Saturday, December 26, 2009

Humphrey Bogart's 110th Birthday

Yesterday was the 110th birthday of Humphrey Bogart. This was a man who was not handsome, at least not in a conventional sense. He was not tall either. He stood all of five foot 8 inches. He spoke with a slightly nasal voice. If there was anyone who seemed unlikely to become a movie star, it was Humphrey Bogart. And yet, during his lifetime he became one of the most respected stars of the era. Even after his untimely death in 1957, he has remained one of the most popular stars of all time. In fact, it is quite possible he is the most popular male actor of all time. In Empire magazine's list of the top 100 Movies Stars of All Time in 1997, he ranked #9. Entertainment Weekly went even further. They voted him the Greatest Movie Star of All Time. The American Film Institute also ranked him #1 in their list of 100 Greatest Screen Actors.

Humphrey Bogart was born on December 25, 1899 (some sources have claimed January 23, 1899, although December 25 seems to be the conventionally accepted date) in New York City. His father was a heart and lung surgeon. His mother was a commercial illustrator. Because of his mother's profession, Bogie's image was used in advertising when he was still a baby. She used his image in an ad campaign for Mellins Baby Food. Bogart grew up in the Upper West Side of New York City, and his family had a summer home in upstate New York on Canandaigua Lake. He attended private schools such as Delancy and Trinity, and the Phillips Academy. He attended Yale for a time, but was expelled for reasons that are unclear. In 1918 he enlisted in the United States Navy. Although he had apparently been a less than stellar student at Yale, Bogart was exemplary as a sailor. Once home Bogart joined the Naval Reserve. He also worked as a shipper and a bond salesman.

It was through his friendship with Bill Brady, Jr. that Humphrey Bogart first entered show business. Bill Brady Jr. got Bogey a job working in the office at William A. Brady Sr.'s new company World Films. While at World Films, Bogey got the chance to try screenwriting, direction, and production. He was even a stage manager on the play A Ruined Lady, starring Alice Brady (William A Brady's daughter). It was in another Alice Brady play that Bogie made his stage debut. He had a few lines in the play Drifting on Broadway in 1922. Bogie had a more substantial role in his next Broadway play Swiftly, also in 1922. Bogart appeared regularly on Broadway in the Twenties, in such plays as Meet the Wife, Hell's Bells, and Skyrocket.

It was in 1928 that Humphrey Bogart made his screen debut in the short The Dancing Town. In 1930 he appeared in a Vitaphone short with Joan Blondell. It was in 1930 that Bogie made his feature film debut, as paroled trustee Up the River. Bogart appeared in such films as Body and Soul, the 1932 version of Love Affair, and Three on a Match. He also continued to appear on Broadway, in plays such as It's a Wise Child, I Love You Wednesday, and Chrysalis. It was while he was appearing in the play Invitation to a Murder that producer Arthur Hopkins decided Bogie would be a good choice to play the escaped murderer in The Petriefied Forest.

Debuting in January 1935, The Petrified Forest proved to be a smash hit. It ran for 197 performances. And while Leslie Howard was the star of the play, it was Humphrey Bogart who received much of the attention. Warner Brothers bought the rights to play and released the movie adaptation in 1936. It was largely because of Leslie Howard that Bogie was able to reprise his role as Duke Mantee, the escaped murderer who terrorises a diner. The studio wanted the then better known Edward G. Robinson to play the role. Fortunately, Howard told Jack Warner in no uncertain terms that if there was no Humphrey Bogart, there would be no Leslie Howard. Warner was forced to cast Bogart in the role that had made him famous on Broadway.

Despite the success of The Petrified Forest and the good notices he received, Bogie found himself typecast in roles as gangsters, although he occasionally played district attorneys and police officers as well. He played a gangster in Kid Galahad, Dead End, Racket Busters, and King of the Underworld. Fortunately, by the late Thirties and very early Forties the sort of roles Humphrey Bogart played began to change. In They Drive By Night he played a wildcat trucker. The fact that he appeared in the Western Virginia City at all is perhaps a bit surprising. It would be the film High Sierra that would send Bogart's career in a completely different direction. While he played another criminal in the film, he got the opportunity to work with his friend John Huston, who co-wrote the screenplay. The two grew closer both personally and professionally. As a result, when George Raft turned down the chance to play Sam Spade in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, it was Humphrey Bogart who got he part.

Sam Spade was the role Bogie was born to play. He was a private detective with his own code of honour, an idealist who realises all too well the world was not ideal. Humphrey Bogart's talent as an actor and skill with dialogue made him well suited to the swift words in John Huston's screenplay, adapted from Dashiell Hammett's novel. In the eyes of audiences Bogart was no longer a gangster, he was the tough guy with a heart of gold. From that point onwards, Humphrey Bogart generally played the hero. Indeed, it was not long before he played the romantic lead.

Casablanca was the first time Bogie played the romantic lead. Contrary to popular belief, Ronald Reagan was never considered for the role of Rick in the film, although George Raft greatly desired the part. It was producer Hal B. Wallis, then looking for another lead role for Bogart, who got him the part in the film. Casablanca would greatly change Bogart's career. He had been fourth place in the salary he made at Warner Brothers. After Casablanca he was in first place. He would soon be the highest paid actor in Hollywood. He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the film.

Bogart appeared in such films as Sahara and To Have and To Have Not, on which he met the woman who was arguably his soul mate, Lauren Bacall. Bogart appeared in a number of classic films from that point until his death. Among these was as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, a role similar in some respects to that of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. He appeared in such films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, Beat the Devil, The African Queen, Sabrina, and The African Queen. He played a variety of roles, from romantic leads (Sabrina), killers ((Dark Passage), private eyes (The Big Sleep), and martinets (The Caine Mutiny). Along the way he won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role in The African Queen and was nominated for the same award in The Caine Mutiny.

Sadly, Humphrey Bogart contracted oesophageal cancer in the mid-Fifties, a result of his lifetime of smoking. While his oesophagus, two lymph nodes, and a rib were removed on March, 1956, it was too late. The cancer had spread to such a point that chemotherapy would not even help. Humphrey Bogart died on January 14, 1957. His last appearance on screen was in the film The Harder They Fall.

Such was the impact of Humphrey Bogart that he would maintain a cult of admirers even fifty years after his death. Jean-Luc Goddard made À bout de souffle (Breathless) as a tribute to Bogart, and Woody Allen made Play It Again, Sam as a tribute to him as well. He was also the inspiration behind the movie The Man with Bogart's Face. Through modern technology, Humphrey Bogart actually starred in the 1995 episode of Tales From the Crypt entitled "You, Murderer (based on a story from Shock Suspenstories)." His co-stars were John Lithgow and Isabella Rosellini, the daughter or his co-star from Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman.

Beyond his enormous talent, it is difficult to say why Humphrey Bogart continues to be one of the most popular actors, perhaps the most popular actor, of all time. He certainly was not what one would expect of a leading actor. Bogie was not conventionally handsome. He was only of average height. He spoke with a nasal voice. Speaking for myself, I think much of it may have had to do with his choice of roles and how well he played those roles. Arguably, Humphrey Bogart's three most famous roles were Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon), Rick Blaine (from Casablanca), and Philip Marlowe (from The Big Sleep). While these characters are somewhat different men, they are all men of integrity. Sam Spade is an idealist with a desire to achieve justice, even when he knows the world is less than ideal. Rick Blaine is man who claims neutrality, but somehow always winds up on the side of the just, and a romantic who sacrifices his own happiness for the greater good. Philip Marlowe cracked wise, drank hard, and fought hard, yet he was at heart an intellectual with a desire to do what was right. All three men lived by their own codes of honour and all three men sought justice in an unjust world. All three of them were heroes.

That is perhaps the secret of Humphrey Bogart's appeal even today. Although a talented actor, he was average in appearance and not a particularly big man, yet he played men of honour and decency who triumphed in the end. Through his characters, Bogie proved that it is not the looks or size of the man that counts, but what is deep down inside. Is it any wonder that his films continue to be watched today? Particularly in today's world, we need men like Spade, Blaine, and Marlowe. And we need an actor like Bogie to play them.


Raquelle said...

Great job Terry! I didn't know about Bogart's cancer. I guess he's a poster boy for NOT smoking.

How can anyone not like Bogart? He was just the essence of cool.

Happy 110th Bogie. Wherever you are.

Tommy Salami said...

Bogie was a great actor because he wasn't a scene stealer, he gave as much as he took. Look at the roles he took- as many failures as heroes. Sierra Madre, Caine Mutiny, and In a Lonely Place vs. Spade, Casablanca, Marlowe. He had a very emotive face- especially the famous lips that lent his name to cigarette hogging- and used it masterfully. And as much as I love Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, Bogie remains my favorite because he was short, not particularly handsome, and created one of the most enduring and powerful screen presences in spite of it.