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Happy Birthday, Lauren Bacall!

The woman born Betty Joan Perske in New York City on this date in 1924 had a burning ambition to become an actress.  After all, she took lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (before the age of 18), where one of her classmates was a fellow thespian who would also achieve silver screen stardom: Kirk Douglas.  (Betty Joan and Kirk would appear together in 1950’s Young Man with a Horn, considered one of her finest film performances.)  Perske had to abandon her acting lessons, however, when she lost her job as a showroom model—but as it turns out, it would be modeling that opened doors in Hollywood for Betty.  Nancy Hawks, wife of director Howard, saw the young girl on the March 1943 cover of Harper’s Bazaar and urged him to screen test her for a movie he was working on at the time: an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.  Betty got the part (not to mention a seven-year contract), and when Howard changed her name to “Lauren Bacall”…the rest was show business history.

Lauren Bacall was born to Romanian-Jewish parents, Natalie and William, who divorced when she was five years old.  Wealthy uncles financed her education; Bacall attended both The Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls (in Tarrytown, NY) and Julia Richman High School in Manhattan.  Lauren formed a close, lifelong bond with her mother, who remarried after her divorce and legally changed her last name to Bacal—Lauren just added an extra “L” to hers for the movies.  While studying acting, Bacall did a lot of teenage modeling…an activity that earned her recognition as “Miss Greenwich Village” in 1942.  Once arriving in Hollywood, the Hawks took the young starlet under their wing; Nancy gave her fashion pointers in addition to instruction on manners and poise.  Howard had Lauren study with a vocal coach to lower the pitch of her voice (it was high-pitched and nasal), making it lower and deeper.  (The story goes that Bacall would shout Shakespearean verses for hours each day to achieve this effect.)

Lauren Bacall’s co-star in To Have and Have Not (1944) was actor Humphrey Bogart, and she was so nervous that to cope with her uneasiness she pressed her chin against her chest and titled her eyes upward whenever she faced the camera.  This trademark, dubbed “The Look,” perfectly complemented her sultry voice.  Bacall’s role in the film was a small one, but Hawks couldn’t ignore the amazing chemistry between her and Bogie, and her part would wind up being revised multiple times to make it bigger.  There were sparks off-screen as well; Bacall and Bogart began a romantic relationship when the cameras weren’t rolling (despite Bogie’s still being married to Mayo Methot).  To Have and Have Not was a smash at the box office, and not long after the release of the film the two stars tied the knot (on May 21, 1945).  The Bogarts would go on to appear in three additional films together (four if you count their cameo in Two Guys from Milwaukee [1946]). Their second, The Big Sleep (1946), became a film noir classic.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart also worked together in Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). They had planned to make Top Secret Affair (eventually released in 1957 with Kirk Douglas and Susan Hayward), but Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957 put the kibosh on that project (though they did film some clothing tests for the movie).  Hollywood lore notes that Bogart had wanted his wife for the leading lady roles in his films In a Lonely Place (1950) and Sabrina (1954), but the couple’s only other acting project before the cameras would be a 1955 appearance on TV’s Producers’ Showcase. In this, Bogie reprised the movie role that first got him noticed in Tinsel Town, that of Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest.  Bacall played the part that Bette Davis did in that 1936 picture. (Bacall would later donate the only known kinescope of this small screen event to The Museum of Television & Radio/The Paley Center for Media in the 1990s.)

Lauren Bacall did do one additional dramatic exercise with her husband.  Humphrey Bogart had been approached over the years about doing a radio series…but until the practice of transcribing programs for later broadcast began to dominate the industry, he was reluctant to make that weekly commitment.  Writers Morton Fine and David Friedkin pitched the couple Bold Venture, a syndicated outing from Frederic W. Ziv.  Bogie played “Slate Shannon,” a soldier of fortune who skippered the titular vessel. Shannon also operated a hotel in the Caribbean and looked after his “ward” Sailor Duval (played by “Baby,” of course). The show was a huge radio hit, and it allowed the couple to do 3-4 shows at one time…while collecting $4,000 per program.  (Nice work if you can get it!)  On the non-Bold Venture side of the microphone, Lauren and Humphrey reprised their To Have and Have Not roles (as “Slim” and “Steve”) in a now-classic broadcast of The Lux Radio Theatre (October 14,1946). They also appeared on such variety shows as Command Performance, and traded jokes with stars like Jack Benny and Bing Crosby.  (There are a number of surviving 1941 broadcasts from a WEVD-New York series called Let’s Playwright—featuring some of Bacall’s earliest acting!)

Lauren Bacall was often reluctant to talk about her famous husband, and once remarked that “being a widow is not a profession.” So we will move on to concentrate on some of the outstanding film work she did without Bogart.  One of her finest performances was in 1956’s Written on the Wind (she should have been nominated for an Oscar…but she wasn’t). She also starred in such features as Bright Leaf (1950), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Woman’s World (1954), The Cobweb (1955), Designing Woman (1957—with her good friend Gregory Peck), and North West Frontier (1959; a.k.a. Flame Over India).  Truth be told, Lauren could be very choosy when it came to film roles (which, unfortunately, earned her a reputation for being “difficult”). It was also tricky making time for the movies when she was doing quite well for herself as a stage actress.  Bacall appeared in Broadway successes like Goodbye, Charlie (1959) and Cactus Flower (1965), and would eventually win Tony Awards for 1970’s Applause (the stage version of All About Eve) and 1981’s Woman of the Year (based on the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film).

Despite first-rate performances in movies like Harper (1966), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Shootist (1976), Misery (1990), My Fellow Americans (1996), and Dogville (2003), Lauren Bacall was only nominated for an Oscar once—for 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces.  The inside scuttlebutt was that she would be recognized by her peers, but she lost out that year to Juliette Binoche (for The English Patient).  In 2010, “in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures,” Lauren would receive an honorary statuette—a most worthy honor for the actress recognized by the American Film Institute as the 20th greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema in 1999.  Lauren Bacall’s final feature, The Forger, was released in 2012; she passed away at the age of 89 two years later.

Radio Spirits offers up a 3-DVD collection entitled Hollywood’s Greatest Screen Legends, which spotlights biographies of many of our favorite classic movie actors and actresses…and you’ll be pleased to know that our birthday girl is among the star-studded lineup!  On the radio side, we invite you to check out one of the funniest broadcasts of The Jack Benny Program—a January 5, 1947 episode that guest stars Baby and Bogie—on our popular CD collection Jack Benny & Friends.  But while Lauren Bacall excelled both in movies and on radio, she also turned in consistently first-rate performances on the small screen. She was nominated for an Emmy for her guest appearance (as “Kendall Warren”) on the “Lions, Tigers, Monkeys and Dogs” two-parter of The Rockford Files, and we have the complete series available on DVD for your edification.  Happiest of birthdays to you, Lauren!

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