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Magnificent Discretion : Just How Romantic Is Today's Screen Sex?

May 31, 1987|JACK SMITH

I was watching a videocassette of "The African Queen" the other day, and it reminded me of how the movies used to handle sex before the present vogue of nudity and heavy breathing.

You may remember that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are thrown together in the river boat African Queen during World War I after Bogart, the captain, rescued her from an African village razed by the Germans.

Miss Hepburn is the sister of Robert Morley, a Methodist missionary who is deranged by the German violence and dies. She is an unmarried woman whose passion has been aroused only by her brother's sermons and by the hymns for which she played the organ in his village church.

In their voyage downriver toward a lake and their showdown with the armed German gunboat Louisa, Hepburn and Bogart share many perils and vicissitudes. In her patriotic fervor, she asks Bogart if he can make torpedoes from explosives he has aboard and try to sink the Louisa.

Bogart reasonably protests, warning about the dangerous rapids ahead, the German fort they must pass under, and, finally, the formidable enemy boat with her six-pound gun; but she persuades him to do it.

Then Bogart gets drunk on gin, says he's changed his mind, and calls Hepburn "a crazy hymn-singing skinny old maid." The next morning, while he watches in the agony of a hangover, she empties his gin bottles in the river and drops them overboard. She refuses to speak to him. He apologizes for his misconduct, saying he can't stand her silence. She tells him it is not his beastly conduct that has angered her but his change of mind about sinking the Louisa. Once more he caves in.

The propeller shaft is twisted in the rapids. She goads him into going ashore and repairing it over a fire of charcoal, blacksmithing being one of his many skills.

It is obvious that they are falling in love. Man and woman thrown together in a struggle for survival always fall in love. After they pass the German fort, surviving a fusillade of rifle fire, and run the last rapids, they fall jubilantly into each others' arms, and before you know it Bogart has kissed her. Something comes over her. Years of repression are lifted.

The scene changes to the following morning. We have seen nothing.

Miss Hepburn is on deck. Bogart is in the previously off-limits bunk below, feigning sleep. From Hepburn's demeanor we know that something significant has happened. Her face is suffused with a complacent happiness. She is fresh and buoyant, vibrantly alive. She is the awakened woman. She makes tea and takes it down to her lover.

That's all there is to it. No flashing of naked backs and thighs. No tumbling under the sheets. No poignant outcries. Hepburn standing alone on the deck of the African Queen and reliving the night is among the most erotic performances I have ever seen. Our imagination fills in the details.

Before their sexual discovery of each other, the two decide they need baths. Bogart goes forward to strip off his clothes and go overboard; Hepburn undresses in the stern. We next see her in the water. We see her naked arms and shoulders. When she tries to get back aboard she finds that she can't manage it. The distance between water and gunwale is too great. She reaches a naked leg out of the water and up to the boat; but no luck; she is reduced to asking Bogart for help.

She says, "Close your eyes." He pulls her up to the boat and she emerges from the water modestly attired from neck to knee in light blue camisole and drawers. That is the closest the movie comes to nudity.

I remember that Hepburn also managed to convey a passionate sexual encounter with Rossano Brazzi in "Summertime" without shedding her garments and hopping into bed with him before our eyes. Once again she is a spinster who is awakened and fulfilled by a heady affair with Brazzi on her brief vacation in Venice. We see nothing specific, except that, as I remember, Hepburn loses her shoes.

Like sex, death used to be treated with awe, if not with reverence. It took some time to die. There were tears and last words. "Just break the news to mother," and all that. When I was a small boy my cousin Donald used to play the player piano at the Saturday night silent movies in the Women's Club in Shafter, a farm town northwest of Bakersfield. When someone died Donald had time to run through "Nearer, My God, to Thee" twice.

Nowadays a helicopter lowers from the sky, a man appears in the doorway with a machine gun and sprays dozens of people on the ground. They fall dead in gouts of blood, and the helicopter soars away.

Then we cut to a scene of two people in bed. Sometimes three.

It is a mark of her quality as an actress that Katharine Hepburn has had a long and glorious career in the movies, from "A Bill of Divorcement" to "On Golden Pond," and I have never even seen her navel.

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