How Did Katharine Hepburn’s Temperance Nearly Kill Her?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Katharine Hepburn’s temperance nearly killed her during the filming of The African Queen.

The African Queen is a wonderful adventure film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, written by James Agee (adapted from the C. S. Forester novel of the same name) and directed by John Huston.

It involves a missionary (Hepburn) caught up in an adventure with a river boat captain (Bogart) in Africa during World War I.

The film was made on location in Uganda and the Congo.

During the filming, Hepburn came down with a severe case of dysentery. She ended up losing nearly 20 pounds! It got to the point where she would do a scene and then have to go vomit (or the other variety of expulsion) right afterwards. She actually ended up suffering from the disease for months AFTER the filming ended! She did a whole other movie, the romantic comedy, Pat and Mike, while still suffering from the disease!

What was particularly amazing, though, was HOW she caught it.

You see, a great many people in the crew of the film ended up with dysentery, but two notable exceptions were Bogart and Huston. The men both credited the fact that they eschewed the use of water and just drank alcohol throughout the shooting of the movie.

The reason I got dysentery was my temperance! I was so busy complaining about Bogey and John drinking hard liquor I tried to shame them by drinking water in their presence at mealtimes. Well, the water was full of germs! They never got sick, and I had the Mexican trots and was in bed every day for weeks! I thought I was going to die – and in the Belgian Congo!

Later, both men marveled at Hepburn’s fortitude. Not only the fact that she never missed a day of shooting (as noted above, she would deal with her issues between takes), but the fact that she suffered the grueling schedule and environment without ever drinking like them.

The film turned out to be a huge hit, and Hepburn netted one of her 254 nominations for Best Actress at the Oscars the following year (that figure might be slightly off. Just slightly). Amusingly enough, while Hepburn didn’t win the award, Bogart DID bring home the Best Actor Oscar. Of all the nerve, he doesn’t get sick AND he wins the award!

The legend is….


Thanks to Charles Higham’s Kate: The Life of Katharine Hepburn for the great quote!

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