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

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)

Sources

  • 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.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948):  John Huston Returns from the War

Tim Holt, Walter Huston, and Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Holt, W. Huston, and Bogart
Treasure of the Sierra Madre Opening (1948)

After hitting paydirt in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston were eager to make more movies together.  They began Across the Pacific (1942), a war propaganda film with Falcon co-stars Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

During filming, Huston knew the next story he wanted to make with Bogart, an adaptation of a novel by the reclusive German writer B. Traven.  It was a story of the corrosive effect of greed on a cynical soul set in the golden mountains of Mexico.

Before Huston could finish Across the Pacific, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to make war films.  With much of Across the Pacific filmed, Warner Brothers had no choice but to replace Huston with Vincent Sherman.

But the studio put the script for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on a shelf with a note that read, “Awaiting John Huston.”

After he completed his service (he was ultimately promoted to major and won the Legion of Merit award for making films “under perilous battle conditions”) he returned to the Treasure project.

Huston wrote the screenplay and directed the film.  Set in Mexico in the early 1920s, three destitute Americans search for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.  Their problems begin when they find a huge cache of gold.  To pull the gold out of the earth, they must fight the harsh elements and put in long days of exhausting work.  They must steer clear of bandits who would kill them for the shoes on their feet, and the other prospectors who might want to hone in on their find.

They must also fight the voice in their heads that whisper that all the gold is better than a third of the gold.

Bogart plays Fred Dobbs, the most cynical of the three, the one who falls victim to a paranoia that ultimately drives him to a cold-blooded murder that his addled brain rationalizes as self-defense. 

Tim Holt plays Curtin, the most optimistic and naïve of the trio, one who believes the three of them will emerge intact with all their gold.

And Huston’s father Walter Huston plays Howard, the grizzled old veteran who’s been on treasure hunts before and knows how this will end.

“I know what gold does to men’s souls,” he tells Curtin and Dobbs before their expedition begins.

It’s a fascinating and gritty film.  Curtin, Dobbs, and Howard are covered from head to toe in grime for days on end.  The mistrust grows as they each hide their share of “the goods” from one another each night.  They agree to shoot an interloper who wants a share of the goods, but bandits take care of him first.

When Howard is separated from Curtin and Dobbs, Dobbs decides that he and Curtin should split Howard’s share.  When Curtin refuses, Dobbs realizes that he can keep all the gold if he kills Curtin.  In the film’s most harrowing sequence, Dobbs and Curtin play a days-long game of chicken in which the first man to fall asleep will be killed by the other.

The Bogart from Casablanca is unrecognizable here; Dobbs is dirty, a thick beard that only grows as the months go by.  He looks old, haggard, and you can see the crazy in his eyes.

Dobbs believes he has killed Curtin (he’s wrong; Curtin is merely wounded) and has all the gold to himself.  But he still has to get it out of the mountains, and the effort of moving all the gold is too much for him. 

Exhausted and nearly dead of thirst, he stumbles into a small river.  As he washes his face and drinks, he sees the silhouette of a man with a gold sombrero in the water.

It is the bandit he nearly killed, and just as Dobbs killed Curtin for gold, the bandit kills Dobbs for his shoes, burros, and furs.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  The end of the line for  Dobbs (Bogart).  With Alfonso Bedoya.
The end of the line for Dobbs (Bogart). With Alfonso Bedoya

Curtin and Howard search for Dobbs and their gold in a wicked sandstorm.  When they finally find Dobbs, they realize that their gold is blowing all around them in the storm.  The bandits mistook it for sand (believing Dobbs was going to use it to inflate the weight of his furs when selling them) and dumped the bags onto the ground.

All their toil and sweat, blowing in the wind.

But unlike Dobbs, at least they got out with their lives.

In the final moments, they laugh maniacally at the cruel cosmic joke the universe has played on them.

Huston filmed outside Mexico City, one of the first Hollywood films shot on location.  Huston liked adventure, travel, and most of all liked being far enough away from the studio heads that they couldn’t meddle with his picture.

Betty Bogart came along for the entirety of the months-long shoot, along with Huston’s new young wife Evelyn Keyes.  Huston had never liked Bogart’s wife Mayo—he thought she was a scold and she’d interrupted the filming of Falcon with her antics.

So what did Huston think of his friend’s new young wife?

“[Bogart’s life was] improved by Betty’s presence.  Oh, boy, was she good for him!  Open and hearty and direct.  With humor—and a kind of bravura quality.  Insulting and tropical.  I just loved her from the word go.”1

John Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre
John Huston makes a brief appearance in the film

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a triumph for Bogart and the younger and elder Huston.  It was not a huge box office success—it was considered too grim at the time, with no women, and no love story—but it has grown in stature over the years and is now considered a classic.  It’s number 38 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American films.

The Hustons picked up three Academy Awards for the film—John won for both screenwriting and direction, and Walter won for Best Supporting Actor.

For Bogart and Huston, it was only the beginning of their legendary collaboration.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre Verdict - Give It A Shot

Notes

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

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey.  John Huston:  Courage and Art.  2011.

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

Dark Passage (1947):  Happiness Against All Odds

Dark Passage (1947) poster featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Dark Passage (1947)

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married on April 21, 1945 at Malabar Farm in Ohio.  The farm was owned by Bogart’s friend and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Louis Bromfield, who served as best man.  (And was last seen on this blog convincing Edna Ferber to come to New Orleans, which would give her the inspiration to finish Saratoga Trunk.)

The wars with Germany, Japan, and Mayo were over.

“He was a changed man with her,” according to actor Sam Jaffe.  “He was very happy.”

Instead of drunken brawls and cutting words, Bogart and Bacall settled into a life of domestic bliss.  They spent time with friends, on his boat, and ate dinner in the living room on tv trays.

Both would describe these as the happiest years of their lives.

Bogart, now the world’s most bankable star (thanks in no small part to his onscreen chemistry with Bacall) negotiated a contract with Warner Brothers that made him the highest paid actor in 1946.

In 1947, Bogie and Bacall teamed up onscreen for the third time in Dark Passage, the least known of their eventual four films together.  Aside from the additional footage shot for The Big Sleep, it was their first time working together as husband and wife.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on the set of Dark Passage (1947)
The Bogarts on set

Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a San Quentin inmate convicted of killing his wife.  The film opens as he escapes from prison by hiding in an oil drum on the back of a truck.  With a full-scale manhunt on, he’s surely to be caught, until a young woman (Bacall) picks him up on the side of the road and hides him under a blanket in the backseat of her car.

It’s a great stroke of luck (the first of two) for Parry, as the woman is Irene Jansen, the only woman in San Francisco who believes he is innocent.  (She went to his trial every day; turns out her own father was wrongly convicted in a similar case.)

But I’m burying the lede—during this entire sequence, the audience doesn’t see Bogart’s face.  In fact, we see everything from his point of view.  It was a brand new gimmick at the time, one that required a special hand-held camera.  We see the world through Vincent Parry’s eyes for the first third of the film.

There’s a pragmatic reason for this—the second stroke of luck for Parry is that a cab driver who picks him up is the only man in San Francisco who believes him.  Said cab driver just happens to know a plastic surgeon who changes the faces of criminals for a fee.

I know, I know.  These two coincidences—Irene just happening upon him during his escape, and the cabbie knowing the plastic surgeon—are beyond belief.  Despite being wrongfully imprisoned for murdering his wife, Vincent Parry is just about the luckiest guy in San Francisco.

But if you can swallow these (and really, if we can watch The Big Sleep without worrying about who killed the chauffeur than surely we can overlook Parry’s guardian angels) then Dark Passage is an entertaining film noir.

When the camera finally pulls back from Parry’s point of view, we see his head wrapped in bandages after his surgery.  Irene tends to his wounds and hides him from the police.  Only using his eyes, Bogart has no problem conveying the growing love Parry feels for Irene. 

If a convict looked at me like Bogie looked at Bacall, I’d hide him in my bedroom too.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Dark Passage (1947)

About halfway through the film, Irene takes the bandages off and gets her first look at Parry’s new face.

As the cops, and Irene’s vicious and nosy neighbor (a wonderful supporting turn by Agnes Moorehead) close in, Irene and Vincent try in vain to prove his innocence and elude capture.

I’m skipping over some lovely little plot twists to allow you to discover them for yourself.  But in the end, the heat is too hot, and Vincent is forced to leave town.

Vincent heads to Peru, and entreats Irene to come to him after a few years have passed and the heat is off him.  They’ll meet in a little bar along the coast.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Dark Passage (1947)

In the final scene, we see Vincent in that bar, waiting.  He knows it’s crazy, he knows she won’t come.  We don’t know how long he’s been waiting, how many nights he’s sat alone in that bar waiting for Irene to walk through the door.  He probably curses himself a fool every time and promises to give up tomorrow.

But the next night he’s there.  And when he looks up, he sees her.

She’s standing in the restaurant, holding her purse and smiling at him.  Their eyes lock and they might as well be the only two in the world.  She crosses the room to him, he stands, and without a word they dance as the film fades to black.

Of all their films, I’ve always thought this moment perfectly encapsulated their love story.  Bogart, waiting, thinking love would never come.  Then suddenly looking up to find it right in front of him.  And Bacall, who, with the confidence of youth, brushed aside the obstacles and never wavered as she went to him.

Whether we’re talking about Vincent and Irene, or Bogie and Bacall, happiness looks good on them.

Dark Passage (1947) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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.

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

Dark Passage (1947) poster featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

The Big Sleep (1946):  Who killed the chauffeur?

Opening credits of The Big Sleep (1946) showing showed profiles of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Opening credits from The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep (1946) opening banner

In every romance novel, there’s a moment when all hope seems lost. 

For Bogie and Bacall, that time was the shooting of The Big Sleep.

Bogart’s wife Mayo sensed the threat Bacall posed and promised to stop drinking.  Bogart felt he owed his marriage one more try and broke things off with Bacall.  He moved in and out of his house with Mayo, leaving Bacall sick with despair as he yo-yoed between the two women.

The months he spent trying to give up Bacall were among the most wretched of his life.

Wracked with guilt and believing that leaving Mayo was a dereliction of duty (his first two divorces were mutual), Bogart went on a drinking binge that left him unable to film for days. 

Meanwhile, Howard Hawks and the screenwriters were having a hell of a time adapting Raymond Chandler’s complicated detective novel.  The restraints of the production code were impossible to meet with a story about a pornography ring and a nymphomaniac.  They wrote as they filmed, tearing out scenes and trying to condense Chandler’s plot into a two hour film.  Actors waited while Hawks rewrote scenes in the morning that were rehearsed and filmed the same afternoon.

And nobody—not even Raymond Chandler—knew who the hell killed the chauffeur.

When script girl Meta Carpenter noted this was, “a dangerous way to make a motion picture,” it was a hell of an understatement.

Weeks late and over budget, Hawks somehow brought The Big Sleep in for a landing in January 1945, but Warner Brothers prioritized releasing all their war films before World War II ended and the audience lost interest. 

While the original cut of The Big Sleep gathered dust, Bogart made his decision.  He could not walk away from the promise of a happy life with Betty Bacall.  He divorced Mayo, leaving her a generous settlement and in the care of her mother.  Mayo would die only six years later at 47 from the ill effects of a lifetime of excessive drinking.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart on the set of The Big Sleep (1946)
On the set of The Big Sleep

Knowing it was time to fold, Howard Hawks sold Bacall’s contract to Warner Brothers.

Yet a year later when Warner Brothers decided to release the film, all involved knew that it needed more of the Bogart-Bacall sizzle.  Penny pinching Jack Warner uncharacteristically (and shrewdly, it turned out) authorized additional work on the film.

So the band got back together and shot fifteen minutes of classic Bogart and Bacall footage, including a scene loaded with sexual dialogue in which they compare one another to race horses.

You’ve got a touch of class,” Bogart (as Marlowe) tells her.  “But I don’t know how far you can go.”

A lot depends on who’s in the saddle,” she retorts with a grin.

To make room for the additional scenes, they cut thirteen minutes of exposition, and any chance that anyone could ever follow the plot of the film.

With such a chaotic backstory, The Big Sleep has no business being a classic.

But it is, proving the Bogie-Bacall chemistry from To Have and Have Not was no fluke.

Though he’s been played by many men (including Liam Neeson in the upcoming 2023 release Marlowe), ear tugging Humphrey Bogart will always be the quintessential Philip Marlowe.

The Big Sleep opens with General Sternwood hiring the private investigator to stop a bookseller named Arthur Geiger from blackmailing his younger daughter Carmen over unpaid gambling debts. 

Overnight, the case escalates—Marlowe breaks into Geiger’s house and finds Carmen out of her mind on drugs with an empty camera and Geiger’s body at her feet.  Marlowe takes Carmen home, makes time for some quick, sexy repartee with her sister Vivian (Bacall), then returns to the scene of the crime and finds Geiger’s body missing.

Bogart and Bacall, The Big Sleep (1946)

Oh, and Sternwood’s chauffeur was found dead when his limo crashed into the river.

Marlowe discovers what was in the camera when Vivian brings a new blackmail note demanding $5,000 for the negatives of compromising photographs of Carmen taken the night before.

It’s a thorny case, but Marlowe is up to the job.  Soon he’s tangling with Geiger’s gangster landlord Eddie Mars, Sternwood’s previous blackmailer Joe Brody, and Lash Canino who…well, I can’t exactly remember his role.

The Big Sleep’s thrills come from Marlowe figuring out the crime, even if we can’t. 

It’s a delicious film noir that has more sex and humor than hard boiled cynicism.  Every woman in the picture wants Marlowe, from Carmen who tried to, as Marlowe puts it, “sit on my lap while I was standing up” to the mousy bookseller played by a young Dorothy Malone.  She sheds her glasses, lets down her hair, and helps Marlowe wait out a rainy afternoon stakeout.

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep
Dorothy Malone, Humphrey Bogart

Even a female cab driver tells him he can call if he needs to use her again.

“Day and night?” Marlowe asks.

“Night’s better,” she says.  “I work during the day.”

Humphrey Bogart and Joy Barlow in the The Big Sleep (1946)
Bogart, Joy Barlow

Sure, the plot is impossible to follow.  But so what?

Bogart is double-crossed, beaten, and tied-up.  He throws punches, tosses around double entendres with beautiful women, smokes cigarettes, solves the case, and gets Bacall in the end.

Nobody cares who killed the chauffeur.

Lauren Bacall as Vivian and Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep (1946) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • McCarthy, Todd.  Howard Hawks:  The Grey Fox of Hollywood.  1997.
Opening credits of The Big Sleep (1946) showing showed profiles of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

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

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.

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.

Saratoga Trunk (1945):  “Two Impecunious Rascals”

1945's Saratoga Trunk opening banner

For years, Edna Ferber tried to convinced George Kaufman to write a play with her about:

“Two impecunious rascals, a man and a woman, both bearing a grudge against the world.  Meeting by accident.  Combining forces, without sentiment, without love, without marriage, to fight and defeat a horde of moneyed rascals in a ruthless world against a ruthless background.  Saratoga.”

-Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure

But Kaufman had no interest in the play, and Ferber shelved the idea, for two main reasons: (1) she didn’t want to write a play alone, and (2) though she knew the man in her story would be a Texan, she couldn’t quite get a mental image of the woman.

She was in Texas researching a novel that was going nowhere (and would itself be shelved for a dozen years before reemerging as Giant) when her friend and fellow Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Louis Bromfield telegrammed her to meet him in New Orleans.  She’d never been to New Orleans before, and after a few days in The Big Easy, she could finally see her heroine clearly in her mind’s eye—Clio Dulaine, beautiful, young, and bold.  Paris-raised but returning to the city of her birth to exact revenge.

The resulting novel, Saratoga Trunk, was another critical and commercial success, garnering favorable reviews and was one of the top ten best-selling novels of 1941.

Speculation about who would play the leads in the inevitable film began immediately.  Clifton Fadiman wrote in his New Yorker review that Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper were shoo-ins for the lead roles.

He was half-right, as Gary Cooper was the choice for Texan Clint Maroon.

But the role of Clio went not to Dietrich, nor Olivia de Havilland*, who desperately wanted it, but to Ingrid Bergman, fresh off filming For Whom the Bell Tolls with Cooper.

The result?

Ferber herself (never afraid to criticize adaptations of her films) called it, “a rather dashing motion picture.”

Dashing indeed.

Like the novel, the film opens with the arrival of Clio Dulaine in New Orleans.  Years ago, her mother was the subject of scandal, the kept mistress of the rich and powerful Nicholas Dulaine.  Clio’s mother shot him when he left her, though it was an accident as he intervened when she was trying to commit suicide over her heartbreak.

Ingrid Bergman walking down the street as Clio Dulaine in Saratoga Trunk (1945)
Bergman

The Dulaine family paid Clio’s mother to go to France and never return.

After her mother’s death, Clio arrives in America determined to first make life very uncomfortable for the Dulaines, and eventually marry a rich man so she can live in comfort. 

She will never be a fool for love—that was her mother’s mistake.

Clio, the spitting image of her mother, conspicuously parades around New Orleans, delighting in the attention and ire she draws from the Dulaine family.  She also attracts the attention of Texan Clint Maroon, a stranger passing through in a ten gallon white hat and big leather boots.

The attraction is instant, mutual, and all consuming.

Gary Cooper as Clint Maroon in Saratoga Trunk.
Cooper

But Maroon is exactly the kind of man Clio can’t marry—he’s poor, scraping by on what he wins at the races and poker games.  And Maroon isn’t looking to permanently hitch his wagon to a woman who in many ways is still a girl—both cunning and naïve, calculating and occasionally hysterical.

Maroon has his own agenda—he wants revenge against the railroad barons who cheated his parents out of their land.

And yet he can’t bring himself to leave for Saratoga, New York—summer home of the east’s richest railroad barons—until he convinces Clio to go with him.

They’ll work together to achieve their dual aims—he will fleece the men at the poker table, and she’ll snag a rich husband.

Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman as Clint Maroon and Clio Dulaine in 1945's Saratoga Trunk.
Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper

She sets her sights on Bartholomew Van Steed, a rich but feckless man tied to his mother’s apron strings.  Clio easily charms and manipulates him until he’s on the brink of marriage, driving Clint mad with jealousy.

But she cannot—and will not—marry a man without money.

Van Steed owns what was a mostly worthless railroad line outside of Saratoga.  But as the eastern cities build up, the line is poised to become a trunk line—a main artery—and make the owner rich.  But Van Steed’s competitors are using dirty tactics to steal the line from him.

He doesn’t know how to fight.

But Clint does.

Shall I spoil the ending for you reader?

Let’s just say that about the time Clio decides that love trumps money, Clint decides that if Clio will only marry a man with money, then he will get truckloads of it.

And he’ll use his wits, his fists, and the Saratoga trunk line to fight for it Texas style.

Saratoga Trunk is my favorite of Edna Ferber’s novels, and the film captures the mystery of New Orleans, the romance in the air, and the irresistible pleasure of watching two rascals fall in love despite their best efforts to prevent it.


*Note: By 1945, Olivia de Havilland was deep into her Hollywood blacklist period after suing Warner Brothers regarding her contract.  But “Saratoga Trunk” was filmed in 1943, when de Havilland was still working for Warner Brothers (though about to launch her famous suit.)  Though the film was finished in 1943, Warner Brothers didn’t release it until after World War II ended.  During that time audiences preferred films about the war. 

Saratoga Trunk (1945) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Behlmer, Rudy.  Inside Warner Bros (1935-1951).  1985.
  • Ferber, Edna.  Saratoga Trunk.  1969 reprint.

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

Guest Posting with B&S About Movies: This Gun for Hire (1942)

My latest guest post over at B&S About Movies is up.  I write about This Gun for Hire (1942), an early noir mystery starring Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, and newcomer Alan Ladd, who completely runs away with the picture as a ruthless hitman with a soft spot for cats (and Veronica Lake, of course)

As always, if you’re inclined to leave a comment, please do so over at B&S. Enjoy!