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.

Stagecoach (1939): Enter Johns Wayne and Ford

The cast of Stagecoach (1939) on their wagon
Stagecoach (1939) opening banner

Reader, I’ll confess:  I nearly skipped Stagecoach.

I knew its pedigree:  the first major collaboration between John Wayne and director John Ford, a duo that would go on to make most of America’s great westerns.  It was the first Western John Ford shot in Monument Valley, a rugged strip of land on the Arizona-Utah border.  Ford would return to Monument Valley again and again throughout his career.

And though John Wayne had shown up in dozens of movies before, Stagecoach is the film that elevated him from bit player to A-list star.  It’s hard to believe, but The Duke doesn’t even get top billing in the film–that honor goes to Claire Trevor, an actress mostly forgotten who plays Wayne’s love interest in the film.

They don’t make many westerns anymore, and I’d never seen one from the Golden Age.  I honestly thought a silly movie about cowboys and indians riding around shooting each other would bore me.

I was wrong.

John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach earns its reputation as a great film in a great year, even to a skeptic like me.

With apologies to my preconceived notions of Ford and Wayne, Stagecoach had way more heart than I’d expected.

It’s not just a story of cowboys and indians shooting each other–though the final chase scene is magnificent–but a story of people.

It’s surprisingly fresh.

The plot is simple–a group of strangers sets out in 1880 on a dangerous stagecoach trip, braving the threat of an Apache attack to reach their destination.  Each has their own reasons for taking the risk to make it to New Mexico.

There’s a scene in Titanic when Rose’s mother asks, “Will the lifeboats be seated by class?”

It’s a revealing line about the deep class divides that persist even when the trappings of society are stripped away in the name of survival.

John Ford is driving at the same point in Stagecoach–that even in the land where we say we believe “all men are created equal”, we often act more like George Orwell’d pigs in Animal Farm, where “some are more equal than others.”

In Ford’s coach we have the respectable members of society:  Pregnant lady Lucy Mallory, gambling aristocrat Hatfield, banker Ellsworth Gatewood, and whiskey runner Sam Peacock.

Then, we have the undesirables:  Town drunk Doc Boone, prostitute Dallas (Trevor), coach drivers Buck and Curly, and fugitive Ringo Kid (Wayne).

The first half of the film is filled with the undesirables suffering assorted humiliations at the hands of the respected.  Doc Boone and Dallas are run out of town.  Lucy Mallory’s friends lament that she has to share the stagecoach with such dregs of humanity.  Dallas does not receive the gentlemanly deference shown to Lucy.  And though Lucy tries to hide her disdain, she does not want to sit at the same table with Doc Boone, Ringo, and Dallas.

But halfway through the film–after the stagecoach ride has taken much longer than expected–Lucy goes into labor.  The coach is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dangers and a hundred miles away from help.  

Without the drunken doctor and the prostitute she so disdains, Lucy and her baby would’ve died.

The doctor and Dallas show no ill will–they accept their lower role in society, and do what needs to be done to save Lucy.  In fact all the undesirables show far more mercy, courage, and class than those who are supposedly their betters.

There’s a great chase scene–this is a western, of course–that I found thrilling.  You can feel the dust in your throat, imagine the stink of sweat in that claustrophobic coach.  I jumped when an arrow hit one of the passengers right in the heart to kick off the epic battle.

(Also, Hatfield saves his last bullet so he can shoot Lucy to prevent her capture–and torture–by the savage Apaches.  Forget wine and roses, I want a man who saves the last bullet for me.)

And of course Ringo romances Dallas.  He saves the stagecoach, avenges his brother’s death, gets the girl, and eludes capture by the authorities.

It was exactly the ending I wanted.  And the most pleasant of surprises.

Just another legend that time hasn’t found a way to dim.

Stagecoach (1939) Verdict - Give It A Shot

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The cast of Stagecoach (1939) on their wagon