I’m not sure which film marked my introduction to Hollywood goddess Lauren Bacall, it’s been far too long to honesty recall, but what I do remember is being mesmerized by her classic Hollywood beauty and that sultry voice.
Lauren Bacall, who died in 2014 at 89, lived a remarkable life, both on and off the screen. She was first discovered by Nancy ‘Slim’ Keith (director Howard Hawks wife), who saw 19-year-old Bacall on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1943. That same year she was subsequently signed to a seven-year film deal with Howard Hawks. The following year in 1944, she made her startling debut in To Have And Have Not (1944). It’s fair to say it was a dream role, especially when her leading man was Humphrey Bogart.
When Bacall first met Bogart on the set of Passage to Marseille in 1943 there were no sparks between them. Just some pleasantries and well wishes. The next time they met it was a few weeks before shooting began on Howard Hawks’ To Have And To Have Not in which Bogart complimented her on her screen test and said: “We’ll have a lot of fun together.” Then finally on the set for Hawks’ new film, Bacall and Bogart were seemingly ready for what fate might throw at them on the first day’s shoot.
The quiet unassuming Bacall was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs on her first day. During rehearsals of the scene where Bacall asks Bogart “Anybody got a match” she practically shook with fear. Then after she stumbled a few more times when the camera started to roll, Bogart tried his best to calm her down. He even told her a joke or two. Bacall to her credit realised there was only one thing to do to steady her nervousness and trembling head. When the director yelled action on the third take, she lowered her head almost down to her chest and eyes up looking at Bogart delivered her lines. She nailed it! Moreover the scene produced the very first instance of what would become ‘The Look’, Bacall’s famous trademark gaze.
As Bacall’s confidence grew throughout the first few weeks of production, she was more than willing to learn the ropes. She was hard working and had a great sense of humour, something that endured her to Bogart and his fondness for pranks. Soon after, a subtle change in their relationship turned from being purely platonic to an ever growing attraction somewhere in and around the time of the famous ‘whistle scene’ which came four weeks into production. If anyone in the production team was still oblivious to the electric chemistry between Bacall and an unhappily married Bogart, they were about to see it play out in the open on set.
The scene in question sees Bogart as Harry “Steve” Morgan, a fishing captain in Vichy France, contemplating whether or not to smuggle members of the French resistance off a German/Vichy-controlled Caribbean Island in his fishing boat. Bacall, who plays Marie “Slim” Browning, enters Bogart’s room inquiring as to whether he can help her find a way off the island. What follows is one of the most dazzling scenes ever filmed in which Slim and Steve size each other up before Steve sees through Slim’s seemingly helpless demeanor. Slim reacts in kind with a faint attempt at seduction which leaves Steve completely perplexed as she sits in his lap.
Slim: “Sometimes I know exactly what you’re going to say….The other times, you’re just a stinker.”
Slim kisses Steve.
Steve: “What’d you do that for?”
Slim: “Been wondering if I’d like it.”
Steve: “What’s the decision?”
Slim: “I don’t know yet.”
They kiss for a second time and Slim surmises, ”It’s even better when you help.”
When after Slim questions Steve whether he will help her and he still refuses, she lets him know what he’s missing out on.
Slim: “You know you don’t have to act with me Steve. You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle.”
Just as Slim is about to leave Steve’s room she pauses at the door. “You do know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
This electrifying scene ends with Bogart completely bemused as he produces a cat-call whistle.
We could honestly spend another paragraph or two analysing this great scene. But let’s just conclude by saying that this scene (especially its underlining sexual tension) was arguably the true beginning of the end of Bogart’s unhappy marriage. For Bacall it was arguably the beginning of something new. Having produced one of the sexiest lines in film history, Bacall would go on to star in a succession of films in the late 40s, where her strength of character and powers of seduction, made her a force to be reckoned with, even opposite the tough as nails Bogart. As for Bogart, he would become the love of her life with whom she would be forever linked to until his death in 1957.