Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bogie and Bacall - the films and legacy: a review by Robert Steven Mack

"Anybody got a match?" - Lauren Bacall was just 19 years old when she spoke those immortal words in “To Have and to Have Not” and entranced movie-goers of 1944 as well as her 45-year old co-star Humphrey Bogart.

The iconic Humphrey Bogart - listed as number one best leading man of all time by the American Film Institute - was born in December of 1899 to a straight-forward upper- middle class family where affection was rare and duty was fair. A lonely boy who was teased for his neatness and his “Little Lord Fauntleroy cloths” his mother wished for him to wear, young Bogie was expelled from a reputable private school and thus demolishing the family plans for Humphrey including the possibility to enter Yale. With nowhere else to go, 18 year old Bogie followed his life-long love for the sea and joined the Navy. After a series of jobs - none of which got poor Bogie very far- he joined a stage group and accepted roles he loathed with dissatisfaction. After the Crash in'29 Bogie went to Hollywood when his first big break came in Warner Bros with “The Petrified Forest” (1936). With no intentions of ever making a big star out of him, Jack Warner placed Mr. Bogart in a series of B ganster films with Bogie repetitively cast as the gangster. Finally, Bogie got a role he liked in “The Maltese Falcon” under the direction of friend and drinking partner John Huston. Afterwards, “Casablanca” firmly established him as a leading man who is kind of a rough-edged loner who ultimately makes good in a paranoid society. Then came his next big project.

Lauren Bacall was 19 when she had a reputation of 3 tiers as a model and played small parts in a short-lived unsuccessful career on Broadway when Howard Hawk’s wife Slim discovered her in a magazine. Before long she was cast opposite pro Humphrey Bogart in a big-budget picture called “To Have and to Have Not.” Bacall was nervous and unfamiliar with the life on set when Bogie stepped forward and acted as her mentor…privately coaching, always making sure she was comfortable on set, as well as making sure she knew what to do. Before long it was the start of one of Hollywood’s most legendary romances.

To Have and To Have Not” is a 1944 romantic war adventure film starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Walter Brennen. Sharing little in common with Ernest Hemingway's novel, Bogie plays Harry Morgan, a guy who sticks his head out for no one but himself. Yet, eventually he agrees to help a group French résistance activists. With numerous similarities which are neither repetitive nor unimaginative, the real screen magic jumps out of the box when Slim shows her face on screen and coolly asks: "Any body got a match?" While “Casablanca” was all about firmly establishing Bogie’s screen persona, “To Have and To Have Not” is all about toying with it. As something we clearly did not get in “Casablanca” while cheering him on as he outwits one annoying bum after another, is that the invincible Humphrey Bogart meets his match in Bagall. Even his character Harry Morgan is stunned by his new found wit, charm, and distinctive personality. That my friends is what makes a good screen pair! After seeing this film, I can say that at the moment I don't recall where we get a better example of this trait. With Walter Brennen as Morgan’s side-kick and a cast of strong characters to make this a movie an affair to remember. The rapid fire dialogue, the captivating story, and vivid characters make this movie not only the quintessential Bogie/Bacall film but also a film any movie buff is sure to enjoy!

Privately, Humphrey Bogart was in a pickle: While attracted to one woman, he was still married to another and this brain-racking dilemma would severely affect his work in his next picture with Bacall, “The Big Sleep,” who was not doing so well herself. The future looked so bright for Lauren Bacall when she stole the show with her critically acclaimed performance in “To Have and To Have Not.” However when Jack Warner put Lauren Bacall in the role of a spoiled heiress opposite Charles Boyer in “Confidential Agent,” her career dimmed. Some critics even wondered whether or not she could act all.

The Big Sleep” is a 1946 detective film based on the first of Raymond Candler's novels on the adventures of detective Philip Marlowe. The script was completed in only eight days with a notably confusing and rather unfinished plot. With Howard Hawks once again in the director’s chair and Bogie and Bacall once again paired up based on the audiences desire for their unusual chemistry. But the great Bogart, who was usually very professional, came to work late and had trouble remembering his lines - much to the credit of his rocky marriage to Mayo Methot.
“The Big Sleep” was completed for the first time in the year 1945 when it was formally decided that the film would not be released right away. This was due to Warner Bros.'s rush to release its war films as the war had ended. Since the film’s subject matter was not significantly relevant to the war-time period, release of “The Big Sleep” was suspended 'till a later date. In the meantime, Bacall's reputable agent Charles K. Feldman wrote Jack Warner a letter to persuade him to re-shoot and add some scenes in order to capitalize on the image that had been created when Bacall stunned the screen in “To Have and To Have Not.” His reasonable demands were met and the cast members and crew were back on the set for retakes. The 1945 pre-release version, however, has been released on DVD
“The Big Sleep” is a good Bogie/Bacall classic mystery with lots of suspense. With a decent amount of B&B, the film is more about a detective as he tries to uncover a baffling case as it unfolds thereby meeting some odd characters on the way. (His famous partner sticking out as the only ripe banana in a pile of apples and oranges). Humphrey Bogart gives a top-notch performance in this follow up to the chemistry that became so talked of during duo's previous film together. Although it lacks the one-of-a-kind freshness and originality of "To Have and To Have Not," it is definitely a good Bogie and Bacall film.

The next film B&B appeared in together is the styilish film-noire thriller “Dark Passage” (1947) starring a strong cast of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennet, Agnes Moorehead (“Bewitched”, “Citizen Kane”), Tom D'Andrea and directed by Delmer Daves. The film follows the San Quentin escapee Vincent Parry, who was framed for murdering his wife. He has set out to clear his name and find the real murderer, undergoing plastic surgery to keep his identity a secret. Although any leading lady would have done, they were just fortunate enough to get Lauren Bacall to play his lone companion. Bagall is the only one who'll believe Bogart’s innocence. Their chemistry lights up the screen although we do not exactly have the rapid fire dialogue we were blessed with in the previous two films. In fact, I'd say the director tried to bring a more stylish modern approach to the film. We do not see Bogie for the first 1/3 of the movie. Instead, Delmar Daves ingeniously has the camera on Bogie's angle so that we never actually see him before the plastic surgery. It is only until the bandages are removed that Bogie emerges to take action. We get to see how the world is closing in on him, to be careful who he can talk to - or they may turn against you. Bacall's performance is utter perfection! And Agnes Moorehead's performance is perhaps the greatest in the film. She vividly brings out her character and multiplies it by ten to create a psychopathic sardonic cynic. Moorehead’s performance stands out in this film. Bruce Bennet, Tom D' Andrea and Houseley Stevenson also give strong performances. Although it is not Bogart’s performance that stands out in the film but rather how the plot grimly unravels that makes this film a masterpiece, it is the quintessential Bogart film.

B&B’s last theatrical release together would be “Key Largo” (1948) where they would host stars Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor - the latter would win an Oscar for her performance - under the thrilling direction of John Huston. An atmospheric gangster film, Ex-GI Frank McCloud (Bogart) passes through Hotel Largo on his way to Key West and meets hotel owner Nora Temple (Bacall) as well as her handicapped father (Barrymore). He decides to stay a night when everyone gets trapped in the small hotel by a roaring hurricane and infamous disgraced gangster Johnny Rocco and his band of deadly merry-no-good-low-lives. Claire Trevor plays Rocco's down in out goodhearted alcoholic girlfriend, Gaye. Although Bacall's role is not as big and glamorous as it was in the first two films, she gives a good strong performance as the quite down-to-earth daughter of a man younger than his years and lover of a man who doesn't want to be himself. It is as always good to see the B&B together on screen. While award winner Claire Trevor plays her mixed up character to captivating perfection, strong performances are also given by co-stars Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Gomez, Harry Lewis, Marc Lawrence, and Dan Seymour. Not to forget the irreplaceable screen persona of Mr. Robinson who, as always, makes his role of a gangster complex with a sneer and some fear. The fact that Bogart is in it just makes it all the more intriguing to watch. With strong performances, a good script, a captivating plot, as well as superb direction this film is one that belongs in any old movie collection!

In my opinion, “To Have and To Have Not” is the best of the Bogie and Bacall films in terms of getting the full bill of Bogie and Bacall. The chemistry had been founded on those fundamentals: clever dialogue and Bacall in one way or another outdoes Bogie and Bogie in one way or another outdoes Bacall. “The Big Sleep” takes advantage of this as best it can: the explosion between a down-to-earth detective and the ideal rich eventually joining forces. Unfortunately the plot does not always call for this and there fore they could not take full advantage of what they had as a team. The next two films differ greatly from the other half of the series. We do not get to see the screen couple -as they were married by this time- trading those precious one-liners. While still good films, they do not highlight the chemistry between Bogie and Bacall.

It may come to your attention as to why they never did another film together and why perhaps they ever did anything else together. In fact, aside from radio adaptations of “The Big Sleep” and “To Have and to Have Not,” the latter of which is on DVD, B&B starred from1951 to 1952 in the “Bold Venture Radio” crime adventure series. So far, 56 lost episodes have been uncovered. In 1955 Humphrey Bogart reprised his role from the “Petrified Forest” This time with top billing and Lauren Bacall in a live TV adaptation. And last but not least after his production company Santana Productions had failed to produce well received films in 1956, Humphrey Bogart started a new production company and a new film called Melvin Goodwin, U. S. A.. It was to star him and his wife Lauren for the first time in eight years. The project was dropped however due to Bogart’s poor health. Unfortunate for fans as it may be, but here's some good news: from what I read, the TV version of “The Petrified Forest” is available for viewing at the Paley Center for Media both in New York and in Los Angeles!

In conclusion the Bogart and Bacall films are all master pieces in their own way. After you watched them, you'll be clapping your hands and whistling away…”You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow" –(Lauren Bacall, To Have and to Have Not.)

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.