Humphrey Bogart spent the last 21 years of his life laboriously converting the established character of a middle-aged man from that of a conventional, well-bred theatre actor named Humphrey to that which complemented his film roles – a rebellious tough known as Bogey. In the ten years since his death in 1957, with no more effort than it takes to type the comic-strip dream of a little boy’s hero, biographers catering to the Bogey Cult have transformed him into a cinematic saint, in whom I can find scarcely a trace of the Humphrey I first knew in 1924 or the Bogey I last saw in 1943.
The youngest strokes in the portrait of St. Bogart are those which paint him as a ‘loner’, a man of ‘self determination’ who makes ‘all his own decisions’ with regard for nothing beyond immediate satisfaction. Such a description might do for a fourth century St. Anthony of the Egyptian desert, but never for a twentieth century film star in Hollywood.
Being myself a born loner who was temporarily deflected from the hermit path by a career in the theatre and films, I can state categorically that in Bogart’s time there was no other occupation in the world that so closely resembled enslavement as the career of a film star. He had self-determination only in this: he might or he might not sign a film contract. If he signed the contract he became subject to those who paid his salary and released his films. If he did not sign the contract, he was no film star.
I, for example, when I was under contract to Paramount in 1928, complained about being forced to hang around Hollywood waiting to make some film. “That’s what we are paying you for,” was the harsh comment of the front office, “your time.” “You mean my life,” I amended to myself.
When the coming of talkies made the cutting of actors’ salaries practicable and I was the only one on the lot who refused to take a cut and thereby lost my contract, I doubted that such ‘uncooperative’ decisions would lengthen my career. When I was the only one of the cast who refused to return to make the talkie version of my last silent film there, The Canary Murder Case, the studio doused me with ugly publicity and made my doubts a certainty.
In later years at Warner Brothers, when Bogart, following the lead of James Cagney and Errol Flynn, would go on strike, braying for better films and more money, the studio made a pleasant game of it. The actors were allowed a triumphant interval in which to feel like lords of the lot; the publicity stirred up by these mock battles was free and beneficial; and a great deal of money was saved while the actors’ salaries were suspended. Studio contracts were always a joke, anyhow, as far as actors were concerned. Studios could break them at will; the actors were bound by their fear of impoverishing law suits and permanent unemployment.
As a loner, my two most precious rights are those which allow me to choose the periods of my aloneness and to choose the people with whom I will spend the periods of my not-aloneness. To be let alone for an instant is terrifying to a film star. It is the first signpost leading to oblivion. Obviously an actor cannot choose the people with whom he will work, or when or how he will work with them. He goes to work at a time specified by the studio. He spends his working day not only under the control of his director, but also of the scriptwriter, the cameraman, the wardrobe department, and the publicity office.
Since publicity is the life-blood of stardom without which a star will die, it is equally obvious that he must keep it flowing through his private life which feeds the envy and curiosity that bring many people into theatres. Having rightly ascribed much of his previous failure in the theatre and films to a lack of publicity value, from the moment Bogart settled at Warner Brothers in 1936, all his time not spent before the camera was spent with journalists and columnists who invented for him the private character of Bogey. They carved him into the desired peg upon which they could hang their favourite ancient gags and bar-room fables. A small part of Bogey’s character was founded on his film roles; the greater part was founded on the pranks of those rats of the underworld idolised by the ex-columnist, producer Mark Hellinger. During the last ten years of his life, driven by his ferocious ambition, Humphrey Bogart allowed himself to be formed into a coarse and drunken bully, a puppet Iago who fomented evil without a motive.
In 1924 my first impression of Humphrey Bogart was of a slim boy with charming manners, who was extraordinarily quiet for an actor. His handsome face was made extraordinary by a most beautiful mouth. It was very full, rosy, and perfectly modelled. To make it completely fascinating, at one corner of his upper lip a scarred quilted piece hung down in a tiny scallop.
When Humphrey went into films, a surgeon sewed up the scallop. Photographically it was an improvement, but I missed this endearing disfigurement. The scar on his lip has since become a symbol of his heroism. In those early years it was taken for granted that he got punched in the mouth at some speakeasy. When Humphrey drank he became exhausted and occasionally fell asleep (as in Casablanca) with his head in his arms on the table. If rudely shaken awake he would say something rude and sometimes got socked for it. On this occasion he purposely did not get his split lip sewed up because he both loved and hated his beautiful mouth. America, in the 1920s, was exclusively Western in its ideas of beauty and vulgar people made fun of Humphrey’s ‘nigger lips’.
The lip wound gave him no speech impediment either before or after it was mended. But when he at last made a hit in films, observing how much an unusual feature, such as Clark Gable’s prominent ears, added to the publicity value of a star, he decided to exploit his mouth. Over the years Bogey practised all kinds of lip gymnastics accompanied by nasal tones, snarls, lisps, and slurs. His painful wince, his leer, his fiendish grin were the most accomplished ever seen on film. Only Erich von Stroheim was his master in lip-twitching.
But in 1924 Humphrey was speaking his lines with a well-projected baritone and good diction in a small part in a play in New York called Nerves. Mary Phillips also had a small part in Nerves. Kenneth MacKenna played a leading role. The play would have been a good deal more nervous had they known that after Humphrey was married and divorced by Helen Menken he would marry Mary Phillips; and that after Kenneth was married and divorced by Kay Francis he would marry Mary Phillips who had divorced Humphrey.
With a view to future entanglements, the theatrical season of 1925-26 was even more intriguing. James Cagney, who was to become Humphrey’s red-headed bête noire at Warner Brothers, was playing in Outside Looking In; Leslie Howard, who was to put Humphrey in a position to rival Cagney, was playing in The Green Hat; Helen Menken, in Makropoulos Secret; Mary Phillips, in The Wisdom Tooth; and wife number three, Mayo Methot, in Alias the Deacon. In The Cradle Snatchers, Humphrey was playing a college boy being snatched by middle-aged Mary Boland, while off stage in the Bronx the year-old Lauren Bacall lay in her cradle waiting for Bogey to snatch her 20 years later as wife number four.
Dismissing Humphrey’s theatrical career with a press notice loses much of its point when the facts are examined. From the season 1921-22 when he first appeared on Broadway with Alice Brady in Drifting, through the season 1929-30 when he got his first Hollywood contract, 2,044 plays were produced in New York. Out of a possible two thousand young American dramatic actors working in those plays, only four besides Bogart became major film stars – Cagney, Tracy, Fredric March and Clark Gable. Because, whether or not they confess it as frankly as Barbra Streisand who said, “To me being really famous is being a movie star,” that is the goal of all actors in the theatre.
In 1930 Humphrey’s Hollywood failure was as predictable as was Cagney’s success. Cagney’s character was already a gaudy perfection in the theatre. In Penny Arcade, the play that won him his film contract with Warner Brothers, Jimmie appeared as the same little hoodlum killer that made him famous in films.
Bogart was selected out of It’s a Wise Child, in which he played a gentlemanly young cad with only his good looks to recommend him to Hollywood producers, who were never inspired in casting an actor who had not yet established his own characterisation. Writers who never saw him on the stage cannot uncover the bitterness in Bogey’s ‘favourite’ review by Alexander Woollcott, who described his performance in Swifty as “inadequate”. To be mentioned at all in any review amounted to praise for Bogart. On the stage he was as formless as an impression lost through lack of meditation, as blurred as a name inked on blotting paper.
In the 20s, under the supervision of old producers like David Belasco, stage direction dated back to the feverish technique of the English theatre before the plays of Ibsen, Chekhov and Bernard Shaw revolutionised it, introducing what Lytton Strachey called “a new quiet and subtle style of acting – a prose style.” In New York we began to realise how bad were our directors and actors when English stars began to appear on Broadway. There was Lynn Fontanne in Pygmalion, Roland Young in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square and Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in Private Lives. These marvellous actors of realism spoke their lines as if they had just thought of them. They moved about the stage with ease.
And they actually paid attention too – they actually heard what other actors were saying. The conventional Broadway technique exposed more showing-off than acting, more of a fight than a play. Every actor’s aim was to kill the other actors’ lines, especially if the lines provoked laughter. Ina Claire was celebrated for waving a large chiffon handkerchief on other actors’ lines and forcing them to work with their backs to the audience. Far from being criticised, she was envied for such tricks.
After 13 years of conditioning to this kind of ‘stage’ acting, when Bogart got a job in The Petrified Forest, which opened in January 1935, nothing but searching ambition could have enabled him to see in Leslie Howard’s quiet, natural acting technique a style he could adapt to his own personality. Nothing but inflexible will-power could have enabled him to tear down his ingrained acting habits in order to begin all over again the self-conscious agony of learning to act.
Working with Leslie gave him command of the Duke Mantee part in the play and in the film; but the films of the following five years reveal the terrible struggle for supremacy engaged in by the new Bogey technique with the old theatrical habits of Humphrey. With a poor director, Frank McDonald, in The Isle of Fury he was Humphrey again, reciting his memorised lines, striking attitudes while he waited for the other actors to get done with theirs. In Dark Victory, working with a great director, Edmund Goulding, who was also a great clown, acting with the emotional Bette Davis who could fire up on the word ‘camera’, he was stricken with grotesque, amateur embarrassment.
Unlike most technical actors, Humphrey was extremely sensitive to his director. But like most actors from the theatre, he was slow in building a mood and grimly serious about maintaining it. James Cagney, in The Roaring Twenties, split him in a confusion between Bogey and Humphrey. Cagney’s swift dialogue and his swift movements, which had the glitter and precision of a meat slicer, were impossible to anticipate or counter-attack. Humphrey was at his best working with less inspired and more technical actors such as Walter Huston.
He was also at his best playing an inarticulate, uncomplicated character like the punk in San Quentin. His senseless pursuit of death became pathetic, even noble, because it came out of his own unconquerable perseverance in pursuing stardom. In The Maltese Falcon his part was uncomplicated, but too much dialogue betrayed the fact that his miserable theatrical training had left him permanently afraid of words. In short speeches he cleverly masked his fear with his tricks of mouth and voice. But when he was allotted part of the burden of exposition in this film, his eyes glazed and invisible comic strip balloons circled his dialogue. More unfortunate were his efforts at repartee with Mary Astor in Across the Pacific.
In his last films, it was not the theatre Humphrey who overcame Bogey, but the real man, Humphrey Bogart, whose fundamental inertia had always menaced his career. As a dead soul waiting for release in death in The Desperate Hours, he was incomparable until, unaccountably, a sentimental heart began to beat, and he handed over the film to Fredric March.
However, before inertia set in, he played one fascinatingly complex character, craftily directed by Nicholas Ray, in a film whose title perfectly defined Humphrey’s own isolation among people. In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character’s, the screenwriter’s, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.
In his preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma, Bernard Shaw wrote: “No man who is occupied in doing a very difficult thing, and doing it very well, ever loses his self respect. The common man may have to found his self-respect on sobriety, honesty and industry; but an artist needs no such props for his sense of dignity… The truth is, hardly any of us have energy enough for more than one really inflexible point of honour. An actor, a painter, a composer, an author, may be as selfish as he likes without reproach from the public if only his art is superb; and he cannot fulfil this condition without sufficient effort and sacrifice to make him feel noble and martyred in spite of his selfishness.”
Superficially, Humphrey’s character and way of life so little resembled that of the secure and temperate Leslie Howard that what induced Leslie to become his guide and champion is not immediately apparent. I, myself, would never have known the reason for his sympathetic attitude towards Humphrey had I not met Leslie in New York in November 1931 when he was rehearsing his new play, The Animal Kingdom.
It was on the afternoon of my 25th birthday that George Marshall (not the director but the owner of the professional football team, the Washington Redskins) announced that he was going to celebrate the event by taking me to dinner at the Casino in the Park with Leslie Howard and his wife. I was surprised and pleased, not only because George was mad at me for turning down an offer to work for RKO in Hollywood, but also because he so little liked spending unnecessary money on me that the last time I spoke to him on the ‘phone in 1960, he was still wondering why he had given me a mink coat in 1928.
Conversationally, the dinner party was not well balanced. When I was with George I said little, fearing that I might give him material for an enquiry into how I spent my time when he was away in Washington. Leslie, who had evidently accepted the invitation because he enjoyed George’s performances, said nothing. Mrs. Howard, a large woman who looked more like his mother than his wife, tried to inject gracious remarks here and there in the stream of George’s witty stories, but his loud voice was as hard on them as it was on Eddie Duchin’s orchestra. George was a big man of thirty five who looked rather like a redskin himself, with a blanket replaced by evening dress, and a bottle of fire-water by a martini glass. At the end of each story he would let out a self-appreciative haw-haw-haw and then clap Leslie on the back with such enthusiasm that Leslie would crumple over the table like a paper angel.
Dinner ended, George asked Mrs. Howard to dance and Leslie and I were left alone at the table regarding each other. I opened the conversation: “I hate my dress. Bernard Newman at Bergdorf-Goodman talked me into buying it – but it’s much too young for me.” Leslie studied my lettuce green organza evening dress with its full skirt, short sleeves, and baby collar. I turned in my chair to show him the bow in back. “What do you usually wear?” he asked. “Oh, something white and glittery with no back and cut down to here in front.” He thought about this for a moment and then we both laughed and had another glass of champagne. He had become suddenly, brilliantly alive. His famous watchful eyes began to sparkle mischievously as we compared our impressions of Hollywood. As much as I, he detested having to sit most of the day in the studio waiting for sets and lights to be changed. And then he talked about the theatre, how he dreaded having to study a new part, how slow he was at learning his lines. I laughed in disbelief. “You’re kidding me!” “No, it’s perfectly true,” he said. “I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. I haven’t the energy for acting – it’s too exhausting.”
When Mrs. Howard and George returned from their dance and observed our happy intimacy, they decided to take us home. In the cab, Mrs. Howard and I sat on the back seat facing George and Leslie on the jump seats. My knees touched Leslie’s and we smiled at each other. But I knew when we said goodnight that I would not see him again. It would be too exhausting.
It was the recognition of this same threatening exhaustion in Humphrey, I think, that touched Leslie’s heart, leading him to force Jack Warner to give Humphrey the Duke Mantee part when The Petrified Forest was filmed. Furthermore, whereas from the beginning of his career Leslie had confessed his lack of energy and let it work for him in the creation of the quiet, natural actor, he saw that Humphrey fought his weakness, trying ineffectually to emulate the dynamic style of most successful actors. All this he conveyed to Humphrey in the direction of the play. And once he grasped the idea that he too might achieve success with some version of natural acting, Humphrey went about its contrivance with the cunning of a lover. For all actors know that truly natural acting is rejected by the audience. Although people are better equipped to judge acting than any other art, the hypocrisy of ‘sincerity’ prevents them from admitting that they too are always acting some part of their own invention. To be a successful actor, then, it is necessary to add some eccentricities and mystery to naturalness so that the audience can admire and puzzle over something different from itself.
Leslie’s eccentricities were his passion for his pipe and his rather queer clothes. The mystery of his indestructible poise was the question of whether as an actor he wasn’t playing a huge joke on everyone and getting paid for it. Bogart’s eccentricities were the use of his mouth and speech. The mysterious ingredient of his poise was the moment of explosion. Leslie would have become less by revealing himself; by revealing himself, Bogart became more.
In doing research on Humphrey I was amazed to read the number of his ‘recreations’. He played golf, tennis, bridge, chess. He sailed. He read books! Except on one occasion, the only thing I ever saw him do was sit and drink and talk with people. That one occasion was an evening in New York when he and I, Blyth Daly and Alice Brady played what Alice innocently called bridge in her apartment on East Fifty-Seventh Street. To begin with, she never stopped talking. Then as soon as the cards were dealt she would get up to mix drinks. After the bidding she would get up to empty ashtrays. When she was dummy she would go to the piano to play and sing in her French mother’s tongue. At any time at all she would jump up with all her bracelets jingling to fly at one of her four yapping wire-haired fox terriers, who substituted her ivory satin window draperies for trees and lamp-posts. We were all relieved when her doorbell rang and Elsie Ferguson, with her handsome actor husband, came in for a nightcap after the theatre. The bridge game was over. Sipping a brandy across the room from me, Elsie was as beautiful in 1930 as she had been in films in 1918. And it was with the old film charm that she said goodnight a few minutes later, leaving Alice sitting on her husband’s lap.
“How long have Alice and Elsie’s husband known each other?” I asked Humphrey as we left the apartment building. He looked at me blankly. It was Blyth who answered, “You idiot, they just met!”
That blank look of Humphrey’s was the key to his attitude towards sex. He was so contemptuous of other men’s needs to publicise their amorous triumphs that he refused to notice them. Being himself supremely confident of his own attractiveness to women, he scorned every form of demonstrativeness. When a woman appealed to him, he waited for her like the flame waits for the moth.
“Man survives earthquakes, epidemics, the horrors of war, and all the agonies of the soul,” wrote Tolstoi, “but the tragedy that has always tormented him, and always will, is the tragedy of the bedroom.” It was security in sex that preserved Humphrey’s ego for success after he had endured, three times longer than any actor known to history, the bitterest humiliation, ridicule and failure. Certainly, no other actor could have read those two speeches in Across the Pacific with his peculiar emphasis. When Greenstreet showed him his gun, Bogey produced his and said, “My gun is bigger than your gun.” And again later when he pulled his gun on Greenstreet, he said, “I told you-mine is bigger than yours.”
Each of Humphrey’s wives was fittingly chosen to meet the trials of his career. When he began to act and had so much to learn about the theatre, he married Helen Menken, the star of Seventh Heaven. Helen’s white thin face was always ecstatically lifted up to her vision of the Drama. I never heard her talk about anything except the art of the theatre. They were divorced in 1927 after Helen had become a sensation in The Captive, closed by the district attorney on its 160th performance because of its lesbian theme. Humphrey worked that year the twelve pitiful performances of a comedy, Baby Mine, in which Roscoe Arbuckle tried to erase the scandal that had driven him from Hollywood. Except for a two-week revival of Saturday’s Children in 1928, Humphrey did not work again on Broadway until 1929 when, with his new wife, Mary Phillips, he appeared in Skyrocket, which closed after eleven performances. “The art of the theatre” having become a sore subject, Mary was exactly right for him during the time he required comfort more than inspiration.
Besides Leslie Howard, no other person contributed so much to Humphrey’s success as his third wife, Mayo Methot. He found her at a time of lethargy and loneliness when he might have gone on playing secondary gangster parts at Warner Brothers for a year and then out. But he met Mayo and she set fire to him. Those passions – envy, hatred and violence – which were essential to the Bogey character, which had been simmering beneath his failure for so many years, she brought to a boil, and blew the lid off all his inhibitions forever. Part of her mission was accomplished under my direct observation.
In October 1935, I left the Persian Room in New York, where I had been dancing with Dario, to make a test for the Republic Studio in Hollywood for a film, Dancing Feet. On the day after the test was completed and seen, the studio gave the part I had tested for to a blonde girl who couldn’t dance. Having little money and no more faith in myself, I stayed on in Hollywood for lack of a better plan. I was living at the Ronda apartments, and one day I strolled down the street to the Garden of Allah, into the sitting room of Robert Benchley’s cottage, and there was Humphrey sitting on the floor, leaning against a sofa, with a glass of Scotch and soda in his hand. He had little to say about his part in The Petrified Forest, which was in production at Warner Brothers. Two unsuccessful experiences in Hollywood did not allow him to feel optimistic. Not feeling optimistic either was a boy from the M-G-M studio who had been sent to pick up a script that Bob had not yet begun to write.
The following evening I received a phone call from Mary Huntoon, who was my old friend and a niece of Dwight Deere Wiman the theatrical producer. She said Humphrey and she were having a drink at her house (she had just become his agent), and that Humphrey would like me to join them. Coming from anyone else the invitation would have meant that two bored people wanted company. Coming from Humphrey it was nothing less than a declaration of love. Full of curiosity, I hastened to the scene. It was not a happy one. Humphrey was so intuitive about women that, after a glowing welcome, he retreated slowly into gloom and silence and Scotch, leaving the conversation to Mary and me. Riding home in the cab, I thought about the difference between Humphrey and me. He could love only a woman he had known a long time or, what amounted to the same thing, one who was flung at him in the intimacy of a play or film. To me, love was an adventure into the unknown.
The Petrified Forest had been released and Humphrey had made a solid hit in it when I next saw him. It was early in the year of 1936 at the Beverly Hills home of Eric Hatch, who had written My Man Godfrey. When I went into the dining room, Eric and his wife, Mischa Auer and his wife, and Humphrey were sitting at the table. Mrs. Hatch got up to pour me a cup of after-dinner coffee. As I drank it I watched Humphrey, whom I had never seen in such an emotional state. Everyone else was watching him too. Then the doorbell rang and, as if on cue, we all got up and went downstairs into the vaulted living room to meet Mayo Methot who was entering from the hall. No moth was she! She burned in a sheath of peacock blue silk.
That night, instead of our usual talk and laughter, we became an audience galvanised by a scene of the most passionate love played out between Mayo and Humphrey without so much as a touch of hands. Drinks were mixed and seats were taken as Mayo moved restlessly to the gramophone and put on an old Argentine tango, Adios Muchachos. Her dance with Mischa began as a burlesque, with him throwing her about and glaring lustfully into her eyes. Gradually, however, her exquisitely persuasive body began to rule his movements and they danced in the falling arcs, the slow recoveries, and the voluptuous pauses of the true tango.
The spell was broken by a maid, who announced that Mayo’s husband had telephoned to say that he was on his way to the house. Humphrey sprang from the sofa to whisk her away – but wait! She had taken off her slippers to dance, and now one of them could not be found. Everybody searched for it except me, which must have aroused Humphrey’s suspicions because quite suddenly he lunged at me with the most hideous face, rasping, “God damn you, Louise, tell us where you hid Mayo’s slipper!” I was too stunned by this strange and violent Humphrey to speak. Fortunately, at this moment Mischa stretched up to an oak beam, which no one else was tall enough to reach, and brought down the slipper. The lovers fled out by the back door as the front doorbell rang once again.
It was in New York in December of 1943 that I was to see Humphrey for the last time. I was dining at the restaurant ‘21’ with Townsend Martin. Between the dinner and the supper hour, the bar was empty when Mayo and Humphrey came in and stood briefly at our table to say hello and tell us that they were on their way to Africa to entertain the troops. I was shocked to see how dreadfully Humphrey’s face had aged. The effects of the war he had waged against his inertia – work and whisky without sleep and food – were visible at last. Mayo looked as though she had just gotten out of bed with her clothes on. Her suit was rumpled, her hair not combed, her face not made up. They sat at a table in a far corner of the room as if they wanted to be alone, yet they neither spoke nor looked at each other till their drinks were brought to the table. Then Mayo turned to speak fiercely to Humphrey as if she were continuing some argument that could never be resolved. Slumped against the banquette, unmoved, he stared at his hand slowly turning his glass round and round on the table.
It was plain that the team of ‘The Battling Bogarts’ was soon to break up. He was Bogey now, his character firmly set, capable of battling alone. With the release of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart had become big business. It was time for Lauren Bacall, who was primarily a business woman, to make her entrance. She, who was also to become his perfect screen partner, as seductive as Eve, as cool as the serpent.
My most vivid remembrance of the living Humphrey Bogart is of a night in New York at Tony’s restaurant on Fifty Second Street. I went in about one and sat at a table near Humphrey, who was sitting in a booth with Thomas Mitchell. It was a few weeks before The Petrified Forest would close in June 1935, and Humphrey had nothing to look forward to except summer stock in Skowhegan, Maine. Presently Mitchell paid his bill and went out, leaving Humphrey alone drinking steadily with weary determination. His head drooped lower and lower. When I left he had fallen into his exhausted sleep with his head sunk in his arms on the table. “Poor Humphrey,” I said to Tony, “he’s finally licked.”
My most vivid remembrance of the screen Humphrey Bogart is of a scene in his greatest film, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He lies in the dirt, about to drag himself to the water hole. He has endured everything to get his gold-and now must he give it up? Wide open, the tragic eyes are raised to heaven in a terrible, beseeching look. “Despised and the most abject of men.” In the agony of that beautiful face I see the face of my St. Bogart.