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Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart by Stefan Kanfer
published in 2011, by Knopf Publishers, pages, $26.95, hardback
In the 50-plus years since his passing, what can be said about movie star Humphrey Bogart that hasn’t been said, written, or analyzed already? For Hollywood biographer Stefan Kanter, the answer is quite a lot. Kanter, known for his work as a movie reviewer for Time magazine and the author of bio books on Groucho Marx and Lucille Ball, has turned his research lens on to Bogie and the results will be deep and satisfying to his fans.
When most opinion polls ask who was or still is the most popular, influential, and iconic movie star of all time, Bogart is always at or near the top. But Kanfer’s book is hardly a fanzine puff piece; it’s too well-researched and gives us Bogart at his best and worst. And while it covers Bogie from birth to death, through multiple marriages, roguish behavior, hard smoking and harder drinking, the author makes the point that Bogart is still the gold standard by which current and future male actors must meet. He is just as popular now, says Kanfer, as he was during the glory days of his most powerful roles in legendary films like High Sierra, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, and The Caine Mutiny.
Some new actors are hailed as the “next Brando” or the “next James Dean,” but not one, then or now, is ever premiered as the “next Bogart.” As one director says in the book, not unkindly, “When we want a tough guy for an American film today, we go to Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, or Colin Farrell.” This sounds mean-spirited but who compares to Bogart today? Not Jason Statham or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson” or even Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford (however, he gets bonus points for the fedora in the four Raiders films) in their action heydays. Tom Hanks is a true American film legend, but he’s never compared to Bogart. Johnny Depp is certainly eclectic but more than a bit French-sounding when he dresses up for it. Brad Pitt is too pretty by half, so perhaps that only leaves George Clooney, but putting him into Bogart’s shoes sees like force-fitting a square peg of handsome into a round hole of tough.
Bogart was a little on the short side, not built like the more strapping he-men of his era (no John Wayne swagger or Errol Flynn swashbuckler there), he had a bit of a lisp, a facial scar, and his thinning hair was far from wavy. He was however, a veteran of the Broadway stage long before he went to Hollywood to act (and occasionally star) in a series of over thirty now-forgettable roles in B-movies where he died a thousand deaths. Like other overnight successes in Hollywood, Bogart paid his dues for years before the better roles caught up to him and his talent.
He decided early that the world in general and the acting world in particular, could be divided into two groups: professionals or bums. Back in New York and in some of his earlier gangster movies, where he played mostly unfulfilling versions of the same parts, he would show up occasionally hungover or apathetic or both. But the combination of better scripts, larger roles, and directors who demanded more of him, he flipped a switch personally and professionally and his work ethic never wavered again.
He liked his booze at the ready the moment the cameras stopped rolling for the day. He was rarely without a cigarette on and off-screen. As one movie critic wrote, near the end of Bogart’s life as his health began to fail, we have watched a man kill himself right in front of us. And while the alcohol was both a coping tool and a social prop out in public (tough guys drink and carouse, goes the image), Bogart’s use of a cigarette was both a movie prop and an attention-getter. (How many other actors have had their method of cupping a cigarette and taking a deep drag turned into a verb, as in “Bogarting”?)
The women in Bogart’s life were as much of a vice as his other addictions. He went through three rageful, booze-soaked, and depressing marriages to actresses Helen Menken, Mary Philips, and Mayo Methot, before he married his soulmate, Lauren Bacall, at age 46. And while she and he may have together to his end, the 25-year gap in their ages left Bogart feeling he always had something to prove to others that he was worthy of his screen idol label.
To watch Bogart and Bacall in her first movie and their first movie together – Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not – is to watch a love affair grow into a near sexual experience on the screen. Bacall might have had limited acting range – she either rightly played a vamp or was hopelessly miscast as someone else – the camera loved her face nonetheless.
Kanfer clearly loves his subject and the depth of research for his book is rooted in truth over Hollywood hype. Bogart was born to achievement-oriented, striving, and strident parents in New York and was well-kept and well-schooled as a child. As his parents’ marriage drifted apart and his interest in school ended, Bogart joined the Navy in an impulsive move to get out of New York and see the world. He had an undistinguished navy career (the service and he agreed it was best he should not continue, due to his dismissiveness toward authority and rules). He found his way to the Broadway stage as an extra, bit-part player, and in a bit of a regression, back to being a stage manager.
His move to Hollywood came when silent films faded out and many of the handsome but squeaky-voiced male leads couldn’t make the transition to sound movies. Bogart could play the heavy who dies in a big way, since cop and gangster movies were popular in the transition between the two world wars and throughout the Depression.
While we might have “Jersey Shore,” “American Idol,” or “Survivor” as a way to give nobodies the chance to become instant household names (for as long as that lasts), in Bogart’s day the best way to catch lighting in a bottle long enough to be illuminated by it came with the rare combination of a well-crafted script, a firm yet freeing director, and a great supporting cast around him. Bogart’s breakout role came as the gangster Duke Manatee in Petrified Forest, a part he had played on the stage in New York.
Kanfer’s best writing comes where you might expect it, when he draws upon his experiences as both a lover of great films and a longtime film critic. He dissects Bogart’s classic films with an eye toward why the actor and the stories live on, and with plenty of behind the scenes gossip too. Kanfer gives the historical and political backdrop for Casablanca, Bogart’s utter satisfaction in filming Dash Hammet’s great novel The Maltese Falcon, and its near word-for word translation into John Huston’s shooting script, and the creative spark between Bogart and Hepburn that made The African Queen fun to both shoot and watch.
Bogart was at his best when his directors pushed him just hard enough to give his all and listened to his ideas about how to make them both better. His best work happened when the stories and the roles challenged him, and he and his co-stars were both colleagues on-screen and friends (and often drinking buddies) off the set.
Kanfer’s description of Bogart in his last suffering days, dying from the post-surgery effects of esophageal cancer, down to 80 pounds, and unable to eat, is the cause and effect conclusion of a life of nonstop scotch and Chesterfields.
Bogart’s legacy was his portrayal, on and off-camera, of the tough guy who also knew how, why, and when to do the honorable thing. He was two-fisted, but for all the right reasons. He never forgot to be a professional, even when he was playing a bum (watch his portrayal of the crazed and craven prospector in The Treasure of Sierra Madre). He loved women on-screen, but always at a distance.
There are people (usually under the age of 30) who dismiss Bogart’s film performances and those of his fellow generational cohorts as overacting at its finest. The sets were plain and unadorned, the special effects none too special, and the stories predictable. While today we may have “transformerized” the sets and effects to overwhelm the viewer, it’s still a pleasure to catch a classic Bogart movie as we go channel surfing by much lesser entertainment fare.
write by Christopher Warfel