“I was born when you kissed me. I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.”
The American Film Institute ranked Humphrey Bogart as the greatest male star in the history of American cinema, Entertainment Weekly selected him as “the greatest movie legend of all time.” A few detailed biographies have been published since his death in January 14, 1957, one of the most complete written is Bogart by Ann Sperber and Eric Lax, full of revealing anecdotes. Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born on Christmas Day, 25th December 1899, in New York. Bogart’s father, Belmont DeForest was a wealthy surgeon and his mother, Maud Humphrey (artistic director of The Delineator, she used Humphrey for a Mellin’s baby food ad). She suffered erisipela and her husband administrated her morphine; he injected it himself due to a traumatism. The Bogarts lived in an Upper West Side apartment on Riverside Drive next to the Brady family. A young Humphrey endures his first failed fling in the Canandaigua Lake with Grace Lansin, a theatre pal. In Fire Island Bogart kisses his first girlfriends. He’d sailed on the Comrade yatch. The Santana (which he bought in 1945) would be the Comrade replacement and second home.
Bogart attended briefly the Phillips Academy in Andover. After working as agent of inversions for S.W. Strauss & co. he enlisted in the Navy in 1918. After the armistice he got an office job for William Brady Sr.’s company World Films. In 1921 he would make his debut onstage in Drifting with Kenneth MacKenna (who’d marry Mary Philips in 1938) in Fulton theatre in Brooklyn. Bogart frequented the speakeasies in 1924, becoming a heavy drinker. About his injured lip, according to Louise Brooks “his lip wound gave him no speech impediment, either before or after it was mended.”
Bill Brady encouraged Bogart to marry Helen Menken (“7th Heaven” Broadway star) in 1926 whom he’d divorce a half past year later. He signed for Vitaphone in 1930, after the Wall Street Crash, and met his second wife actress Mary Philips during the play Nerves, acting together in Broadway’s Like That. Bogart expressed insecurity to his brother-in-law Stuart Rose about his sexual life with Mary. Bogart was hired by Universal in 1931, starting his first of 6 motion pictures co-starred with Bette Davis: Bad Sister (the last movie with Davis was Dark Victory in 1939).
Tired of his “white Pants Willie” roles and depressed after the deaths of his father Belmont and sister Kay, he had to pay off the family debts and prepare vigorously his next Hollywood assault.
His breakout happened in The Petrified Forest (1936), thanks to Leslie Howard’s insistence. His performance was described as “superb”, and his effort playing the criminal Duke Mantee as sheer “class” by The Hollywood Reporter. In 1937 (the year he divorces Mary Philips) he plays gangster Baby Face Martin in Dead End directed by William Wyler. His alley scene with Claire Trevor (nominated to Best Supporting actress) oozes despair, framed by Toland’s gritty cinematography.
In 1938 Bogart married Mayo Methot (The Portland Rosebud actress in the The Mad Honeymoon play by William Brady) with whom he worked in Marked Woman. The relationship with Mayo would mark the lowest point in Bogart’s emotional stability, since “Sluggy” (he also called her Madam) behaved in paranoid and aggressive mood, even stabbing Bogart once.
Bogart played another outlaw in High Sierra directed by Raoul Walsh in 1941. According to Walsh, on the set of They Drive by Night: “the salary was his only thrill.” His role as Roy Earle in High Sierra was called “the twilight of the American gangster” by The New York Times. “I wouldn’t give you two cents for a dame without a temper,” Bogart says to Ida Lupino. Irving Rapper (High Sierra‘s dialogue director) remembers Bogie infatuated with Ida.
However, he could be shy shooting kiss scenes: in The Maltese Falcon by Huston (1941), Bogart needed to repeat 7 takes. Mary Astor, who played the femme fatale betrayed by Sam Spade, explained that Bogart had a saliva trouble.
His final lowlife gangster role was in The Big Shot in 1942. The same year he played Rick Blaine in the most romantic film ever: Casablanca directed by Michael Curtiz, Ingrid Bergman playing Ilsa Lund (inspired by the angelic Ilse from “Harz Journey” poem by Heine) which would catapult Bogie as a true movie star (even a sex-symbol) leaving behind his contract player status in Warner. Huston said Bogie wasn’t a womanizer.
The next movie for Bogart that transformed him into a definitive legend was The Big Sleep (1946) by Howard Hawks, after To Have and Have Not (1944) the film based on a Hemingway’s novel that featured Lauren Bacall’s entrance into Bogart’s romantic awakening.
Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep novel, although he wouldn’t help Hawks much about his famously complicated story plot, he praised Bogart’s interpretation of Phillip Marlowe: “Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also, he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt”.
Bogart divorced his washed-up third wife in 1945 and married Lauren Bacall at Luis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm, on 21st May 1945. His relationship and marriage with Bacall is the most splendorous phase in Bogart’s life; John Huston asked an evening if somebody wanted to relive a part of their lives, only Bogart said: “When I was courting Betty [Bacall was born Betty Joan]”.
The book by Sperber and Lax doesn’t gloss over the more prosaic and obscure side of Bogart when they report his aggressions towards his wife Mayo, a long affair with his hairdresser Verita Thompson, and diverse remembrances: his lucky Oxford shoes at Grauman’s Chinese, Spencer Tracy (the first who calls him Bogey) etc., that shed light and shadows on Bogie’s brumous personality, a special chapter covering his trip to Washington to defend the blacklisted artists in Hollywood (accused by the House of Un-American Activities Committee of communism for their “New Deal” support), brusquely finished with a benign declaration by Bogart (afraid of a boycott on his films and pressed by Jack Warner) that some participants as Larry Adler found insufficient.
Huston, Bogart, William Wyler, will denounce the terror and hysteria provoked by HUAC. However, his previous press conference in Chicago (3rd December 1947) was the prevalent in Bogart’s memory. Richard Brooks says Bogie was smart enough for anticipating this defeat; years later, Bogart confesses to Brooks how he had hoped to achieve more in his life, while they watched A Star is Born, a film whose ending moved Bogie to tears. He had always complained of his enslaved early years acting in clinkers: “I made more lousy pictures than any actor in history.”
Another vivid anecdote that finds Bogie at Gotham Hotel (waiting for Lauren Bacall’s arrival to Grand Central Station, New York), in company of a Warner agent exposes his self-consuming tension. Incapable of relaxing, Bogie forced his publicity agent to call a masseur three times in a row (who had to take the metro from Brooklyn).
“The combination of grandiosity, self-destructiveness, and panic with which Hollywood reacted to the audience’s desertion is the subtext of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), which is set in the jittery Hollywood of 1949.” (Bogart, playing a near-psychotic screenwriter says to restaurateur-conman Mike Romanoff, playing himself: ‘How is business?’, Romanoff: ‘Like show business. There’s no business’.” Shades of Noir (1993) by Joan Copjec.
My favorite performance of Bogart is In a Lonely Place (1950) directed by Nicholas Ray, although his most renowned performances are “The African Queen” (awarded with an Oscar for his role Charlie Allnut), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Caine Mutiny, and Casablanca, all of them essential and unforgettable. Very touching was his lasting performance as a torn sportswriter in The Harder They Fall who chooses to make a last act of goodness.
The Bogart biography by Sperber & Lax and By myself and Then Some by Lauren Bacall both narrate with minutia his last years (friends gathered at his butternut room, The Rat Pack leaded by Frank Sinatra – who wooed Bacall and retracted later – his brave and silent fight against esophagus cancer, his children Stephen and Leslie). Bacall’s memoirs book is an excellent recount of her romance with Bogart. “Never damage your own character,” he taught Bacall, “Bogie, with his great ability to love, never supressing me, helping me to keep my values straight in a town where there were few, forcing my standards higher – To be good was more important than to be rich. To be kind was more important than owning a house or a car. To never sell your soul was most important of all”.
Bogart is one of my best celluloid crushes, he embodies in the purest form a portrayal, a past master, the stuff that dreams are made of (a line he suggested to Huston for The Maltese Falcon).