Early in 2022, I saw Casablanca on the big screen for the first time, the 80th anniversary of its premiere. Although over the years I have watched it in excess of two dozen times, this was a stunning, even mesmerizing experience for me, not least because I consider Casablanca the finest film of Old Hollywood—this over the objections of some of my film-geek friends who would lobby for Citizen Kane in its stead. Even so, most would concur with me that its star, Humphrey Bogart, was indeed the greatest actor of that era.
Attendance was sparse, diminished by a resurgence of COVID, but I sat transfixed in that nearly empty theater as Bogie’s distraught, drunken Rick Blaine famously raged that “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine!” He is, of course, lamenting his earlier unexpected encounter with old flame Ilsa Lund, splendidly portrayed with a sadness indelibly etched upon her beautiful countenance by Ingrid Bergman, who with Bogart led the credits of a magnificent ensemble cast that also included Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. But Bogie remains the central object of that universe; the plot and the players in orbit about him. There’s no doubt that without Bogart, there could never have been a Casablanca as we know it. Such a movie might have been made, but it could hardly have achieved a greatness on this order of magnitude.
Bogie never actually uttered the signature line “Play it again, Sam,” so closely identified with the production (and later whimsically poached by Woody Allen for the title of his iconic 1972 comedy peppered with clips from Casablanca). And although the film won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as in almost every other major category, Bogart was nominated but missed out on the Oscar, which instead went to Paul Lukas—does anyone still remember Paul Lukas?—for his role in Watch on the Rhine. This turns out to be a familiar story for Bogart, who struggled with a lifelong frustration at typecasting, miscasting, studio manipulation, lousy roles, inadequate compensation, missed opportunities, and repeated snubs—public recognition of his talent and star-quality came only late in life and even still frequently eluded him, as on that Oscar night. He didn’t really expect to win, but we can yet only wonder at what Bogart must have been thinking . . . He was already forty-four years old on that disappointing evening when the Academy passed him over. There was no way he could have known that most of his greatest performances would lie ahead, that after multiple failed marriages (one still unraveling that very night) a young starlet he had only just met would come to be the love of his life and mother of his children, and that he would at last achieve not only the rare brand of stardom reserved for just a tiny slice of the top tier in his profession, but that he would go on become a legend in his own lifetime and well beyond it: the epitome of the cool, tough, cynical guy who wears a thin veneer of apathy over an incorruptible moral center, women swooning over him as he stares down villains, an unlikely hero that every real man would seek to emulate.
My appreciation of Casablanca and its star in this grand cinema setting was enhanced by the fact that I was at the time reading Bogart (1997), by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax, which is certainly the definitive biography of his life. I was also engaged in a self-appointed effort to watch as many key Bogie films in roughly chronological order as I could while reading the bio, which eventually turned out to be a total of twenty movies, from his first big break in The Petrified Forest (1936) to The Harder They Fall (1956), his final role prior to his tragic, untimely death at fifty-seven from esophageal cancer.
Bogie’s story is told brilliantly in this unusual collaboration by two authors who had never actually met. Ann Sperber, who wrote a celebrated biography of journalist Edward R. Murrow, spent seven years researching Bogart’s life and conducted nearly two hundred interviews with those who knew him most intimately before her sudden death in 1994. Biographer Eric Lax stepped in and shaped her draft manuscript into a coherent finished product that reads seamlessly like a single voice. I frequently read biographies of American presidents not only to study the figure that is profiled, but because the very best ones serve double duty as chronicles of United States history, the respective president as the focal point. I looked to the Bogart book for something similar, in this case a study of Old Hollywood with Bogie in the starring role. I was not to be disappointed.
Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born on Christmas Day 1899 in New York City to wealth and privilege, with a father who was a cardiopulmonary surgeon and a mother who was a commercial illustrator. Both parents were distant and unaffectionate. They had an apartment on the Upper West side and a vast estate on Canandaigua Lake in upstate New York, where Bogie began his lifelong love affair with boating. Indifferent to higher education, he eventually flunked out of boarding school and joined the navy. There seems nothing noteworthy about his early life.
His acting career began almost accidentally, and he spent several years on the stage before making his first full-length feature in 1930, Up the River, with his drinking buddy Spencer Tracy, who called him “Bogie.” He was already thirty years old. What followed were largely lackluster roles on both coasts, alternating between Broadway theaters and Hollywood studios. He was frequently broke, drank heavily, and his second marriage was crumbling. Then he won rave reviews as escaped murderer Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, playing opposite Leslie Howard on the stage. The studio bought the rights, but characteristically for Bogie, they did not want to cast him to reprise his role, looking instead for an established actor, with Edward G. Robinson at the top of the list. Then Howard, who had production rights, stepped in to demand Bogart get the part. The 1936 film adaptation of the play, which also featured a young Bette Davis, channeled Bogart’s dark and chillingly realistic portrayal of a psychopathic killer—in an era when gangsters like Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd dominated the headlines—and made Bogie a star.
But again he faced a series of let-downs. This was the era of the studio system, with actors used and abused by big shots like Jack Warner, who locked Bogart into a low-paid contract that tightly controlled his professional life, casting him repeatedly in virtually interchangeable gangster roles in a string of B-movies. It wasn’t until 1941, when he played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—quintessential film noir as well as John Huston’s directorial debut—that Bogie joined the ranks of undisputed A-list stars and began the process of taking revenge on the studio system by commanding greater compensation and demanding greater control of his screen destiny. But in those days, despite his celebrity, that remained an uphill battle.
I began watching his films while reading the bio as a lark, but it turned out to be an essential assignment: you can’t read about Bogie without watching him. Many of the twenty that I screened I had seen before, some multiple times, but others were new to me. I was raised by my grandparents in the 1960s with a little help from a console TV in the livingroom and all of seven channels delivered via rooftop antenna. When cartoons, soaps, and prime time westerns and sitcoms weren’t broadcasting, the remaining airtime was devoted to movies. All kinds of movies, from the dreadful to the superlative and everything in-between, often on repeat. Much of it was classic Hollywood and Bogart made the rounds. One of my grandfather’s favorite flicks was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I can recall as a boy watching it with him multiple times. In general, he was a lousy parent, but I am grateful for that gift; it remains among my top Bogie films. We tend to most often think of Bogart as Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe, but it is as Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Charlie Allnutt in The African Queen and Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny that the full range of his talent is revealed.
It was hardly his finest role or his finest film, but it was while starring as Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944) that Bogie met and fell for his co-star, the gorgeous, statuesque, nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall—twenty-five years younger than him—spawning one of Hollywood’s greatest on-screen, off-screen romances. They would be soulmates for the remainder of his life, and it was she who brought out the very best of him. Despite his tough guy screen persona, the real-life Bogie tended to be a brooding intellectual who played chess, was well-read, and had a deeply analytical mind. An expert sailor, he preferred boating on the open sea to carousing in bars, although he managed to do plenty of both. During crackdowns on alleged communist influence in Hollywood, Bogart and Bacall together took controversial and sometimes courageous stands against emerging blacklists and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But he also had his flaws. He could be cheap. He could be a mean drunk. He sometimes wore a chip on his shoulder carved out of years of frustration at what was after all a very slow rise to the top of his profession. But warts and all, far more of his peers loved him than not.
Bogart is a massive tome, and the first section is rather slow-going because Bogie’s early life was just so unremarkable. But it holds the reader’s interest because it is extremely well-written, and it goes on to succeed masterfully in spotlighting Bogart’s life against the rich fabric that forms the backdrop of that distant era of Old Hollywood before the curtains fell for all time. If you are curious about either, I highly recommend this book. If you are too busy for that, at the very least carve out some hours of screen time and watch Bogie’s films. You will not regret the time spent. Although his name never gets dropped in the lyrics by Ray Davies for the familiar Kinks tune, if there were indeed Celluloid Heroes, the greatest among them was certainly Humphrey Bogart.
NOTE: These are Bogart films I screened while reading this book:
The Petrified Forest (1936)
Dead End (1937)
High Sierra (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Across the Pacific (1942)
Passage to Marseille (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Dark Passage (1947)
Dead Reckoning (1947)
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Key Largo (1948)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
The African Queen (1951)
Beat the Devil (1953)
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
The Desperate Hours (1955)
The Harder They Fall (1956)