Summer Snake-Proofing

It was this time a year ago that a snake breached my defenses and worked his way into my laundry room.  Despite all my best efforts, he slithered into a hole in the wall and was never heard from again.

Whether or not this is good or bad is hard to say.

But as we enter this year’s snake season (also occasionally referred to as “summer”) I will be better prepared.  This weekend I fully implemented Operation Snake Proof.

After some internet research (and reading a harrowing piece of clickbait my friend sent me called “5 Frightening Ways Snakes Can Enter Your Home”) I was ready to begin.

Step 1:  Making the Basement Less Enticing to Snakes

According to the articles, snakes like cool, damp, dark spaces with places to slither and hide.  Step one was making my basement as unlike this as possible.  There’s not much I can do about the dark and cool.  It is a basement with concrete block walls, but I did buy a dehumidifier I now run 24 hours a day to keep it as dry as possible.

To remove tempting hiding spots, I got as much stuff off the floor as possible.  This meant installing another rack to hang brooms and the weedwhacker. 

But what to do with the myriad of painting supplies, basic tools, and gardening tools that I had on the floor and in a big wooden dresser?

The dresser was the biggest issue.  It was on wheels, which meant there was about an inch of space beneath it—a perfect dark space for hiding.  And, critically, the back of the bottom drawer was missing, meaning a snake could easily crawl into the bottom drawer and surprise us both when I opened the drawer.  (I had multiple nightmares involving this exact scenario.)

The dresser had to go. 

So I gathered everything up, threw away what I could, and put the rest in clear, sealed, snake-impenetrable storage boxes.  I minimized the impacted surface area by stacking them on top of one another.  Now I have a much clearer floor.

I then used expanding foam to seal any crack or open space.  If light came through, I sealed it up.

Step 2:  Early Detection Warning Systems

Since the first snake many years ago, I keep an industrial flashlight outside the laundry room and do a full, sweeping inspection with the spotlight upon entry.  But this year I also laid a trail of mounded baby powder across potential entry points…if the baby powder is disturbed, I’ll know there’s an intruder in the midst.

Foam-sealed cracks and baby powder tripwire…

Step 3:  Arm to fight to the death

If all else fails and the perimeter is breached, I will be armed and dangerous.  I bought a genuine professional snake picker.  These are used to safely pick up snakes from a distance.  I keep it right by the entry door.

Always within reach….

I’ve been practicing picking up the garden hose.

This summer, I’m ready. 

Bring it on!

Actually, the last thing I want is for the snakes to bring it on.  I would prefer us to live in peaceful ignorance of one another’s presence and never see one another again.

If there are any encounters, you readers will be the first to know!

The African Queen (1951):  A Rising Souffle

Visiting the African Queen as a kid with my grandparents…and yes, that is the actual Queen used in the film. It’s still on display for visitors in Key Largo, Florida.

Before they wed, Humphrey Bogart didn’t believe his marriage to Lauren “Betty” Bacall would last.  How could he?  They had two obstacles he felt would be insurmountable—their age gap and the fact that she was an actress.  Bogart had three failed marriages behind him that were destroyed in large part because of the career ambitions of his wives.

He loved her so much that he married her anyway, figuring himself a fool and hoping for five good years.

But Bogart was  wrong—it wasn’t only her fights with Jack Warner that kept Bacall mostly off the screen in those years—it was her devotion to being a wife first, mother second, and actress third.  

By the time filming began on The African Queen, they were six years in, had a two-year old son, and when Bogart signed up to film on location for six months in Africa and the United Kingdom, there was no question that Bacall was going with him. 

And so a quartet of legends packed up and headed for the Congo—leads Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, director John Huston, and Bacall, along for the ride.

Bacall, Bogart, Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn wrote an entire book filled with tales from the set—how she was violently ill and threw up between takes during an early scene when her character plays the piano.  How Bogart and Huston were never sick because they drank only liquor, no water.  Huston’s obsession with shooting an elephant.  How Bacall made herself useful—cooking, tending to minor wounds of the crew, and helping them write letters home.

Huston received a letter during filming, informing him that his daughter Angelica had been born back in the states.

Hepburn marveled at the love between Bogie and Bacall, who both became lifelong friends after their time making the Queen:

“[Bacall] and Bogie seemed to have the most enormous opinion of each other’s charms, and when they fought it was with the utter confidence of two cats locked deliciously in the same cage.”

Bacall and Bogart

The filming, as expected, was wrought with setbacks and problems.  Location films were extremely rare at the time, and only someone as ambitious and crazy as John Huston would’ve attempted such a thing.

Add to that the fact that no one was certain that audiences would want to watch a love story between a spinster in her mid-forties and a dirty, down on his luck river rat in his early fifties.

It was a gamble, but oh, how it paid off.

One of the best films ever made according to the American Film Institute, The African Queen opens at the dawn of World War I when the Germans burn down an African village, stranding British spinster missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn).  She’s rescued by Charlie Allnut, a Canadian who delivers the mail in his old beat up boat The African Queen.

Hepburn, Bogart

Charlie intends to hide out from the Germans until the dust settles, and he tells Rose that the German steamship Louisa is blocking the British troops at the mouth of Lake Tanganyika.

Stalwart and naïve, Rose decides that they will find the Louisa and sink it with a torpedo that Charlie will DIY from material aboard the Queen.

Charlie thinks she’s nuts and tells her so, but she wears him down until he agrees to begin what can only be a suicide mission, figuring he can talk her out of it somewhere along the way.

And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime for two people who society had long ago tossed into the “loser” bucket.  Charlie and Rose face rapids, mosquitoes, leeches, and German sharpshooters in their hairbrained quest to sink the Louisa in service to the British empire.

Bogart, Hepburn

And poor Charlie has to face it sober after Rose pours all his gin overboard.

The film is adventurous, patriotic, romantic, and funnier than Huston and the screenwriters originally intended.  But the interplay between Bogart and Hepburn was magic, and Huston wisely went where the chemistry led him.

Shall I tell you if Charlie and Rose succeeded?

I shall not—it’s enough to know that they fall in love, and the rest you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The African Queen was nominated for four Oscars (Bogart, Hepburn, Huston, and the screenwriters) and after losing out for Casablanca, he finally won the Best Actor statue, his wife and biggest fan cheering loudest of all in the crowd.


Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Office Shape

Photo by Pixabay via Pexels

In the early days of my career, I woke up as soon as my alarm buzzed.  No snoozing.  I rolled out of bed and into the shower.  I dried my hair with my first cup of coffee, and gobbled down an oatmeal breakfast with the second.

I put on full makeup.

On the way out the door, I selected any needed accessories from my stash at the front door—gloves, hats, umbrellas, boots, sneakers.

I loaded up an audiobook and started the hour long drive into downtown Pittsburgh.  I sat in traffic, maneuvered around accidents, and finished off my third cup of coffee.

I parked nearly a mile away and walked to my office.  In the rain, I used the umbrella.  In the frigid cold, I used the hat and gloves.  In the summer, I tried not to sweat.

When I arrived at the office, I stashed my lunch in the company fridge, then booted up my computer and changed out of my walking shoes into office-appropriate footwear.

In the very early days, even occasional work from home was unheard of—I started work at 8, but if I had a 7 am meeting, that meant doing everything an hour earlier.

I’d work a whole day, and then sometimes I’d go to happy hour, or a Pirates baseball game, or dinner.

On Fridays we all went crazy and wore jeans.

I did this five days a week without breaking a sweat.

But this week?

This week I went into the office for four days—not five—and drove twenty minutes without traffic.  Parked so close I didn’t bother with a change of shoes.

Reader, it almost did me in.

I’m out of office shape.

Part of it, of course, was the fact that I was starting a new job.  Everyone was helpful and friendly, but information, systems, and passwords were hitting me like a firehouse to the face.

No melting into the day, taking a shower after my first meeting.  No breaking to cook a steak for lunch (an under-reported work from home perk).  No afternoon nap!

I was fast asleep by 9 on Monday.

Tuesday was even worse.  A friend came over to visit, and I was such scintillating company that I practically fell asleep while we were talking.

But Wednesday, I got up and did it all again.

By Thursday, I’d found my grove.  I watched a movie and stayed awake through most of it.  I also remembered how nice it is to separate your home and work life.  Pulling into the driveway after a hard day is still a pleasure that can’t be replicated with a walk after working from home.

I could get used to this.

But I was still grateful for a Friday at home to rebuild my strength.

I’ve gotta work back up to my fighting weight.

It’s Sunday, so I’m back to doing all the laundry for the week, cleaning the house, and preparing my meals for the week.

Tomorrow starts round two.

Young Man With a Horn (1950):  Bacall Searches for the Spotlight

Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950)

By 1950, Jack Warner was no longer the undisputed king of the Warner Brother’s lot.  In the 1930’s and early 40’s, actors and actresses did as they were told.  Jack discovered them, signed them to long term contracts, and made them stars.

And how did they repay his generosity?

By fighting him every step of the way. 

James Cagney fought for more money and shorter contracts in the 1930s.  Bette Davis raged at Jack and took him to court in the mid-1930s for allegedly damaging her career with subpar roles (she lost).  Barbara Stanwyck refused to sign long term contracts to retain her ability to negotiate salary and choose her own roles.  Olivia de Havilland cut his knees out from under him when her 1944 court case against Warner’s resulted in the De Havilland Decision, which invalidated the studio practice of tacking suspensions onto the end of an actor’s contract.

Jack Warner had taken and thrown his fair share of punches in the name of business.

But Lauren Bacall proved a particularly thorny problem.

She refused to play parts that she felt weren’t any good and would damage her career. 

After their initial six years, Olivia de Havilland had made 23 films, Cagney 26, and Bette Davis a staggering 35, many of them bad roles Warner forced them to play.

In the same time period, Bacall had made only eight films.

Buying her contract from Howard Hawks had been expensive, and Jack wasn’t getting his money’s worth.  Warner thought Bacall was an ingrate, unwilling to pay her dues as her predecessors had done.

She wasn’t an ingrate—the studio system was crumbling, and Bacall took advantage of the walls her predecessors had knocked down.  She wouldn’t take bad roles—she’d wait out Jack Warner if she had to.

Jack had to proceed with caution, for Warner Brothers needed its top star Humphrey Bogart more than he needed them.  Bogart had not forgotten all the years Jack had strong-armed him into roles he didn’t want, played hardball over money, or generally disrespected Bogart (as he did all his actors.)

“Thank god I had Bogie,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography of the husband who had her back every step of the way.

She hadn’t made a hit movie without Bogart by her side onscreen.  No one was sure she could.

Young Man with a Horn does nothing to answer the question. 

Though Bacall got second billing, the film belongs to Kirk Douglas and Doris Day.  Douglas plays Rick Martin, an orphaned boy who finds salvation playing the trumpet.  Rick has trouble keeping friends, and often gets fired from his jobs for playing jazz instead of sticking to the big band script.

Douglas, Day

Playing jazz is the single animating force of his life.  Doris Day plays Jo Jordan, a singer who meets and cares for Rick.  Though there’s no doubt she loves him, Jo knows that Rick is married to no one but his trumpet.  The film utilizes Day’s talent and allows her to showcase her voice on several extended numbers.

We’re well into the film before Bacall’s character Amy arrives on the scene, an eccentric woman whose beauty and direct manner captivate Rick.  Amy is a compulsive dilettante, constantly looking for something that can capture her attention for more than a few months. 

Douglas, Bacall

They quickly realize their impulsive marriage was a mistake.  Her fascination for his love of the trumpet sours to jealousy when she cannot find her own creative outlet.  Rick neglects his friends and jazz playing for Amy and eventually resents her for it.

Rick has to hit rock bottom as a person before he finds his way to the top as a famous jazz musician. 

Today, the film is probably of most interest to Douglas or jazz aficionados.  Bacall is serviceable in the role but quite frankly, not given enough to do.

Not long after, Bogie and Bacall decided that, come hell or high water, she’d get out from under Jack Warner’s thumb. 


  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Going Back to the Office

Tomorrow, I go back to the office.  Not just for a quick check in, as I’ve done a grand total of three times over the past two years, but as a regular day in, day out thing.

Back to normal.

But not quite.  Two things will be different. 

First off, “normal” means three days a week, whether I feel like it or not.

Reader, I feel like it.

Corporate offices are cold—literally cold, as in wearing a sweater in the summer.  The lunch rooms are filled with stale pastries, half eaten birthday cakes, and bad coffee.  People jam into tiny rooms for way-too-long meetings and check their e-mail when it’s finally your turn to talk.

People are always bugging you—asking you about your weekend or what you thought about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock when you’re trying to get work done.  There’s at least one person who talks too loud on the phone (that’s me), chews too loud,  doesn’t clean out the microwave when their lunch explodes in it, or steals someone else’s special vanilla almond coffee creamer.  And someone always has a particularly disgusting habit, like clipping their fingernails at their desk and letting the nails fall into their keyboard.

You can’t just turn off your camera when you need to roll your eyes.

Man, I missed that place.

Second, I’ll be starting a brand new job on Monday.  After seven years at my current company, I’ve decided to try something new.  So it’ll be a brand new office, brand new co-workers, brand new work.

I feel like a kid going back to school after summer vacation—nervous and excited.

And I’ve got a to-do list as long as my arm.

Some of the items are the same as the back to school list—I spent the weekend buying new office-appropriate clothes, as my current uniform of jeans and t-shirts isn’t going to cut it.  I also needed a new lunch box, having lost the old one somewhere in the last two years.  I needed lunch food—yogurt, berries, power bars.  I need extra treats and toys for Blinker, who will not be pleased with this turn of events that takes me out of the house for most of the day.

I also sprung for a brand new backpack to haul my laptop, shoes, and notebooks back and forth.

I dug out some out some old friends I haven’t seen in a while—my travel coffee mug, and a big water bottle.

There’s a few things that were never on my back to school list—I have new hire paperwork to print and fill out, and finding my passport to verify my identity.  I already took a test drive during rush hour on Friday to get an approximate drive time.

I have to dye my hair.  I have to cook a big batch of soup for lunch all week.

And of course, I have to pick out my first day outfit.

Tomorrow, I’ll be up and at ‘em early, showered, fully dressed, caffeinated, make-up on, and out of the house by 7:15.  Then I’ll do it again on Tuesday.

Back in the fray.

Let’s do this.

5 Classic Films to Watch this Mother’s Day Weekend

Clockwise from left: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwcyk in Stella Dallas

The Golden Age of Hollywood is rife with tales of motherhood.  These often provided plum roles for some of Hollywood’s best actresses.  As we celebrate mothers this weekend in the United States, here are 5 great films (and 5 legendary actresses) who portrayed memorable mothers and were nominated (and in some cases won) an Oscar for their efforts.

All are available for free or under $4 to stream in the United States on Amazon Prime.

The Unconventional Mother:  Stella Dallas (1937)

There are many definitions of a “good” mother.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Stella, a tacky, low class divorcee who pals around with losers and yet is a spectacular mother to her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley).  Their Gilmore Girls-esque friends first relationship doesn’t prevent Stella from making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her daughter will have the social standing she herself could never achieve.

Stay until the last scene, which will tear your heart out if you have one.

*2 Oscar nominations:  Stanwyck for Best Actress, Shirely for Best Supporting Actress

*Available free in the U.S. with an Amazon Prime Subscription

Wartime Brit with a Stiff Upper Lip :  Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, an ordinary Brit living her ordinary life when Hitler brings the fight to her doorstep.  Without a fuss, the Minivers rise to the occasion—her son joins the war effort and her husband sets off with his small boat to help rescue the boys in Dunkirk.  Through it all, Mrs. Miniver keeps hope alive and does what needs to be done to preserve the British way of life.

Stay for a harrowing—at the time—scene in which a Nazi soldier breaks into the Miniver house when Kay is home alone.

*12 Oscar nominations, including wins for Best Picture, Greer Garson as Best Actress, and William Wyler as Best Director

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

A Mother Too Good for Her Daughter:  Mildred Pierce (1945)

She may have been Mommie Dearest to her real-life children, but Joan Crawford plays Mildred Pierce, a mother who nearly breaks herself apart in over-sacrificing herself for her daughter.

In a role reversal from Stella Dallas, in Mildred Pierce it’s the daughter Veda who longs for social status.  Mildred works as a waitress and then a baker to make her daughter’s dreams come true.  She’s a hardworking success, and though her eventual restaurant makes her a wealthy woman, in spoiled Veda’s eyes she will always be low-class and not good enough.

Stay until Mildred delivers cinema’s most deserved slap to bratty Veda. 

*6 Oscar nominations, including a win for Joan Crawford for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Immigrant Matriarch :  I Remember Mama (1948)

Fifty-year old Irene Dunne, whom you may have seen in screwball comedies with Cary Grant, plays a Norwegian immigrant mother in this heartwarming tale of a mother with a “wide open heart for other people’s trouble.”  Daughter Katrin writes the story of her life and reminisces about the joy and heartbreak inherent in growing up in a loving family.

Stay for the scene when Katrin realizes her mother pawned a family heirloom to buy Katrin the dresser set she desperately wanted.

*5 Oscar nominations, including Irene Dunne for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Substitute Mother:  Now, Voyager (1942)

Sometimes the mother we need is not the one who gave birth to us.  Bette Davis masterfully plays Charlotte Vale in an ugly duckling tale.  Charlotte is a frumpy spinster, beaten down by her overbearing mother.  When she goes on a cruise and gets away from her mother, she blossoms into a beautiful swan and even has a love affair with Jerry Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid.)

But Charlotte’s fate is not to become Jerry’s wife—or even long time lover.  Once back home, Charlotte meets Jerry’s troubled daughter Tina in a sanitarium and recognizes a kindred spirt.  Both are unloved and unwanted by their own mothers, and Charlotte takes Tina under her wing in a relationship that fills the holes in both their hearts.

Stay for the scene when Davis utters her famous line of, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

*3 Oscar nominations, including Bette Davis as Best Actress and a win for Musical Score

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $3.99

In a Lonely Place (1950):  The Best Bogart Film You’ve Never Heard Of

After fourteen years of taking orders from Jack Warner, Humphrey Bogart wanted more control over the pictures he made, more money, and more time off to spend on his boat.  Due to his massive success in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the Bacall films, Bogart signed a very favorable 15-year contract in 1946 with Warner Brothers.

The contract gave him the right to choose his projects and directors, and to make films outside of Warner Brothers in his own production company, named Santana after his boat. 

He and director Nicholas Ray adapted Dorothy Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a woman who knows that her boyfriend is paranoid and violent at best, and a brutal murderer at worst.

There was talk of Lauren Bacall playing the woman—the Bogart and Bacall box office was still strong—but Jack Warner had his limits.  Bogart could make films under his own banner, but Bacall was still under contract to him.

Things worked out for the best, as I don’t think I’m alone in not wanting to see Bogart strangle Bacall, even in fiction.  Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife, took the role and did a marvelous job with it.

In a Lonely Place tells the story of Dixon Steel (Bogart), a jaded and alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter with a flaring temper that often ended with him slugging someone in a bar.  He takes a girl home with him one night to tell him what she thought of a novel he was going to adapt into a screenplay. 

He sends her home, but she’s found dead—brutally murdered—in the morning, and Dix is the prime suspect.  He would’ve been arrested immediately but for the fact that his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame) witnessed the girl leaving his home alone.

Despite their inauspicious meeting at the police station, Dix and Laurel, two hard-boiled cases, fall in love.  Laurel is at first certain that Dix is innocent of the crime, but as she gets to know him, she sees flashes of paranoia and rage.

Dix is jealous and temperamental.  One night he gets road rage and nearly beats the driver of the other car to death.

Frightened, Laurel decides that despite her love for him, she must break off their engagement.  She has come to believe that he did murder the woman, and that he could do the same to her under the right circumstances.

Sensing something is wrong, Dix demands to know why Laurel is acting so cagey with him.  Realizing she is planning to leave him, Dix goes into a blind rage and begins to strangle her on her bed.

The strangling is interrupted by a telephone call—the police calling to tell Laurel that the true murderer of the girl has confessed, and Dix is finally in the clear.

The film ends as Laurel, disheveled and half-strangled, looks over at Dix, who is horrified at what he has nearly done.

“Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us,” she tells the bewildered police captain over the phone.  “Now it doesn’t matter…it doesn’t matter at all.”

Bogart and Grahame have a nice chemistry, and this biting noir hits all the right notes.

Perhaps director Nicholas Ray was in the right frame of mind to direct his wife in such a cynical picture, as their marriage was disintegrating during the filming and ended soon after.  There are tales, never fully proven, that Grahame slept with Ray’s 13 year old son Anthony from a previous marriage.

True or not, Grahame married her former step-son Anthony Ray ten years after the filming of In a Lonely Place.  Grahame had a son with Nicholas, and later two sons with Anthony.

That must’ve made for some interesting Thanksgivings.


  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Review of In A Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame

Breadmaking Fail

When I moved into my house sixteen years ago, I received a bread machine as a housewarming gift.  This ingenious little gadget mixes, kneads, and bakes bread all by itself.  All I have to do is dump in the ingredients and press a button, and three hours later I have a delicious, fresh loaf of bread.

This was a perfect gift, because it was something I’d never used before and never would’ve bought for myself.  I don’t use it every week, and I still mostly buy fully baked bread from the store, but I’ve used the machine to make quite a few loaves over the years. 

On Thursday, I set the machine to bake a simple loaf of white bread and headed upstairs to my home office.  I had a busy day with few breaks, so I didn’t check on the loaf until the very end of the day.  I opened the top and noticed two things immediately:  (1)  the loaf was much, much higher than it should have been, practically pushing against the top of the glass, and (2) it was still raw dough.

The bread machine went through its entire cycle of mixing, proofing, and baking, but the coils that heated up the machine were shot, so the baking cycle went through without any heat.  As a result, the bread just kept rising.

Out of curiosity, I pressed my finger to the top of the loaf.  It popped like a balloon—the top had risen and left a large air pocket in the bread.

I contemplated what to do for a few moments, then decided to pull the pan out of the bread machine and finish the baking process in my own oven.

Forty minutes later I had a deformed loaf of bread, double dense on the bottom, air in the middle, and a thin crust on top. 

It didn’t look like much, but it still tasted wonderful warm out of the oven. 

A few years ago the bread machine paddle stopped turning, thus preventing the dough from mixing.  My Dad fixed it with a replacement part bought off the internet. 

But this time I think it’s toast.  Sixteen years seems like a good run. Now I’m off to Amazon to find a replacement.

Key Largo (1948):  Bogart & Bacall & Huston

Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo

Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo was made on the heels of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and in the shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Hollywood hearings.  HUAC was a committee put together in the United States House of Representatives to investigate organizations and individuals suspected of being communists.

Hollywood was under suspicion for making films during World War II that, in hindsight, could be seen as pro-Soviet propaganda.  In fact, some of these films were made at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to help soften American attitudes toward the Soviet Union, as FDR knew that the Soviets would be vital allies in winning the war.

But the war was over, FDR was dead, and the cold war had frozen out the better angels of the committee’s nature.  Ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to answer the committee’s question as to whether or not they were communists were held in contempt of court and spent a year in jail.

John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall (among others) started the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that strongly and publicly opposed HUAC on the grounds that it violated the first amendment.  They went to Hollywood to protest the hearings, but were ultimately painted in the press as sympathetic to communists (at best) and Reds themselves (at worst.)

When the bad press threatened to ruin Bogart’s career (he was by far the most prominent and public face on the committee) he backed down and issued a public apology for his role in protesting.

In the wake of the hearings, John Huston wrote Key Largo in an ill-tempered fervor.  He refashioned Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name into a tense film about a man who finds his lost ideals and convictions. 

Bogart, Huston, and Bacall on the set of Key Largo

Bogart plays Major Frank McCloud, a man who’s been drifting since the end of World War II.  He’s looking for work, but makes a detour to Hotel Largo to visit the father James (Lionel Barrymore) and widow Nora (Lauren Bacall) of a young man who died heroically under his command.

James and Nora run Hotel Largo, and it’s immediately apparent that all is not well.  Despite being closed for the blisteringly hot off season, the hotel is filled with a small group of menacing characters who are ostensibly there to fish.

In a role that echoes back to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Frank insists he doesn’t want any trouble.  But when a hurricane hits Key Largo and traps the lot of them together, trouble finds him.

Frank immediately recognizes the leader of the group as notorious exiled gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson).

The film crackles with tension, and Robinson is superb as the vicious Rocco.  He laughs when the wheelchair bound James is so enraged that he tries to get out of his chair and falls to the ground.  He whispers sexual innuendos to Nora so foul that she spits in his face.  She’s nearly killed for her disrespect until Frank intervenes.

But Frank is no hero—when Rocco gives him a pistol and challenges him to a duel, Frank begs off.  Rocco calls him a coward, and Frank sniffs that killing Rocco isn’t worth dying for.

There were sparks between Frank and Nora early on, but in this moment it’s clear she fears that Rocco is right and Frank is a coward.

It’s not so much courage that Frank lacks, but conviction.  Weary of war, he no longer believes in the ideals of his country.

Robinson, Bogart, L. Barrymore, Bacall

But he has a line of humanity, and Rocco crosses it in the film’s best and most remembered scene.  Claire Trevor (in a role that made her a shoo-in to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) plays Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s girlfriend who has been ravaged by alcohol, time, and life with a vicious killer.

She’s pathetic, a falling-down drunk who can barely get through an hour—much less a day—without a drink.

Rocco’s disgusted by what she’s become and refuses her a drink.  Her hands shake and she begs him.  Rocco tells her he’ll give her a drink if she sings, as she was once a young and beautiful lounge singer.  Obviously embarrassed, Gayle sings for the group.  It’s uncomfortable and humiliating as she sings off-key and without accompaniment to the group while a hurricane rages outside.

When it’s over, Rocco refuses to give her a drink because she was so terrible.  It’s a move of pure cruelty.

Frank—who would not stick his neck out to rid the world of Rocco, finds his courage and gives Gayle a drink, knowing it may cost him his life.  Rocco doesn’t shoot him, but slaps him across the face.

Frank doesn’t react, as he has guns trained on him, but it’s clear that he’s found his sense of right and wrong and that he will prevail over the thugs in the end.

Nearly 75 years later, Key Largo has lost none of its punch.

Huston, Bogart, and Bacall were on a roll.

Key Largo (1948)


  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey.  John Huston:  Courage and Art.  2011.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

How To Choose The Perfect Bookmark

I just can’t get into the Kindle.  I’ve read a few books on it, and I see the appeal, but for me, nothing beats an old fashioned paperback.  And the gold standard of books will always be those big, gorgeous hardcovers. 

Reading lots of physical books means I need lots of bookmarks.  Fortunately, bookmarks seem to come into my life without much thought.  Many authors and stores give out free bookmarks as promotional materials—I have a great one from the Library of Congress in D.C., and another from Raven Used Books in Harvard Square.  These serve as souvenirs as well as bookmarks.

Then there are the bookmarks I buy from Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.  And when you’re a known reader, you get a lot of bookmarks as gifts.

Not all bookmarks are not created equal.  Readers out there, please tell me you’re with me on this.

First, let’s catalogue my bookmark deal breakers:

  • Too heavy – Bookmarks should be made of cardboard or paper.  I carry my books in my purse everywhere, and those heavy metal bookmarks inevitably fall out and I lose my place.  Kind of defeats the purpose.
  • Too thick—No bookmark, no matter how pretty, is worth damaging the spine of a book.
  • Too long—My bookmarks cannot stick out of either end of the book, unless I want Blinker the Cat to chew the corners to bits and pull them out of my book.  It’s possible this is a niche issue.
  • Post-It Flags—See above.  Cleaning up cat vomit with shredded pink post-it flags in it is a mistake you only make once.
  • Anything that clamps/leaves impression on the page—I rarely write in my books, and never dog ear them.  I don’t want the bookmark damaging them.

No bookmark is safe in my home.

So what makes a great bookmark?  I love the cheap, standard 6 x 2 inch bookmarks you can find just about anywhere.  They usually come with a tassel that I remove immediately—for Blinker reasons outlined above.  I can’t have her eating the tassels, which are apparently made of catnip.

I prefer a seasonally appropriate picture and an inspirational or cute message.  I’ve got beach bookmarks for summer, a gloomy city street bookmark for winter, and lots of bookmarks with cats and books to be used all year round.

I don’t know why so many bookmarks feature cats, but I like books and cats, and apparently a lot of other people do too.

And coffee.  Readers, cats, coffee—the essential trio.

Small, simple, light, and with a bit of whimsy.

As far as bookmarks go, nothing else will do.

The best of the best…well-used and well-loved…