I’m Here to Defend “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947)

Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart face off in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart
Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) opening

Critics and historians are united in their hatred of The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the only film that Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck made together.

In a nutshell, Bogart plays a painter who is most inspired when plotting to kill his wives.  Stanwyck plays the initially unwitting second Mrs. Carroll before sussing out that her husband is poisoning her nightly glass of milk and has the third Mrs. Carroll all picked out.

Every biographer of Bogart and Stanwyck dismisses the film out of hand, insisting that the miscasting, especially of Bogart, is criminal.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Let’s survey the literature:

  • Bogart biographers Sperber and Lax note, “In an instance of stunning miscasting, [Bogart] played a psychotic artist….”
  • Stanwyck biographer Axel Madsen believes that, “both were miscast.”
  • Stanwyck biographer Al DiOrio goes one step further, writing that, “Bogart was miscast as the psychopathic artist, and the film in general was very strange.”
  • Bogart biographer David Thomson judges the film as “dull, fabricated, uninspired.”
  • Harshest of all, in his survey of Stanwyck’s films, Dan Callahan proclaims the film “reaches a whole new level of miscalculation and incompetence” and suffers from, “Humphrey Bogart embarrassing himself as a lunatic painter.”  

Ouch.

It’s time for me to don my Ruth Bader Ginsberg lace collar because Reader, I dissent.

I’m not elevating it to the heights of Casablanca (1942) or Double Indemnity (1944), but The Two Mrs. Carrolls is an entertaining film and undeserving of universal panning.

Let’s flesh out the plot a bit.  Sally (Stanwyck) and Geoffrey (Bogart) meet and begin a whirlwind romance.  Sally is in love and ready to marry the sensitive painter when she finds a letter from his wife. 

When Geoffrey explains that while he is married with a young daughter, his wife has been an invalid for many years and the marriage is now in name only.  Sally is sympathetic, but she hardens her heart and sends Geoffrey packing.

Flash forward a few years, and Geoffrey has married Sally after the passing of his first wife.  Sally is the perfect wife—good-natured and a caring stepmother to his daughter Bea.

She doesn’t bat an eye at the haunting Angel of Death style portrait Geoffrey painted of his first wife at the end of her life.  She doesn’t even mind when Geoffrey hangs it in a prominent place in their home.

At first, Geoffrey finds the quiet of his remote new home and the support of his loving wife peaceful and conducive to his work.  One often suspects that there’s a tender side behind Bogart’s tough guy roles—can’t you see Rick Blaine as a sensitive painter if llsa had stayed and the Germans had never marched down the center of the streets of Paris?

Humphrey Bogart in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

When he becomes blocked in his work, Geoffrey’s mind descends into madness and paranoia.  Instead of miscasting, I see Bogart’s work here as his first crack at a characterization he would later perfect in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).

The audience sees the threat Geoffrey poses Sally before she does—if there’s any miscasting in the film, it’s that Stanwyck should never play anybody’s fool.  Her best work comes when she’s playing someone overly cynical.

Onscreen or off, Barbara Stanwyck was never naïve.  

Barbara Stanwyck in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

The film begins to quicken and breathe as Sally uncovers damning evidence that her husband is trying to kill her.  When Sally makes a comment about Bea’s mother being an invalid, Bea is surprised at the notion and assures Sally her mother was fit and healthy until her final illness—an illness that sounds eerily similar to the one Sally is currently experiencing.

An illness that began right around the time her husband began making eyes at the younger Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith) while painting her portrait.

Horrified but unwilling to believe the truth, Sally rushes into Geoffrey’s off-limits studio.  A chill ran up my arm when she discovered his work-in-progress—a horrifying portrait of Sally as the Angel of Death.

Barbara Stanwyck  in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

Geoffrey will presumably complete the portrait after he finishes offing her.

The film ends with a psychological stand-off:  Sally knows that Geoffrey is trying to kill her but is trying to conceal her fear until help arrives.  Geoffrey knows that she knows but is trying to reassure her so he can kill her.  When she locks him out of the bedroom and he comes through the window like his own Angel of Death, we scream right along with Stanwyck.

If there’s one thing to nitpick, it’s that the film pulls its punches in that final confrontation.  You’ve got Humphrey Bogart trying to kill Barbara Stanwyck.  Two of the toughest actors to ever grace the screen are locked in a fight for survival, and I wish the director had let those thoroughbred horses run just a little more.

What wouldn’t you give to watch Sam Spade and Phyllis Dietrichson go toe to toe?

It’s not so much miscasting as a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging film.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.  1994.
  • DiOrio, Al.  Barbara Stanwyck:  A Biography.  1983.
  • Callahan, Dan.  Barbara Stanwyck:  The Miracle Woman.  2012.
  • Thomson, David.  Humphrey Bogart.  2010.

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.

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.

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

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