Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir
Humphrey Bogart, by Nathaniel Benchley
Benchley and Bogart were friends, so this 1975 biography is not a critical study, not an objective look at Humphrey Bogart, but a loving portrait, at times too loving to hold my interest. I bought this book for the pictures it includes. It’s out-of-print now, but I found a copy of it on a table outside a second-hand bookshop for 2 dollars, and bought it immediately. The photos are not your basic family snapshots, and stills from famous movies. The photos are woven throughout the book, some of them taking up entire pages, and many of them you probably have never seen before. They are marvelous photos, so this book could almost be considered a coffee-table book. Christmas cards sent by Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot – his notorious third wife (their relationship was so volatile they were known as “the battling Bogarts”), drunken blurry shots of the two of them making out and wrestling on the couch, early photos of Bogart in tennis whites – these are personal photographs, not “public domain” pictures compiled by a biographer. Benchley knew Bogart. He probably put his own photos throughout the book. Benchley is already a well-known writer, so the book is not bad – and it has that gift of knowing the right anecdote to choose to prove your point. It’s chock-full of anecdotes. Many of them have now passed into myth/legend, whatever you want to call the Bogart mystique (his lisp and how he got it, the whole Gerber Baby rumor, and more) … and it is not clear how much is true, how much is embellishment, or how much is just memory playing its tricks. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, I suppose. There’s something vaguely unsavory in a book like this – a friend trading on his relationship with a famous person – but since it’s not a smear book (I’m looking at you, Christina Crawford), it doesn’t quite fit into that category. It’s a loving “here’s what I remember” portrait, as well as a pretty damn thorough examination of Bogart’s journey to the top: the roles he got, the reviews, the setbacks, the battles with the studio, and – most startlingly – how Bogart’s persona changed. That’s one of the most interesting things about him as an actor.
He became famous playing Duke Mantee, the villain in Petrified Forest – first on Broadway and then in the film. Leslie Howard, who had played his part on Broadway and was already a big star, said he would not do the film if Humphrey Bogart didn’t reprise his role as well. Pretty damn generous, I would say (although his behavior as producer of the play was not quite as generous).
Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee
It is hard to overstate the sensation Bogart made on Broadway with this role – but that’s the excerpt from Benchley’s book I chose – so I’ll let it speak for itself. It was not Bogart’s debut. He had played small parts on Broadway before – but his reputation was as the youth sashaying into the parlor saying things like, “Tennis, anyone?” He played pampered prep-school boys. Fascinating. So he was not unknown to Broadway audiences, but nothing could prepare New York for what he did in Petrified Forest. Seems like a theme in Bogart’s life – the shifting personality, the experimentation with what he was good at, what would “hit” an audience, the public’s perception changing as he took on deeper and better parts … Bogart saying, “Tennis, anyone?” ? Hard to imagine now.
But that’s what I want to talk about: the development of Bogart’s persona and how it changed. Petrified Forest launched him into the realm of serious Hollywood players. Duke Mantee was truly bad, a scowling hovering psychopath. He’s riveting in the film. He seems like an emissary from the future – if you look at the way other “villains” were played at that time. Bogart is unredeemable, in the film, but you can’t take your eyes off of him. He has a five o’clock shadow, another oddity – in a day when people appeared more cleancut in films, even poor people, bums … Bogart worked hard on that part, creating him from the ground up – how he walked, how he talked, how he DIDN’T talk, body language, gesture, the costume … Bogart owned that role. After Petrified Forest, he began to play villains. Let’s count the times he was killed by Edward G. Robinson, shall we? He played sidekicks – like in The Roaring Twenties, with Cagney as the lead (I adore that film – the whole phrase “Don’t bogart the joint” – while obviously referring to Bogart’s ubiquitous hanging cigarette – also always seemed to me to have as its reference the scene in Roaring Twenties in the foxhole, when Bogart hogs the shared cigarette … But let’s move on) … Bogart did not move on to play leads after Petrified Forest. He was second lead. He was a bad guy. He always died in the end. He was in movies with names like San Quentin, King of the Underworld, You Can’t Get Away With Murder, Racket Busters, Crime School – typical Warner Brothers “ripped straight from the headlines” fare. He was shot in glorious 1920s style rooms, and would stagger to the couch, or fall down the stairs. He was a bootlegger, a conman, a thief. He was expendable. We might cry when Cagney died (as I always do, when I see his spectacular death scene in The Roaring Twenties – perhaps my favorite death scene of all time), but we didn’t really care when Bogart died, because he seemed so immoral, so … well, like he was asking for it. It’s interesting to see all of those “in between” movies in the decade of the 30s, like Bullets or Ballots and others, when Bogart is playing second-banana. It makes me realize that his stardom, his giant mythic stardom, was NOT a done deal. It was not in the cards from the beginning. I mean, look at the guy. He was short, balding, with bad teeth, and a LISP, for God’s sake. Is that a leading man?? Well, no, it wasn’t. Not at first. He was not being groomed for that, and it was not what the public accepted him as. His Duke Mantee made such a huge impression that Bogart could have had a whole career, playing villains, and hypnotic bad guys … but look at what happened. Look at how the career shifted! Amazing! It was subtle, but a couple of parts paved the way for Casablanca, which launched him as a leading man. In High Sierra, he plays Roy Earle, another villain – yet this time with the soft underbelly that is (and can be) so compelling to audiences. You rooted for him (in a way that you did NOT root for Duke Mantee). John Huston wrote the screenplay for that film – and – the same year was given a directing opportunity, his first, with The Maltese Falcon. Bogart, having already gotten to know Huston on High Sierra, decided to take a chance with the untried director (something Huston always appreciated) – and the result is historic. I think it’s one of Bogart’s best roles, and in it – we can see the other persona really start to be developed: the wry-faced cynical guy, with a deep mother-lode of strong moral character within (but it’s never anything he’d want to be congratulated for – as a matter of fact, he’d rather you not notice it at all) – who ends up doing the right thing, even though it means he’ll lose the girl. What a departure from Duke Mantee!! So exciting: I love to look at a career and see the fortuitous turns it takes – turns it didn’t HAVE to take. It just as easily might NOT have happened. There are no guarantees. Bogart was not guaranteed to be a star and his journey is full of accidents, coincidences, and giant leaps of faith. I love it.
His Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon solidified his position as a valid leading man – despite the lisp and the balding nature of his head – and the roles he got after that in the next year – in Across the Pacific and Casablanca just dug him in deeper as one of the most interesting and compelling movie stars working at that time.
Later in his career, he could “experiment” again – in films like The Caine Mutiny and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and create characters on the verge of going mad, men so full of conviction, greed, paranoia, that they become unhinged from reality. He’s terrific in those kinds of parts as well.
Nathaniel Benchley’s book is just the tip of the iceberg, and as the years have passed, Bogart’s reputation has just grown, so there are more books, more biographies, more critical studies.
But they sure don’t have the awesome photos that THIS book has!
The excerpt below is about Bogart’s playing of Duke Mantee on Broadway, and how – for one season – it became THE play to see. Kind of like Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens last year. That performance was an EVENT. It wasn’t the play that was being hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread – it was her work in particular. That’s what happened in 1935, when Bogart first stepped onto the stage as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest.
Here’s the excerpt.
EXCERPT FROM Humphrey Bogart, by Nathaniel Benchley
When Humphrey Bogart walked onstage as Duke Mantee there was a stir in the audience, an audible intake of breath. He was a criminal; he walked with a convict’s shuffling gait, and his hands dangled in front of him as though held there by the memory of manacles. His voice was flat and his eyes were as cold as a snake’s; he bore an eerie resemblance to John Dillinger, to whom killing a person meant no more than breaking a matchstick. Sherwood’s summary of Mantee in the stage directions described Bogart perfectly: “He is well-built but stoop-sholudered, with a vaguely thoughtful, saturnine face. He is about thirty-five, and, if he hadn’t elected to take up banditry, he might have been a fine leftfielder. There is, about him, one quality of resemblance to Alan Squier [the hero]: he too is unmistakably doomed.”
The play opened at the Broadhurts Theatre on January 7, 1935, with Leslie Howard starring as Alan Squier and Peggy Conklin as Gabrielle Maple, the heroine. (For those interested in trivia, the part of Boze Hertzlinger, which had almost been Humphrey’s, was played by a youth named Frank Milan.) The story, briefly, tells how Squier, a wandering intellectual, meets and befriends Gabrielle in an Arizona roadhouse, and sees in her some of the dreams he had once had as a youth. Mantee, fleeing the police, comes on the scene as the incarnation of ruthless violence, and makes hostages of everyone in the roadhouse. Squier signs over his life insurance to Gabrielle and then gets Mantee to shoot him, so that Gabrielle can have the money to go back to her mother’s homeland in France. That is overcompression of the most radical sort, but any explanation short of printing the entire script would be of little help.
The critics threw their hats in the air. Brooks Atkinson wrote that “Robert Sherwood’s new play is a peach … a roaring Western melodrama … Humphrey Bogart does the best work of his career as the motorized guerrilla,” and Robert Garland said that “Humphrey Bogart is gangster Mantee to the tip of his sawed-off shotgun.” The play, clearly, was in for a long run.
Humphrey had had one bad period in September, before rehearsals started, when his father died. Things had been getting progressively worse; Dr. and Mrs. Bogart had moved to Tudor City, and with the almost complete disappearance of his practice, he had taken up the periodic job of ship’s doctor on cruise ships or small passenger liners. He died in the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled in New York, leaving approximately ten thousand dollars in debts, which Humphrey paid off out of his eventual earnings from The Petrified Forest. Humphrey had a deep affection for his father, and his death at this time, and in these circumstances, was a particularly jarring blow.
But once rehearsals were under way, he put everything else behind him and concentrated on becoming as convincing a gangster as possible. He walked, talked, and lived Duke Mantee; he wore a felt hat with the brim turned down, he talked out of the side of his mouth, and he built a set of mannerisms to go with the character. There are very few shows that don’t have some sort of trouble or conflict prior to (and sometimes after) opening night, but Hopkins had chosen his cast well. A short, round, brown, slightly bowlegged little man, he quietly mesmerized the actors into doing what he wanted, and since in many instances he had intuitively cast them against type (as in Bogart’s case) the results were often electric. He told them that he collected casts the way other people collect books, and that this was the perfect cast; there was not one person in it he’d think of changing.
Another case of the intuitive casting was that of Ester Leeming, who played a small part as Paula, the Mexican maid. When Hopkins picked her (a simple nod was his usual method of selection) Sherwood said to her, “It’s lucky you can speak Spanish. The only Spanish I know is ‘patio’, and I learned that in Hollywood.” As it turned out she couldn’t speak Spanish, so she went to Berlitz and took a cram course untnil she could swear convincingly in the language – which she still can do to this day.
Their first night in front of an audience was in mid-December at the Parsons Theatre in Hartford, and there were two things that astonished the company. One was the amount of humor in the script – lines took on a new meaning, which they’d missed in rehearsal – and the other was the literal gasp that went up when Humphrey made his entrance. Dillinger was very much in the news at the time, having recently escaped from prison, and to some people it seemed that he had just walked onstage. The prison pallor, the two-day’s beard, the gait, the mannerisms – everything about him was menacing, evil, and real. The company was to hear that gasp every night throughout the run, but the first one was the one they still remember. They went on to Boston, where they opened Christmas Eve, and then to New York in January. They played until June 29 of that year.
For two reasons, Humphrey disdained the use of makeup. The first was that the desired effect of prison pallor made makeup unnecessary, and the second was that to fake a two-days’ beard would be obvious. His was his real beard, and he kept it trimmed during the week with electric clippers, thereby becoming one of the earlier electric shavers. After the Saturday night performance he would shave, singing and lathering himself and having a grand old time, and he would come into Miss Leeming’s dressing room, which adjoined his, and spread his good cheer around with a lavish hand. She remembers him as being generally quiet and gentle, and scrupulous in his behavior to the female members of the cast – a trait that was by no means shared by the star.
The play could have run for a much longer time, but Howard grew weary of playing it. He had enough muscle with the producers (he was a coproducer with Gilbert Miller, in association with Hopkins) so that he could forbid anyone else to take his part, and also to prevent its going on the road. Warners had by this time bought it, and Howard announced that a road tour might hurt the box office for the picture. So they closed the end of June, while still doing booming business; Howard went home to England, and the others went looking for jobs. One of those who felt the disappointment most keenly was Howard’s understudy, Kenneth MacKenna.
One of the good things Howard did, however, was to say that he would do the picture only if Bogart played Mantee, and he was as good as his word. Warners had Edward G. Robinson under contract, and saw no sense in using someone they’d already had a few unspectacular dealings with, so they blithely announced they were making the picture with Howard and Robinson, and with Bette Davis playing Gabrielle. Humphrey, understandably upset, cabled the news to Howard, and Howard cabled Warners that without Bogart he wouldn’t play. They gave in, and Humphrey was signed to another Warner Brothers contract. His farewell to the stage was a summer of stock in Skowhegan, Maine, where he did such plays as Rain and Ceiling Zero while waiting for the shooting to begin on The Petrified Forest. He was a quick study and a perfectionist and he had each part letter-perfect, playing one while rehearing another.
The film version of Sherwood’s play was remarkably similar to the original, with only a few obligatory outdoor shots and some tinkering with the dialogue to make the difference. (In the play, Gabrielle tells Squier: “My name is Gabrielle, but these ignorant bastards call me Gabby,” a line which until recently would never be allowed on screen.) The screenplay was by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Davis and the director was Archie Mayo; of the original company, only Bogart and Howard and one minor player remained.
In Hollywood it is a truism that a person is as good as his last screen credit, and having scored as a gangster Humphrey was immediatley cast as another. The picture was Bullets or Ballots and Humphrey played a character named Nick “Bugs” Fenner, who in the last reel kills and is killed by a hard-boiled sleuth, played by Edward G. Robinson. In his first two years at Warners he made twelve pictures, in eight of which he was either a gangster or a criminal of some sort, and in four of which he was killed. In one he was sent to prison for life, and in one other he and Robinson repeated their double-killing routine. Exactly two, Marked Woman (with Bette Davis) and Dead End, were what might be called superior pictures, and one, Isle of Fury, was so bad that he pretended not to remember ever having made it.