The Books: “Bogart” (A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax)

Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

Bogart, by A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax

Now this is what I call a biography! I am not sure why it took so long for Bogart to get his due, but I suppose that’s the way. After all, I’m still waiting for a good biography of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, just to name a few. Sometimes it takes a generation or so to re-discover someone, the narrative about that person changes. Perhaps during their lifetime they were well regarded but their star faded … and there’s then a re-discovery process. Or perhaps during their lifetime they were NOT all that well regarded and it is only with time that we, the public, can see just what a giant impact they had. Bogart was a huge star during his lifetime, but in the 60s his star faded a bit – with the advent of the “new Hollywood” … he was seen as part of the old guard, perhaps … not “cool”. To cinephiles and movie buffs, of course, he was always important and beloved. In the late 50s, the famous Brattle Theatre, a movie house in Cambridge Massachusetts, started a tradition of showing Bogart films during final exams – a tradition that, I believe, continues today. Students, eager to escape the stress of finals, would show up for double-features, dressed as Bogart, they would chant the lines of Casablanca or Maltese Falcon in unison, keeping the flame alive, even after he had passed away. There was always a certain cult-ish feeling about loving Bogart. He did not have the movie star glitter of, say, Cary Grant – whose status could never be denied, not when he was alive, not when he was dead. It’s not that Bogart was an acquired taste. It’s just that his films, even years after they came out, somehow avoided quaintness, or kitschiness. And Bogart embodied a type of man who was growing unpopular at that time, in the full height of the Beat movement, the bohemians, the start of the folk music coffee house culture, and Flower Power. Bogart, in his tie, trench coat and fedora, would have sneered at such silliness, perhaps, but would never have shown “the kids today” any contempt (unlike some of his contemporaries). There was a staunch individuality at work in Bogart that tapped into something at the time … it was a throwback, sure … a look at simpler days (not better, just simpler) … and it was refreshing. Every young man hopes that, in the moment when it counts, he will be able to behave as selflessly as Rick did in Casablanca. In that moment on the runway in Casablanca, he embodies what we most hope for ourselves, he shows us how we would so like to behave, if given the chance. Things like honor and self-sacrifice are never out of fashion.

Roger Ebert writes, in his review of Casablanca:

From a modern perspective, the film reveals interesting assumptions. Ilsa Lund’s role is basically that of a lover and helpmate to a great man; the movie’s real question is, which great man should she be sleeping with? There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that was briefly considered. But that would be all wrong; the “happy” ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility (“it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”). And it allows us, vicariously experiencing all of these things in the theater, to warm in the glow of his heroism.

It totally makes sense that if you want to let off some steam during finals week, you would be hard pressed to find a better activity than going to watch Maltese Falcon with your stressed-out classmates. Because Bogart can show you how to be strong, how to suck it up, how to do the right thing, even if it hurts like hell.

I’m talking about him as an actor now – the parts he played – not the man himself. The line is often blurred. Bogart the man was hardly a self-sacrificial uninvolved wry-grin type of guy. Those were PARTS that he played, and brilliantly – but they were PARTS. The fact that we all are so convinced that that is who he was (a man we do not know) is just a testament to his talent. In reality, there were deep wounds in Bogart, deep insecurities – about his relationships with women, about his looks, about his standing at the studio (his contract was never up to par with his peers – he was very much taken for granted and taken advantage of on that score) … and the fact that he could so step into these cool guys, the guys who don’t lose it – but the guys who, you know, deep down, feel deeply and feel things forever (he plays characters with long LONG memories … “The Germans wore grey, you wore blue …”) just shows how good he was, as an actor. He shows that you can feel things that deeply without sacrificing manliness – that is one of Bogart’s greatest assets. That you can be sexy and smouldering – even when you have a lisp and you are a good FOOT shorter than your leading lady … gives us all hope. If you want to see a completely rare side of Bogart – and one that I feel is closest to his actual character – I cannot recommend Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place enough. I reviewed it here. It is Bogart’s best performance, in my opinion, and he revealed things in that movie that he had never revealed before and was never asked to reveal again. It is ugly. An excruciating performance. Full of insecurity, rage, envy … and quiet smouldering bitterness. I believe that that performance is not as well-known because it messes with our idea of the “Bogart persona ™” – and it mucks up his mythical status as the tough guy willing to do good in a world that will not congratulate him. In In a Lonely Place, he also plays an outsider – like all of his great parts – but as we watch the film, we slowly realize that there is a REASON this guy is an outsider, and it’s not just because the world doesn’t appreciate him, and he’s awesome and everyone else sucks … It’s because the guy is a douchebag, a coil so tightly sprung that he is the kind of guy you slowly back away from at a party, because you don’t want to be trapped by him. He’s the kind of guy that you, as a woman, hope you don’t date … because he will never ever let you go, and he will become creepy at the first sign of trouble. It’s a brilliant performance, completely under-praised, I think – nearly forgotten. What a shame. See it!

He was a complex bag, Bogart. An actor I truly love.

Sperber and Lax have pulled out all the stops in this massive book. It is an exhaustively researched TOME … and in it is everything about Bogart you would want to know. There will be more books written, of course, but they will have to reference this one. No stone is left unturned. It’s not all that elegantly written, and it relies heavily on cliches in the language – but I’m in it for the information. It is a giant important biography, and a book I recommend for any film-lover’s library.

The excerpt below has to do with the filming of Casablanca. And so, to prepare us … here is the first shot (besides his hand signing the bill “OK – Rick”, I mean) we get of Bogart in the film.

casablanca02-785587.jpg

Iconic.


EXCERPT FROM Bogart, by A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax

The lines of dialogue now so familiar trickled in during the weeks of rewrites: “I told you not to play that song!” … “Here’s looking at you, kid” … “If you do, you’ll regret it, maybe not tomorrow” … “Of all the gin joints in all the towns all over the world, she walks into mine.” To the members of the company, it became a daily ritual of learning, discarding and relearning pages, and tempers – Bogart’s included – frayed to the breaking point.

His part was the longest, his load of constantly changing dialogue the heaviest, and the cool demeanor of the early weeks gave way to testiness. Bergman recalled him returning from lunch hour breaks spent arguing with Wallis. There were also arguments with Curtiz, although disagreements with the talented but temperamental Hungarian were unavoidable on even the smoothest-running films. Curtiz stomped about in riding boots and ran his set like an autocrat, his demeanor seesawing between marzipan charm and outbursts of temper in obscenity-laced broken English. This was their fourth picture together – the last had been Virginia City in 1940 – but the first in which Bogart played the lead. He was more assertive now than when his name had been below the title. “Bogie was certainly short of patience with Mike,” Lee Katz said. There were, however, “no pyrotechnics”. Bogart just quietly bristled, at times turning and walking off to make his point. Before Leonid Kinsky’s first scene as Sascha the bartender, played one-on-one with Bogart, Curtize was overwhelming the Russian actor with minute instructions when “Bogie just looked at him and said, ‘Please, shut up. You can’t tell Leonid what to do.’ And that was that.”

Katz was a Curtiz assistant going back to 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn. “Mike drove most of his actors crazy. He was from the European school – full of dolly shots and twisting cameras and what have you, very complex on camera moves. So he had a habit, usually, of watching the camera more than the actor. And the actor would realize it.” Five years earlier, during Kid Galahad, Bette Davis had stopped in mid-scene and snapped at Curtiz: “Mike! Watch me! Stop watching the camera!”

But Curtiz was a master craftsman whose broad range can be seen in two of the films he made in 1942: the brilliant musical biography Yankee Doodle Dandy and the melodramatic Casablanca. He was particularly strong as an action director, and his simple lesson to a younger colleague of how to stage a mob scene with only twenty extras is a classic. Put ten on each side, he said, and then have them run across – “They’ll make such a mess!” From his days as a silent-film director he also knew when words were superfluous and how to convey character with a look, a lift of an eyebrow, a nod.

A nod made, according to the screenplay directions, “almost imperceptibly” by Rick is a turning point in Casablanca. It signals the orchestra to play “La Marseillaise” and the start of an ensemble scene in which Rick’s singing refugee patrons, their backs straight in reclaimed dignity, drown out the German soldiers singing “The Watch On the Rhine.” Although it is Henreid, as Victor Lazslo, who commands the cafe orchestra to play the anthem, it is Rick’s silent assent they wait for.

The stirring sequence is unmarked by a single line of dialogue, and it marks the hero’s return to the battle. “Do it with a full scoring orchestra,” Wallis told music director Leo Forbstein, “and get some body to it.” The scene was an emotional moment for the company, many of whom had relatives in the concentration camps or dead in the gas chambers. Madeleine LeBeau, who played the layabout Yvonne, had fled France with Marcel Dalio, whose mother was still in Paris, hiding in a basement as Jews were rounded up. Dan Seymour stood at the back, watching the crowd. “I could see their faces. They were crying” A close-up fixed on LeBeau, her voice heard above the rest of the singing. The displaced citizens of 1942 were singing the hymn of the citizens of 1792 and another German invasion. The original script directed the German officers in Rick’s to sing “The Horst Wessel Song”, the anthem of the Nazi party, but “Horst Wessel” was under copyright, and copyright infringement – wars and Nazis notwithstanding – was still a violation of international agreement. Such an infringement, Warner lawyers said, might possibly endanger export of the film in such neutral countries as Argentina, where pro-German sympathies ran high.

In mid-July, seven weeks into the shooting and with only two scheduled weeks remaining, the basic problems in the script were still unresolved. At one point the latest scenario sent out the night before was recalled the next morning by J.L. himself, amid sharp differences about the story’s outcome. Every writer favored keeping the ending of play, in which case Rick would lose Ilsa; but the studio wanted the conclusion dictated by Hollywood convention. “Conferences were taking place all over,” Howard Kock said, “arguing about it, with the studio pretty heavily on the side of, We’ve got Bergman, we’ve got Bogart, why aren’t they going to be together?” The only principal who didn’t much care one way or the other, Julius Epstein said, was Bogart, who was only “worried that he wouldn’t get to the boat on weekends.”

There were only problems: Even if Ilsa did leave with Laszlo, how did they get her to go? Have her turn and run? Not convincing. Lois Meredith had been virtually dragged away. Casey Robinson’s brainchild was a quick clip to the jaw, immobilizing the heroine, and then moving her out. But what happened to Rick? Was he arrested?

“Toward the end,” Epstein said, “there was chaos – no ending, no knowing what was happening.” Bergman appealed to Koch, “How can I play the love scene when I don’t know which one I’m going off with?” Curtiz, Koch added, wore a hangdog look and was openly worried. “He kept wanting to talk about it. You could see it in his expression.” He took his frustrations out on the actors. After one outbreak too many, the gentle Kinsky started to walk off the set, swearing never to come back. Curtiz, for once, was immediately apologetic. “We have no ending for the picture,” he said, by way of explanation. “Everyone is nervous.”

On July 17, with production almost a week behind schedule, the cast assembled for the airport scene. Stage 1 was enveloped in a fog created by what Warner Publicity would describe as “more than half a million cubic feet of vaporized oil.” (Because wartime security precluded outdoor location shots at night, it took innumerable requests, meetings, and red tape to be able to film the one inserted shot of plane motors revving up.) In the background on the soundstage, a painted cardboard cutout, creatively lit, served as the plane to Lisbon. “The outline of the Transport plane is barely visible. Near its open door stands a small group of people.” Actually, it was a group of small people; midgets from Central Casting gathered on the runway to provide the proper scale.

Everyone’s nerves were in tatters. “Rick is not just solving a love triangle,” Robinson argued to Wallis in a memo. “He is forcing the girl to live up to the idealism of her nature, forcing her to carry on with the work that in these days is far more important than the love of two [but the problems of three] little people.” Rick became the deus ex machina, setting all things right: “You’re getting on that plane with Victor.”

The whole scene depended on Bogart’s delivery. It was a four-page monologue with brief interruptions, rewritten for the third time in three weeks and shoved at him the night before to memorize. For Bogart, who learned his lines mornings on the set because he couldn’t concentrate at home, it was a double burden, and the last traces of his patience gave way.

The disagreements surfaced over lunch, the specifics vague after half a century. Bogart had one idea of how to play the scene, Curtiz another. Warner publicist Bob William watched as “they wound up shouting at each other – but Curtiz was the kind of guy you would shout at anyway.” Unit manager Al Alleborn reported “arguments with Curtiz the director and Bogart the actor.” After two hours Alleborn, in desperation, roused Hal Wallis from his bungalow and brought him back to be the peacemaker. An hour later, the disputes broke out again. Only then, Alleborn recorded, did the parties “finally decid[e] on how to do the scene.” The lost time was entered on the production report as “Story conference between Mr. Curtiz and Mr. Bogart.”

When the cameras did roll, the magic was back:

“You’re saying this only to make me go.”
“I’m saying it because it’s true … You belong with Victor … If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not on it, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life … I’m not good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world … Here’s looking at you, kid.”

It was time for the suspension of reality, no questions asked, including the one of how Bogart had managed to put on a belted trench coat while presumably keeping his gun on Rains. Wallis and Koch had solved the problem of getting Bergman away by having Henreid step into the picture – “Are you ready, Ilsa?” But it was the lovers’ scene, and it remains the benchmark for renunciation.

Bogart, Huston once said of him, wasn’t especially impressive face-to-face; but when the camera rolled, something happened, an almost noble quality took over. The takes of Rick and Ilsa’s farewell required several days. Bogart concentrated on Bergman’s shining face, his dark eyes made darker still by the black-and-white photography. Arthur Edeson’s lighting emphasized the still-boyish profile, and what emerged on the screen was intensity, energy, and magnetism – the requisites of a great movie actor.

_______

Bogart finished August 1, the others two days later. There had been a few remaining scenes to shoot and some retakes. Wallis asked Bogart for “a little more guts … more of the curt hard way of speaking we have associated with Rick. Now that the girl is gone, I would like to see [him] revert.” Rick’s fate following Strasser’s death was resolved with Renault’s laconic, “Round up the usual suspects.” According to the Epsteins, the line had just come to them in a car one night as they rolled along Sunset Boulevard.

Still, it was hard to let go, and it took outside forces to wrap the film. On August 3, two days past the new projected closing date, Bergman, called to the telephone, let out a shriek. For Whom the Bell Tolls was definitely hers and Paramount wanted her on location immediately – that night if possible. Warners was already well over the limit of her commitment. Wallis pleaded for another two days, but Al Alleborn had a better idea. Stop the picture. Tonight. Look at the assembled footage and find out if retakes were really necessary. Wallis agreed, and Casablanca was closed out.

The final fade-out, however, remained in question. Rick’s closing rejoinder to Renault would be recorded in a sound studio as a wild line and later inserted into the soundtrack as the two men walk off into the fog. Long after the close of production, Wallis, dissatisfied with every suggestion, dithered over various versions, one of them being, “Louis, I might have known you’d mix your patriotism with a little larceny.” He was intent on just the right punch line and on August 21, he finally had it: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

With all the talented writers working on the script, it was the producer who came up with the line. “That’s Hal Wallis,” Casey Robinson said years later. “He wrote that line, and it was marvelous. It was inspired.”

It was Wallis, too, who decided on the documentary-style opening – the spinning globe and the black track of the refugee trail dissolving into a montage of masses on the move; the narration was modeled on the popular news series The March of Time and spoken by a radio announcer from the Warner Station KFWB. The overall effect of tying the film romance to the larger sweep of world events had a payoff that no one could foresee.

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4 Responses to The Books: “Bogart” (A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax)

  1. george says:

    Sheila

    As I am not a reader of entertainment biographies I especially appreciate your takes on all of them. All are just as interesting and illuminating as those of the movies.

    You’re spot on about “In A Lonely Place”. I have my own mini Bogart festival about once a year and throw that title in amongst the iconic titles. Bogart’s Dixon Steele (what a name!) is quite jarring and fascinating in a way that his “The Caine Mutiny” Queeg (what does that name forebode) is not.

    About “Casablanca”, I find it quite interesting that Rick’s stature seems to grow through the decades. He doesn’t steal away a married woman. It may rate a pat on the back and a commiserating drink … or ten. Noble okay, but (re Ebert’s review) was it heroic? Is canonization next?

  2. Eric the...bald says:

    You know, I think it was actually a picture of Bogart that led me to your blog for the first time. Cool.

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