Even today, Humphrey Bogart represents America’s most durable triumph of stance and style.
There was more to him than a worldly tough-guy rasp, wrapped in trench coat and snap-brim fedora. That would have been only an image, a logo. Bogey tunneled into our collective psyche because he merged the inner and outer man, showed us how to be cool and still have integrity.
In him, idealism grappled with skepticism and usually won. He projected toughness from the inside.
Yet vulnerability was part of his appeal. His eyes were the eyes of a man who knew pain. His life was the life of a man who lived pain, and learned to tough it out.
This is borne out in dueling but mutually corroborative biographies released almost simultaneously, Jeffrey Meyers’ “Bogart: A Life in Hollywood” and A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax’s more succinctly titled but much longer and more thoroughly detailed “Bogart.” So here’s looking at Bogey - twice.
Meyers, the more fluent writer, has more to say about the films. But Sperber-Lax offer a much fuller and more detailed account of the life of the complex and sometimes contradictory man - as often timid as tough - who made them.
Collaborators Sperber and Lax never met. Ann M. Sperber died in 1994 after seven years of research, including a year and a half profitably spent in the Warner Archive at the University of Southern California, digging out the memos, contracts, phone messages and other documents detailing most of Bogart’s movie career. Lax gave final shape to what essentially was her work - including entree, via the Freedom of Information Act, to plunge into Bogey’s 2-inch-thick FBI file.
Bogey put a lot of energy into fighting his boss, Jack Warner, who abjectly caved in before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the end, Bogey recanted, too, but he hung tougher longer.
It was a long time before he had the clout of his fellow Warner Bros. insurrectionists, Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis, and Warner knew how to put the screws to him, playing on his insecurities until his popularity put him beyond Warner’s reach in the 1950s.
Bogey and Lauren Bacall, his fourth wife, were among the relatively few Hollywood luminaries willing to stick their necks out and publicly oppose HUAC during the Red Scare years. What he risked was not a revelation of a communist past (there was none) but a public show of his educated articulateness. Bogart’s stubbornness, loyalty and well-known contempt for pretentious phonies only increased his appeal. But then, as now, the world did not want its Hollywood stars brainy.
No publicity releases described Bogart’s custom of playing chess between takes in his dressing room. Nor did he emphasize his upbringing in New York, where his father was a society doctor and surgeon until a morphine dependency wrecked him. His mother, Maud Humphrey, a successful portraitist and illustrator, often posed young Humphrey as her model. The family was dysfunctional. Bogart’s father was supportive, but weak. His strong-willed mother was distant. Two sisters succumbed to alcoholism and nervous collapse.
Meyers uncritically accepts the supposed aristocratic origins of the family. Sperber did not, finding that while the Bogarts date from the Dutch settlers of the 1600s, Bogart’s grandfather was a social-climbing upstate innkeeper who named his surgeon-to-be son Belmont DeForest Bogart, hoping to borrow social cachet. Young Humphrey DeForest Bogart was thrown out of his father’s alma mater, Phillips Academy in Andover, joined the Navy at the tail end of World War I, and spent a decade pursuing a career on the Broadway stage before making his first film, the vanished 1928 two-reeler, “The Dancing Town,” with Helen Hayes.
Bogart’s career stalled until he went back to Broadway to star as the brooding gangster, Duke Mantee, in Robert Sherwood’s “The Petrified Forest” in 1935. It was only at Leslie Howard’s insistence that Bogart got the role in the movie the following year (Bogart named his second child after Howard).
But Bogart’s movie breakthrough was also a trap. Typecast for years as a gangster heavy, he stewed in the servitude of a contract player who ranked far below Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Errol Flynn and George Raft. For years he jokingly groused that Robinson always got to shoot him and get the girl. Of the 36 films he made for Warner, he was killed in 22.
It wasn’t until 1948, in “Key Largo,” that he finally shot Robinson and wound up with the girl - Bacall. Stardom was a long time coming.
Although Meyers’ book seems more of a scissors-and-paste job, he sometimes describes a more succinct arc. Sperber-Lax are better on bringing us into the shooting of various films, while Meyers supplies more of a summarizing overview.
Where both books agree is that Bogart’s career owed a huge debt to the blunders made by Raft. Bogart’s career took off on Raft’s turndowns - “Dead End,” “High Sierra,” and especially “The Maltese Falcon.” Raft rejected it because it was being made by a first-time director, John Huston. Bogart didn’t think twice. His Sam Spade created the archetype for the hard-boiled white-knight private eye, an exemplar he extended as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” (1946) for Howard Hawks with Bacall, whom Hawks put under contract after his wife discovered her.
Of course, it was not their first pairing on-screen. That came in the 1944 “To Have and Have Not,” in which Bogey’s crusty captain fell for the sultry young ex-model on and off camera.
By then, Bogart had solidified his stardom by playing his most famous cynic who rejects cynicism: the scarred, white dinner-jacketed romantic, Rick Blaine, in “Casablanca.” Wry, sophisticated, melancholy, emotionally armored yet with heart still reachable, and above all un-swervingly deadly in his resistance to evil, it was the role that made Bogart.
The chaos surrounding the production has become legendary. Not until the day of filming did co-star Ingrid Bergman know whether Rick would take off with her or nobly renounce her. Bogey stayed cool, memorizing each day’s rewritten lines, as was his fashion, attuned to working in short spurts.
Anything but casual, Bogart is revealed to have been a careful, hard-working craftsman, considerate to those who took their work as seriously as he did. Not until later, when he nicknamed himself the Boris Karloff of the supper clubs, did his drinking interfere with filming.
During the ‘40s, film sets were often respites from his stormy third marriage to Mayo Methot, who starred on Broadway, singing “More Than You Know,” but whose career languished while Bogey’s took off - a poisonous marital recipe. Until Bacall, with whom he had his happiest marriage, Bogart replicated his father’s pattern of being attracted to strong women, then being steamrolled by them. Bogart, who described himself as a Victorian man who married the women he slept with, is revealed as the more vulnerable one, worrying about the difference in their ages, viewing life as a thin-ice proposition.
He could be a gallant softie, but also an abrasive needler. He hated the discomforts of location travel, but did it three times and took abuse from his sincere but sometimes sadistic friend Huston to shoot “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen” and “Beat the Devil” - the off-the-wall “Maltese Falcon” sendup and cult fave. “The African Queen” gave Bogart his most popular role, “The Caine Mutiny” his most demanding. He stretched and excelled as Queeg, the crumbling seagoing martinet.
By the mid-‘50s, the lines etched ever more deeply into his face signaled the onset of the cancer that was to end Bogart’s life in 1957, after a final display of courageous stoicism.
Although Sperber and Lax don’t encapsulate as adeptly as Meyers, they flesh out their chronicle with a more satisfying degree of fullness. Still, you don’t have to be a Bogey completist to find both books worthwhile. Both travel the same route, chart the same milestones and minutiae, arrive at the same destination - an honorable, tenacious, sad-eyed icon who worked hard to hide his gentleness, a star whose most aptly titled film may have been “In a Lonely Place.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BOOK REVIEWS “Bogart: A Life in Hollywood” By Jeffrey Meyers (Houghton Mifflin, 369 pages, $30) “Bogart” By A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax (Morrow, 676 pages, $27.50.)