It’s very rare in the cinema when an actor comes along with the charisma, style, and talent that captures the audience’s imagination and admiration enough to propel him/her to the status of a theatrical icon. Humphrey Bogart was one of these actors. Voted at the top of a long list of the ‘greatest male actors’ by the American Film Institute, Bogart’s body of work is regarded as some of the best in film history.
Born on Christmas day in New York City, Humphrey DeForest Bogart was the eldest son of Belmont DeForest Bogart and Maud Humphrey. There was, at one time controversy over Bogart’s actual birth date. For a long time many believed the Christmas day birth was a work of fiction perpetrated by movie studio Warner Bros. as a way to give the actor a more interesting background. However, due to newspaper birth notices and a 1900 census, it was proven that the 25th of December was indeed Bogart’s actual birth date.
Growing up, Bogart lived a somewhat luxurious lifestyle. His father was a cardiopulmonary surgeon who made a decent income of $20,000 a year. His mother, who worked as a commercial illustrator brought home a whopping $50,000/year, an astounding salary for the time. Besides an apartment on the upper west side, the Bogart’s owned a cottage which sat on 55 acres of land. As parents, the Bogarts were not openly sentimental or loving towards their children. In an interview, Bogart was quoted as saying that, “…a kiss was an event.” Young Humphrey also had to endure teasing from other children because of his tidiness, his formal clothing and his name.
Bogart attended some of the best private schools New York had to offer in his early academic career. But as he grew older, there were disciplinary problems and academic failures that eventually led to his permanent expulsion from school, much to disappointment of his parents. In 1918, when he was old enough, Bogart joined the Navy.
He looked back on his days in the Navy with fondness, saying later that, “At eighteen, war was great stuff. Paris! French girls! Hot damn!” Whatever problems Bogart may have had with authority while in school, didn’t seem to follow him into the service. He was a model sailor according to reports. He served aboard the U.S.S. Leviathan, transporting troops back and forth between the states and Europe.
It was during his service in the Navy that Bogart may have gotten his trademark scar and developed his characteristic lisp. It seems that while his ship was being shelled, his lip was badly cut by a piece of shrapnel. However another story contends Bogart was injured by a prisoner while escorting him to Portsmouth Naval Prison. By the time Bogart was seen by a doctor, the scar had already formed. Still again another story surfaced, coming from fellow actor David Niven. He said that Bogart had told him it was from a childhood accident and that the Navy story was introduced by movie studios who thought it would add a glamorous touch to Bogart’s persona.
After the Navy, Bogart returned home to find his father in poor health, addicted to morphine, and nearly broke after many bad investments. The time he had spent in the Navy and away from his family had made Bogart a more down to earth individual. He had grown to resent traits such as pretense and snobbery. This new Bogart began to draw further away from his families influence.
Later, Bogart would meet up with boyhood friend, Bill Brady Jr., who’s father had connections to the show business world. Bogart began working for Mr. William Brady Sr. Bogart would try his hand at screenwriting, production, and directing, but none of these suited him. He then became stage manager for Alice Brady,(William Brady’s daughter), who was putting on a Broadway show. A few months later, in 1921 Bogart would make his first stage appearance in ‘Drifting’, another Alice Brady play. This would lead to more small parts in some more of Brady’s plays. Bogart enjoyed the hours and attention even these small roles afforded him. He would say that, “I was born to be indolent and this was the softest of rackets”.
The late hours he was keeping led to Bogart hanging out nightly at speakeasies and drinking heavily. In fact, a barroom brawl may well have been the actual cause for his lip scar.
Although he had no formal training, Bogart worked long and hard at acting. He appeared in at least seventeen Broadway productions between 1922 and 1935. With no actual proof, it is said that Bogart was the first to use the famous line, “Tennis anyone?”
After the 1929 stock market crash, Broadway ticket sales dropped sharply. The more pleasant looking actors were inclined to travel to Hollywood to continue their craft in front of the cameras. Bogart’s earliest film role was with Helen Hayes in a 1928 two-reeler called ‘Dancing Town’. He also appeared in a Vitaphone film short, ‘Broadway’s Like That’ (1930). Then Bogart had a minor part in ‘The Bad Sister'(1930), starring Bette Davis.
Shortly after these small parts, Bogart signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation for a salary of $750 a week. It was during this time he met and became good friends with Spencer Tracey. The two became drinking buddies and it was Spencer who first called Bogart “Bogey”. The two friends appeared in only one film together. A John Ford early sound production, ‘Up the River’ (1930). The two played prison inmates.
The next few years of Bogart’s life were troubled ones. Constantly looking for acting work, he spent a lot of time traveling back and forth between Hollywood and New York. Despite his efforts though, he suffered long periods without work. His personal life was on very shaky grounds as well. Bogart’s second marriage was in trouble, and his parent’s own marriage had ended. In 1934 Bogart’s father, Belmont, died in debt. In a very rare display of affection, at his father’s deathbed, Bogart finally told his father how much he loved him. He inherited his father’s gold ring, which he always wore. In fact, Bogart can be seen wearing it in many of his films. Eventually, Bogart slipped into depression and was drinking heavily.
In ’34, Bogart would reach a turning point in his career. He was performing in a play called, ‘Invitation to a Murder’, when producer Arthur Hopkins took a shine to him, (especially his voice), and offered him the role of Duke Mantee, an escaped murderer in Robert E. Sherwood’s play ‘The Petrified Forest”. Hopkins would explain his interest in Bogart later saying, “…for he was one I never much admired. He was an antiquated juvenile who spent most of his stage life in white pants swinging a tennis racquet. He seemed as far from a cold-blooded killer as one could get, but the voice (dry and tired) persisted, and the voice was Mantee’s.”
After 197 performances at the Broadhurst Theater in New York city in 1935, many critics were unanimous in their praise of Bogart’s performance. This would be the break Bogart needed.
Warner Bros. studios bought the film rights to ‘The Petrified Forest’. Warner Bros were known for making many gritty, tough, and low-budget films of this caliber, and since the public was infatuated with real-life criminals like John Dillinger and Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, the movie was set to be a hit. The stars of the film were Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Howard who owned production rights made it clear he wanted Bogart to reprise his role as Duke Mantee. Warner’s instead tested many other actors and then settled on Edward G. Robinson. The studio believed Robinson’s star power would draw large audiences. When Bogart heard the news he was out, he contacted Howard and told him. Howard shot back, sending Warner’s a cable stating, “Att: Jack Warner Insist Bogart Play Mantee No Bogart No Deal L.H.”. Realizing Howard was in no mood to negotiate, Warner Bros. gave in. Robinson was out, Bogart was in!
Bogart never forgot Howard’s favor. In 1952, Bogart named his only daughter Leslie after the actor. Sadly, Howard would die during WWII under suspicious circumstances.
Now, Bogart could not only see the light at the end of a troubled tunnel, he started heading for it.
In 1936 ‘The Petrified Forest” was released in theaters. Bogart’s film performance was hailed by critics as “…brilliant”, “superb”, and “compelling”. He signed a 26 week contract with Warners for $550 a week. It seemed Bogart had made it, however, his outstanding performance as a criminal in an ‘A’ movie followed him like a shadow. He was now being ‘typecast’ and relegated to playing gangsters and thugs in a series of ‘B’ movies. Bogart was glad for the work but it bothered him that he was seemingly trapped in one-dimensional roles. He spoke later about this saying, I can’t get in a mild discussion without turning it into an argument. There must be something in my tone of voice, or this arrogant face-something that antagonizes everybody. Nobody likes me on sight. I suppose that’s why I’m cast as the heavy.
Then there was the physical toll that acting in these movies took on Bogart. Studios were not yet air-conditioned and the heavy work schedule was wearing on the actor. But Bogart took it in stride as best he could. He was always the constant professional and he was developing the screen persona that made him the star he is remembered for being today, the wounded, stoical, cynical, charming, vulnerable, self-mocking loner with a core of honor. Very few other actors ever portrayed characters with 2 or more of those traits like ‘Bogey’ could.
The ‘studio system’ as it was known in those days was almost tyrannical. Actors who were under contract were forbidden to go to another studio. Filming would begin on a new movie just days and sometimes only hours after filming on a previous movie was wrapped up. Bogart would, at times actually play in two movies being filmed at once. Also, if an actor turned down a role they could be suspended indefinitely. Bogart worked steadily from 1936 to 1940, but hated the roles and conditions in which he worked.
Well-known actors at Warners like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft always got first pick or selection for the best roles. Bogart was dealt the leftovers. The one and only substantial leading role he got during his time with Warners was at the hands of another studio. In Dead End (1937), while loaned to Samuel Goldwyn studios, he portrayed a gangster modeled after Baby Face Nelson. In the film, Black Legion(1937), Bogart finally got to portray a good guy, who became involved and eventually destroyed by a racist organization.
In 1939 Bogart was cast by Warners as a mad scientist, (I can’t even imagine), in The Return of Dr. X. Bogart had finally had it saying, “If it’d been Jack Warner’s blood…I wouldn’t have minded so much. The trouble was they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”
In 1937 Bogart and wife, actress Mary Phillips divorced. They parted amicably enough, however, in August of ’38 Bogart entered a destructive third marriage with actress Mayo Methot. A sweet and friendly woman when sober, she became extremely jealous and ill-tempered when she drank, and she drank a lot. Convinced Bogart was cheating on her, she would often fly into violent tirades that included, throwing any object that was available at Bogart, setting their home on fire, stabbing him with a knife on one occasion, and cutting her own wrists on several. On the other hand, Bogart seemed to revel in these confrontations. He would antagonize her to stir her up even further. The couple was dubbed by the press as “The Battling Bogarts.”
In 1945 Bogart bought a sailing yacht from fellow actor Dick Powell. The yacht was named Santana, and sailing her became Bogart’s sanctuary from all the insanity at home. Bogart loved to sail and was damn good at it. 30 out the 52 weekends of the year, Bogart could be found sailing Santana around the waters of Catalina Island. He once said of the hobby he loved so much, “An actor needs something to stabilize his personality, something to nail down what he really is, not what he is currently pretending to be.”
With troubles at home and still stuck in the grip of the studio system, playing less than desirable roles in second rate films, Bogart’s famous persona was growing and developing still. Sensitive, yet very selective about who he let see that side of him, he was fast becoming a soured idealist. An outcast and loner among the finer people and things in New York and Hollywood, a heavy drinking man who made his own good fortune, but helpless against the system he so hated. Resigned to the fact that he was destined to live out the rest of his days surrounded by untalented and unimaginable hacks and stuck in a rut of inferior films and roles. He rarely saw his own films and never attended premieres. Bogart was also becoming more and more outspoken about this as well. He was fast becoming a Pariah among other actors who began shunning him privately. But the press loved his candor. All the while, Bogart couldn’t understand what the big deal was. He once said in an interview: All over Hollywood, they are continually advising me “Oh, you mustn’t say that. That will get you in a lot of trouble” when I remark that some picture or writer or director or producer is no good. I don’t get it. If he isn’t any good, why can’t you say so? If more people would mention it, pretty soon it might start having some effect.
But that attitude and swagger that was getting Bogart in trouble, was about to make him a star.
In 1941 the film High Sierra was released. The screenplay was written by Bogart’s friend and drinking companion, John Huston. When Paul Muni and George Raft turned down the lead role, Bogart was offered the part and he took it. He would be playing a gangster again, but this role would give Bogart a chance to play a well written and deeper character who would be taken seriously by audiences. Ida Lupino starred in the film as well and she and Bogart got along very good together on and off the screen which caused Bogart’s wife, Mayo great jealousy.
High Sierra would be a landmark in Bogart’s career as well as solidify even more his close friendship with John Huston. The two men were almost mirror images of each other. Huston too was a drinker and he and Bogart would drink whiskey and talk for hours about a myriad of subjects. Both were easily bored and restless during production and would play pranks on one another and others to elevate this. And finally, the two deeply respected each other, both professionally and personally.
The film that would mark John Huston’s directorial debut was the classic The Maltese Falcon (1941). The movie would also be a bullseye for Bogart as well. His portrayal of the quick witted and fast talking private detective Sam Spade was dead on. Co-starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor as the evil femme fatale, The Maltese Falcon was an instant classic. Dubbed a masterpiece by audiences and critics alike. Bogart who had hardly made any films worth being proud of was extremely happy about this one, saying, “…it is practically a masterpiece. I don’t have many things I’m proud of… but that’s one”.
Casablanca was released in 1942. For the first time Bogart was playing a romantic lead. He played American Rick Blaine, who owned a night club and was now living in Morocco. Trying his best to skirt a fine line to keep the Nazis off his back while hiding a shadowy past. His night club is the most well known, making it a center point of all kinds of goings on. Some legal, but mostly not under the rule of the Nazi regime. Rick has an uneasy but stable friendship with the local head of the French police. Then, of all the joints in the world, she walks in. A lost love that broke his heart and now is on the arm of another. Directed by Michael Curtiz and produced by Hal Wallis, Casablanca’s cast was a powerful one, including, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre and Dooley Wilson.