Blowing Wild (1953): The Forgotten Finale of Stanwyck and Cooper

Anthony Quinn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gary Cooper in "Blowing Wild" (1953)
Anthony Quinn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gary Cooper

After making two successful films together in 1941—the uplifting Meet John Doe and the charming Ball of Fire, it’s surprising Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck didn’t work together again for twelve years.

It was perhaps inevitable that Blowing Wild, their third and final film together, would be a western, as both turn to the genre in the 1950s as they aged out of playing the dashing young hero and ingénue.

As in their previous films, Cooper plays the good guy—the one who insists on playing by the rules and staying on the straight and narrow, while Stanwyck tries to corrupt him.

In this iteration, Cooper plays Jeff Dawson, an American oil wildcatter in South America who’s so broke that bandits can’t find a dime on him or his partner Dutch (Ward Bond) when they try to rob them.  For spite, the bandits blow up their single oil well and their best chance at striking it rich.

In desperation, Dutch mugs a man in a dark alley for food money, but it turns out to be their old friend Ward “Paco” Conway (Anthony Quinn).  Paco has struck it rich in South America, and has a huge custom-built house, wads of cash, and a dozen oil wells pumping day and night. 

Paco’s job offer seems like the answer to their prayers but for one problem:  Paco’s wife is Jeff’s ex.

And she’s not just any ex—Marina (Stanwyck) is as predatory as a black widow spider and immediately sets her sights on getting Jeff back.

Jeff knows trouble when he sees it, and figures that taking a job hauling a load of dynamite over bumpy dirt roads while being chased by bandits is less dangerous than being around Marina again.

Barbara Stanwyck, and Gary Cooper in "Blowing Wild"
Stanwyck and Cooper

But Dutch is shot in the leg and hospitalized during the job, and the man who hired them double-crosses them and leaves them as broke as when they started.

Jeff has no choice but to take the job with Paco, who is thrilled to have his buddy working for him again and oblivious to the attraction between Jeff and Marina.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck both made some excellent westerns during their careers; sadly, Blowing Wild isn’t among them.  It’s not a terrible film—looking at Cooper’s lined face and cowboy walk are never a hardship, and it’s fun to watch Marina scheme and ever murder to get the man she wants—a man she wants mostly because he no longer wants her.

Lauren Bacall turned down the role because she was locked in a power struggle with Jack Warner at the time and rightly felt the role lacked subtlety.  Stanwyck probably agreed but relished the opportunity to ride a horse onscreen—Marina recklessly racing her husband’s car on horseback is an inspired scene that illuminates Marina’s character and allows Stanwyck to show off her riding skills.

Anthony Quinn and Barbara Stanwyck in "Blowing Wild"
Stanwyck and Quinn

The film was panned at the time—a year before Cooper and Stanwyck had played better versions of the same roles in High Noon and Clash By Night, and reviewers unfairly described Stanwyck’s character as a cut-rate version of her Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.

There’s something here for fans of Cooper, Stanwyck, and westerns.  But the casual film viewer who wants an introduction or greatest hits of any of the above should look elsewhere.

Blowing Wild (1953) Verdict:  Stanwyck/Cooper Buffs Only

“Gun Crazy” (1950) Laid the Foundation for “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)

John Dall grabs Peggy Cummins to prevent her from shooting the cops in Gun Crazy (1950)
Gun Crazy (1950) opening banner

When I was in college, everyone had one of three posters hanging in their dorm—either a Bob Marley mosaic, Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Bob Marley, Albert Einstein, Starry Night

Me?

I had a poster of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

I’ve always been a sucker for stories of criminals in love and on the run, and the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway true life tale is the second of three quintessential films in this subgenre.

A picture of the author in her dorm room with a Bonnie and Clyde poster on the wall
My friend Tammy, Me, and Bonnie and Clyde circa 2000

It’s tough to get just the right mix of crime and romance, and no one nailed it again until director Tony Scott and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino teamed up in 1993 to make True Romance.  Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are lovable losers who, unlike the other couples under discussion here, ultimately make a clean getaway.  (True Romance was underappreciated in its day.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s well worth your time.)

True Romance is a direct descendant of a line that stretches two generations back.

Before True Romance, there was Bonnie and Clyde.

But before Bonnie and Clyde, there was Gun Crazy.

Bart Tare (played by John Dall, last seen attempting the perfect murder with Farley Granger in Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope) is a boy enthralled with guns. 

He loves to shoot, but not to kill.

His obsession with firearms lands him in reform school when he smashes a window and steals a gun from a display case.

He does a stint in the military and returns home, hoping to get a job with Remington.

He’s the best shot in town, but he still abhors the idea of killing humans or animals.

He’s instantly mesmerized when he meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a carnival sharpshooter who invites him up on stage for a shooting contest.

For the contest, each takes a turn wearing a crown with six matches sticking out.  While one stands still, the other shoots the matches into flames.

From that moment on they lust for one another as much as they do for guns, and they marry in the middle of the night at a roadside justice of the peace.

After an idyllic interlude as newlyweds, Annie grows tired of being broke and suggests they hold up stores and gas stations for money. 

Even with the strict rules around sex and violence in 1950s Hollywood, it’s clear that stick-ups are the ultimate foreplay for Bart and Annie.

After a close call in which they had to abandon their entire haul of cash to elude capture, Annie and Bart decide to do one last job before retiring and running away to Mexico.

The job goes wrong.  Deadly wrong.

The film lays the blame at Annie’s feet.  The film was originally titled Deadly Is the Female, and Annie is the force propelling a previously good man down the road to ruin.

It’s Annie who wants to do one last job despite Bart’s protestations, and Annie who shoots and kills two people in the robbery.

Though she tells Bart that she was afraid in the moment, it’s been clear that Annie has a bloodlust that she’d thus far kept under control for his sake.  The last job—the last chance to kill—was too great a temptation.

Original poste for Gun Crazy (1950)
Early poster for “Gun Crazy,” originally titled “Deadly is the Female”

It’s Annie who wants to kidnap a child to prevent the cops from shooting at them in their getaway car.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, there’s no happy ending for Annie and Bart.

Gun Crazy was shocking for its time, but to modern viewers saturated in sex and violence, the film doesn’t quite hold up.  We know Annie and Bart are consumed with lust and violence, but we don’t quite feel it.

Annie’s character is a bit too much of an enigma.  Is she as in love with him as he is with her?  Or is he purely her patsy?

The film never gives a definitive answer, and the uncertainty leaves the audience wanting.

Despite its flaws, Gun Crazy laid the blueprint for Bonnie and Clyde and True Romance, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

Gun Crazy (1950) verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

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

John Dall grabs Peggy Cummins to prevent her from shooting the cops in Gun Crazy (1950)

You Never Knew a Neat Freak Like “Harriet Craig” (1950)

Promotional poster for "Harriet Craig" starring Joan Crawford
Harriet Craig starring Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey

Harriet Craig was the second of three films director Vincent Sherman and Joan Crawford made together while having a rather satisfying affair throughout 1949 and 1950.

Sherman wanted to keep working with Crawford, but he didn’t want to make Harriet Craig.  George Kelly’s play Craig’s Wife had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1926, and already had two film adaptations, the second in 1936 with Rosalind Russell and John Boles.

Despite its previous successes, Sherman didn’t think 1950s audiences would be interested in the tale of a manipulative and coldly demanding housewife.  Harriet’s rules are never ending and precise—the vase above the fireplace must not be even an inch too close to the edge.  Her husband is not to sit on the arm of the sofa.  The shutters are to be closed at 11:30 in the morning to prevent the sun from fading the furniture, and the maid is to use the back staircase so as not to wear out the carpet on the main one.  Harriet sucks all the life from her home and her marriage, and the film ends with her alone and without redemption—in holding so tightly to her husband, she succeeds only in driving him away.

Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey in Harriet Craig

Sherman also thought the role cut a little too close to the bone for his leading lady.  In his autobiography, Sherman writes, that  “In many ways, Joan was herself the embodiment of Harriet Craig, in her obsessive attitude toward her home; her distrust of men and her desire to control; and her power of manipulation.”

Even before her Mommie Dearest days, Joan Crawford was well-known as an obsessive house cleaner.  She was continually firing her staff for not living up to her exacting standards, and often preferred to do even the most laborious tasks herself.

Joan Crawford was not blind to the similarities.  In his biography Possessed, Donald Spoto notes that Crawford wrote in a letter to a friend, “The part of me that is ‘Craig’s Wife’ often comes out, and I wander around my heavenly home [looking for cleaning to do.]”

She wanted the role, and she convinced Sherman to take on the project.

Wendell Corey (most remembered for his role as the detective in Rear Window) plays Walter Craig, and amiable man who fell for Harriet’s beauty and initially brushes off her increasingly neurotic and shrewish behavior.

Harriet has her reasons—she was traumatized by her father’s affairs and abandonment, and is afraid to let her own husband out of her sight—but her need for control propels a level of manipulation so grotesque that the audience cannot sympathize with her.  Through a series of escalating lies, she ruins her cousin Clare’s romantic relationship so that Clare will not marry and quit her job as Harriet’s private secretary.

She crosses the final line when she sabotages Walter’s chances at a promotion because it will mean more travel—and thus time out from under her thumb.

In the film’s most satisfying scene, Walter—who has always tried hard to follow Harriet’s mandates—deliberately smashes her favorite vase as an act of liberating himself from his stifling marriage.

Wendell Corey lies on a couch holding a vase in Harriet Craig

He leaves Harriet, and in the final scene we see her ascending the pristine stairs, knowing that she will have full control over her sterile home, but no one to share it with.

We’re lucky that Crawford talked Sherman into making the picture, for it’s delicious fun to watch her terrorize the entire household with her exacting orders.

And knowing that she may have been exorcising personal demons only adds to its appeal.

Joan Crawford walks alone up a staircase in "Harriet Craig"
Harriet Craig (1950) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Sherman, Vincent.  Studio Affairs—My Life as a Film Director.  1996.
  • Spoto, Donald.  Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford.  2010.
  • Bret, David.  Joan Crawford:  Hollywood Martyr.  2006.

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

Promotional poster for "Harriet Craig" starring Joan Crawford

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956):  Que Sera, Sera

James Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
James Stewart and Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956):  Starring James Stewart and Doris Day.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is not to be missed.

Director Alfred Hitchcock was in the prime of his career.  He had already made Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), and Rear Window (1954).  Still to come were Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963.)

Hitchcock used the power garnered from his success to remake one of his own films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he’d made in 1934 in Britain before coming to Hollywood in 1940.

As Hitchcock astutely told François Truffaut, “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

Hitchcock knew who he wanted as the leads—Jimmy Stewart, who he’d worked with twice before with great success, and Doris Day, whom he felt could be a great dramatic actress if given the right part.  Day was thrilled to be working with Hitchcock after deciding to go independent and not renew her contract with Warner Brothers.

James Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Hitch tells the story of husband and wife Ben (Stewart) and Jo (Day) McKenna, who are taking a holiday through French Morocco with their young son Hank.  Without spoiling the twists and turns of the plot, the innocent McKennas find themselves caught up in a nightmare when they are dragged into a plot to assassinate a foreign statesman.  Ben is a doctor, Jo a famous singer, and they know nothing of the plot.  But the assassins believe they do after an innocent conversation with a man who turns out to be a French Intelligent Agent.  To keep them quiet, the assassins kidnap Hank.

During the rest of the film, Jo and Ben struggle to find Hank and stop the assassination.  The film crests during a cinematically magnificent scene at the Royal Albert Concert Hall when Jo must decide whether or not to stop the assassination, knowing it may mean the death of her son.  In a signature Hitchcockian scene, the symphony plays and the screws tighten as the audience waits for the clash of cymbals that will cover the assassin’s bullet.

Hitchcock commissioned Jay Livingston and Ray Evans to write a song specifically for Doris Day to sing in the film, and they came up with “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).”  The film won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and became Day’s signature theme for the rest of her life.

The song plays a prominent role in the film, as a kidnapped Hank hears his mother singing it and knows she is near.

Day and Stewart are excellent as a husband and wife trying desperately to find their son.

Sometimes lost among Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, the film is top notch work by all involved and is a must-see for any suspense, Hitchcock, Stewart, or Day fan.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Verdict:  Timeless-Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Kaufman, David.  Doris Day:  The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door.  2008.
  • Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart:  A Biography.  2006.
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut.  1966.

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

Designing Woman (1957):  Bacall After Bogart

Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck

Lauren Bacall filmed Designing Woman while Humphrey Bogart was still alive, and when they both believed he would recover from his cancer.

It’s a lighthearted comedy, likely a welcome respite from the nightmare of Bogie’s illness and death.

Bacall and Gregory Peck play an opposites-attract couple who fall in love and try to stay that way when the honeymoon is over and real life intrudes.  Though not a musical, director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris) gives the film the light and bubbly tone of one, and throws in a few choreographed numbers to boot.

In a role originally developed for Grace Kelly (“She got the prince, I got the part” Bacall quipped), she plays Marilla Brown, a fashion designer who meets sportswriter Mike Hagen while on vacation in Beverly Hills.  They embark on a whirlwind romance and return to New York blissfully in love and knowing little about one another.

Mike assumes they’ll live in his cluttered shoebox bachelor pad and is stunned to learn she owns a luxurious penthouse. 

Laughs ensue as they discover further differences that mark them as completely incompatible but never diminish their love. 

The most memorable scene in the film is when Mike hosts his weekly poker night with his reporter friends on the same night Marilla has a group of her artistic friends over for a dramatic reading.  Each is incredulous over the other’s choice of food, friends, and activities.

Further trouble ensues when Marilla meets Mike’s former lover Lori Shannon and Mike pretends not to know her.  There’s no malice in Mike’s lie, he merely wishes to spare Marilla’s feelings.

There’s a mobster after Mike, a fashion show for Marilla, and Mike’s old boxer friend who sleeps with not one but two eyes open.

It’s a funny, sweet comedy that ends with a choreographed fight scene as mobsters attempt to kidnap Marilla and Mike rides to the rescue with mixed results.

By the time Designing Women was released, Bogart was gone.  Numb with grief, she went on a three week publicity tour for the film just two months after his death.

In the years after Bogart’s death, Bacall floundered in both her life and career.  She had a disastrous rebound relationship with Frank Sinatra, and an unsuccessful second marriage with Jason Robards that likely wouldn’t have happened at all but for her pregnancy.  She lost her mother and her beloved uncle Charlie who acted as a father figure. 

She fled California—her film career was all but dead, her friends had been Bogart’s friends, and Bogart was gone.  She couldn’t live in that once happy house without him.

She returned home—to New York City, and the stage.

Though her film career never recovered (despite an Academy Award-nominated performance many years later in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces), Bacall embarked on a successful decades-long career in the theater. 

In was in the theater that she found happiness and satisfaction again.  And success.  Though the Oscar eluded her, she was perhaps more grateful to win two Best Actress Tony Awards for her work in Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981).

The pity of the stage is that, unlike film, its great performances are lost to history. 

Lauren Bacall died in 2014, 115 years after the day Humphrey Bogart was born.  During the 115 years that one or both of them walked the earth, they shared only 13 years together.

Such a short time, but it couldn’t have been any longer.  If they’d met any earlier, she’d have been too young for a romance to blossom.  For Bogart, Bacall was a sweet ending—the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a man who’d been so unlucky in love.

B&B on their wedding day

For Bacall, Bogart was the beginning.  She became a woman when she fell in love with him, and he set the standard for her love and work.

Casablanca was a wonderful romantic film, perhaps the finest ever made.  But when Humphrey Bogart found his Baby two years after completing the film, they one-upped Rick and Isla. 

At the end of Casablanca, Isla lets Rick talk her into leaving him so they can both do their part to help the war effort.

Admirable, yes.

But Bacall would’ve let the world burn to the ground before she left her Bogie on the tarmac.

As we turn the page on one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, I’ll give Bacall the last word.  She writes in By Myself, “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”

Sources

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

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

The Caine Mutiny (1954): Bogart’s Final Masterpiece

At their wedding in 1945, Humphrey Bogart gave Lauren “Betty” Bacall a bracelet with a small gold whistle, a nod to their famous scene in To Have and Have Not (1944), when her character teaches his how to whistle.

Bogart had come a long way from his early, desperate, drunken days in Hollywood.  He had a beautiful young wife who adored him, an Oscar, and his career success showed no sign of waning.  He even had two children, long after he’d given up on the possibility of fatherhood.

He was running on all cylinders when he signed on for the infamous role of Lieutenant Commander Captain Philip Francis Queeg in Columbia’s adaptation of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Caine Mutiny.

It’s one of his most recognized and remembered roles, a character very different from Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe.

The film focuses on a trio of officers—experienced shipman executive officer Lt. Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), newly minted Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) on his first voyage, and jovial Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).

Queeg enforces Navy regulation to the letter—berating sailors for untucked uniforms and a cluttered deck.  While much of the crew chafes under the restrictions, at first Maryk takes them stoically, Keith is impressed, and Keefer rolls his eyes and makes cutting if funny comments about the commander.

Things change when Queeg is distracted during a training exercise and ignores the helmsman’s warnings.  The Caine ends up cutting a tow rope. 

It’s a serious mistake, the blame is squarely on Queeg, and instead of taking responsibility, he covers it up.

Suddenly, his dictatorial style takes on a sinister edge.

Keefer immediately stirs the pot, insisting Queeg is unbalanced and must be replaced.  Despite his private worries, Maryk tells Keefer to speak no more of replacing him.

The penalty for mutiny is death.

Queeg becomes increasingly unhinged, his paranoia reaching a crescendo when he goes berserk over strawberries missing from the mess hall, interviewing the crew for hours and searching everyone’s quarters.

The Strawberry Investigation

During a typhoon, Captain Queeg loses all sense of control and panics, giving the crew instructions that will surely kill them all.  Back against the wall and believing he has no choice, Maryk invokes Article 184 and takes control of the ship away from Queeg.

The mutiny is complete.

But this is no adventure film, like Mutiny on the Bounty—Maryk and Keith (who supported Maryk) are not celebrated as heroes, and do not sail away to a life of ease on a remote island.  They return to face the charge of mutiny.

It’s not going their way—until Queeg himself testifies.

Bogart plays the extended court scene masterfully—his Queeg rolls two steel balls around in his hand as he breaks down on the stand, his paranoia eventually on full view for all to see.

The tribunal has no choice but to find the men not guilty of mutiny, but dishonor stains them—their commander was clearly sick, so why didn’t they try to help him rather than mock him and stand aside while he made mistakes?

Watching the film, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that the Navy would’ve preferred the ship to sink than the officers to believe they knew better than the captain.  Wars are won by following orders, not using your head.

The film is excellent in every way—a portrait of cowardice, bravery, and breakdown in war.  Though the words are never used, Queeg is clearly suffering from what we would today called post-traumatic stress disorder.  He is not a monster whose downfall should be celebrated, but a once-brave man destroyed by war to be pitied.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.  Bogart was nominated for Best Actor for the third time, losing to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

The Caine Mutiny was the second highest grossing film of 1954.

Bogart was on top of the world.

But it was all about to come crashing down.

It started as a cough that wouldn’t go away.

By the time he made The Barfoot Contessa (1954) with Ava Gardner, the coughing was constant and frequently interrupted filming.  Often the take used was the only one where Bogie wasn’t coughing.

In 1956, Bogart and Bacall were scheduled to make Melville Goodwin, U.S.A, their first film together since Key Largo (1948).

Instead, Bogart finally went to the doctor and the diagnosis was grim—esophageal cancer.

In their eleven years of marriage, the young Betty had always looked to Bogie for strength.  He was her lover, her husband, her teacher.  He had shown her what Hollywood and life were all about. 

Now it was time for him to lean on her.

She nursed him through a brutal surgery and radiation.  When he wouldn’t eat, she tried to tempt him with all his favorite foods.  She kept a tight schedule around how many people could visit and for how long—she wanted his friends to see him, but wanted him to gain his strength.

As his illness ate him down to the bone, friends would gasp in shock at the sight of him.  Bacall would admonish them to keep hold of themselves and not upset Bogie.

Bacall took note of who came.

And who didn’t.

Despite the decades of fights and bitterness, Jack Warner came.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy came every night at the end, and cemented a lifelong friendship with Bacall.

As Joe Hyams writes of Bacall during this time:

“She was exemplary.  The way she handled his illness, the way she handled the press, the way she handled herself, and the way she handled her children.  I thought she was just great—very gallant, very gutsy, a very warm person.  If I were dying I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Humphrey Bogart died in the early hours of January 14, 1957.  He died in his and Bacall’s bed, and Bacall was wearing the robe she’d worn in their film Dark Passage when she found him.

He was 57.

Betty Bacall asked John Huston to deliver the eulogy, the last lines of which were, “He is quite irreplaceable.  There will never be another like him.”

Bogart was cremated.  Before his ashes were interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Betty put the golden whistle he’d given her in the urn.

She was a widow at 32.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • Server, Lee.  Ava Gardner:  Love Is Nothing.  2006.

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

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953):  “Look at that old fella what’s his name..”

Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe

While Humphrey Bogart’s career soared, Lauren Bacall’s flatlined.  Her final Warner Brother’s film, Bright Leaf with Gary Cooper, opened on July 1, 1950 to mediocre reviews and a tepid box office.

Twelve days later Jack Warner finally gave Bacall her wish, and released her from her contract for $50,000 that would be paid out as a percentage of her earnings from future films with other studios.

She was only 25, with the world at her feet.

But a stumbling block had arisen in her career that was bigger even than Jack Warner.  As she writers in her memoir By Myself, “A funny thing happened to my career the first few years of being Mrs. Bogart.  Funny—peculiar.  Everyone thought I was terrific personally, but they stopped thinking of me as an actress.  I was Bogie’s wife, gave great dinners, parties, but work was passed over.”

It was an accurate assessment but also a bit unfair—Bacall herself continually put her duties as a wife and mother ahead of movie-making.  It was no wonder the scripts stopped coming.

In the three years after she cut ties with Warner, she had a second child (a daughter, named Leslie after Bogart’s friend and mentor Leslie Howard), went to Africa with Bogart, and turned down scripts that would separate her from him.

It’s a recipe for a good marriage and a happy life.

But not for a career in Hollywood.

She didn’t work for three years.

In 1953, she received a script for How to Marry a Millionaire, a comedy co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable.

Millionaire would give her a chance to test her comedic chops, something she’d long desired.  But Bogart was slated to travel to Italy to film Beat the Devil.

Bacall writes, “I wanted to go with him, but I would have to make Millionaire or forget my career all together…  [Bogie] was very good about it—Millionaire was the best part I’d had in years.”

It was their first separation in eight years of marriage.

How to Marry a Millionaire tells the story of three beautiful young women who plot to marry rich husbands.  Schatze Paige (Bacall) is the brains behind the operation, a cynical divorcee who won’t make the mistake of marrying a poor man for love again.

She convinces her friends Pola (Monroe) and Loco (Grable) to pool their money to rent an expensively furnished penthouse, on the theory that acting and looking rich will put them in contact with more millionaire men.  As time goes on, Schatze sells off the furniture to bankroll their lifestyle (and tells anyone who asks it’s being cleaned.)

Pola is blind as a bat without her glasses, which she refuses to wear around men as she thinks they make her unattractive.  She continually walks into walls and has no idea who she’s speaking to.  Loco is able to lure any man into lending her money for groceries and carrying them up to the penthouse, but overall she’s not too bright.

The three scheme their way into snagging three prospects, but Pola’s is a gambling swindler, and Loco’s is married.  Only Schatze chooses well, the old but kindly J.D. Hanley (William Powell, in his sixties).  He’s so kind that he feels it would be selfish to marry Schatze, given their age difference. 

In desperation, Schatze tries to convince him that older men are wonderful, practically winking at the audience when she insists, “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what’s his name in The African Queen.”

In the end, of course, all three women fall in love with poor but perfect men.  In the case of Loco, a forest ranger she mistook for a lumber tycoon.  For Pola, a man who also wears glasses and still thinks she’s beautiful when she wears hers.

And Schatze?  Well, on her wedding day, she switches out grooms from the rich J.D. to the gas pump operator who’s been pursuing her despite her attempts to brush him off.

And guess what?

Turns out he was a millionaire all along.

The film was a great success, the 5th highest grossing film of 1953, higher than Marilyn Monroe’s other hit that year, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Though Marilyn Monroe always had a way of drawing your eyes to her, How to Marry a Millionaire is Bacall’s film.

She finally proved to herself—and the world—that she could play comedy, and more importantly, make a hit without Bogart.

Sources

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

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

The African Queen (1951):  A Rising Souffle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacall, Bogart, Hepburn

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

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

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

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

Bacall and Bogart

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

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

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

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

Hepburn, Bogart

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

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

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

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

Bogart, Hepburn

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

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

Shall I tell you if Charlie and Rose succeeded?

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

And how did they repay his generosity?

By fighting him every step of the way. 

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

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

But Lauren Bacall proved a particularly thorny problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Douglas, Day

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

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

Douglas, Bacall

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That must’ve made for some interesting Thanksgivings.

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.

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