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Humphrey Bogart

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About The Author

David Thomson

DAVID THOMSON is, among many other things, the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition. His recent books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, Fan Tan (a novel written in collaboration with Marlon Brando), and The Whole Equation: A... More

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Look, I’m hardly pretty, he seems to say. I sound like gravel; I look rough and tough; and, honest, I don’t give you the soft, foolish answers the pretty boys will give you. You may not like what I say, but you better believe it. I know, I’m a star in a funny kind of way, but not because I set out to be one, and not because I sold out. Honest.

It all works as a speech until you look at the imploring eyes, longing to be believed, trying to believe.

Actors should keep in work as steadily as possible – that or drink makes the best recipe for avoiding eye contact or any friction of the soul with that treacherous shadow to which they may find themselves attached, their image. In the case of Humphrey Bogart – ‘Bogie’, they used to say, out of respect – the shadow was a rugged ideal. It was everything he wanted to be – which means everything a kid from World War I could dream of. We are talking about an age of such idealism that it can look foolish now. Yet when his time came, at last, and when he had the most glorious, obedient sexpot in tow a guy in his forties and losing his hair could ever imagine, why ‘Bogie’ took the whole package for a while, on the chin. But then he soured, as if to admit the ideal was a killer, more than any man could survive.

He died short of sixty, and convention said it was from the smoking and the booze and the not taking care of himself. Maybe it was just possessing too much irony or common sense to endure being a pliable ghost in strangers’ dreams – ‘Bogie’. But then for thirty years after his death, that image grew clearer and more immaculate – it became an emblem of American cine ma and stoicism, and inasmuch as Rick in Casablanca stood for initial American wariness or neutrality coming to realize the justice of the war, why Bogart fell in line with what we would one day call ‘the best generation’. The one that knew the difference between a hill of beans and a mountain of dead bodies. The one that winced if you said ‘best’ and had a suitably cynical wisecrack waiting on the big word. And for twenty years or so, Bogie was untouchable, not just the best but dismissive and corrosive enough to strip out all the pomp, smugness and medals that went with it. He made the kids’ films of America seem grown up.

He was good enough to have played Ernest Hemingway for real. But don’t forget that Hemingway shot himself at the dawn of that age when Americans started to shoot their own heroes, as if the cult of being best was getting out of hand.

He was named Humphrey De Forest Bogart, and he was born on Christmas Day, 1899, to parents who featured in the New York Blue Book. Louise Brooks, who knew him quite well in the mid-’20s, saw a ‘Humphrey’ (a very respectable name) and a rather slight, morbidly beautiful dark-haired youth who was trying to behave as his family expected. The father was a successful surgeon, though a man who went in great pain from a riding accident and who was accustomed to inject himself with morphine when the pain became too much. He provided the same service for his wife, Maud Humphrey, who was a very successful illustrator of children’s books. Her professional income was said to be $50,000 a year, and she sometimes chose Humphrey as one of her angelic models.

The family had a large house in Manhattan (just off Riverside Drive) and a country house at Seneca Point on Candaigua Lake in the western reach of upstate New York. It was there that the boy found his lifelong love of sailing. He was known for tidy looks and perfect manners, and there is little early sign that his need to model for his mother’s lucrative but idealized drawings made him more sceptical or critical. More than nearly any other film star, Bogart came from real class and grew up without finding need or reason to challenge that slightly anti-American distinction. He spoke very well, and you can hear that sometimes in his famous roles. For although this Bogart mixed with people like Ugarte, Eddie the drunk and Brigid O’Shaughnessy, still the actor had a quiet, orderly respect for protocol and grammar that contrasted nicely with his tart tongue. Rick has knocked around the world, but he has been educated. Think of Marlowe’s meeting with General Sternwood in the hot-house at the start of The Big Sleep – he will be drenched in his own sweat; he utters some sour one-liners; he knows the underworld, it seems. Yet he knows Sternwood’s world, too, and he impresses the general as a man to be saluted. After all, his Philip Marlowe is a modern knight, serving the ‘good’ for a very modest daily wage, often doubting the imitations of virtue, but always seeing it when it is for real – as in the forlorn figure of Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr). This Bogart may have given up on the world of class and etiquette, but he remembers it, and he never really betrays it. What I’m trying to say is that if Bogart had suddenly been cast as an American gentleman – FDR, Dean Acheson or Faulkner – he’d have carried it off. His Marlowe – a figure of immense caustic integrity – is not so far from figures like Bulldog Drummond and even James Bond. In the great turmoil of that film’s story, Marlowe and his forward motion can be trusted. Marlowe, we should remember, was the creation of a failed but dreamy English public schoolboy who cherished Edwardian codes of honour and service.

If you want another point of reference think of Gore Vidal, a natural wit, glowingly intelligent, and plainly from class. Of course, Vidal never needed university, and never embraced Bogie’s macho mannerisms. But Vidal made up his own lines.

Still, Bogart had one advantage over Vidal: beyond dispute, he had failed. He went to the Trinity Church prep school, but his marks were so poor that he was only advanced to Phillips Academy at Andover (a top school, and his father’s) on probation. Alas, in his year there he failed to raise his scores and he was asked to withdraw from the school. His parents were not pleased and they arranged a job for him, working in a naval architect’s office. But Humphrey was tired of trying to please parents for whom he had little love. And so on 5 May 1918, ignoring their plan, he went to Brooklyn and joined the Navy.

No one has ever claimed that Bogart’s service was distinctive. He was appointed to the Leviathan and two days later the Armistice was declared. He was then posted to the Santa Olivia and he served until the summer of 1919, but not even Bogart spoke of action or interest. All that remains is the assumption that he suffered a damaged lip during the service and had minor surgery to mend it. Louise Brooks observed that he had ‘a most beautiful mouth’, but then she saw the scar at one corner where a scallop of skin was sewed up, leaving just a small scar. She believed that this operation occurred only when he went into films. But there are biographies that assume it occurred in the Navy (perhaps in a struggle with a drunken prisoner) and that Bogart’s own father did the adjustment.

I wonder. There are films where Bogart plays with his own mouth, and some where he nearly lisps. Yet in truth it is very hard to see the scar. Lauren Bacall, his great love, seems not to have noticed it. Among all the speculation over the lip or the mouth, we have to preserve the possibility that Bogart invented it and would allude to it occasionally as if invoking magic. A moveable scar, a secret trigger – a thing that let his mouth go nasty or mean. As Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny – one of the most studious pieces of acting in Bogart’s career, and quite impressive – the lisp is more pronounced than anywhere else, and we are meant to hear it as a sign of flaw and even cowardice.

After all, it wasn’t a million miles from the tightlipped male humour of Bogart and Howard Hawks that a fellow might get kissed a lot by solicitous women if they heard he had a numb lip that needed warming up. It is the sort of routine that Tony Curtis runs on Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

Bogart was released from the Navy on 18 June 1919 as a seaman second class. Twenty years later, he made the film, The Roaring Twenties, at Warner Brothers. It’s not a bad picture, a gangster story in which Bogart plays Jimmy Cagney’s enemy (and earned maybe a quarter of Cagney’s salary). In that twenty-year period (his youth), he became increasingly embittered and more than ever certain of his own failure. Of course, he was under contract as an actor, latterly at Warners, on a sliding scale that would raise his pay to $1,750 a week by 1942 (when the contract terminated). He was kept in work: he made thirty pictures in those contract years, two of them on loan-out, but the first at Warners. And in all those reels of film, he was sent to jail, executed or removed in some gun battle more times than he could remember, or forget. He was his own ‘dead end’, an emphatic warning, without subtlety or a hint of redemption. The audience was trained to dislike him or disapprove, albeit in a loyalist way – for he was one of Warners’ favourite snarling hoodlums, a guy you could trust not to trust. His response, in 1940, was to write a fan-magazine article, ‘Why Hollywood Hates Me’, which trotted out all the familiar bromides: his fierce independence, his dislike of flattery or adulation, and the kind of professionalism that did his dirty deeds without complaining. Don’t worry about me, he said. He’d be all right, because he had never fallen for the lies of Hollywood, the exploitation of people and the routine of telling stories about a fantasy world. More than that, he had a habit at parties, as he got drunk, of reciting his very worst reviews, and at such times no doubt he exaggerated the rasp of his voice so that sometimes people felt they could hear self-hatred. It was only on hearing Bogart that theatre director Arthur Hopkins cast him as gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, his first great turning point – and only fifteen years after he had started.

So what did he want? For he had chosen to be an actor. In the same years hundreds and thousands of young Americans sought to be actors, and there are names we will never know or remember. Because they got no notices, or roles even. Because their performances were confined to the one room they lived in, the mirror or the shower. Humphrey Bogart was an esteemed character actor. He delivered a set image much in demand at Warners. In his time, he had a couple of lead parts at the studio. And in the end, everyone agreed that fate had uncovered him so that suddenly – with the coming of war – he became a star. But he had worked on stage and screen with people like Elisha Cook Jr who never rose beyond the level of beautiful bit parts. America recognized Cook’s squashed baby face without knowing the name. But Bogart was known by name and personality. He was famous for his snarl and a nasty attitude that went with it. And there were those who reported him unpleasant and cruel – as well as cowardly if he could see Cagney’s bullets headed for his stomach. But there were a few like Louise Brooks, who reckoned he was just a softie hurt at being disliked and a drunk who was inclined to fall asleep on you.

In the 1920s, as far as research can ascertain, Bogart appeared in ten plays. Some ran as many as 200 or 300 performances, but others were off in a week or two. He was usually the ingénu or a cad, a partner in tennis or romance, handsomely dressed, gracious, well-spoken – until he made the voice go harsh – and unlike anyone else. He had learned that much at least, along with membership at most Broadway speakeasies. He made a friend of Clifton Webb (they were together in one play). He got Mary Boland to tolerate him, even though he forgot his lines with her once. And he came on board as a replacement in a Ruth Gordon play so that the actress knew he was inferior, but decent and doing his best.

There were plenty of women in his life. Louise Brooks was one of them, and she was struck that Bogart had little feeling for real life. He tended to fall for girls he was acting with. In one play, he got into a fight with actress Helen Menken. Some scenery fell on her. She tore him off a strip. He booted her and she hit him. Within days they had a marriage licence to show for it. It didn’t last, but he fell for Mary Philips because of the way she walked away from him on stage. It was provocative, he thought, and it had some stealth meant for him alone. That was two wives and two more would be Mayo Methot and Lauren Bacall – it was as if he could hardly do a pretend kiss without being led astray. He liked to be thought of as a tough guy, a man of the world, but four times he fell in love under the lights. You have to see how chronic a dreamer there was there – and you have to see how far he was hiding that guy during the decades of his morose act.

Excerpted from Humphrey Bogart by David Thomson.
Copyright © 2009 by David Thomson.
Published in 2010 by Faber and Faber.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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