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DVD Review: Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection

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The American Film Institute‘s “100 Years…100 Stars” list picked Humphrey Bogart as the greatest movie star of all time. Bogart appeared in 75 films over the course of his nearly 30-year career. He worked for a number of different studios in his lifetime, but it was with Warner Bros. that the Bogie legend was born.

Fans have been anticipating Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection from Warner Video for months. Now that it is available, they are in for a real treat. This is an outstanding DVD box set, filled with great films and fascinating ephemera.

The set includes 24 films, spread out on 12 double-sided DVD discs, plus a disc featuring The Brothers Warner documentary. There is a 48-page hardback book, and a packet of studio mementos such as posters, photos, and correspondences. By far the most impressive additional materials are the DVD extras that accompany each film. The sheer amount of this stuff is staggering, at least twenty hours’ worth — and probably more.

The 24 films:

The Petrified Forest (1936) * Black Legion (1937) * Marked Woman (1937) * Kid Galahad (1937) * San Quentin (1937) * The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) * Dark Victory (1939) * The Roaring Twenties (1939) * Invisible Stripes (1939) * Virginia City (1940) * Brother Orchid (1940) * They Drive By Night (1940) * High Sierra (1941) * The Maltese Falcon (1941) * All Through The Night (1941) * Across The Pacific (1942) * Casablanca (1942) * Action In The North Atlantic (1943) * Passage To Marseille (1944) * To Have And Have Not (1944) * The Big Sleep (1946) * Dark Passage (1947) * The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948) * Key Largo (1948)

Each film, and its bonus features occupy one side of a double-sided DVD. The extras vary depending on the film, but the majority offer a “Night At The Movies” option. This format recreates the movie-going experience of 60-70 years ago, when they were first screened at the neighborhood theatre. In those pre-television days, newsreels were always shown. Then there would be a musical short or two, maybe a comedy segment, one or two of the great cartoons the studio was producing, and anything else that might interest the public. Watching the DVDs in this manner is almost like traveling back in time, and adds perspective to the movies.

And what magnificent movies they are. High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, and Key Largo are more than just essential Bogart films. They are essential films, period.

One of the best things about a set like this is the new discoveries they often hold for fans. Just because a Bogart film like All Through The Night is not as well known as Casablanca does not make it a “bad” film. On the contrary, many of these lesser known titles are exceptional. In many cases, their only “flaw” was that they were Bogart pictures, and often overlooked in favor of other Bogart pictures.

A textbook example of this is the very first movie of the set, The Petrified Forest. In 1936, Bogart finally broke through with this starring role. It came just in time too. He was 37 years old, and well aware that his career would be over unless things changed dramatically. The call to play outlaw Duke Mantee in the film saved his career.

Mantee is holed up in a desert diner, and the patrons are his hostages. Outside, the law waits for him. Duke knows he cannot win, yet he stubbornly holds on, and even grants a man’s strange request in a bid for immortality. For the first time, Bogart’s art mirrored his life, and the performance he delivers is terrific. The Petrified Forest is an outstanding film, and a great choice to begin the set with.

As acclaimed as Bogart’s performance was, it still took the studio a while to appreciate his full potential as an actor. Bogie spent the next five years as a jack of all trades. He would get the lead in B pictures such as Black Legion or Marked Woman. But in A pictures, Bogart played second-fiddle to established stars like Edward G. Robinson (Kid Galahad, Brother Orchid, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse), James Cagney (The Roaring Twenties), George Raft (Invisible Stripes), even Errol Flynn (Virginia City).

The 1940s were Bogart’s best. In 1941 his status as leading man was secured with the knockout combination of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. 1942 was the year of his most beloved film, Casablanca. It was a love story, set against the backdrop of World War II. The war was an inescapable fact of life for America, and Bogart made a few movies with a war theme. Four are included: Across The Pacific, Action In The North Atlantic, All Through The Night, and Passage To Marseille.

The four films Bogart made with Lauren Bacall are also here: To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Except for the love story To Have And Have Not, the Bogie – Bacall pictures are now considered film noir. Scholars claim The Maltese Falcon to be the first of the film noir genre. Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade, and director John Huston’s use of shadows and light were definitive.

Besides the “Night At The Movies” materials, there are short documentary  “featurettes”  about many of the films. The convoluted history of The Big Sleep may not be well-know, but it is fascinating. The film treatment of Raymond Chandler’s novel was co-authored by a slumming William Faulkner. The darker elements of the book were emphasized, and filming was completed in time for a 1945 release. Warner Bros. had a problem though. The war was winding down, and there were still unreleased war pictures in the pipeline. To make some room in the schedule, the release of The Big Sleep was pushed back a year.

This unique situation allowed everyone a chance to re-assess the movie, and an unprecedented opportunity to improve it. In response to the phenomenal success of the Bogart – Bacall pairing in To Have And Have Not, the writers went back to work on The Big Sleep. Whole scenes were re-written and re-shot to emphasize the relationship. Not only does “The Big Sleep Comparisons 1945/1946” explain the chain of events, it also allows us to compare and contrast the old and new scenes side by side.

Rounding out the plethora of extras are commentaries, studio blooper reels, vintage radio shows, and a couple of audio-only radio adaptations of the films.

Every single film Bogart made with Warner Bros. was in black and white. It was not until after he left the studio that his first color picture, The African Queen (1951) appeared. The black and white milieu suits him well though, and the shades in these new prints are clear and distinct. Not only do the DVDs tell a remarkable story, they look pretty remarkable as well.

There will never be another Humphrey Bogart, as we all know. What is surprising is that there ever was one in the first place. Talk about having the deck stacked against you, Bogart was wrong on almost every count. He was a leading man who was over 40, and not a particularly handsome one at that. He publicly fought with his boss, and just as publicly carried on an affair with a woman half his age. He smoked and drank too much, then married that woman who was half his age.

These are things would not go over well in today’s Hollywood. Even back then, Bogart’s behavior was not exactly appreciated by his bosses. I think this is part of his enduring appeal though. Humphrey Bogart was his own man, with an integrity that is reflected in his films. He also worked awfully hard to make the characters he played his own.

Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection is a fantastic tribute to a true cinematic icon. From top to bottom, this DVD set was done right, and will likely be on top of every film buff’s wish list this year.

Postscript: Two of the DVDs are missing significant attractions. Dark Victory does not have either the commentary or the featurette “1939: Tough Competition For Dark Victory.” The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre disc is missing the entire movie! The mistakes in my set are identical to others that have been reported online. There is no word on how widespread the problem is — or how Warner intends to deal with it. My advice is to exercise caution, and be certain you can return the set if it is missing things like a whole movie.

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