Review: Tough Without a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer
WATCHING the Billy Wilder 1954 romantic souffle Sabrina recently, I was struck not so much by Humphrey Bogart's performance as by the force of his screen presence.
Every time he appeared in his role as a serious business executive, the whole thing moved up a notch and a film of little consequence took on a new dimension. This was despite the fact that he believed he was miscast and hated the script -- and relations between Bogie and Wilder were disastrous.
The director and his fellow scriptwriters often appeared at the last minute clutching changes in scenes; this irritated the meticulous Bogart, who was always prepared and word perfect. Once he waved a page around and, imitating Wilder's Viennese accent, asked: "Vould you mind translating that into English? I don't shpeak so good ze Cherman," and suggested Wilder's 13-year-old daughter had written it.
Starting off by calling Bogart "evil, a bore, a coward", by the end of shooting Wilder admitted he was "an extremely competent SOB" and marvelled at the way his work emerged "in short spurts and it looks like a whole thought-out conception when it comes out".
Bogart generally got on well with directors, who appreciated his professionalism and reliability, and though he was never reluctant to condemn a screenplay as "a crock of shit", he loved working with people like his friend John Huston, who directed him in the masterly The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen.
Born in 1899 to a wealthy doctor and artist mother, Bogie grew up in a house with four servants, but by the time of his father's death, the family was broke and the morphine-addicted Belmont Bogart left heavy debts. Humphrey scrupulously paid off every cent. He had an inglorious career at school, eventually being thrown out, and didn't do much better in the Navy, where he enlisted in 1918: on his second day aboard a troop transport, he declined to obey an order and was knocked flat with a punch to the jaw.
In his entry to showbusiness, Bogart wasn't exactly an overnight success. After some work as a stage manager, he landed a few small parts in New York theatre, starting in 1922 in a play called Drifting. The same year, for a melodrama titled Swifty, a critic said he gave "a trenchant example of bad acting". But the parts grew bigger, the notices better and he was earning a living.
In 1926, Bogart was married, reluctantly, for the first time, to an actress named Helen Menken. Kanfer doesn't properly explain the reason for the marriage except to say Bogart was pressurised in some way. The relationship was lukewarm and they quarrelled over her insistence that their dog be fed caviar, among other matters. The marriage lasted 18 months.
Kanfer goes to great lengths to justify his subtitle, but the reader will be quick to spot that there wasn't anything "extraordinary" about Bogart's life, which was mainly dedicated to hard work and the maintenance of high standards in that work, often in conflict with the powerful studio machine. He was a person of integrity and he couldn't stand phonies of any kind. His friends tended to be equally resolute professionals, like Huston and Spencer Tracy. He drank lots of whiskey and smoked heavily. Fifty-four years after his death, there is no other actor of that generation who still attracts such a passionate following.
Bogie's first film A Devil with Women (1930) made little impact; the same year he made Up the River, directed by John Ford and co-starring Tracy; another flop. Between 1931 and 1934, he made eight films, none setting Hollywood alight, but in 1936, The Petrified Forest, based on a successful Broadway play in which Bogart had starred with Lesley Howard, made him a success at 37.
It wasn't all roses after that: Warner Brothers had him on a measly $500 a week and he had to do every film they threw at him. (Later, he was up to $300,000 per movie.) The 1940s was his best decade -- High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo.
As his third marriage was falling apart -- Mayo Methot was a violent alcoholic who threw crockery at the remarkably tolerant Bogie -- he met Lauren Bacall (aka Betty Perske). He was 44 and still dodging the dishes, she was 19 and, having been stoutly protected by her divorced mother, claimed to know nothing about men. As they met to make To Have and Have Not, based on Ernest Hemingway's novel (nothing of which got to the screen except the title), Bogart seems to have made honourable efforts to avoid compromising the clearly eager Bacall. But when Methot offered him a divorce (she later took her own life), Bogie leapt in and marriage number four turned them into one of Hollywood's most enduring golden couples.
The journalist Alistair Cooke described his friend Humphrey Bogart as "a character who might have come from a Graham Greene novel -- a disappointed man and a sanctified sinner" and "a man with a tough shell hiding a fine core". He died slowly and painfully of oesophageal cancer at 57.
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