Sunday, March 13, 2011

Write It Again, Sam (Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart)

A few notes on Stefan Kanfer's Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart (2011):

1. I've no reason to doubt Kanfer's assertion that Bogie's straight-shooter persona cloaked bottomless contradictions. Yet his biography made me wish -- just once, for the sake of variety -- to read about an individual whose complex facade disguises a deep, profound simplicity.

2. Kanfer is a good writer with a prose style so clean it's practically ironed. If that's not exactly compelling or sexy, it's enough of a rarity to keep you turning the page.

3. Tough Without a Gun raises an intriguing question: How has Humphrey Bogart, an actor very much of his time, managed to stay relevant for more than fifty years after his death? The book's mistake is delaying the answer until the final thirty pages, rather than giving the "Afterlife" portion of the title more weight.

4. Without that, Tough Without a Gun becomes a by-the-numbers biography, rehashing colorful anecdotes that have been written and told before. Kanfer peaks early, pointing out that contemporary actors, while "well-trained, skilled in their craft, buff, (and) manipulated by powerhouse publicists," are devoid of distinctive personalities. "Impersonators don't 'do' Tobey Maguire or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale et al. because these actors don't have imitable voices or faces," he notes, whereas 'Golden Age' actors "like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart" were fodder for comedians and impressionists.

5. The above statement isn't entirely true. For years, director Tom DeCillo was dogged by the accusation that James LeGros's performance in DeCillo's 1995 comedy Living in Oblivion was a devastating parody of Brad Pitt (with whom the director had previously worked). (Recently, DeCillo revealed that LeGros was mimicking Patrick Swayze.) And both Bale's husky-voiced Batman and his notorious on-set tirade were prominently spoofed across the late-night airwaves. But, yes, any stand-up comic doing impressions of Leo DiCaprio or Josh Hartnett or Channing Tatum won't get very far.

6. I've always heard the comparison that Humphrey Bogart, who specialized in low-lifes, was actually an Ivy League sophisticate; whereas Cary Grant, who played blue-bloods, was the son of a coal-miner. Bogart's case, at least, is a little more complicated: His family had money, but his father (a physician and graduate of Columbia University and Yale medical school) would lose much of it over time in unsound investments. His parents' marriage was also falling apart. Unsurprisingly, Bogart was a troublemaker, involved in gangs, disinterested in school, sports and everything else other than the vaudeville stage, silent-movie houses, and playing chess. Enlisting in the Navy during World War I, while offering an opportunity to see the world, did not instill discipline: he was tossed in the brig for drunkenness and insubordination many times.

7. After the war, Bogart tried various behind-the-scenes jobs in show business before making his stage debut in the 1922 melodrama Swifty. Bogart's portrayal of a "young sprig of the aristocracy" typecast him into playing rich twits for years to come.

8. His (first) big break came in 1935, when theater director Arthur Hopkins cast him as the gangster Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest. The distinguished stage and screen veteran Leslie Howard had the lead role, but Bogart stole the show. His entrance drew "audible gasps (from the audience), in part because he was so dark and menacing, in part because John Dillinger...had recently escaped from jail. Thanks to Bogart's diction, gait, attitude, and prison pallor, Kanfer writes, "the real-life gangster have materialized onstage." Both Bogie and the play won rave reviews.

9. This didn't stop Warner Brothers from casting Edward G. Robinson as Duke Mantee in the movie adaptation, along with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Bogart, who had appeared in random screen parts before with no distinction (such as 1931's The Bad Sister, also featuring Davis), was devastated. Fortunately for him, Robinson was pressing for equal billing with Howard and Davis, and the ever-magnanimous Jack Warner, eager to put Edward G. in his place, replaced him with the less-expensive Bogie. "In the film version, Humphrey conveyed the same weary authority that had been so effective on Broadway," Kanfer states. "But the close-ups gave him something more...His unshaven face was a map of distress." Bogart was thirty-seven years old.

10. One of the book's strongest sections is a brief yet revealing description of the old studio system: "MGM specialized in elegance and high production values, as in Gone with the Wind...Paramount concentrated on sophisticated comedies, RKO on the sparkling Astaire-Rogers musicals...Columbia showcased Frank Capra's directorial touch, and Twentieth Century Fox made a mint with Shirley Temple vehicles." Warners, on the other hand, portrayed the sordid underbelly of American society: Scarface, with Paul Muni; The Public Enemy with James Cagney; and Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson among the most prominent examples. Kanfer makes a good case that the brothers' hardscrabble roots (from the Polish ghetto) had much to do with their creative output and nothing to do with how they treated their employees. "Actors chafed under restrictive, long-term contracts; writers, in Jack's view, were 'schmucks with Underwoods" (i.e., typists). This is the environment Bogart entered following the success of The Petrified Forest.

11. The weakest sections in Tough Without a Gun deal with Bogart's personal life -- his three failed marriages and, finally, his fourth, successful one with Lauren Bacall. We should count ourselves lucky that we were spared the drooling, gossipy Peter Biskind writing about the 44-year-old actor's love affair with a 19-year-old actress. Kanfer's heart isn't really in it, and that's part of the problem. All the romantic interludes throughout the book reek of creative compromise -- of editorial insistence that the author include something "for the lay-dees." Ditto the weird anecdote about Bacall's crush on Adlai Stevenson, and the vague allusion to her possible affair with Frank Sinatra either shortly before or shortly after Bogie's death...too depressing to be coy.

12. Kanfer compounds the problem, however, by confusing the role of author with enabler. He's always quick to justify his subject's less-than-glamorous behavior with wives or colleagues (the gist being, Well, you see, what Humphrey really meant to say was....) or file it under either rough childhood or macho bonhomie. (I know I'm supposed to slap my knee and giggle like Kate Hepburn whenever there's an anecdote about Bogie or John Huston or some other hunk-a-man behaving falling-down drunk and cruel to friends or colleagues, but all I envision is a bunch of towel-snapping frat-boy assholes with too much time on their hands.) I've also been reading Simon Callow's superb two-part biography on Orson Welles (part one right before the Bogie bio, part two right after), and Callow shows it's possible to convey a person's failings without denigration. (For example, how Welles's decision to handle post-production by remote-control allowed RKO's hatchet-job on The Magnificent Ambersons.)

13. Anyway, the Golden Age studio system seemed to demand that an actor marry three or four times per lifetime and make three or four movies per year. While the latter would today help get Nicolas Cage out of hock, back then it threatened to stymie Bogart's growth as an actor. It would be another five years and nearly thirty movies (many of them stock bad-guy supporting parts) before his next major step up the latter: Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941). Another gangster part, yes, but one sympathetic enough to rile the Production Code censors. Ida Lupino got top-billing, but Bogart got the accolades and attention.

14. Bogart continued to make a couple of pictures each year, with at least one of them each year a hit. Later in 1941, John Huston, who co-wrote the screenplay for Raoul Walsh's High Sierra, cast Bogie as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and we all know what happened there. Ditto 1942, when an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick's became adapted as Casablanca. Kanfer quotes the appraisal of the play by a low-level underling at Warners (named Stephen Karnot): "Excellent melodrama. Colorful, timely background., tense mood, suspense, psychological and physical conflict, tight plotting, sophisticated hokum. A box office natural, for Bogart, or Cagney, or Raft..."

15. Kanfer does some welcome appraising of his own regarding The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He challenges Louisa Brooks' opinion that Bogart ruined Sam Spade's climactic exposition scene. "Just the opposite is true. There was no other actor in the Warners studio...who could have so effectively brought off the finale, with its crowded words and thoughts." (Additionally, Bogart thought up the final line, a spin on Shakespeare's The Tempest: We are such stuff/as dreams are made on...") He also argues that Casablanca transcends its standard plot outline through a mix of distinctive elements (compelling subplots, witty dialogue, fresh locale) and happy accidents (Joseph Breen's insistence that a key confrontation scene between Rick and Ilsa end with a dissolve, making it more sexually suggestive, not less). Auteurists may turn up their noses at Casablanca, but for me no auteur has ever made a more perfect film.

16. Through the years, Bogart alternated between forgettable films and huge hits. 1944: Passage to Marseille and To Have and Have Not. 1946: Two Guys from Milwaukee and The Big Sleep. 1948 was a high-watermark year for Bogie: a popular success (Key Largo) and a towering artistic achievement (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with, in my opinion Bogart's greatest, ballsiest performance). Still, what should be the heart of the book -- Humphrey's experience filming 1951's The African Queen, ultimately winning the Best Actor Oscar -- ends up being rather rote. (Hepburn liked manly men, Huston was obsessed with shooting an elephant, blah blah).

17. The waning years of Bogart's life and career are depicted as a sad slog, with one bizarre, lively exception: the homophobic Bogie's admiration for flamboyant screenwriter Truman Capote during the otherwise miserable shoot of 1954's Beat the Devil.

18. That same year, Bogart was miscast in Billy Wilder's Sabrina. He was also evidently ostracized: Wilder, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden forming a nudgy inner circle. (As an aside, Bogart's fine 1950 film noir In a Lonely Place was overshadowed by Wilder's thematically similar yet far slicker Sunset Boulevard, which, of course, starred Holden). He finished his career with good roles in The Caine Mutiny (also 1954) and The Harder They Fall (his final film, 1956), but even before his health failed him, Bogart was already lamenting the dearth of good roles for an aging actor. It's difficult to imagine where he would have fit in in 60s cinema.

19. Nevertheless, his iconography has endured. It's here that Kanfer's book becomes particularly disappointing, an overlong buildup to what amounts to a laundry list: Godard includes a scene in Breathless where Jean-Paul Belmondo spies a photograph of Bogart; college students admired Bogie's no-bullshit honesty; his name became a verb for refusing to share a marijuana joint. Woody Allen conjured him as a dispenser of romantic wisdom in Play It Again, Sam; Bogart-themed film festivals, bars, and even furniture stores popped up across the country. But, wait: Umberto Eco, Kenneth Tynan, and John Berryman all made references to Bogart or Bogart's movies, so he appealed to high-culture as well!

20. Well, great. And so what? Before concluding with the kind of swoony romanticism he thinks he's taking pains to avoid (the hat in the author photo is also a mistake), Kanfer comes closest with "the larger theme of American masculinity," taking issue with the claim made by others that Bogart stands out due to the emasculation of the American male (via gay rights, women's rights, etc.) "The male ego...that has been fragile for generations," Kanfer notes, an astute observation. But his subsequent claim that Bogart actually stands out due to the infantalization of cinema seems self-contradictory: Okay, there may never be another Bogart onscreen; but that doesn't explain the innumerable attempts to emulate his style. (Asserting that "the Bogart style" may now be found offscreen "in the principled action of individuals uncomfortable with compromise and conformity" is even more overreaching.)

21. Tough Without a Gun ends by claiming "sociologists and historians" frequently cite "Humphrey's rough-hewn persona and barroom misbehavior as early signs of the disintegration to follow." (Really? Who?) Kanfer counters this by pointing out Bogart's nobler aspects: "He helped Fatty Arbuckle and Peter Lorre when they were in extreme need, defiantly hired people on the studio blacklist, aided Joan Bennett and Gene Tierney when they were in distress, and quietly donated to a long list of charities. He was courteous to women and straightforward to men, and when he made a promise he kept it." He also liked puppy dogs, apple pie, and long walks on the beach, though Kanfer doesn't mention that.

22. More persuasive, to me, is a near-throwaway passage halfway through the book, recounting that during the making of 1997's L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson screened the period-relevant In a Lonely Place for Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. "'I wanted them to see the reality of that period and to see that emotion,'" Hanson is quoted. "'When I first saw In a Lonely Place as a teenager, it frightened me and yet attracted me with an almost hypnotic power.'" However deeply Humphrey Bogart may have entered the cultural fabric, the lexicon, or the finer virtues of Man, it's the work onscreen that is the reason for why he has endured.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice review. I've been carrying the book around this weekend, and some day I intend to finish it. I like Kanfer's summary of Bogart's outstanding characteristics: "integrity, stoicism, a sexual charisma accompanied by a cool indifference to women." However, I never found Bogart's characters all that indifferent. He's good at assuming a disinterested air.

Craig said...

Hey, thanks. (And thanks for the links.) Kanfer does have some good descriptions. But you're right, there's another level to Bogie beneath the disinterest.