I’ve been around a long time. Maybe the people like me.
– Humphrey Bogart
In 1999 the American Film Institute named Humphrey Bogart the Greatest Male Star of all time. Throughout his career he perfected the tough guy persona with a heart of gold, best demonstrated through his Oscar nominated role in Casablanca (1943).
Born on Christmas Day, 1899 in New York City, Bogart’s father was a cardiopulmonary surgeon and his mother was a commercial illustrator who later became an art director of fashion magazine The Delineator and a militant suffragette. During the peak of her career she earned well over $50,000 a year – a vast sum for the time and a great deal more than her husband’s $20,000. Insisting their children refer to them by their first names, Bogart would later comment ‘I was brought up very unsentimentally but very straightforwardly. A kiss, in our family, was an event. Our mother and father didn’t glug over my two sisters and me.’ However unsentimental, they would have an impact on the young Bogart, with the actor inheriting a tendency to needle, fondness for fishing, love of boating and an attraction to strong-willed women from his father.
Attending the private Delancey School, then Trinity, Bogart would later go on to attend the boarding school Phillips Academy but in 1918 he was expelled, dashing his parent’s hopes that he would attend Yale. With no viable career prospects, he enlisted in the United States Navy in the spring of 1918, commenting, ‘At eighteen, war was great stuff. Paris! Sexy French girls! Hot damn!’ He would spend most of his time after the Armistice ferrying troops back from Europe. When he returned home he found his father in poor health and due to bad investments, much of his family’s wealth was gone. After he finished his naval service, Bogart worked as a shipper and then a bond salesman before landing an office job working at World Films. Here, he was able to try his hand at screenwriting, directing and production but failed to really excel at any. It was in the 1921 play Drifting that he would experience his acting debut as a butler.
Bogart liked the late hours actors kept and enjoyed the attention he received on stage, commenting, ‘I was born to be indolent and this was the softest of rackets.’ Spending much of his free time in speakeasies, it wasn’t long before he became a heavy drinker. He appeared in at least seventeen Broadway productions between 1922 and 1935 and it was during this time, in 1922, that he met actress Helen Menken. They were married on May 20, 1926 and divorced the following year on November 18. On April 3, 1928 he married Mary Phillips who, like Menken, had a fiery temper.
1929 saw the stock market crash and stage production reduced significantly with many actors heading for Hollywood. After appearing in his debut film, The Dancing Town (1928) Bogart signed a contract with the Fox Film Corporation for $750 a week. It was here he met Spencer Tracy who remained a close friend for the rest of his life and in 1930 was the first person to refer to him as “Bogie”.
From 1930 to 1935, the actor moved back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway but often suffered long periods without work. By this time his parents had separated, with his father dying in 1934 with a debt which Bogart would eventually pay off. He inherited his Father’s gold ring which he rarely removed and can be seen in many of his films. By this time his second marriage was experiencing issues and combined with the hurdles in his acting career, he turned to alcohol for solace.
In 1935 the actor starred in the Broadway play The Petrified Forest with Leslie Howard. The play had 197 performances, with Warner Bros purchasing the screen rights. Bette Davis and Leslie Howard were cast and Howard, who held production rights, made it clear he wanted Bogart to reprise his role. However, the studio had other ideas and when Bogart found out they were looking at other actors he contacted Howard who was at that time in Scotland. Howard replied, ‘Att: Jack Warner. Insist Bogart play Mantee. No Bogart, no deal. L.H.’ When it became clear to Warner Bros that Howard would not budge, they cast Bogart. The studio also attempted to convince the actor to adopt a stage name, which was the norm in those days, but he stubbornly refused. The Petrified Forest was highly successful, earning $500,000 at the box office and making Bogart a star. He never forgot Howard’s part in making this role happen, and in 1952 he named his daughter Leslie Howard Bogart after the actor who had died in World War II under mysterious circumstances.
Although having successfully re-launched his career in Hollywood, Bogart received a modest twenty-six week contract at $550 a week and was typecast as a gangster in a string of B movie crime dramas. It became clear to the actor that Warner Bros had no interest in making him a big star and while he disliked the roles chosen for him, he continued to work steadily. Between 1936 and 1940 he averaged a movie every two months, often working on films simultaneously. It was during this time that his wife Mary was experiencing success on Broadway and refused to give up her career to move to Hollywood so the couple divorced in 1937.
He wasn’t single for long and on August 21, 1938 Bogart entered was is widely considered his most disastrous marriage to actress Mayo Methot. An horrendous drunk, she became convinced her husband was cheating on her and over the course of their marriage she set their house on fire, stabbed him with a knife and slashed her wrists several times.
Bogart despised pretension, rarely seeing his own films and avoiding premieres and award shows. He had a tendency to speak his mind, regardless of whom it offended, and was more than willing to be quoted doing so. This made him a little unpopular in certain circles, not that he cared.
In 1941 Bogart starred in High Sierra, written by his friend John Huston, starring opposite Ida Lupino with whom he became close. This provoked jealous outbursts from his wife Mayo. That same year he starred in the film noir classic The Maltese Falcon, which was to be Houston’s directorial debut and cement Bogart as a major star. Praised for his sharp timing and rapid fire dialogue, the film was a major triumph for Houston and even Bogart appeared pleased with his efforts, commenting, ‘It is practically a masterpiece. I don’t have many things I’m proud of, but that’s one.’
It was with his role as Rick Blaine in the 1942 film Casablanca that the actor gained his first real romantic lead opposite Ingrid Bergman. Despite their on screen chemistry the two stars barely spoke off set, causing Bergman to comment, ‘I kissed him but I never knew him.’ For his iconic performance, Bogart received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination but did not win. However the film did win the award for Best Picture. By 1946 he had more than doubled his annual salary to over $460,000, making him the highest paid actor in the world.
It was during filming of the 1944 film To Have and Have Not that Bogart met then nineteen year old Lauren Bacall. The forty-four year old actor nicknamed her “Baby” and was drawn to her outspoken honesty. This was the first time in his career that Bogart conducted an affair with a co-star, quite unusual for the time when bed-hopping was a common occurrence, and as he was still married to Mayo when they first met, their affair was discreet and conducted largely through ardent love letters. He became somewhat of a mentor to Bacall while filming and allowed her to steal scenes, even encouraging it. The pair would be reunited again just months later for The Big Sleep (1944). Throughout filming the actor remained torn between his growing affections for Bacall and his duty to his wife. The film was by and large a success but unfortunately it ultimately signaled the end of Bogart’s marriage, with the couple divorcing in February 1945. Three months later on May 21, 1945 he and Bacall were married in a small ceremony and would remain so until his death. Theirs was widely considered the most successful of all Bogart’s marriages, and they would go on to have two children, a son, Stephen Humphrey Bogart, and daughter, Leslie Howard Bogart. His sons name was derived from his characters nickname in To Have and Have Not – “Steve”.
Bacall and Bogart would star in two more films together, Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948), both considered to be great successes. But despite his rising status as a major star in Hollywood, he was still largely controlled by the studio system, often being forced into roles he didn’t want to do. In 1948 he started his own production company Santana Productions and left Warner Bros in the early 1950s. Releasing films through Columbia Pictures, Santana Productions made several films but was ultimately unsuccessful and Bogart sold his interest to Columbia in 1955.
The African Queen (1951), directed by John Huston and starring Katherine Hepburn, was Bogart’s first Technicolour film and won the actor his only Academy Award for Best Actor. He considered his performance as Capt. Queeg to be the best of his career, and when accepting his award he said, ‘It’s a long way from the Belgian Congo to the stage of this theatre. It’s nicer to be here. Thank you very much. No one does it alone. As in tennis, you need a good opponent or partner to bring out the best in you. John and Katie helped me to be where I am now.’
Bogart could be incredibly generous with other actors. During the filming of The Left Hand of God (1955) he noticed his co-star Gene Tierney having difficulties remembering her lines and behaving strangely. He coached the actress, feeding her lines. He was no stranger to mental illness, having witnessed his sister’s bouts of depression and he urged Tierney to seek treatment. Meanwhile, the actor’s own health was steadily declining and in 1956 he stared in his final film role, The Harder They Fall.
The actor was a founding member and original leader of the notorious Hollywood Rat Pack. Rumour has it that in the spring of 1955, after a long party in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sid Luft, Mike Romanoff, David Niven, Angie Dickinson and others, Bacall surveyed the aftermath and declared ‘You look like a goddamn rat pack.’ The name stuck.
Bogart, who had been a heavy smoker and drinker his entire life, developed esophagus cancer and by 1956 it had become untreatable. Sinatra was a frequent visitor, as were Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. He lapsed into a coma and died shortly after at the age of fifty-seven. He was buried with a small, gold whistle which had been part of a charm bracelet he had given to Bacall before they were married. It was inscribed with the line “If you want anything, just whistle”, alluding to the famous line from To Have and Have Not – “You know how to whistle don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Humphrey Bogart had a career that spanned nearly three decades, appearing in seventy-five feature films. His characters such as Rick Blaine and Sam Spade are iconic and throughout his career he has uttered some of the most famous lines in cinematic history. He will forever be remembered as the tough guy with the heart of gold.