On the morning of Jan. 15, 1957, the top newspaper headlines around the world concerned the death, the previous day, of an actor.
Humphrey Bogart died of cancer at his home in Hollywood. He’d turned 57 Christmas Day. He was survived by his fourth wife, actress Lauren Bacall, and their two small children, son Stephen and daughter Leslie.
Bogart was the first of the Big Stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age to go. Errol Flynn would follow in ’59 (dead of a heart attack at 50). Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, then Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh…
Well, what the hell, it was the 60s. Dawn of a whole new era. Exciting new films were being made, the whole world culture was being reinvented.
There were blazingly brilliant films and books coming out of England (with Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave, Susannah York, “Look Back In Anger,” “Room At The Top,” “Saturday Night And Sunday Morning”) and France (directors like Truffaut and Godard, actors like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Denuerve, Alain Delon) and Italy (Fellini – that’s enough right there).
And even in America, we were holding our own: We had Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn (born Dutch, sounded British, but by the 60s, Audrey was an AMERICAN movie star); and directors like Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn and Sydney Lumet.
Culturally, it was a brave new world. RIP, old Hollywood – you mighta been fun, but you’re SO yesterday.
We wanted our movies like we want our lifestyle, hot, wild and naked. Say adios to Tara, Scarlett, say hello to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
Then, ’round about 1965, the damnedest thing happened: Humphrey Bogart made a comeback.
The Brattle Street Theatre in Boston started showing a Bogart Festival during (the usually slow) Harvard exam week. They found themselves sold out. When they screened 1942’s “Casablanca,” the place was SRO.
Playboy Magazine ran an article by British playwright/critic Kenneth Tynan on this weirdness. Journalist Joe Hyams, a friend of Bogart’s, published a biography on Bogie. It became a bestseller.
A thin little book entitled “Bogart’s Face” (nothing but page after page of close-ups of, well, Bogart’s face) became a collector’s item.
Woody Allen staged a modest comedy on Broadway, “Play It Again, Sam,” all about a little loser who’s coached on how to get girls by Bogie’s ghost. Rave reviews. Big Broadway hit. An even bigger hit as a movie.
A poster of Bogart in a scene from “To Have And Have Not” hung on every high school kid’s wall and in most college dorm rooms, right alongside the posters of Hendrix, the Stones, Dylan, Jim Morrison and Che Guevera (without irony, by the way).
What the hell was going on?
Humphrey Deforest Bogart was born into a well-off family in New York City on Dec. 25, 1899. His father was a doctor, his mother a well-known illustrator. Bogart was a prep school kid, sent to Andover, headed for Yale – until he pulled some rebellious shenanigans and got booted from Andover. His old man was not amused, so young Humphrey enlisted in the Navy during World War I.
Discharged at the end of the war, Bogart headed back to New York with not a clue as to what he wanted to do. It was the start of the Roaring 20s, and also the beginning of that ridiculous thing called Prohibition, but the young bohemians fresh back from the war could’ve cared less. Bogart hung out in Greenwich Village, playing chess for money (he was good at it), drinking in the speakeasies near Broadway, chasing chorus girls, and eventually, by his own admission “stumbling into” an acting job in a Broadway comedy.
He was young and handsome – one critic compared his looks to Valentino’s – and more than competent on the stage. Acting was a good gig, an easier way to make a buck than hustling chess games, and gave him plenty of time to indulge his growing fondness for Scotch.
He stayed on Broadway for the next fifteen years (Bogart had a brief affair with Hollywood in the early 30s, but they kicked him back to New York like a cheap whore).
But the 20s had stopped roaring and the Great Depression had settled over America like a black cloud, and it wasn’t lifting anytime soon. Broadway acting jobs were scarce. And Bogart was in his mid-30s.
Bogart landed a role – cast totally against type – as the fugitive desperado Duke Mantee in Robert E. Sherwood’s play, “The Petrified Forest.” The star was Brit actor Leslie Howard. The play was a huge hit. Howard and Bogart became close pals, and Howard promised Bogart, when the play became a movie, Bogart would repeat his role of Duke Mantee.
Bogart shook his head. “I’ve been to Hollywood,” he said. “They don’t want me out there.”
And they didn’t. Edward G. Robinson was cast as Mantee. Leslie Howard wired Warner Bros. No Bogart, Howard said, no me (that’s why Bogart named his daughter Leslie).
Bogart and Howard did the movie, and this time Bogart stayed in movieland.
Didn’t matter. They still didn’t know what to do with him. He spent most the rest of the 30s playing gangsters,good for little more, in the eyes of the bosses, but to be riddled with bullets in the final reel by the likes of Robinson, Cagney and Raft. And he never got the girl.
After six years of this nonsense – Bogart was sometimes appearing in seven movies a year – he landed, by default, the role of middle-aged bank robber Roy Earle in “High Sierra” (George Raft turned it down).
He was still a bad man with a pistol, he still got gunned down before the final fade out, and his girl walked off in the custody of the cops.
BUT… Bogart brought a poignancy and rueful wit to this aging outlaw, along with his no-nonsense toughness.
Huh! thought the brothers Warner. Maybe he can carry a movie all on his own (of course he could, he always had).
“High Sierra” locked in Bogart as a leading man. “The Maltese Falcon” made him a star. As private eye Sam Spade, Bogart got the girl – though he didn’t get to keep her – and he was tough, witty and shrewd.
“All he has to do to dominate a scene is enter it,” Raymond Chandler said.
Bogart certainly dominates “Casablanca.”
No way in hell is it the greatest movie ever made – as some contend – but it’s certainly the most fun. Every single line is memorable (no, I’m not kidding, every single line), the characters are a wonderful crazy-quilt played by brilliant actors, Michael Curtiz’s direction moves at a whip-crack pace and, at the center of it all, like a rock, stands Bogart.
He still doesn’t get the girl at the end (he sends her flying off with her husband), but he’d gone from leading actor to star and was now considered a romantic leading man.
Bogart, in typical fashion, wasn’t impressed with such press.
“I didn’t do anything in that I hadn’t always done,” he said, “But when that Bergman’s looking at you with that face and saying she loves you, it would make anybody look romantic.”
In “To Have And Have Not,” Bogart got to keep the girl – on screen and off.
Director Howard Hawks bought his buddy Ernest Hemingway’s novel on a bet, telling Hemingway, “I can make a movie out of the worst book you ever wrote” (Hawks was lucky Hemingway didn’t shoot him).
“To Have And Have Not” isn’t Hemingway’s worst book – “Across The River And Into The Trees” is – but Hawks proceeded to throw everything out except the name of the lead character. He found a 19 year-old fashion model named Betty Perske from the Bronx, renamed her Lauren Bacall, and went about creating in the script “a girl even more insolent than Bogart is – and he’s the most insolent man on the screen.”
It worked. Bogart and Bacall flashed and roared like a brush fire. Bogart and Bacall engaged in some of the wittiest, smartest, sexiest banter ever exchanged, stalking each other like two sleek cats, obviously enjoying every minute of it.
They were a hot new screen team, and Warners rushed them into “The Big Sleep,” again under Hawks’ direction. It wasn’t as much fun as “To Have…” but it was close, a taut little detective thriller with Bogart as that other classic private eye, Philip Marlowe.
Between the two films, Bogart divorced his third wife – the marriage had been on the rocks for a long time – and married Bacall. He was 45; she was 20.
For the next 10 years of his life, Bogart worked to stretch himself as an actor. He was brilliant in John Huston’s “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” scrapping any hint of the romantic leading man to dig into the soul of a scrambling, greedy, murderous desert rat, Fred C. Dobbs – and Bogart still manages to find the humanity in the character and bring it to the surface. It’s the performance for which he should have won an Oscar.
But he had to wait a few more years for that, until – again under Huston’s direction (they made six films together) – Bogart, Huston and Kate Hepburn took off for the Congo and made “The African Queen.”
The movie is far from Huston’s best, or Bogart’s or even Hepburn’s for that matter, but it finally brought Bogart the Academy Award.
The story goes that Richard Burton, a friend of the Bogart’s, was having a god-natured debate with Bogart over the merits of English-style vs. American acting.
“You Brits,” Bogart was saying, “all you guys are is elocutionists. You say the words pretty, but that’s about it.”
“No, Bogie,” Burton replied. “You Americans, all you are is behavorists. You stand in front of the camera and behave the same way all the time. That’s not acting.”
Burton said the discussion was getting more and more heated – Bogart liked nothing better than an impassioned debate – when Bogart suddenly leapt from his chair. He stormed into the other room, came out with his Oscar, and slammed it down on the coffee table.
“There!” he told Burton. “Argue with that!”
Bogart said the secret to winning an Oscar was “never try to win another one.” He focused primarily on character roles (working with Huston for the last time in “Beat The Devil,” as a middle-aged roustabout in Europe, in a bone-dry spoof of adventure films, from a hilarious screenplay by Truman Capote).
But while working on the film “The Harder They Fall,” Bogart was hampered by a persistent cough. He finally went to the doctors. Throat cancer. He’d burned through pack after pack of unfiltered Chesterfields for decades. It had finally caught up with him.
None of which explains, really, why an actor who’d been dead for the better part of a decade suddenly became, in the terminally hip 60s, a cultural icon.
And remains one. Both the American Film Institute and Entertainment Weekly have named Humphrey Bogart the Number One male movie star of all time.
I first saw “Casablanca” on television in 1965. I didn’t know it was a classic. I didn’t know what a “classic” was. I barely knew who Humphrey Bogart was. I was, like, 12. But even then I had three passions: books, movies and baseball (well, OK, there was that long-legged, long haired girl in Science class in the mini-skirt, but I was 12 – I’d have been like a dog chasing a car, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it if I caught it, so let’s get back to movies).
I happened to catch “Casablanca” right at the opening credits, so I watched it.
By the final fade out, when Bogie in his trench coat and fedora walks off into the misty fog with the corrupt police captain, Claude Rains, and the music starts to soar, and Bogie says, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” I had to hold the top of my head on.
WOW! I’d just seen one of the greatest movies ever made, and Humphrey Bogart was the coolest actor who ever lived. I was hooked but good.
This is going to sound odd to the post VCR-DVD-Tivo generation, but I well remember, as a kid in the 60s, having to paw through the TV Guide, looking for movie re-runs on a local Baltimore station of ANY film Bogart appeared in.
Luckily the one UHF station, Channel 45, would have week-long “film festivals” every night at 8 pm.
Sometimes it would be Bogart, and what a great week THAT was: “High Sierra,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “To Have And Have Not,” Across The Pacific,” “All Through The Night” and of course “Casablanca,” all in one week!
If it was a Bette Davis festival, I looked out for “Marked Women” or “Dark Victory.”
A Cagney festival, I’d watch “The Roaring Twenties” and “Angels With Dirty Faces” (or, GOD, even “The Oklahoma Kid” – Bogie and Cagney as Noo Yawk accented cowboys, what a hoot).
A Robinson festival brought “Kid Galahad,” “Bullets Or Ballots,” “Brother Orchid” and even sometimes “Key Largo.”
The first VHS I bought – AND the first DVD – was “Casablanca.” To be able to watch that any time you wanted, not have to wait for it to show up on TV or in an art house somewhere, or to be able to go to the local video store and rent almost any Bogart film, is a corner of heaven many younger people can’t imagine.
I don’t know why Bogart had such an impact on my 60s generation, far more than Flynn, Gable, or any of the “old” stars, who were in fact much bigger stars in their lifetimes.
We certainly weren’t into nostalgia back then. Everything “old” was suspect. We thought those old values had somehow gotten us into the nightmare of Vietnam and assassinations and racial riots we were then living in.
Not with Bogart, though. He seemed “relevant,” a path finder for our rebellious and iconoclastic attitudes, an originator. He was supremely cool – the highest accolade of the time, meaning he kept his emotions in check; he was quick-witted and ironic, low-key, smart, pragmatic and supremely self-reliant. Everything we wanted to be.
It was a movie character fantasy, sure, but many of us were delighted to discover, through Joe Hyams’ biography and Clifford McCarty’s “The Films Of Humphrey Bogart,” that the actor and the man were very much one and the same. The artist who created the character was basing the creation very much on himself. That rang the bell for a lot of us.
If you want to create great art, we thought, you have to live it first. I haven’t seen anything yet to disprove that.
He was also a bridge to the old fashioned gunslingers, to a sense of history, a way we were and might be able to be again. His personal freedom and integrity were everything. He wouldn’t compromise his values. When he gave his word, he kept it. There was no bunk about Bogart.
“Bogart’s only problem,” restaurant owner Dave Chasen once said, “is that he thinks he’s Bogart.”
We thought we were, too. There’s far worse things to aspire to be.