The leading man of the past was one of the most imitated movie actors of all time. His unique, almost musical sibilance, his creased frown and rare, infectious smile gave him a quality that was at once dangerous and sympathetic. The American Film Institute ranked him as the greatest male legend in cinema history.
Bogart began as a heavy and was slain in some twenty seven films before he was offered a major romantic role. (‘I played more scene writhing around on the floor than I did standing up.’)
When Bogart broke through, he was forty two.
He is one of those actors that comes along once in a century: someone who isn’t conventionally handsome or particularly versatile (he couldn’t dance like James Cagney, he looked out of place in Gary Cooper style Westerns, and comedy was never his long suite) but he could convince an audience that whatever character he played was of great importance, because he represented something vital about themselves and their time.
‘Bogie’ as he came to be called, was a legend when alive. He was imitated internationally by actors such as Yves Montand and Jean Paul Belmondo. Yet, as far as stature and persona went his outstanding characteristics – of integrity, stoicism, a sexual charisma accompanied by a cool indifference to women – are never out of style when he’s on screen, and he is still on screen all the time albeit on the classic cable channels.
In his younger days, while performing on a broadway play, Bogart modicum of fame ran to his head and with the knowledge that he only had to work three hours a day he began to lose his bearings. He’d visit clubs at night and drink himself silly that he would get the inevitable hangovers day in day out. One evening he showed up onstage with glazed eyes and liquor scented breath. He groped for his lines and came up empty, leaning against a wall to regain his composure. The actress he was acting opposite was forced to improvise the scene and they just barely managed to get through the act.
It was a shameful conduct and he knew it. There were but two kinds of actors, professionals and bums. And he just behaved like the latter. He resolved never to repeat the incident and went at his next assignment with the self discipline of an old trouper.
In with Fox
With the wall street crash in the late 20’s jobs were cut short on Broadway and actors were looking elsewhere to make a living. Most eye’s turned West, where jobs were said to be available in Hollywood. What the town wanted was stage actors who knew how to project, not silent film starts who’s fluting voices failed to match their screen images.
Bogart’s brother in law had an in with Fox films and invited Bogart for a casting although most Broadway actors didn’t seem right. They wanted men, real men, with bass voices and animal magnetism. Bogart did manage to impress some Fox executives with his precise diction and on screen personality and thus offered him a contract.
Bogarts first assignment in Hollywood was not as an actor but as a vocal coach. He was there to teach silent film stars how to articulate with authority. He hated his job. To mollify him Fox cast him in two films. The first was a bit of fluff in which he played a juvenile; the second, a comedy which had no box office impact at all. Nonetheless, it contained two assets: Director John Ford, then learning his trade and Spencer Tracy, a young, versatile actor and Bogart immediately took to both of them.
During the two years between Bogart’s arrival and departure, Hollywood was either indifferent or openly hostile to Bogart’s prep school pugnacity. He made casting directors uneasy, and they looked elsewhere for male talent. But he refused to change. At one point, on a golf course, Bogart tried to play through a game of golf behind some stuffy people. Inquiring who he was he said he was a nobody and that his name is Humphrey Bogart, he works at Fox and what the hell are they doing playing a gentleman’s game at a gentleman’s club?
The gentleman in question identified himself as the vice president of Fox. Expecting the ax to fall Bogart instead got the second lead in a film opposite Bette Davis’s film debut. ‘Even when I had a gun, she scared the be-Jesus out of me.’ He retorted.
Back to Broadway
He kept on making movie after movie but no one seemed impressed, least of all the studio executives. Eventually they failed to renew his contract which made him disappointed but not surprised and he headed back to Broadway.
The depression had battered the Broadway theatre and still managing to get work they didn’t seem to last longer than seven days. Soon he was unemployed and brought in some money by playing chess for fifty cents a game at the arcades. He was a shrewd, audacious opponent and frequently returned to his apartment with enough funds to bankroll dinner and a few drinks.
Being the heavy – Duke Mantee
Bogart bumped into one of his playwriting friends at his usual watering holes and sensing Bogart’s melancholia the playwriter promises to introduce him to a director/producer who’s auditioning actors for the play The Petrified Forest believing that there may be a chance for a small role for Bogart in this twenty one cast production.
The producer, being a veteran and a stalwart of the Broadway theatre recognised talent when he saw it and was impressed by Bogarts previous performance in a play he saw were he played the villain. He thought that Bogart’s silences in the play seemed more impressive than his speeches and when he was quiet time seemed to stand still. He saw a man wearing his personal tribulations on his face. Driven by power with anguished dark eyes, the puffs of pain beneath them and the dangerous despair which lined his face. And in his speech and demeanour Bogart had caught the spirit of the Aspirin age.
Therefore, the producer decided to cast him as the character Duke Mantee, an escaped convict even though most of the production didn’t agree to his choice.
Cast against type, Bogart threw himself into this role as never before. As the Duke, everything about him was different. His diction, his gait, his attitude. A man like that would not have the time or inclination to shave, so Bogart’s beard was the real thing yet carefully maintained at a quarter inch length. Bogart, who at the time was considered the upper class twit, had turned himself into a new villain du jour and the play’s strongest attraction.
Bogart learned something from the play that stayed with him all his life: ‘When the heavy, full of crime and bitterness, grabs his wounds and talks about death and taxes in a husky voice, the audience is his and his alone.’
Warner Bros steps in
Due to the enormous broadway success of the play Warner Bros decided to purchase the rights to the play and turn it into a film. But the studio saw no reason to accommodate any of the actors from the original cast except for the lead actor. Leslie Howard the lead was by now a good friend of Bogart’s and decided to make a personal appeal to the studio. As luck would have it, the actor the studio wanted to play the Duke, Edward G. Robinson had issues with the studio and wanted major money and equal billing with Howard. Warners passed on Robinson and sent Bogart’s agent a contract for his role as Duke Mantee. Of course the contract wasn’t as good as when Bogart started in the movies nearly ten years ago, getting paid much less but it was better than sitting in New York and waiting for the next act to happen.
Bogart knew that at his age of thirty seven that the film was his last chance for a career in movies and if he fell short or if the film failed there would be no third opportunity.
After the debut of The Petrified Forest the critics raved the superb performances by the cast more notably Bogart. The Times topped off the raves by stating ‘there should be a large measure of praise for Humphrey Bogart who can be a psychopathic gangster more like Dillinger than the outlaw himself.’ Warners was grateful but that didn’t mean they planned to elevate Bogart; it only meant they would employ him full time and he punched a clock like a factory worker.
Keeping his smarts about him
Starring in several other films but more as a supporting roles Bogart got the message. He was going to be a journeyman in Hollywood, decently salaried but never a star. But he kept on persevering nonetheless. While he saw actors driving in Cadillacs, buying big houses and wasting their money gladly Bogart was criticised by publicists for his shabby outfits and banged up Chevrolet. His take was that they would eventually wind up wage salves, forever at the mercy of the studios and he promised it wouldn’t happen to him, making sure to put all his extra cash in a fund instead.
The lispy Bogie
From 1937 to 1940 Bogart appeared in twenty four films. Most of them were standard products of the Warners assembly line. In one film Bogart ventures into comedy as a boozy producer who produces schlock films. The director thought to try on Bogart since it would be a change of pace from what he usually does but things didn’t work out as he expected. Viewing some daily footage, an assistant complained about Bogart’s diction: ‘The son of a bitch lisps!’
He went on making various pictures for the studio and in another film he seemed to have been miscast as a philosophical horse trainer with an Irish brogue. Oddly enough, the picture boosted his career. In the opinion of the New York post reviewer, ‘After a while you stopped expecting Bogart to whip out a rod. You accepted him as a horse trainer, That’s acting.’
Warners decided in one picture to place him as the lead opposite Bette Davis which was a Civil War picture. But on the fourth day of shooting he was replaced by another actor. Apparently at a farewell scene in a railroad station, Bogart was so hopeless so thin and pathetic in his uniform and so unromantic that Warner demanded that he be fired.
Pigeonholed for roles
For the next several years when audiences spotted the name Humphrey Bogart in the credits they expected to see a gangster movie. Warners saw to it that they were not disappointed. His archetype casting became so obvious that some of the critics complained that his contract with the studio wasn’t much of a five year contract but a five year sentence.
At one point Warners even loaned Bogart out to another studio for a film and made money off of him. But on this particular film Dead End the character that Bogart plays was far removed from the standard lowlife of so many of his previous movies.
There was tragic poetry to his scenes that the film did even better in Britain than in America. Novelist Graham Greene, then a film critic, wrote ‘This is the finest performance Bogart has ever given – the ruthless sentimentalist who had melodramatised himself from the start.’
But Warners still kept him in the shadows portraying the ubiquitous gangster on the screens that in even one film he fades into the background as a pathetic loser whose arm is amputated in a truck accident.
Jumping on the chance
Although, there was one film that Bogart wasn’t planning to be in which was originally sent to Paul Muni at the time who turned it down cold saying he had no interest in playing the character of Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle or appearing in any gangster film since biographies were more his style. Bogart took advantage of Muni’s disdain for the film High Sierra and asked Warners producer Hal Wallis to cast him instead.
John Huston who was the writer of the script struggled to see how Bogart who was a medium sized man and not, to his words, particularly impressive offscreen, be able to pull off the character of Roy Earle in the film. But once Bogart acted the part there was a transition, a transformation of sorts when he embodied the character. Huston would go on to say that the lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic. In the film the camera had a way of looking into a person and perceiving things the naked eye didn’t register.
Building up to this point
Theoretically this was just another violent and sentimental gangster movie, with the villain getting his just desserts at the end. As it turned out, though, High Sierra became an important piece of Hollywood history: it market the sunset of the gangster genre. World War 2 was looming on the horizon and so larger and more threatening villains than gangsters had risen to power overseas.
But the lesson we can take from the success of the film which would be the last time Bogart would fail to receive first billing is that he had been in training for the role of ‘Mad Dog’, paying his dues, learning his lines, honing his skills, digging into his characters psyches throughout the years that he’d been doing B pictures. All the violent deaths he suffered in melodramatic parts, all the lousy scripts and fights with Warners, led up to this role, and he was more than equal to the challenge.
Bogart brought a reality to a bad man capable of humane acts, a puzzling figure who, in other circumstances, might have been someone worth saving.
On the precipice
The success of High Sierra could well have meant disaster for Bogart. For if this was to be the finale of a genre, where would he go from there? Just past his 40th birthday, underweight and balding, he was not handsome like any of the leading men at the time nor could he bring off sophisticated comedy in the manner of Cary Grant. Nor could he sing or dance. Bogart’s next few films indicated how dire his situation was since non of them were a success. This was the nadir of Bogart’s Warners period and it was as if the door had been opened and then, just as he was about to cross the threshold, slammed shut. At one point even some of the leads he had worked with on previous films had rejected to work with him, not necessarily because of him personally but more to do with the politics of the industry and wanting to be in the headlight rather than a second fiddle to Bogart.
In 1940 the big studio productions had to deal with the type of content they were churning out, whether it was to do with the depression era of the 30’s, some screwball comedies to liven the mood of the audience, or the melodrama which was aimed primarily for a female targeted audience. Non of the studios were secure enough to know exactly what the American moviegoer was looking for. In such a climate Bogart needed a miracle. And he got two of them.
The rise of the Falcon
His first was a performance on a radio show due to his dry and instantly recognisable voice. The second came again when one of the leads in Hollywood objected to play in the upcoming film The Maltese Falcon. Since the film had already been filmed twice neither of them were a success, plus the third take would be directed by the young John Huston who’d have his directorial debut. Therefore, the risk was just as momentous. John Huston who’d already worked with Bogart saw a kindred spirit and would gladly reunite with the actor on a social albeit professional level. Both enjoyed knocking back a few drinks after work, and sometimes before it. Both considered themselves ‘Men’s men,’ tough minded personalities who bucked authority, talked intelligently on a variety of subjects, worked professionally, and held their liquor. There was no sense of competition; they were anxious to get on with the show.
Huston had manage to create a dark, fascinating leading man with intelligence, honour and soul. Bogart’s technical skill on set was brilliant. He kept other actors on their toes because he listened to them, he watched, he looked at them. He was never ‘upstage centre’ acting all by himself. He was there. With you. This was not the customary behaviour of male starts. At forty one, Bogarts Success was far past wunderkind age. His ascent had been a lengthy slog through minor roles in plays until his success in The Petrified Forest and two dimensional villains and second leads in movies until his challenging roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. All along he had been picking up techniques, sometimes accidentally, often deliberately. Over the decades he had learned how to listen and look at his fellow players, how to appear natural in the most artificial of circumstances, how to be rather than seem a character. In the process, he had turned himself into an authentic leading man.
Knowing the game
At that moment in history, something about Bogart caught on with the public: Those lights and shadows composed themselves into another, nobler personality: heroic. Bogart had crystallised the image of masculinity precisely at this moment in American history. Bogart knew only too well the hazards of show business. He was aware of the way luck could change for an actor, up one day, down the next, like most of the silent movie actors who used to own the town, and now had to rent a car with nothing in the bank. Even with all the adulation he was wary of making the wrong choices, ceding good roles to some careerist with better luck and shrewder advisers. So he moved warily.
While Bogart was pondering his next step, an un-produced play titled ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ fell at Warners lap. Running it through the writers mill they sensed that they may have a suspenseful and excellent melodrama to do with wartime circumstances yet set in an exotic locale in Northern Africa, the classic woman forced to choose between two men situation. Movie goers had seen it a hundred times so how was this going to be different? Several writing teams tried to adapt the play into a script but didn’t succeed. Nobody knew how to solve the script’s central problem. Eventually two writers were brought on board who gave it three elements that separated the film from all the previous romances.
Firstly, Casablanca was laced with compelling subplots. Secondly the dialogue was significant and at its peak at the time. And thirdly each actor, not matter how small the part, had a chance to glow with every line spoken. Some of the most famous lines in the film have entered the world’s lexicon of favourite movie quotes.
But the film did have its issues too, script revisions had been handed to the actors on a daily basis. Moreover, as the last week of filming approached, Casablanca still had no ending. Every day they were shooting off the cuff and trying to make sense of the story. No one knew where the picture was going and no one knew how it was going to end which didn’t help any of the characterisations. The lead actress Ingrid Bergman wasn’t sure who she was supposed to be in love with, begging the director to shed some light while the director telling her he doesn’t know yet ‘So just play it, well… in between.’
But when the final film was made there was no dispute as to who’s film this was. It was, and would remain Bogart’s movie because he was the one who furnished the work with a moral centre. There was no other player who could have inhabited the role of Rick Blaine, expatriate, misanthrope, habitual drinker and ultimately the most self sacrificing, most romantic Hollywood hero of the war years.
Men of that era
World War Two defined masculinity by the appearances of men in uniform. Those who couldn’t make the grade were defined as lacking in virility or even in patriotism. Therefore most actors were assigned to war pictures that dealt with heroism under fire. In the process, they gave masculinity a face, and the screenwriters furnished it with a narrative. The effect the recent films had never really shaped the ‘new hero’ as a sensitive male which is something, in later years, credits the Actors Studio for producing a new kind of leading man – Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, et al. For now the audience had to contend with male figures, father figures, grey haired leaders who could protect America from impending doom known as the Nazi occupation.
Making it in love and career
Thus, the Bogart generation was still in control and under these conditions, the romance of a young woman, such as Lauren Bacall, who appeared with him in the film To have and have not was not as unseemly as it might have been in another era. The variance in age and the fact that Bogart had a wife made no difference. The couple were madly in love. The two kept dodging bullets, slipping away from the press and trying to evade the prying eyes of the press and media.
Their hidden romance continued while co staring in The Big Sleep, pretending to be nothing more than mere friends it was not easy to keep their emotional distance apart. Playing the detective from Raymond Chandler’s noir novel was something that only Bogart could pull off. He seemed born to play this part, with a face as stark, and angular as the cinematography. His lean physique suggested self denial, as if any indulgences – other than booze, were not to be admitted. His voice was terse but oddly musical, so that in one scene he could convey amusement and a rude wit, and in another he could be romantic and sexually suggestive.
The end of the filming coincided with the conclusion to Bogart’s and Lauren’s affair. After several trials to make his marriage work Bogart and his wife decided to finally divorce and twelve days after his divorce Bogart and Lauren were finally wedded. Bogart refused to address his new wife by her professional name, and she addressed him as Bogie. Warners had agreed to sign him to a new contract which guaranteed him to be the highest paid actor in the world. He felt relaxed enough to look back on his career with the tone of an elder statesman: ‘I believe if I had not been given the movie role of Duke Mantee, in The Petrified Forest, I’d now be out of films altogether. Duke was my first heavy role, and I like heavies, having no desire to be sympathetic or romantic.’ He added that most of the time Mantee had to be mean while sitting down. ‘I had had so many violently active stage parts that the chair felt fine. Putting across a characterisation without benefit of the usual movement and gestures that help hold an audience’s attention is a special kind of problem.’
Use of props
By the age of forty seven he had already appeared in nineteen plays and fifty three films. And he was just getting started. Apart from imbibing himself when using alcohol as a psychological painkiller – particularly during the final years with his ex wife – Bogart seemed to have an addiction to tobacco. But that didn’t stop the audience and other actors from taking on the same… Nearly everyone smoked in films and throughout those years, cigarettes had become a vital Bogartian prop. In one scene when a great deal of exposition had to be spoken Bogart was at a loss on how he could deliver the monologue without sounding too tiresome. The director filmed Bogart unwrapping a pack of Chesterfields, remove a cigarette, tap it, speaking all the while, igniting the cigarette with a match, tossing it aside, adding some more lines, taking a large drag, exhaling, and finishing the speech while the words mingled with the smoke. That was instant drama.
At the half century mark, Bogart still had trouble defining his persona. On one hand he was a serious and versatile film actor who had paid his dues in scores of plays and dozens of B movies on his climb to the top. On the other hand, he was a wise guy, a drinker, a persistent annoyance to authority figures – in short, a case of arrested development. Stardom had brought him money, status, glamour, love. But it had also robbed him of privacy and a chance to reflect on it all.
Off to Africa
And then a phone call from John Huston. ‘Bogie’, he said, ‘i’ve got a helluva property – with the worst low-life character in the world as the hero – and you’re Hollywoods worst form of life. How about it?’ No studio believed in the project titled The African Queen for at its centre was a love story between two ageing cranks and as the postwar era came to an end, youth received a new emphasis and old was out. It was assumed that when the youngsters went to the movies they wanted to see reflections of themselves and their generation. ‘A story of two old people going up and down an African river?’ Said one producer, ‘Who’s going to be interested in that? You’ll be bankrupt.’
The film cast Katharine Hepburn opposite Bogart as an uptight British spinster who is aided by Bogart to sail down an East African river to safety from the germans during World War One. Thanks to director John Huston, the film was to be shot entirely on location where they came across more than a few problems. The Congo welcomed them with an array of poisonous creatures and the lack of creature comforts. The set was also compounded by unbearable heat that the director said ‘On a sound stage you fake it, but in Africa you don’t have to imagine that it’s hot, that it’s so humid and wet that cigarettes turn green with mould and when people sweat it isn’t with the help of a makeup man.’
At one point the boat they were filming on sprung a leak and the natives that were meant to keep an eye on it watched it sink. It took three days to haul it up to the surface. Most of the crew became ill with dysentery including the Hepburn. At times she threw up between takes but she never took a sick day. The only one who escaped the misery were Bogart and the director, who made point of staying away from bottled water, eating only canned food and drinking nothing but beer and straight whiskey. Hepburn learned too late that the water bottles were contaminated. The director claimed that anything that bit him soon dropped dead of alcohol poisoning.
In theory, The African Queen was an epic drama, a story of human endurance against the formidable odds of weather, topography and war. It was also a human comedy and a bright look at the battle of the sexes. The film wasn’t planned that way but the Bogart-Hepburn chemistry surprised everyone. When Hepburn came to appraise Bogart she said ‘Bogie was funny. A generous actor. Always knew his lines. Always on time. Hated anything false. He was an extraordinarily decent fellow. Fair – forthright – uncomplicated. Fun too – a good sense of humour. Devilish if he thought you were a phony. Like a cat with a mouse, he’d never let you off.’
In that year at the academies, up against Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and some of the other heavy weights of Hollywood the winner of the best actor category was announced: Humphrey Bogart. Bogart kissed his wife Lauren, went up onstage, and acknowledged the help and generosity of John Huston, Katharine Hepburn and producer Sam Spiegel. ‘No one does it alone’, he told the noisy, appreciative audience. ‘As in tennis, you need a good opponent or partner to bring out the best in you. John and Katie helped me to be where I am now.’
A few weeks later, he assumed the old self-deprecating stance. ‘The best way to survive an Oscar is never to try to win another one. You’ve seen what happens to some Oscar winners. They spend the rest of their lives turning down scripts while searching for the great role to win another one. Hell, I hope I’m never even nominated again. It’s meat and potato roles for me from now on.’