I want to tell you a love story.
There never was a match less destined for success—a monumental age gap, a jealous wife, and two people who had not grown up in homes with happy marriages.
He’d seen it all, done it all, and already had two divorces under his belt. She was a teenager in her first film, so nervous she had to hold her chin down to disguise her trembling.
This is the story of Bogie & Bacall.
PART ONE: Bogart Before Bacall
We begin in 1935, with a down-on-his luck Humphrey Bogart. After thirteen years in show business, he was broke, drinking too much, grieving the death of his father and on the brink of his second divorce.
He’d had some small early successes on Broadway, then went to Hollywood and landed a dozen parts so small that no one at Warner Brothers remembered him. He returned to New York and found Broadway gutted by the Depression. Work was scarcer than ever.
His friend Robert Sherwood suggested him for the role of the gangster on the run in his new play The Petrified Forest, starring Leslie Howard.
The play was a success, and Warner Brothers bought the rights. They wanted Howard to reprise his stage role in the film, and cast Bette Davis as his leading lady. Howard was a star with serious clout in those days, and he insisted Bogart reprise his role as well.
When Jack Warner dithered, Howard sent him a telegram saying, “NO BOGART NO DEAL” and the die was cast.
Bogart got fifth billing. He was down to his last shot, and he knew it.
The Petrified Forest opens on a bar-b-que joint in the middle of the Arizona desert. Gabrielle (Davis) works there with her father and grandfather.
Alan Squire (Leslie Howard) arrives dusty, broke, and looking for a meal. He’s a well-traveled but world-weary writer and intellectual, and Gabrielle is instantly smitten. She tells him of her desire to see France.
The budding love story is interrupted when escaped convict Duke Mantee (Bogart) shows up at the diner demanding a place to hide for the night.
Bogart is ferocious in the role, a desperate man with haunted eyes. None of his hostages doubt for a moment that he will kill them if they cross him, and yet he shows glimpses of humanity toward the grandfather, who is thrilled he will have a story to tell future customers about the time he was held up by the infamous Duke Mantee.
It becomes clear during the standoff that the Arizona forest isn’t the only thing that is petrified—nearly all the characters long for the past or have effectively finished living. Grandpa tells stories of the time he was shot by Billy the Kid. Alan Squire believes time has passed him by, and Duke is bone weary of the world.
Only Gabrielle lives for the future—a future in France she will likely never see.
Alan carries a life insurance policy among his meager possessions, and he secretly changes the beneficiary to Gabrielle. He asks Duke to kill him so that she can use the money to escape the Petrified Forest and live out her dreams in France.
At the end of the film, gunfire erupts and Duke does as Alan asked. Gabrielle cradles Alan as he dies, unaware of his sacrifice as the credits roll.
The Petrified Forest garnered good reviews, and it’s a good if not great film that mostly holds up today. Though it is really just a filmed version of the play, with no real touches to shape it into a movie.
Critics and audiences responded to Bogart—enough that Warner Brothers gave him a long term contract. But one didn’t become a star in a fifth billed role. Even with the contract, Bogart knew he was hanging onto the cliff of his career with a single finger.
His marriage wasn’t in much better shape.
And what was the future love of his life doing in 1936?
Lauren Bacall was at the Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls.
Their paths had not yet crossed. The time was not yet right.
Both had some growing up to do first.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.