Friday , July 12 2024
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Book Review: Humphrey Bogart: Tough Without a Gun by Stefan Kanfer

The pages of this new book about Humphrey Bogart, published by Knopf and penned by Stefan Kanfer (writer of previous biographies of Marlon Brando, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, etc.) start in Bogartian fashion, with an intro contradicting Sunset Boulevard and establishing his thesis from The Brattle screenings at Harvard University in the ’50s, where films such as Casablanca (historic love classic, regular in Valentine’s Day) and The Maltese Falcon (Time magazine reviewed Bogart’s Sam Spade as the performance of his career) were revisited and the “Bogie Cult” was born.

Divided in 10 chapters, Kanfer begins with the DeForest Bogart’s family line and Humphrey’s childhood in New York’s upper society which would conform his WASP inheritance, analyzing the troubles inside a rich but conflictive home, a three-story brownstone house decorated with crystal chandeliers, heavy tapestries, classical statues, and Oriental rugs (Bogart’s last home in Holmby Hills had Picassos, Dufy’s and French Provincial furniture). Bogart’s mom, Maud Humphrey, was known as “Lady Maud”, a militant suffragette for women’s rights, who became artistic director of the Delineator fashion magazine. She’d say of Bogie: “He is a manly lad, but too delicate in health.”

And health reasons were adduced by Rick Blaine for moving to Casablanca:

–“‘Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?’
–‘Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.'”

Ole Michelsen, writer of Danish TV program “Bogart,” talked about the irreplaceable role of Bogart in Casablanca:

“How much significance do you attribute to the icon Humphrey Bogart as a reason for the film’s [Casablanca] cult status?” 

“You could hardly imagine any other actor in that part. He put into it all that he had, of mystery, of masculinity as it was defined back then, and also of ambiguity. That setup in the screenplay is brilliant, gradually letting us in behind his shell, but it is never resolved — we know there is a heart beating behind his tough exterior, but he never really shows it, not even in the dubious finale. He says ‘Where I go you can’t follow.'”

Kanfer confronts the difficult task of explaining why Bogart “attained the summit no other actor had ever reached” in the chapters dedicated to his film career, highlighting behind-the scenes anecdotes and research about almost all of his movies, including filmmakers and co-stars. He provides an interesting blending of news, politics and Hollywood’s apogee, obtaining his information of previous biographies (mainly Bogart by A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Bogart by Jeffrey Meyers, Bogart: In Search of My Father by Stephen Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films by Richard Schickel, George Perry, and Stephen Bogart, Bogie and Me: The Love Story of Humphrey Bogart and Verita Thompson, etc.)

In company of his friend Bill Brady, Bogart visited dozens of speakeasies now forgotten — the Dizzy Club, the Hotsy Totsy, Chez Florence, Basque’s, the Aquarium, Mario’s, the Clamhouse, the Bandbox, during the Prohibition age. With his second wife, Mary Philips, and other friends as Mary Baker (his agent), Bogart had to struggle playing chess for 50-cent bets at the “sport-lands” on Sixth Avenue while he lived in the East Side. Then he and Mary moved to the Garden of Allah on Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, where Bogart’s legend would be forged. With Mayo Methot (his third wife) he bought a house on Horn Avenue over the Sunset Strip, and their endless alcoholic battles and mind games would prompt this relationship to desamor and divorce.

“The end of the marriage bothered him even though he felt he was doing the right thing. He cried,” remembered Mary Philips (now Mrs MacKenna) after having met Bogie after his break-up with Mayo and comforted him at Sunset Strip’s LaRue’s restaurant in 1945.

In 1939 novelist John O’Hara sadly noted “George Gershwin died today, but I don’t have to believe it if I dont’ want to.” ‘Writers seemed to feel the same way about Humphrey Bogart,” says Kanfer, “They didn’t have to believe he was gone if they didn’t want to, and they didn’t want to.” For Bogart, “true class couldn’t be imitated or taught,” so maybe this is part of the reason “impersonators don’t ‘do’ Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale, et al. because these actors don’t have distinctive voices or faces.”

Jerry Wald, who produced many of Bogart’s early pictures, summed up his undaunted appeal: “He was liked by audiences because he had, even in the toughest gangster roles, a pathetic quality.”

The London Times compared Bogart’s screen persona to a male equivalent to the hooker with a heart of gold (that Marilyn Monroe had mastered all through her career). Bogart’s figure revels in devoted admiration by women in a similar way Marilyn keeps on receiving obsessive idealization by men, although both in real life were elusive, emotionally distant with others. Billy Wilder once said that the Hollywood personalities he was asked about most frequently were Marilyn Monroe and Raymond Chandler (writer of The Big Sleep; Bogart, opines Kanfer, with his stark and angular face ‘seemed born to play the part of Philip Marlowe’).

“Underneath this hard-boiled exterior there was an appealing purity, almost Victorian, which may contribute to his enduring magnetism”, concluded Joe Hyams in Bogie: The Humphrey Bogart Story.

Nobel laureate V.S. Nipaul introduced a character named Bogart in his novel Miguel Street, “without the movies I would have died,” High Sierra being his favorite film.

Bogie, the stoical gentleman, faced death the way he faced life, with courage and dignity. And Lauren Bacall, was his dear Baby, his determined muse. “Class; that’s what she has — real class,” Bogie said of her admiringly, “A lot of broads in this town, but I married a real lady with class.” As in Dark Passage, we’ll wait for Bogart phoning Betty to meet him “at a little café right on the bay” in a remote land while the orchestra music and the beach waves swell in the background.

The conclusion by Kanfer scintillates in “The Greatest Gift” chapter, and it alone makes worthy the reading of his book: “By the rules of history, Humphrey Bogart should have become obsolete, a faded image totally obscured by new faces and fresh interpretations of the male role.” (Rich Zubaty stated in his book What Men Know That Women Don’t: “Our male role models are reconstituted women,” Susan Faladi in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man talks of “A masculinity crisis playing out on the American stage.”)

“Instead,” continues Kanfer in his labour of decyphering a myth who’s became a silver screen apothegm more than another legendary Hollywood leading man, “he became more prominent, looming larger as we moved away from his epoch.” Bogart’s “unique amalgam of integrity and rue has not gone out of style. It has gone out of American cinema — ” Bogart “stood for values that certain men and women remembered and romanticized.”

“More movie stars. More wind-blown hair and sunglasses and attitudes and pseudo-refined voices and waterfront morals. You’ve got the wrong attitude, Marlowe. You’re not human tonight”  — The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler

About Elena Gonzalvo

I'm Elena Gonzalvo, a Spanish/French blogger and film/book critic. My favourite genre is Film Noir. My blogsite is Weirdland:

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