Humphrey Bogart has probably been imitated more than any other actor. His film characters such as Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, Duke Mantee and Fred C. Dobbs, to name a few, have become woven into the fabric of American culture. His on-screen fights against the likes of Cagney, Robinson, and Raft were nothing compared to his offscreen antics which included several stormy marriages, ongoing battles with Hollywood mogul Jack Warner for better parts, and a dependency on alcohol. For many, though, he will always be the ultimate screen actor whose position as the greatest movie tough guy of them all is secure.
Bogart's screen persona--the tight-lipped, streetwise thug--is a testament to his gifts as an actor, especially when contrasted against his upper crust upbringing. Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born in New York City on December 25, 1899 to Maud Humphrey, a noted illustrator and artist, and DeForest Bogart, a prosperous Manhattan surgeon. (Some accounts list his birth as January 23, 1899; see Urban Legends for details.) Hoping that their son would eventually be bound for Yale rather than Broadway or Hollywood, the Bogarts sent their son to such posh halls of academia as Trinity School and Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass., where he was prepping for medical school. But failing grades and a supposed incidence of irreverence to a faculty member led to his expulsion from the latter.
Bogart traded in his chance at a graduation cap for a sailor's cap by enlisting in the U.S. Navy in the spring of 1918. It was during his naval stint that he got his trademark scar and developed his characteristic lisp, though the actual circumstances are hazy at best. One account is that his lip was cut be a piece of shrapnel during a shelling of his ship, the Leviathan. Another version, which Bogart's long time friend, author Nathaniel Benchley, claims is the truth, is that Bogart was injured while on assignment to take a naval prisoner to Portsmouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire. Supposedly, while changing trains in Boston, the handcuffed prisoner asked Bogart for a cigarette and while Bogart looked for a match, the prisoner raised his hands, smashed Bogart across the mouth with his cuffs, cutting Bogart's lip, and fled. Bogart used his .45 gun to drop the prisoner who was eventually taken to Portsmouth. By the time Bogart was treated by a doctor, the scar had already formed.
After his discharge, Bogart looked up a family friend, theatrical producer William A. Brady, who hired him as an office boy. Bogart eventually landed a job as a stage manager and also did some chores at Brady's New York film studio, World Film Corp. Brady's daughter, actress Alice Brady, thought Bogart had some acting potential and gave him a small role in "Drifting" (1922), a play in which she was starring. Later that year, Bogart was given his first substantial stage role in "Swifty," but his notices were hardly the stuff that dreams are made of. Critic Alexander Woollcott called Bogart's performance "what is usually and mercifully described as inadequate." Still, Bogart got plenty of stage work throughout the '20s in a number of antiquated drawing room comedies and dramas playing, of all things, callow juveniles and romantic second leads.
During this time, Helen Menken, a renowned stage actress of the day, became smitten with Bogart. More out of advancement for his career than out of love, Bogart decided to marry Menken in 1926, but not surprisingly, the union lasted less than a year. The breaking point of the marriage was when Bogart was offered the opportunity to repeat his role in the Chicago production of "Saturday's Children". The short run of "Baby Mine" left him out of work and he was happy to get the offer. He asked Menken to accompany him as she also was out of work. She was adamant in her refusal, saying that she was an actress, not a housewife and wasn't going to spend her time waiting for him in some flea bag hotel. It didn't matter when Bogart assured her it would be one of the best hotels in Chicago she wasn't going.
Then in 1928, he married for a second time, to actress Mary Philips whom he'd known for several years. The two began a long-distance marriage shortly thereafter. Discouraged by his lack of progress on Broadway, Bogart headed west in 1930 hoping his luck would change in films. Since talkies were still in their infancy, the studios were eagerly importing stage actors with crisp voices, a situation which helped Bogart land a contract with Fox Film Corp. His first feature film was a forgotten failure called "The Devil With Women." After two more dismal pictures, Fox released Bogart from his contract and he began making the rounds at Columbia, Universal and Warner Brothers, where he landed roles in several more forgettable films. Mary meanwhile was still in New York, where her stage success was their chief means of support.
Following the film "Midnight" in 1934, Bogart returned to New York, once again hoping to jumpstart his stage career. Time had caught up with him and he was well past the age to keep playing juveniles. He had heard that playwright Robert E. Sherwood was seeking someone to play a vicious killer named Duke Mantee in his new play, "The Petrified Forest," which already had Leslie Howard as its star. Bogart approached Sherwood hoping that his weathered appearance would show that physically at least he was right for the role. Sherwood referred Bogart to the play's director who told Bogart to return in three days for a reading. He came back sporting a three-day stubble and wearing his shabbiest clothes. The combination of a tramp-like appearance and stellar reading helped Bogart land his first plum role. Both the play and Bogart were immediate hits with both audiences and critics.
When Warner Brothers acquired the film rights to "The Petrified Forest," Howard was again asked to play the lead, but the studio thought contract player Edward G. Robinson would be a better choice to play Mantee. Howard refused to star in the film unless Bogart was also cast as Mantee. Warners gave in and signed Bogart to a studio contract.
"The Petrified Forest" (1936), which also co-starred Bette Davis, turned out to be just as big a smash on screen, but Jack Warner had no plans to build Bogart into a major star. Instead, Bogart languished in a string of Bs including "The Return of Dr. X" (1939), which its star called "this stinking movie," and "The Oklahoma Kid" (1939), with Bogart and Cagney looking saddle sore as cowboys. Occasionally there was a good role in an A picture, like "Dead End" (1937) on loanout for Samuel Goldwyn. In that film, Bogart gave a chilling performance as Baby Face Martin, a gangster idolized by a street gang played by the Dead End Kids. Unfortunately, back at Warners, his welcome home present was the lead in "Swing Your Lady" (1938), a piece of hillbilly hokum universally regarded as the worst movie of Bogart's career.
His professional difficulties were minor compared to his personal life at this time. His marriage to Mary fell apart shortly after they moved west, primarily because she had no intention of giving up her stage career and settling in Hollywood as Bogart had hoped. Not too long after their breakup, Bogart met a fiery actress named Mayo Methot while working on "Marked Woman" (1937). Methot was noted for having a penchant for alcohol, an explosive temper and a right hook Joe Louis would have envied. Through her persistence, she wangled a proposal from a reluctant Bogart and they were married in August, 1938.
In no time at all, they became known as the Battling Bogarts, thanks to their frequent outbursts at nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants, which turned into boxing rings as the two hurled crockery, plants, and any other handy items at each other. Most often, these fights stemmed from Mayo's delusions that Bogart was chasing other women. Bogart, who had always enjoyed a stiff drink, began drinking especially heavily during his marriage to Mayo.
At the studio, Bogart was still stuck in his gangster mold, basically handling the leftovers rejected by Cagney or Robinson. Bogart frequently argued with Warner for better roles, but since he refused to take a suspension, he still found himself supporting "names" like George Raft in two films in 1940, "They Drive By Night" and "Invisible Stripes." Ironically, it would be Raft who unwittingly would give Bogart his first crack at stardom the following year. Raft turned down the role of Roy Earle, an ex-con out to pull his last big job before retiring, in Raoul Walsh's classic, "High Sierra." Raft's reason for saying no: He didn't want to die in the end. (Paul Muni also turned the role down.) Warner reluctantly gave the part to Bogart, and it was a perfect fit. Thanks to John Huston's intelligent script, Walsh's crisp direction, and the performances of Bogart and co-star Ida Lupino, "High Sierra" was a smash.
Later that year, Bogart and Huston were reteamed for an even bigger film, the third, and without a doubt the best version of "The Maltese Falcon," which was also Huston's directorial debut. As detective Sam Spade, Bogart created the first film-noir detective, a character that everyone from Alan Ladd to George Raft tried unsuccessfully to copy during the '40s. It was also the first time Bogart was given a strong romantic relationship onscreen. While men had appreciated his tough guy demeanor, for the first time women began to respond to his sexuality. After "The Maltese Falcon," Bogart was firmly established with Davis, Cagney, Robinson, and Errol Flynn in the upper echelon of Warner's stock company.
Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet and Huston teamed up again the following year for "Across the Pacific," a wartime adventure which The New York Times called "a delightfully fear-jerking picture." Bogart's next film, also in 1942, might have started off as just another wartime epic, but it would ultimately become the film most identified with Bogart--"Casablanca." Based on an unproduced play called "Everybody Goes to Rick's," "Casablanca" has rightfully earned a reputation as the greatest love story ever put on film. The tale of Rick Blaine, a nightclub owner in Casablanca, who becomes torn between love and honor when his former love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) shows up in Casablanca with her husband, Victor Laszlo, a Resistance fighter fleeing the Nazis, is timeless. Bogart's pain as hears Sam play "As Time Goes By"; Bogart and Bergman bidding a tearful farewell at the airport; Bogart and Claude Rains pledging eternal friendship; and countless other scenes have become a part of film lore. The film's status is also due in no small part to the superb supporting cast including Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Dooley Wilson, as well as Michael Curtiz's masterful direction and a taut script by Philip and Julius J. Epstein and Howard Koch. Bogart, in his first romantic role, was honored with his first Academy Award nomination (he inexplicably lost to Paul Lukas in another Warner Brothers flagwaver, "Watch on the Rhine").
The fact that "Casablanca" was chosen as Best Picture of 1943 and has since made just about everyone's list of the 10 greatest movies ever made is especially remarkable when one considers the script was only half finished when shooting began. The actors were given new pages of dialogue on a day-to- day basis, and were unaware of how the picture would end until the last scene was shot. The final decision was to write two endings--one in which Henreid gets Bergman, and another in which she stays with Bogart--shoot both and then show both to preview audiences to see which works better. As it turned out, the former was shot first and played so well that plans for a second version were abandoned.
During the filming of "Casablanca," Mayo was a frequent (and none too welcome) visitor to the set. She was extremely jealous of Bergman and became convinced that her love scenes with Bogart were a little too convincing. Supposedly, once when Bogart received a compliment on his performance in "Casablanca," the star quipped, "I wasn't allowed to see it."
While Mayo's concerns about Bergman may have been unjustified, she had every reason to worry when Bogart was assigned to star in "To Have and Have Not" in 1944. His co-star in this loose adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel was a sleek 20-year-old fashion model named Lauren Bacall, who had just been signed by Warner Brothers. When Bogart met Bacall for the first time after seeing her screen test, he said, "We"ll have a lot of fun together." If the finished film is any indication, they obviously had a great time both in front of and away from the camera. Once audiences saw the classic scene in "To Have and Have Not" when Bacall taught Bogart to whistle, everyone knew he had met his match.
Fun turned to romance and the two were soon talking marriage. Unfortunately, Mayo was still trying to hold onto her husband, but even she knew it was hopeless. She and Bogart were divorced on May 10, 1945; Bogart and Bacall were married 11 days later.
Bogart's wedding present from Warner Brothers was a new contract which guaranteed him an annual salary of $1 million for the next 15 years, an unprecedented agreement at the time. Certainly the box-office strength of "To Have and Have Not" and his new marriage to his leading lady were a factor. The studio wasted no time in reteaming them for three more films: "The Big Sleep" (1946), "Dark Passage" (1947) and "Key Largo" (1948). While all were entertaining, none had the same spark as their first film, although "The Big Sleep" came closest. Sandwiched in the middle of the Bacall trio were the film noir "Dead Reckoning" (1947) with Lizabeth Scott, a poor man's Bacall, for Columbia, and "The Two Mrs. Carrolls" (1947) which cast Bogart as an artist with shades of Bluebeard menacing (unconvincingly) spouse Barbara Stanwyck.
Prior to "Key Largo," Bogart reteamed with his favorite director John Huston for another career milestone, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Bogart shed his private eye image for a chance at his first solid character role. As a grubby gold prsopector named Fred C. Dobbs, Bogart delivered what may be his finest performance, showing heretofore untapped range as a man totally consumed by greed. Equally memorable was his co-star Walter Huston, who deservedly won a Supporting Actor Oscar. Although critics loved the film and praised Bogart, it died at the box office.
Bogart and Bacall also teamed up with John Huston offscreen, along with several other actors, on a flight to Washington, D.C., to protest the methods of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating Communist influences in Hollywood. Bogart supported several other Democratic political causes and even campaigned for Adlai Stevenson during his unsuccessful presidential bid in 1952.
On the homefront, the Bogarts welcomed a new member to the family in 1949 when their son, Stephen Humphrey, was born. (Their daughter, Leslie Howard, was born in 1952.)
Meanwhile, a different type of Bogart production had been set up in 1947. Bogart formed Santana Pictures Corp., named after his other great love besides Bacall, his boat Santana. At the time, Bogart was the first actor to form his own production company. Between 1949 and 1951, Bogart starred in four Santana productions for Columbia: the urban drama "Knock On Any Door," the forgettable adventure flicks "Tokyo Joe" and "Sirocco," and the cult classic "In a Lonely Place." Jack Warner was furious when Bogart formed his production unit, fearing it would start a trend in which actors would gain new power. Regardless, Bogart still worked for Warner in two minor films in the early '50s that finished his Warner Brothers contract: "Chain Lightning" and "The Enforcer."
Freed from Warner's shackles, Bogart was clearly ready to stretch his acting muscles. The perfect showcase came again from Huston: "The African Queen." The offbeat teaming of Bogart as a drunken boatman and Katharine Hepburn as a strait-laced missionary proved compelling. Bogart was happy to shed his image as a tough, romantic lead to play an unkempt, vulnerable sot and comic sparring partner for Hepburn. The film proved to be a huge hit and Bogart's performance was universally applauded. At the Academy Awards ceremony in the spring of 1952, Bogart at long last won a Best Actor Oscar, beating out such solid competition as Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Fredric March in "Death of a Salesman."
The film also kicked off the final phase of Bogart's film career as a dependable character actor. His later films included such diverse characterizations as the unbalanced Captain Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny" (a third Best Actor Oscar nomination), a disreputable adventurer in Huston's satiric "Beat the Devil," a film director in "The Barefoot Contessa," a stodgy businessman wooing chauffeur's daughter Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina," and a hoodlum holding a family hostage in "The Desperate Hours." Bogart made his final film in 1956, the gritty boxing drama, "The Harder They Fall." Shortly after its release in February 1956, Bogart underwent surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his esophagus. He recovered and gained back some of the weight he had lost. Unfortunately, he was readmitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in November of that year for treatment of nerve pressure caused by the growth of scar tissue on his throat. He was sent home sometime after the operation, but never recovered. Bogart died on January 14, 1957 in the bedroom of his home in Hollywood's Holmby Hills. At his funeral, long-time friend Huston spoke for every Bogart fan: "He is quite unreplaceable. There will never be anybody like him."
- Nathaniel Benchley, Humphrey Bogart (Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1975).
- Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (Putnam, New York, 1979).
- Ted Sennet, Warner Brothers Presents (Castle, Secaucus, N.J., 1971).
- David Shipman, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (Bonanza, New York, 1970).
- Hollywood Album: Lives and Deaths of Hollywood Stars from the Pages of The New York Times (Arno, New York, 1979).
Daniel Bubbeo is an assistant editor at Newday, the author of The Women of Warner Brothers, and a freelance writer who has written for several publications including NetGuide Magazine. Send your praise/comments to Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org, and while you're at it, ask for an autographed copy of his book, at a $5 discount off the publisher's price.