I have enjoyed watching classic movies from the golden age of Hollywood for a long time now, often at a local theatre not too far down the road from me. What I love most about its welcoming atmosphere is the art deco interior and thrilling feeling of yesteryear. Every year they play many of my favourite movies, with the screen filled with the biggest movie stars like James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and Humphrey Bogart, all with the biggest egos but often with the greatest work ethic and integrity for their profession.
Humphrey Bogart often stands out as the actor that everyone has tried to emulate but have failed miserably. How does someone like Humphrey Bogart, who is often cited as the greatest actor of all time, continue to remain in a class of his own ? I believe it is because he was truly one of a kind. Often it was cited too because he commanded the respect of Hollywood by his performances and his ability to make the audience believe that he was playing someone of great importance. But Bogart was no saint. He was a flawed man with many demons and vices – a womanizer, a heavy drinker and often unruly as a schoolboy to name a few. But it was this rough around the edges persona that eventually contributed to the legend that is Humphrey Bogart. Like all good stories, Bogart’s began on Christmas Day, 1899, in New York City and ended on January 14th, 1957, in Los Angeles. In between he lived a rich life on and off the screen, but it wasn’t always like that. In the beginning, there would be a long apprenticeship, hard work and failure before a black bird made him a star.
In the film The Caine Mutiny, one of Humphrey Bogart’s later films, his character Captain Queeg says to one of his subordinates “…there are four ways of doing things on board my ship. The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way. They do things my way, we’ll get along…” I often wonder how much of this was true of Humphrey Bogart’s life as he struggled to get along with the many different people in his early years of life. Often dismissed as an underachiever, he had no real desire to study and learn. Bogart simply just refused to kowtow to expectations set for him. His somewhat unaffectionate parents, in particularly his mother, were deeply appalled by his lack of vision and their failed plans for his future. His strong disregard for authority, whether it was towards his parents, teachers or headmasters in the end got him expelled from school. Things were no different when he joined the Navy. One occasion after his graduation as a Coxwain in the US Navy, on board a troop transport, he bluntly refused an order stating it was “not my detail”. For his subordination, Bogart was about to receive a lesson in manhood, as his superior officer decked him with a right fist to the jaw. Things, of course didn’t improve for Bogart, as he was eventually demoted to seaman second class and honorably discharged in 1919 for going AWOL in a prank or joke that went horribly wrong.
Kicked out of school and the Navy, Bogart would soon realize that he couldn’t keep up his slacker and wise guy antics for much longer. Down and out and filled with self-doubt, and after a series of failed jobs, he turned to a friend for help. Through his friend’s father Bill Brady Sr., Bogart was given a lucky break into the world of theatre. No one knew exactly what this young man would do behind the scenes of stage and screen, yet alone Humphrey Bogart.
Hired as an office boy, he quickly graduated to directorial and writing duties in the first few months of his new vocation. Unfortunately, Bogart was humiliated at every turn, in particular when his first scripts were trashed into a wastepaper basket. Fearing he would be fired, those around him only took pity on him and he was given another chance, this time as a stage manager.
Bogart had no trouble adapting to his new role. Finally it seemed there was a sense of order to his life as the stage manager of a small theatre company. Interestingly enough, as part of his duties, he was also required to understudy for all the male actors. Then, one day, as fate through him a curve ball, he had to step into the role of one of the lead actors who called in sick. The usual cool masculine quintessence that oozed from every pore of Bogart in his forties at the height of his fame, at the age of twenty-two as an understudy was nowhere to be seen. During rehearsal, he suffered from something many actors feared, stage-fright. He, of course, knew every line of all the male actors, but when it came to the crunch of performing even out front in an empty theatre in rehearsals, he failed miserably. He did everything he could not to try to completely embarrass himself in front of the cast. Fortunately for Bogart, the day was saved when Grace George (who had a soft spot for Bogart) faked an illness and the last show of the tour was cancelled. Bogart would live to fight another day and it wouldn’t be until the following year before he made his debut as a stage actor.
Humphrey’s day of reckoning as a stage actor came on Memorial Day 1921. He entered on stage dressed as a Japanese butler, delivered his line and exited the stage as quickly as he had arrived. It was nothing spectacular, but enough for him to be cast in subsequent productions. Being a minor player on broadway, Bogart was able to for the most part go unnoticed by the critics, until he was given a more significant role in the play Swifty in 1922. This time around the critics were in the mood to pan the newcomer for his awful acting. For someone who never really considered becoming an actor, Bogart was angry enough and disappointed by their assessment. He responded in the only way he knew how by using their critique of him as a challenge to prove them wrong. Immediately he began to make amends of his shortcomings as an untrained actor by working harder than ever. It was here in those early days that he also developed that distinctive Bogart delivery. A little over a year later his steely determination payed off for him as critics warmed to him in 1923’s Meet The Wife and again in 1924 in the short-lived play Nerves.
The mid to late 1920’s were good to Bogart professionally. He remained a solid fixture in the theatre during those years in many long running productions. He was also living it up onstage and in Manhattan speakeasies where he loved the parties, ladies and booze. When the crash occurred in 1929 and things on Broadway went a little pear-shaped, Bogart like many others tried his luck out west in Hollywood. Though after an unsuccessful stint as a motion picture actor, he returned to the Broadway stage. Those early years in the 30’s were tough for Bogart as he tried to reestablish himself. Decent work was hard to come by and Bogart was often pounding the pavement or playing chess for a meager fifty cents a game to supplement his income. Personally too, he was going through an awful time and became inconsolable when his father died in 1934. His second wife, Mary Phillips and their friends were extremely worried as Bogart fell into a deep sadness. For all the faults he could pick about his parents and the hard time he gave them growing up, deep down Bogart very much-loved his father. To add to his worries he also took it upon himself to pay his father’s huge debts. What happened next during this period was a godsend in Bogart’s personal and professional life.
Playwright Robert Emmet Sherwood was part of a circle of friends that witnessed Bogart’s despair in 1934. Sherwood had a great idea to awaken Bogart from his dejected state and suggested to his producer/director Arthur Hopkins that Bogart should be considered to play one of the many roles on offer in his screenplay for The Petrified Forest. Sherwood added that he thought Bogart could play the role of the ex-footballer, but Hopkins flatly rejected the idea. Hopkins had envisaged a different role for Bogart, one far more important than a retired jock. Months earlier Hopkins saw Bogart play the villain in Invitation to a Murder and was impressed by his menacing silence. If only Bogart could bring that sort of evil presence to the sociopath, Duke Mantee, an escaped prisoner from Sherwood’s screenplay and they would have a sure-fire hit. As legend would have it, Bogart excelled onstage in some 181 performance and The Petrified Forest became a bona fide hit, not only because of the great work of Bogart but the entire production team and acting cast. Bogart even managed to pay off his father’s debts which in turn eased his pain.
Bogart was at his apogee as a stage actor during the successful run of The Petrified Forest. He immersed himself so much into the character of Duke Mantee that one critic commented, “Humphrey Bogart is gangster Mantee to the tip of his sawed off shotgun.” What followed next for Bogart was a freshly inked contract for him to co-star in the screen adaption of The Petrified Forest. Though Warner Brothers, who had brought the rights to the stage show, were not so keen for Bogart to star in their screen version. They had envisaged a bigger star in the role of Mantee, but when negotiations broke down with other possible candidates for the role, Bogart who had played Mantee so well in the stage show eventually won the role back. There is another version of the story of how Bogart got the role of Mantee on-screen, which has The Petrified Forest‘s lead actor Leslie Howard (who also starred in the stage version) throwing a tantrum. If there was no Bogart, there was no movie. Howard got his wish !
The critical success of The Petrified Forest on-screen gave Bogart a springboard to aim for the top, but it didn’t mean Warners would necessarily elevate him to stardom. For the next five years between 1936 and 1940, Bogart would be gainfully employed by Warner Bros. but as a hard-working supporting actor to Warner studio stars like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Humphrey would also become somewhat typecast as a hoodlum or gangster in this period.
Having realised that he was there to tow the line for studio executives, he often did his work without complaint, which endeared him to many of the stars of his era. Furthermore, even though he was bored with his onscreen roles he didn’t let it affect his professionalism. However he desperately wanted to be a star and even more importantly challenged as an actor, instead of being ‘the villain’ that was gunned down onscreen repeatedly by Robinson and Cagney.
In an effort to redefine his stalling career, Bogart came across the script for High Sierra. He went to great efforts to try to convince Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis that the part of Ray Earle was made for him. What is interesting about Bogart’s insistence in playing the role of Earle, is that it was another gangster role, in yet another gangster movie. Why would Bogart choose to play another gangster, when for years he was complaining and trying to get away from playing villainous roles that found him repeatedly dead onscreen at the end of a gun. But Bogart saw something in the role of Ray Earle that made him feel it was worthy considering and a step up from the ‘B’ movie roles he had come to loathe. He also appreciated how John Huston’s script of W.R. Burnett’s book, had been stripped to its bare bones, while still managing to retain its most important elements and message.
Initially, Raoul Walsh, the director of High Sierra had fought against casting Bogart in the role of Earle, but quickly changed his mind. Bogart brought something that no one else could once the cameras began rolling. Like his portrayal of Mantee in The Petrified Forest, Bogart came alive onscreen as Ray Earle. He was so believable and convincing as the noble but troubled villain, that critics and movie-goers loved High Sierra. While no one knew it at the time, High Sierra would become an important movie that “marked the sunset of the gangster genre.”
High Sierra more than The Petrified Forest was supposed to be Bogart’s vehicle to stardom. Other studio’s cued up to pay for his services trying to get Warner Brothers to loan him out as their leading man. It was something that Bogart had always wished for, but Warner refused and subsequently misfired their next outing for Bogart by casting him as an owner of a grubby travelling carnival. Bogart rightly so was absolutely disappointed as it failed dismally. He, then uncharacteristically lost his composure, when he was overlooked for two new projects. He famously disappeared upon his yacht, against the wishes of the studio, sailing out into the Pacific for five days where he couldn’t be reached. The Warner Studio was furious and suspended Bogart without pay indefinitely.
When cool heads eventually prevailed and with a little bit of luck and grandstanding by others who liked Bogart, he was invited back into the fold and his suspension overturned. It was truly a very important moment for both the Warner Studio and Bogart. If Bogart was not taken off suspension the chances of the Maltese Falcon being made into the classic we have come to know and love would have been remote. But as fate or luck would have it, Bogart was given the role of Sam Spade, but not before George Raft passed on it. (The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before in 1931 and 1936 without success.) Bogart, it seemed, had an uncanny manner of picking up projects that other actors loathed. This new Falcon would be different under the directorial debut of John Huston. So much so that Huston years later would comment, “So I fell heir to Bogie, for which I was duly thankful.” The feeling was mutual, as Bogart relished at the thought of working with his friend and long time drinking partner too.
Promotional still from the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. Left to right: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Barton MacLane, Peter Lorre and Ward Bond.
The genius of the Maltese Falcon ultimately rested in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, but the vision to bring it to the big screen (again) is credited to John Huston. He searched through Warner Brothers impressive catalogue of properties and selected the Falcon, because he thought it made for a great story steeped in social realism and mystery. Huston, like in his High Sierra script, decided to strip Hammett’s novel essentially down to its dialogue only. From here Huston could build upon Hammett’s dialogue by adding his own flare and vision, but in essence it always remained faithful to the novel. He next pitched to Warner studios that he had to have the perfect cast that could help him pull off his vision for The Maltese Falcon, which included his friend and leading man Humphrey Bogart. Interestingly enough, he shot the Falcon almost entirely in sequence, something that almost never happens in films. His reason was that he thought it would help the actors in building to the movies climax. He also shot every scene as if it was the most important scene in the film.
Film historians argue about whether or not the Maltese Falcon was a break or make picture for Bogart. It some ways it was. To think that Bogart had gone down a path of theatre and film work that amounted to nothing would be tragic. He certainly had a depth of experience, some twenty years in the making to succeed. As it was it would be one of the longest apprenticeships in entertainment history before the Falcon truly made him a star and he deserved it. Bogart would graduate from playing two-dimensional gangsters to complex tough romantic leading men. Bogart would use this transition from a two-bit crook to the wounded, often cynical and romantic lead we appreciate today to catapult him to stardom. His portrayal of Sam Spade was nothing short of brilliant, and yet vulnerable too, in the pursuit of the truth and justice. The depth of Bogart skills as an actor is no more evident than in the ending of the Falcon, when Bogart breaks out in a monologue expressing his feelings and vulnerabilities. He confesses to the murderess, played by Mary Astor, that he loves her but has no choice but to hand her over to the authorities.
The final sequence of the Maltese Falcon as a metaphor to Bogarts life is interesting. As his character Sam Spade finally uncovers the truth, first that the Maltese Falcon statue is a fake and that the women who he loves is a murderess; he does what is righteous and turns her over and the evidence to exonerate himself. In real life Bogart exonerates himself by showing his critics, the studio and movie goers that he is the real deal. There would be no more ‘B’ movies or playing second fiddle to the likes of Raft, Robinson or Cagney anymore. Bogart had finally arrived and this time he was here to stay. Even more poignant is his final exchange with Lieutenant Polhaus. Polhaus asks Spade “What is it ?”, referring to the little black bird. Spade says, it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Oh how true this was for Bogart following the release and subsequent success of the movie. There would be no more looking back now. The studio even toyed with the idea of a sequel starring Bogart in Sam Spades character, but how do you topple what is nowadays considered the cornerstone of film noir ? You don’t. You move on and look for the next great thing. That moment for Bogart would be just around the corner with a little old movie called Casablanca.
This featured article was originally published in 2015, but has been moved to the front pages to further highlight this site’s original content.