The enduring appeal of Bogart from privileged but unhappy childhood to star of the silver screen
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
This afternoon at Dublin's IFI, movie lovers will be given a rare treat. As part of a new nostalgic weekend initiative called 'The Hangover Lounge', a double bill of classic movies will be accompanied by a no-doubt nutritious and restorative brunch. And the strand will kick off in style with a Humphrey Bogart double bill.
At 2pm To Have and Have Not screens, and will be followed at 4pm by Bogie's most famous and enduringly popular movie, Casablanca. His character in that film, Rick Blaine, perfectly sums up Humphrey Bogart's screen appeal: a sneering and fiercely individualistic loner who hides his better intentions behind a veil of feigned cynicism.
He played that type in many films and, though he wasn't conventionally handsome and didn't have a big range, Bogart had extraordinary screen presence and brought something electrifyingly modern and edgy to everything he did. And perhaps that explains why, almost 60 years after his death, he's far more famous than most of his contemporaries, including such celebrated peers as Spencer Tracy and James Cagney.
For much of his career Bogie toiled in B pictures and played second fiddle to Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Edward G. Robinson in formulaic crime flicks. He was almost 40 by the time he became a star in his own right, and was dead from cancer by 57. His time, then, in the spotlight was relatively brief, but Bogart certainly made the most of it, and starred in at least 10 films that have become timeless classics. And while his rasping voice has been much imitated, Humphrey Bogart's casual but authoritative screen persona was inimitable, and unique.
Bogart was not much given to navel-gazing introspection, but even he admitted that his childhood was privileged, rather than happy. Though he spent most of his career playing blue-collar tough guys, Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born (probably, though accounts differ, on Christmas Day 1899) into a well-to-do New York family and raised in the city's fashionable Upper West Side.
His father, Belmont Bogart, was a Yale-educated heart surgeon, his mother, Maud Humphrey, a talented illustrator and passionate suffragette: both drank heavily, and by all accounts fought like cats and dogs. "I can't say I ever loved my mother - I admired her," her son would later say, and though he was closer to his father, demonstrations of affection were rare.
Humphrey grew up angry and rebellious, and did not excel at school. His parents hoped he'd follow in his father's footsteps and study medicine at Yale, but in the spring of 1918 Bogart was expelled from the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding school and enlisted in the US Navy. That experience cemented an enduring love of seafaring, and also made him determined that his life would be nothing like his parents'.
When he returned to New York, Bogart dabbled in shipping before drifting into acting, a profession he had been raised to despise as 'ungentlemanly'. He never took acting lessons and learnt as he went along: between 1922 and the mid-1930s, he appeared in up to 20 Broadway productions.
At first he was typecast as a callow, upper class type, and would later remember one play where he bounded on-stage in whites and said "Tennis, anyone?". Bogart despised those early "White pants Willie" roles, as he called them, and things only began to happen for him when he got cast against type as a hoodlum.
In 1935, he co-starred with English star Leslie Howard in a Broadway run of Robert E. Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest, playing Duke Mantee, an escaped convict who holes up in a lonely diner as the police net closes around him. Critics who had previously dismissed him as "an antiquated juvenile" were astonished by the intensity and menace of his performance, and Bogart himself felt liberated by the role.
The show was a hit, and Warner Brothers quickly picked up the story and asked Howard to star in a film version. Jack Warner wanted Edward G. Robinson to play Mantee, but Leslie Howard held the production rights, and insisted they use the unknown Bogart instead. Bogart was electrifying in the 1936 film: suddenly, he had a film career.
Even though his potential was obvious, Humphrey Bogart didn't exactly fit Jack Warner's cookie-cutter ideas about what a movie star should look like. He stood just under five-foot-eight, had a slight lisp, a strong New York twang and a lined, careworn face. In other words, he was no Cary Grant, and Warners condemned him to supporting roles in gangster B pictures.
"I made more lousy pictures than any actor in history," Bogart once said, and to begin with he certainly did. Between 1936 and 1940 he appeared in countless dreary crime pictures, and almost invariably played a sneering baddie who gets his comeuppance in the final reel. His occasional ventures into other genres were disastrous: in 1939 he played a homicidal doctor in the sci-fi chiller The Return of Doctor X, but didn't like that film to be mentioned in his presence, and there were even a couple of westerns, but Bogie was all wrong in a Stetson, too modern, too urban.
The early films that showed his real promise where the two classic gangster movies he made with James Cagney, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). In both films he played a scheming underworld sidekick who double-crosses Cagney before being revealed as "yellow", and shot. In other words, business as usual for the hack Warners contract player, but what was different was the swaggering cynicism Bogart bought to roles he made far more eye-catching than their writers had intended.
He might have been funny-looking, but the camera loved Humphrey Bogart, and major stardom only seemed a matter of time. And in 1941 his breakthrough finally came in Raoul Walsh's heist thriller High Sierra. The part of soft-hearted criminal Roy Earle had originally been intended for Paul Muni, who didn't like the script. Then Warner's gangster number one George Raft was called in, but he was sick of playing hoods and turned it down.
Bogart played the part of Earle with more nuance and subtlety than either of those actors could have managed, and stole the picture from Ida Lupino, who was supposedly its star. Humphrey Bogart never played a minor role again.
High Sierra's script was knocked into shape by a young writer called John Huston: he and Bogie hit it off, becoming drinking buddies and close friends. And when Huston got to direct his first feature, The Maltese Falcon, in 1941, he asked Bogart to play the film's charismatic lead, hard-boiled private detective Sam Spade.
The finished film was a moody masterpiece (see panel), and marked the start of a purple patch for Humphrey Bogart that lasted through the 1940s.
So much has been written and said about Casablanca (1942), the formulaic propagandist melodrama that totally surpassed the humble expectations of all those involved in making it. It was shot in two months on sets borrowed from other movies, and the actors were handed their lines on a daily basis, so that no one knew how it was going to turn out. The things that distinguished Casablanca from a hundred other rousing wartime capers were a stunning cast, a strong undercurrent of emotion expertly manipulated by director Michael Curtiz, and a wicked sense of humour.
Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Paul Henreid, Claude Reins and Conrad Veidt were among the supporting players, and Bogart played Rick Blaine, a Casablanca nightclub owner who's horrified when an old flame called Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his joint. It was and remains a magical film, and a very funny one to boot. When the odious Major Strassa asks Rick how he'd feel if the Germans invaded his beloved Manhattan, the American replies, "there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try and invade".
Rushed into cinemas to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa in early 1943, Casablanca won three Oscars and became a big box office hit. Its success made Bogart Warner Brothers' biggest star, an unexpected turn of events he was quick to capitalise on.
As his star grew, however, the hard-drinking actor's private life remained problematic. His relationship with his third wife, Mayo Methot, was so publicly volatile that they became known in the Hollywood tabloid press as "the battling Bogarts". But all that changed when he met Lauren Bacall.
The pair first encountered each other on the set of Howard Hawks' 1944 war caper To Have and Have Not. She was 19, he was 44, but neither of them cared, and within months of the film's completion he was divorced, and they were married. They became one of Hollywood's most famously happy couples, and starred together in three more hit thrillers, Howard Hawks' magnificently complex noir classic The Big Sleep (1945), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948).
That last film was directed by John Huston, for whom Bogie generally reserved his very best work. Their most famous collaboration came in 1951, when Bogart starred opposite Katharine Hepburn as a drunken boatman in The African Queen. His witty performance in that film won him an Oscar, but he was even better as a desperate, gold-crazed prospector in Huston's 1947 drama, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Huston and Bogart had a high old time making their films, and famously emerged unscathed from a disease-ridden shoot in the Congo for The African Queen by consuming only baked beans and whiskey. "Whenever a fly bit Huston or me," Bogie said afterwards, "it dropped dead".
But by the mid-1950s the long years of drinking and smoking began to catch up with Bogart, and in January of 1956 he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. The disease was caught too late to save him, but he fought bravely until the end, greeting close friends who came to visit in a wheelchair, clutching a glass of scotch and a cigarette.
Humphrey Bogart died on January 14, 1957, and at his funeral oration John Huston said "himself, he never took too seriously - his work, most seriously," adding that "there will never be another like him".
So far, there hasn't been.
Bogart's best: 'The Maltese Falcon'
Sometimes cited as the first real film noir, John Huston's staggeringly accomplished feature début was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett and set the template for all the hard-boiled detective films to come.
Bogart played Sam Spade, a ruthless and fast-talking LA private detective who, following the death of his partner, is drawn into the hunt for a priceless jewel-encrusted statuette.
Mary Astor co-starred as Bridget O'Shaughnessy, a nervy beauty who talks like a schoolmarm but is as devious as they come - and out to steal the Maltese Falcon for herself.
But it's Spade who gets his hands on it, and then embarks on a battle of wits with Bridget and her oily accomplices Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Gutman (Sdyney Greenstreet).
Huston's screenplay sparkles with knowing wit, and Bogart is wonderful in a role that allowed him to be both honourable and self-serving at the same time.
My favourite moment comes at the end, when Mary Astor tries to persuade Spade to take the fall on her behalf and he refuses to "play the sap". "Maybe I'll have some rotten nights after I've sent you over," he sneers as the credits loom, "but that'll pass."