To Have and Have Not (1944):  Tabula Rasa

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944) Opening Banner

Director Howard Hawks wanted to design his ideal woman for the screen.  He found his tabula rasa on the cover of the March 1943 edition of Harper’s Bazaar.  He flew the 18-year-old unknown model from New York to Hollywood and offered her an unusual deal—she wouldn’t work directly for a studio, but instead sign a personal contract with him.

Howard Hawks and Lauren Bacall, 1943

Before the ink was dry, he patterned her dress and manner after his wife Slim, a chic style icon who was named to the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1944.  He arranged for singing lessons.  He taught her to control her naturally deep voice to ensure it never went shrill.

Slim Keith
Slim Keith, the template for Lauren Bacall.

Hawks personally supervised her screen test, patiently coaxing a performance out of the nervous newcomer that won her a role opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.

As script development progressed and filming began, Hawks continued to cultivate his protégé with an unusual amount of attention.  Onscreen, she would portray an insolent woman who was supremely self-assured.

Offscreen, he imagined her kneeling at his feet, looking up at him with grateful and adoring eyes. 

Maybe he’d sleep with her, maybe he wouldn’t.  He could decide that later. 

As a final touch, he discarded her given name “Betty” and added an “L” to her surname.

And that’s how Howard Hawks invented Lauren Bacall.

Lauren Bacall as Slim in To Have and Have Not (1944)

For the first three weeks of shooting, everything went according to plan.  Then one night after filming, Humphrey Bogart went into her trailer, put his hand under Bacall’s chin and kissed her.  He handed her a matchbook and asked her to write her phone number on it.

She did.

And just like that, the Svengali lost control of his Trilby.

At eighteen, she was ambitious but overwhelmed.  She loved the hype, but she never fully bought into it.  Unlike Howard Hawks, she never forgot that Lauren Bacall didn’t exist.  Perhaps that’s why until the day she died her friends still called her Betty.

The Lauren Bacall of Hawks’ imagination was in love with Howard Hawks.

But Betty wanted Bogie.

PART TWO:  Bogie & Bacall

In his hotel room on the island of Martinique during World War II, boatman Harry “Steve” Morgan (Bogart) looks up to find a woman leaning in his doorway.  Slim (Hawks named Bacall’s character after his wife) is wearing a checkered jacket with a long matching skirt and cinched handbag.

Looking right at him, she asks, “Anybody got a match?”

That’s how Steve met Slim, and how the world met Lauren Bacall.

Some have called To Have and Have Not a low-rent Casablanca, a critique with stinging accuracy.  Many of the same elements are there—Bogart playing an outwardly cynical loner who ultimately decides to “stick his neck out” for someone who needs help.  There’s a charming piano player (this time played by real life songwriter Hoagy Carmichael), a mysterious woman who catches Bogie’s eye (Bacall) and a tense atmosphere as the supporters of the Free France movement chafe under Vichy rule.

Audiences went nuts over the film.  It opened at the Hollywood Theater in Manhattan and ran for sixteen weeks, becoming one of the most successful openings in the theater’s history.  All around the country people were clamoring to watch Bogie fall in love with Bacall.

Bacall and Bogart
Bacall and Bogie, no cameras rolling…

There’s a magnetic pull between them; you can see it on the screen, and everyone could feel it on the set.  Today’s films are unrestrained by the production code or the sensibilities of modern audiences.  They’re racy and revealing. 

But they’re not sexier than Bacall slapping Bogie and telling him to shave in To Have and Have Not.  Or telling him, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?  You just put your lips together and blow.”

In the film Slim loves Steve, but she doesn’t wilt like a flower in his presence.  She gives as she good as she gets and both Steve and the audience love her all the more for it.  And unlike Casablanca, the lovers stay together in the end. 

Melanie Novak sitting at her writing desk
If you doubt my love for this film, take note of the poster above my writing desk…

Bogart and Bacall had a ball making the film.  Bogart sent her flowers constantly, they held hands, and disappeared into trailers during breaks and came back with mussed clothes and hair.  They joked, they laughed, they teased one another. 

He called her his Baby, and when he phoned her in the middle of the night, she always picked up.

Howard Hawks fumed.  Bacall turned out not to be as malleable as he’d hoped.  He insisted she break it off with Bogart—he threatened to sell her contract to Poverty Row, where she’d be stuck making ‘B’ films that would ruin her career.  He told her that Bogart would forget about her when filming was over.

Hawks wasn’t the only one who felt Bacall was getting ahead of herself about a future with Bogart.  Though it was obvious Bogart was smitten with Bacall, her own mother was skeptical that a forty-five year old man would leave his six year marriage after a dalliance with his teenage leading lady.

If Bacall was wrong, she’d be heartbroken, humiliated, her promising career destroyed.

But I already told you this was a love story.

So you already know Betty wasn’t wrong about Bogie.

To Have and Have Not (1944) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • De La Hoz, Cindy.  Bogie & Bacall:  Love Lessons from a Legendary Romance.  2015.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • McCarthy, Todd.  Howard Hawks:  The Grey Fox of Hollywood.  1997. 

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

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (19440

Does Not Compute

I love the idea Spring Cleaning.

While the calendar turns over at the end of December, I’ve always felt that the spiritual new year begins in the spring. 

Bud are appearing on trees, neighbors are out walking, windows are open, and clocks are turning, which means it’s time for decluttering.

I love a good purge.  Nothing rejuvenates me more than going through all the closets, drawers, and storage containers in my house and ruthlessly dispatching items that have outlived their usefulness.

Then comes the most critical part of the process—you have to get the stuff you no longer want out of your house, and you have to do it fast.

There’s nothing more annoying than spending a weekend decluttering, only to find yourself tripping over the piles of stuff you’ve marked for removal.  If you don’t act quickly, you’ll find yourself going back through the pile and reconsidering whether you really should get rid of the sweat stained t-shirt from your freshman year of high school, twenty-seven ChapSticks that are so worn down you can’t get the stuff on your lips, or the return address labels from a place you no longer live.

If the items are broken, torn, unusable, or unfixable, it’s easy.  You toss them into the recycling or trash bins, drag them to the curb on the appropriate day and wash your hands of them.  Clothes, shoes, and blankets with life in them take only slightly more effort—bag them up and donate or sell them to your local Goodwill, second-hand shop, or animal shelter.  Make a little cash or a least feel good that you’re moving them out of your closet and into the hands of someone who can use them.

Then we get to electronics.

Old cellphones, laptops, computers, televisions, monitors.

All I can say is, good luck.

As of last weekend, I still had every cell phone I’d ever purchased, all the way back to my initial silver flip phone that was the height of cool back in 2004.  Most are so old they have zero value on the resale market.  I found a place to donate the flip phones that recycled and reused them, but I was wary of my oldest smartphones—they had personal data on them, and I’d lost their chargers, so I couldn’t turn them on to wipe them.

I ended up buying a tiny little screwdriver to open them up and pulled out the motherboards.  I smashed up the motherboards, then donated the rest of the phone.

I have no idea if this was overkill or not enough in terms of protecting my privacy. 

But I did feel better.

Desktop and laptop computers are easy—they can be resold or donated.

But I have an old television and a computer monitor that no longer work.

Since the last time I needed to get rid of these types of items, apparently Pennsylvania has enacted strict recycling rules to protect the environment.  I’ve got no beef with recycling or protecting the environment.  But one of the (likely unintended) consequences of these laws is that it’s impossible to find a convenient place to donate or recycle these items.

None of the places that took my phones and laptops would touch the monitor or television.  Each gave me the name of a place where I could take my items and pay to have them recycled.  I called each of these places and found them out of business, or open for only one day every three months for collection.

And after seven days of trying to get rid of them, I was beginning to think they’d be with me until the day I died…and possibly buried with me.

Eventually, I found a place in downtown Pittsburgh that accepts such items—for a fee—and is open for about two hours a week and requires an appointment.

So I’ll be going down there at two in the afternoon this Sunday, emptying my trunk and wallet to dispose of these items.

Then—and only then—will my Spring Cleaning be complete.

Casablanca (1942):  “No one ever loved me that much.”

Casablanca made Bogart; Bogart made Casablanca.”

Bogart, A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax

December, 1941.  Casablanca, Morocco. 

It’s a night like any other at Rick’s Café Américain.  Every table is filled with broke couples, wealthy couples, bank managers, pickpockets, pastry chefs, and thieves. 

As World War II rages on in Europe, those who can make their way to Vichy French-controlled Casablanca, where they hope to obtain passage to Lisbon and then America.

Some will wait for days, some will wait for years.

Some will die in Casablanca.

Rick Blaine, (Humphrey Bogart) the café’s mysterious American exile owner, provides liquor and gambling and music while they wait.

Nobody’s happy, but at least they’re having a good time.

Rick keeps everyone at arm’s length, a cynic who treats his employees and customers decently, doesn’t kowtow to anyone, and “sticks his neck out for nobody.” 

Until Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks in and asks Sam to play, “As Time Goes By.”

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

She’s the woman who broke Rick’s heart, the lover who left him waiting at a train station the day the Germans marched into Paris.  The Germans wore gray.

Ilsa wore blue.

She’s on the arm of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the tireless leader of the underground resistance who inspired the world when he escaped from a concentration camp and will continue his work despite great personal danger.

And thus the stage is set for the greatest love triangle in Hollywood history—Ilsa Lund, torn between a sinner and a saint.

Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart

A cruel twist of fate forced Isla from Rick in Paris—she learned her husband, the great Victor Laszlo, was alive, not killed in a concentration camp as she’d believed.  It’s an ever crueler twist that brings them back together—Rick possess the only two letters of transit in Casablanca, papers that would give the Laszlos passage to Lisbon, ensuring their safety and the continuance of Victor’s work.

There’s a less famous moment in the film that I love, a gesture so small you’ll miss it if you blink.  Victor tells Ilsa that Rick would not give him the letters of transit, not for the cause, and not for any price.

“Did he give you any reason?” Ilsa asks him.

“He suggested I ask you.”

“Ask me?”

“Yes, he said ask your wife.  I don’t know why he said that.”

Ilsa knows why.  She turns away from Victor, puts her hand on her neck, runs it through her hair, and smiles.  It’s not even a full smile, just a flicker of one that reveals her first subconscious thought.

Victor could die or be recaptured by the Germans without those letters.  The tide of the war could change with them.  While she will eventually rage at Rick to give her the letters, threaten to shoot him over them, her first instinct was to smile.

Because Rick is so jealous that he is willing to let the world burn out of spite.

What woman wouldn’t want to be wanted that much?

She admires and respects Victor.  But with Rick it is passion and desire.

We’ll never truly know who Ilsa would’ve chosen if she’d been free of the war, free of her prior commitment to Victor.  For Rick, it’s enough to know that Ilsa hadn’t made a chump of him when she left him at the railroad station. 

He might not have her now, but they’ll always have Paris.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Casablanca exceeded everyone’s expectations, delighting wartime audiences, and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, along with acting nominations for Bogart and Claude Rains.  It put Ingrid Bergman on the map.  It is number 2 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American Films, and its lines dominate the AFI’s List of 100 Greatest Quotes.

Humphrey Bogart was finally a romantic leading man.

Though his professional life was at its peak, things were falling apart at home.  His relationship with wife Mayo, while always volatile, had become dangerous and began interfering with his work.

“They were poison to one another,” actress Jane Bryan said.

A failed actress, Mayo was jealous of Bogart’s career.  She believed he was having an affair with Ingrid Bergman during Casablanca (he wasn’t) and began showing up on the set, “always looking like the wrath of God,” assistant director Lee Katz said.  “In fact, looking like somebody you wish would never darken your life.”

Things were so violent at home that Bogart had to learn his lines on the set.  One night he came home to find Mayo lying in wait, and she stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife.  During another incident, she set the house on fire and nearly burned it to the ground.

She was a woman with demons, haunted by alcohol and thwarted ambitions, a full-blown alcoholic on her way to killing herself with booze.

Still, Bogart soldiered on with the marriage.

In the first half of Casablanca, a young girl, Annina, asks Rick for advice. 

“M’sieur, you are a man.  If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing in the world that she wanted and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”

“No one ever loved me that much,” Rick replies gruffly.

Rick was wrong, but it was true that no one had loved Bogart that much in 1942.

That was all about to change.

Next week, Bogart finally meets Bacall.

Anybody got a match?

Sources

  • 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.

Commuting with Audiobooks

The Woman Next Door by Barbara Delinksy audiobook cover

In 2005, I checked out a battered cardboard box of CDs from my local library.  Over the next week on my long commute into the city, I listened to an abridged version of The Woman Next Door by Barbara Delinsky.

It was my first audiobook, and my first Barbara Delinsky.

It wouldn’t be my last of either.

I fell in love with audiobooks, though at this time they were mostly called Books on Tape.  You could listen to them only on multi-volume cassette tape or CD sets.  It’s possible you could’ve downloaded them onto your iPod at this time—I didn’t have one, and don’t remember.  But the iPhone was still two years away, and the idea of Audible—or downloading anything without wires to a device—was still mostly the stuff of science fiction novels.

Physical audiobooks were expensive compared to paper books—still are—but my local library was full of free ones.

I listened to every CD collection that interested me in the library, and then I moved onto the cassette tapes.  My car didn’t have a tape deck, so I bought a portable cassette player, and I would just set it on the passenger seat and play the tapes without using my car’s stereo system.

Radio Shack cassette player
Photo By: Evan-Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What I would’ve given for Bluetooth back then (if I’d had any idea what it was!)

For me, genre fiction has always been the best audio experience.  I don’t want a complicated novel with a long list of characters where I might need to flip back and check who’s who.  I also don’t want meaty nonfiction where I might want to write something down or look something up.

While everyone else grumbled about their commutes, my secret was that I was having a blast.

I remember handing my badge to the parking lot attendant with tears streaming down my face while listening to the end of Nicholas Sparks’ True Believer.  I hunted human criminals with Eve Dallas in J.D. Robb’s In Death series, and supernatural ones with MacKayla Lane in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series.  I practically lived under Stephen King’s dome with Barbie and Julia, a novel so long it required 30 discs.  (And still my favorite audiobook.)

I was so surprised by a scene in Sandra Brown’s Play Dirty that I scraped the side of my car against a concrete jersey barrier while crossing the old Hulton Bridge.  (If there’s one scene I wish I would’ve written, it was the heroine biting the hero’s thumb in Play Dirty—a master class in how to build sexual tension in a romance novel.)

I’ve listened to every leg of Jack Reacher’s journey, a good chunk of Sandra Brown’s backlist, and a wheelbarrow full of personal non-fiction essays, my favorites by Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca Serritella.

I can still remember exactly where I was driving when Scottoline read aloud that her mother, a long-running character in her life and the essays, died. 

I felt like I’d lost a friend.

The local library couldn’t keep up with my pace.  I joined a service called Book Lender that was basically like the original Netflix, but for audiobooks.  They’d mail me a physical audiobook, and when I was finished I’d send it back and they’d mail the next one in my queue.

It was expensive—$30 a month—but I’ve rarely spent money that gave me more satisfaction.

According to my reading log, my high-water mark of audiobooks was 2008, when I listened to 38 audiobooks.  I regularly listened to 30+ books a year from 2008-2014.

Then I got a new job with a severely shortened commute.  Instead of driving an hour plus each way, I was out of the house and at my desk in under twenty minutes.

It was great—more time, less money spent on gas, less wear and tear on the car—but had one huge unintended consequence—a drastic reduction in my audiobook listening.

I cancelled the service.  I couldn’t get through enough books to justify it.  And I began losing interest in the books, as a 15 minute chunk of listening just wasn’t enough to get into the story.

Then I found podcasts, which were better for short chunks of time.

I tried listening to audiobooks while exercising and taking walks, but it wasn’t quite the same.  For me, audiobooks are somehow all tied up with driving.

Then the pandemic hit, and my anemic commute came to a complete stop.  In 2021, I listened to a mere five audiobooks.  Five!

I use Audible now, and the process for listening has never been easier, the selection never vaster.  And yet I’m listening less than ever.

If ever do return to the office, or ever again have a punishing commute, at least I’ll have a huge backlog of audiobooks to look forward to.

Silver linings.

The Woman Next Door by Barbara Delinksy audiobook cover

The Maltese Falcon (1941):  “The stuff that dreams are made of”

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941) Opening Banner

So what do you think happened next? 

After his fifth-billed role in The Petrified Forest, did Humphrey Bogart end his second marriage, shoot to stardom, and finally meet the love of his life?

Not so fast.

His second marriage did end.  Though his affair with actress Mayo Methot was the final straw, ultimately his second marriage ended for the same reason as his first—Bogart was a traditional man at heart, and he wanted to be the family breadwinner, and to have a family.  Mrs. Bogarts 1 and 2 were actresses—more successful than him at the time—who were not about to set aside their careers for love, marriage, and babies.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade holding The Maltese Falcon

Bogart grew up in a cold and possibly abusive home.  His artist mother showed affection for nothing but her work, and his physician father slowly ruined his health by injecting himself with morphine meant for patients. 

But his parent’s marriage was a Norman Rockwell painting in comparison to his union with Mayo Methot, whom Bogart reluctantly married in 1938.  Their alcohol-fueled arguments were constant and often physical—they got into a shouting match so heated at their reception that they didn’t spend their wedding night together.  It didn’t take long for friends to start calling them the “Battling Bogarts.”

His career wasn’t going any better.  Everyone knew Bogart was a good actor, but he was at the bottom of a Warner Brothers leading man pecking order that included Paul Muni, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft.  And so Bogart spent the six years after Forest playing gangsters, crooks, and thieves who came to a bad end, often in ‘B’ pictures. 

By 1941, he’d passed the age of forty without a leading role.  He was balding and didn’t have traditional leading man good looks.  He seemed fated for life as a character actor.

Then came John Huston (last seen here coming to blows with Errol Flynn over Olivia de Havilland) and The Maltese Falcon.

For his directorial debut, Huston wanted to adapt the Dashiell Hammett detective novel The Maltese Falcon.

And he wanted Bogart as his hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.

Huston surrounded Bogart with a winning cast starting with Mary Astor as the beautiful schemer who drags Sam into the whole mess.  Lee Patrick plays Sam’s faithful secretary, Peter Lorre a villain after the falcon, and veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet made his film debut at sixty-one years old as “Fat Man” Kasper Gutman.

Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet

The film begins when Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) hires Sam to follow a man she fears will kill her sister.  Sam’s partner Miles Arches takes the job and is shot dead on what should have been a routine tail.

Brigid’s story and her sister are a complete fabrication, and Sam is dragged into a web of thieves and murderers looking for the Maltese Falcon, a jeweled bird lost in the sixteenth century that would be worth untold riches if found.

Bogart’s Sam Spade is cynical, clever, and tough but not ruthless.  He’s got his own moral code—one that compels him to “do something” about his partner’s murder despite the fact that he never liked the guy and sometimes slept with his wife.

Peter Lorre, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Peter Lorre, Bogart

The audience unravels the mystery along with Spade—we learn what he learns, as he learns it.  As with any good mystery, there are twists, turns, and double-crosses.

Spade falls in love—or at least lust—with Brigid, but that doesn’t prevent him from seeing her for the murderess she is.  In the film’s final act, the falcon is determined to be a fake—all the lying, cheating and killing was for naught.  Brigid—and the audience—assume that Spade will take her on as a lover for at least awhile, but Spade is hard-boiled and nobody’s fool.

Brigid murdered his partner, and the film closes on him as he turns her over to the police with obvious regret.

“What’s that?” a cop asks him, nodding to the fake Maltese Falcon that has caused all the trouble.

“The stuff that dreams are made of,” Spade tells him, slightly misquoting Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

And it was—for The Maltese Falcon is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, listed at number 31 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films.  It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Huston and Bogart that would have huge personal and professional dividends for both.

At 42, Humphrey Bogart had finally become a leading man.

And what of the love story with Lauren Bacall that I promised to tell you last week?

I am telling you.

For as the Bard also wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

The Maltese Falcon Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • De La Hoz, Cindy.  Bogie & Bacall:  Love Lessons from a Legendary Romance.  2015.

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

Open Window Season

Photo by Evgenia Basyrova from Pexels

Some people never open their windows.

I’m not judging—you do you and all that—but I find this inconceivable.

This popped into my mind because this is the first great weather weekend we’ve had in Pittsburgh since October.  Both Saturday and Sunday are sunny with the temperatures getting oh-so-close to that ideal 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

So everybody’s got their windows open.

Well, almost everybody.  Some might be on vacation, or out of town, or have severe allergies to the outside world. 

But some—like my neighbors—just hate fresh air.

I, on the other hand, take it to the opposite extreme.

I open the windows every chance I get.  And I leave them open for as long as I can stand.

In the summer, I am loathe to turn on the air conditioner.  It’s not because of cost, or even any noble concern for the planet.  I just hate the idea of shutting up the house in the summer.  So I’ll sit and sweat in my home office while my neighbors write blogs saying how they can’t understand why people keep the windows open in sweltering heat (or so I assume.)

I usually break down in August and turn it on to get me through the final dog days of summer.

In the winter, I’m on constant alert for any day where the temperature rises enough for me to open the windows for even an hour or so. 

And sometimes, in the depths of February, when we’ve had bitter cold for weeks on end, I just can’t stand it anymore.  I dress up in my wool socks, a big sweater, and open the windows.  Sometimes two hours, sometimes three…as long as I can stand before the hypothermia sets in. 

Fresh air.  Freezing, but fresh.

Incidentally, I remember to turn the furnace off about 75% of the time.

So imagine what the neighbors are saying when they see my windows open in February and smoke billowing from my chimney pipe.

Oops.

But spring is in the air, and soon we’ll be in open window season.  Those brief few weeks when it’s not too cold and not too hot and nearly everyone in the neighborhood has the windows open.

And no one thinks anyone is nuts.

I can’t wait.

The Petrified Forest (1936):  NO BOGART NO DEAL

Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936)
The Petrified Forest (1936) Opening Banner.  Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart.  Directed by Archie Mayo.

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.

Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee in the Petrified Forest (1936)
Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest

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.

Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (1936)
Bette Davis and Leslie Howard

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.

The Petrified Forest

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.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • 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.

Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936)

“It’s time to start…”

At forty, I thought I was finished with “talks” from my mother.

By this I mean the serious talks that a woman receives at various stages throughout her upbringing.  There are two categories of talks.

The first is the TRUTH ABOUT talks.

The truth about Santa Claus.  The truth about men.  The truth about life (a multi-part series).  And the talk so big it’s literally called THE TALK….the TRUTH about how babies are made.

The second are IT’S TIME TO talks.

It’s time to start wearing a bra.  It’s time to start cleaning your own room.  It’s time to start shaving your legs. 

And most recently, it’s time to start dyeing your hair.

IT’S TIME TO talks are always about something that is necessary but not particularly pleasant—like a routine trip to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned.  It’s not a crisis, but a new duty to be added to the stack of adulthood.

This latest one caught me off guard.

Casually, luring me into a false sense of security, my mother asked me, “What’s your skincare routine?”

“Wash my face,” I said.  “Sunscreen.”

“And wrinkle cream?”

Immediately, I realized I’d fallen into the trap.  This wasn’t a conversation, but the prelude to an IT’S TIME TO talk.

I looked around, but there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

“Does that stuff even work?”

Wrong question.

“You’re forty now, and your skin looks good.  You need to start thinking about keeping it that way.  You need retinol cream.  Twice a day.  And throw in an eye cream to be safe.”

I started to protest, “Is there any evidence that stuff even works?  Show me a picture of the highest ranking female executive at L’Oréal.  If she has wrinkles, forget it!”

This protest was ignored.  IT’S TIME TO talks are always one way.

“This is what you need,” she said, showing me the various potions I would need to start preserving myself from rapidly devolving into a hag that would scare away the children on Halloween.

I bought the cream.  IT’S TIME TO talks are non-negotiable.

A few weeks later, we were at my ninety-four-year-old grandmother’s house when my mother asked me how it was going with the cream.

“Um,” I said.  And then I made the mistake of telling the truth.  “I put it on for a few days but then I forgot about it until just now.”

“Forgot about what?” my grandma asked me.

My mother explained about my new beauty routine.

“WHAT?” my grandmother asked.  She has no problem hearing, and her mind is sharp.  This was an utterance in outrage.

“You haven’t been putting cream on your face?”

“No, but I’m getting started on it early,” I said.

“Early?” she sputtered.  “I’ve put cream on my face everyday since I was twenty.  My mother told me to and I have.”

(Editor’s Note:  My Grandmother looks great for her age and always has.  If there’s a poster child for the efficacy of using daily wrinkle cream, she’s it.)

“But does that stuff even work?”

“What do you mean, does it work?” she asked.  “Of course it works.”

She had even less patience for my counter-arguments…she didn’t want to hear about how we would never know what she would’ve looked like without using cream all her life.  And she definitely didn’t want to hear about the female executives at L’Oréal (whom I’ve still neglected to Google.)

She didn’t treat me with kid gloves like my own mother did. 

“It takes one minute.  There’s no reason, absolutely no reason not to do it.”

“I know, I know,” I said.  “I bought it, I said I would do it, I just forget.”

“How can you forget?  Once at the start of the day, once at the end.  There couldn’t be anything easier.”

“I know, I know, but…”

She cut me off and got down to brass tacks.

“You look good now, and I won’t be around to see it, but if you don’t listen to me you’re going to wake up one day years from now, look in the mirror and say WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?”

Reader, I’ve used the cream everyday—twice a day!—since then.

Show Boat (1936):  Ferber’s Glamour Girl

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan in Show Boast 1936
Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan
Show Boat 1936 Opening Banner

In 1924, Edna Ferber collaborated with George Kaufmann on one of their rare failures, a play called Minick that closed after only four months.  As Ferber recounts in her memoir A Peculiar Treasure, after a disappointing opening night, Ferber and her producer Winthrop Ames were doing a post mortem on what had gone wrong.  Winthrop joked that they should forget Broadway plays and instead perform on show boats.

“What’s a show boat?” Ferber asked, in no mood for jokes.

The question—and its answer—sent Ferber down a path that would electrify her, her readers, Broadway, and finally Hollywood.

Ferber learned that show boats were floating theaters that traveled through the American south from the 1860s to about the 1880s.  The cast and crew lived on the boat, and they docked at rural towns where hard-working and often poor people would come aboard to watch a show. 

Ferber fell in love with show boats and was stunned to discover there was very little written about life on show boats—no fiction, no memoirs, no recollections.

She threw herself into the task of researching a novel about life on a show boat.  As she writes in Treasure, “I was hot on the trail of show boats.  Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way.  It was not only the theater—it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself.”

She called the resulting novel Show Boat, and it told the story of Magnolia Hawks, a naïve young girl who grows up on The Cotton Blossom, her father’s show boat, and gets her chance to perform—against her mother’s strong objections—when the show’s leading lady has to abruptly leave the tour.

It was the eighth best-selling book of 1926.

The next year Florenz Ziegfeld produced a musical based on the novel, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.  Though she had no active role in the musical, Ferber loved it—as did the rest of America.  Kern and Hammerstein added more whimsy and fun to Ferber’s tale, while keeping the serious undertone of race relations.

As Ferber wrote approvingly, “Show Boat had been adopted by foster parents and was being educated to be a glamour girl.”

It ran for two years straight in New York and the original cast included Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne and Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy Hawks.  It played in London for ten months with Paul Robeson in the role of Joe.

In 1929, Irene Dunne was a thirty-one theater actress who was considering retiring (having never made a film) when she and her husband saw Show Boat.  As Dunne’s father (who died when she was very young) worked on steamships and Dunne had a childhood memory of floating down the Mississippi with him, she fell in love with the show and was determined to play Magnolia.  She eventually won the part for a road show version that ran for a record forty weeks all along the eastern coast.  The show put Dunne on the map and led to her first Hollywood film at the age of thirty-two.

At an age when many actresses had to start thinking about their post-film career, Irene Dunne was just getting started.

So in 1936 when Universal Pictures decided to pull out all the stops to make Show Boat—the most expensive film the studio had ever produced at the time—the film cast itself.  Dunne, now a bona fide movie star with an Oscar nomination under her belt for her role in Ferber’s 1931 film Cimarron, would play eighteen-year-old Magnolia.  Helen Morgan, Charles Winninger, and Paul Robeson would reprise their stage roles on screen.  Add in Allan Jones as Magnolia’s suitor Ravenal and Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, and the stage was set for greatness.

James Whale, who’s known then and now for horror films such as Frankenstein, was an unusual choice to direct. But the mix of his outsider view and the experienced actors made for a wonderful film.

Magnolia Hawks (Dunne) is the daughter of Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann Hawks, owners of the Cotton Blossom Show Boat.  She falls in love with gambler Gaylord Ravenal.  Leading lady Julie LaVerne is discovered to be a half black woman passing as white.  As she’s married to a white man, they are committing a crime at the time, and are forced to leave the show, paving the way for Magnolia to take over the show.

There are moments of true magic—when Dunne performs a shuffle dance inspired by the black levee workers as Helen Morgan sings, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”  Or a Romeo-and-Juliet inspired scene when Magnolia and Ravenal sing a duet from their windows, hers on top of his. 

And of course, Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” will make the hair on your arms stand up.

It’s no revelation to say that black actors in the 1930s were never given the chance to play fully fleshed out roles, and were instead relegated to roles as slaves, maids, and laborers.  But it’s a testament to the immense talent of both Robeson and Hattie McDaniel that they were able to do so much with so little, and Show Boat is no exception.

Ferber’s novel and the film deserve credit for the way they handle the illegal interracial marriage—the villain is the man who exposes Julie’s history out of spite, and not Julie and her husband.  Everyone on the Cotton Blossom is sick to see her go, Magnolia most of all.  Robeson’s Joe and McDaniel’s Queenie use nothing but their eyes to convey a weariness at the injustice of the world as they watch Julie marched out of polite society for having a “drop of negro blood.”

So much with so little.

Paul Robeson - 1936 - Show Boat
Paul Robeson

The film has romance, drama, whimsy, and melancholy.  There’s moments of great humor as well—Queenie and Joe’s bickering, and Dunne brings that slightly mocking laugher to Magnolia that she would later hone in screwball comedies like My Favorite Wife.  And the scene in which Cap’n Andy acts out the final scene onstage alone after an audience member shoots the villain is worth the price of admission.

The film has a happier ending than the novel, as any good glamour girl musical should.

The American Film Institute ranks it as the 24th best musical ever made, and “Ol’ Man River” as the 24th best movie song ever.

And don’t even think about watching the 1951 MGM remake.  Despite the addition of technicolor and Ava Gardner, this film just doesn’t hold a candle to the 1936 version.  In it’s conversion to a big-time MGM musical, it becomes bloated, overblown, and loses all its humor and charm.

Ava Gardner in Show Boat- 1951.
Not even Ava Gardner could save the 1951 MGM film version….

I can think of no better place to end our discussion of Edna Ferber than Show Boat, the property that both made her the most money (through book sales, musical and film royalties) and the book she had the most fun writing.

I’ll quote one last time from Treasure before we turn the page on the great Edna Ferber:

“It doesn’t seem possible that anyone ever had so much sheer fun, gaiety, novelty, satisfaction and money out of the writing of any one piece of work as I have had out of Show Boat.”

And few movie review bloggers have ever had as much fun researching, watching, and writing about films than I have had with the work of Edna Ferber.

Show Boat 1936 Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

 Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Gehring, Wes D.  Irene Dunne:  First Lady of Hollywood.  2003.

Revisit The Films of Edna Ferber:

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

Solving Problems I Don’t Have

Kitchen wall calendar
A Perfect System

One of my favorite ways of wasting time is solving problems I don’t have.

Please tell me you do this too.

Lately, it’s been my calendar.  My day job is filled with meetings but my personal life is quite simple.  All my adult life, I’ve managed my workday via the corporate Outlook calendar and my personal appointments on a monthly wall calendar that hangs in my kitchen.

Simple, effective, efficient.  I’ve never missed a dentist appointment.

When I’m away from home and someone asks me to do something on a specific day, I tell them that I’d like to but have to double-check my calendar at home.  This gives me extra space to make sure it’s something I really want to do and not just give a knee-jerk “yes” in the moment.

A perfect system.  And yet I continually try to improve it. 

First I decided my calendar needed to be portable.  Now that I work from home, when I make a dentist appointment, I have to walk all the way downstairs to put it on the wall calendar.  (Never mind that when I worked in an office all day, I had zero access to my wall calendar.  I e-mailed myself a reminder and wrote it down when I got home.)

So I bought a nice big Moleskine Weekly Planner

I always looked at my wall calendar in the morning while I drank my coffee to get a view of critical appointments over the next few days. It’s automatic and foolproof.  But now every morning, the planner was upstairs on my desk, and I forgot to look at it. 

So I brought it down into the kitchen and left it open on the kitchen counter.  Except when I forgot.  Or, I left it on the counter when I started the work day, so when I had to add something, I ran back down the stairs.

Just like with my wall calendar.

Also, this planner is huge—roughly 8×10, with the days of the week on one side, and a blank page for notes on the other.  Since I was used to having only a 1.5 inch square per day to write on, I was at a loss as to what to do with all this extra real estate.

So I started adding my personal to-do list to the planner.  Never mind that I already have a way of managing my to-do’s—I write them in a pocket notebook that I review each morning.

Stack of used pocket notebooks
Simpler times….

That still wasn’t enough to fill these huge weekly pages.  So I started trying to time block my day.  Time management experts on podcast after podcast were telling me that the only obstacle between me and Elon Musk-level success was writing out what you were going to do every hour of every day in advance.

So I planned every hour of Monday, and made a rough sketch for the rest of the days of the week.

My world domination plan was in motion.

Then I proceeded to ignore the time blocks and work off my list, like I always do. 

Elon Musk’s legacy is safe from me. 

For the first time, my calendar overwhelmed me.  The notebook was a cluttered mess of places I had to be, things I had to do, things with deadlines, and things without.

So did I go back to my old, simple system that had never let me down?

I did not.

I decided that I needed a better way to update my time blocks when things went off track, and access to my calendar and lists on my phone, which I have with me in the kitchen and at my desk.

I was going digital.

I started using Google Calendar to manage my appointments.  For a second week I planned everything—when to get up, when to exercise, when to watch TV and what to watch.

Then I binged three episodes of the excellent Reacher* series on Amazon Prime, blowing past my time blocks allocated to watching the Amazing Race and going to bed on time.

Time blocking my tasks was out.  What I needed was a way to keep my calendar and to-do list separate.  But I was digital now, so I downloaded a digital to-do list app.  I picked Todoist.  I typed in all my to-do’s, and then started adding things that I never put on my to-do list—like vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom—that I used to just do when they looked like they needed doing.

I careened wildly between two extremes—I’d work like mad to complete my list, obsessing over trivial things I hadn’t done.

I did this until I exhausted myself and then I’d completely ignore the list and my calendar for a day or two.

This is self-imposed madness.  And the road to a missed dentist appointment.

Then last week I finally devised the perfect system—I deleted the apps and threw away the desk planner.

Now I use a wall calendar in the kitchen to keep track of my appointments, and write my to-do’s in a pocket notebook.

Simple, effective, efficient.

Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier?


*I was going to write about Reacher, but Jamie Todd Rubin captured perfectly everything I wanted to say.  Check out his “reading my mind” review here.

Monthly calendar hanging on wall