actors through — from malaria and dysentery to elephant stampedes and attacks by swarms of soldier ants.

But apart from a so-so transfer that surfaces from time to time on Turner Classic Movies, “The African Queen” has been virtually impossible to see in the U.S.

“There was never a good enough print to make a DVD,” says Ron Smith, VP of restoration for Paramount, who oversaw the long-overdue DVD and Blu-ray release bowing March 23. The challenge, Smith says, was “how do you restore a movie that you can’t get your hands on?”

Though Par inherited the rights when it merged libraries with Viacom in 1993, the studio hadn’t played any role in making the movie. An early independent film, “The African Queen” was produced by Sam Spiegel (as “S.P. Eagle”) and financed by London-based Romulus Films, with the fragile negative still in the U.K.

Shot in cumbersome three-strip Technicolor (the same format as the recently restored “The Red Shoes”), the restoration of “Queen” would require scanning three separate prints at 4K and meticulously recombining the layers, which shrink and deteriorate with time.

Fortunately, Par preservation pro Barry Allen had screened an Academy print for cinematographer Jack Cardiff some years earlier, recording the d.p.’s comments on the intended look (warm and golden, to reflect the African setting) and sound (Huston instructed his actors to yell over the boat’s chugging steam engine).

Rather than risk damaging or losing the negative in transit, Smith’s team decided to have “Queen” scanned by U.K.-based Cine Site and then sent by secure server to Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank to be restored and recombined.

As Smith notes, “This was probably the first restoration where we never touched the film.”enough print to make a DVD,” says Ron Smith, VP of restoration for Paramount, who oversaw the long-overdue DVD and Blu-ray release bowing March 23. The challenge, Smith says, was “how do you restore a movie that you can’t get your hands on?”

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