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Happy Birthday, Humphrey Bogart!

“The young man who embodies the sprig is what is usually and mercifully described as inadequate,” noted legendary critic Alexander Woollcott of an actor’s second appearance on Broadway in 1922 in a play entitled Swifty.  Woollcott (who would eventually go on to radio fame as The Town Crier over CBS Radio in the 1930s) had a reputation for pulling no punches. However, it’s fun to speculate what his reaction would be had he lived long enough to see that actor named by the American Film Institute as the greatest male star of classic American cinema in 1999.  The thespian for whom Woollcott had such sour acclaim was born on Christmas Day in 1899 in NYC as Humphrey DeForest Bogart.

Humphrey Bogart’s film persona was that of a “tough guy” (and later, the cynical anti-hero) so his fans certainly enjoyed the irony that their favorite star had actually been born to wealth and privilege.  His father Belmont was a cardiopulmonary surgeon and his mother Maud a commercial illustrator. (Her drawing of Baby Bogie was used in an advertising campaign by the Mellins Baby Food company.)  Humphrey attended New York’s Delancey School until the fifth grade, when he then transferred to the prestigious Trinity School.  From there it was on to one of the nation’s leading preparatory schools, the Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.  Phillips was considered a steppingstone to Yale, but Bogart wouldn’t get that far.  He was expelled after three semesters for “incontrollable high spirits”—or in layman’s terms, he was a disciplinary problem.

A lifelong love of boats and the sea inspired Humphrey Bogart to join the U.S. Navy at a time when World War I was underway.  It was in the service that Bogie would receive that trademark scar on his upper lip (thanks to a flying wood splinter).  Humphrey returned home to learn that his father had lost a good portion of the family fortune through careless investments, and that necessitated the junior Bogart getting a job quickly.  He tried being a stockbroker for a time, but a job offer from producer William A. Brady (a family friend of the Bogarts, whose son William, Jr. was one of Bogie’s pals) would point him toward a career in show business.  Humphrey started out as a manager of one of Brady’s touring companies until one night he accepted a dare from actor Neil Hamilton (you know him as Commissioner Gordon on Batman) to take his place in a play for one performance.  While Bogart froze with fright during that experience, after complaining about his meager salary in backstage work, Brady suggested he take up acting.

Bill Brady must have sensed that Humphrey Bogart had a talent for playing callow juveniles due to his theatrical inexperience, because he and other producers who cast Humphrey soon made good use of his limited talents.  (It’s been said that Bogart originated the timeworn cliché “Tennis, anyone?” in one of those productions.)  Toward the end of the 1920s, however, Humphrey had started to outgrow those juvenile roles. Fortunately, his stage experience made him an ideal candidate for “the talkies,” as Hollywood began hiring theatre veterans left and right.  Bogart signed a contract with Fox in 1930 for $400 a week, but his five-film output (including 1930’s Up the River, co-starring Spencer Tracy and directed by John Ford) didn’t result in stardom, and the studio dropped his option.  Humphrey would move back and forth between East and West Coasts, appearing in plays and features (like 1932’s Three on a Match).

A role in the Broadway production Invitation to a Murder (1934) impressed producer Arthur Hopkins, who remembered Humphrey Bogart when it came time to cast the character of gangster Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (1935).  The star of Forest was actor Leslie Howard, who was so impressed by Bogie as Mantee that he promised Humphrey he would do what he could to make sure he would reprise the role when Warner Bros. planned their silver screen version. (Warner had actually announced that Edward G. Robinson would play Mantee in the film, but Leslie informed the studio that if they didn’t get Bogart they wouldn’t have Howard.)  Humphrey’s solid turn in Petrified Forest started to get him noticed among the moviegoing public.

The Petrified Forest may not have produced the kind of immediate results for Humphrey Bogart that, say, The Public Enemy (1931) did for James Cagney (or Little Caesar [1930] for Edward G. Robinson for that matter)…but it gave the actor steady employment as a bad guy in features like Bullets or Ballots (1936) and Kid Galahad (1937).  Bogie could play the hero on occasion (Marked Woman [1937]), and in underappreciated films like Black Legion (1937), Humphrey gets involved with a KKK-like organization with tragic results. He really shone in Legion, and was praised by the National Board of Review for that performance. But many of his Warner Bros. efforts cast him in unrewarding secondary roles, and Bogart started to chafe at his treatment by the studio.  Warners often “punished” their obstreperous star with dismal vehicles like Swing Your Lady (1938; a ”hillbilly” musical) and The Return of Dr. X (1939; Bogie’s a zombie!).  “I’m known as a guy who squawks about roles, but never refuses to play one,” Humphrey once remarked to a reporter.  The actor took the advice of a friend that “if you’re always busy, sometime someone is going to get the idea that you must be good.”

It’s become Hollywood legend that George Raft (who co-starred with Bogie in Invisible Stripes [1939] and They Drive by Night [1940]) was apparently every bit as responsible for Humphrey Bogart’s stardom as Bogart was.  Raft turned down the leads in High Sierra (1941; George was purportedly a superstitious man and the death of the main character in Sierra spooked him) and The Maltese Falcon (1941; Raft wouldn’t do a “remake” and he also didn’t want to work with novice director John Huston), allowing Bogart to step in and star in two of his finest films.  Bogart’s first romantic lead in Casablanca (1942) would also garner him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor…even if the studio did have to hide the fact that his leading lady, Ingrid Bergman, was taller than her male co-star.  Humphrey was now a full-fledged film star, and his teaming with young Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) made them both firm favorites with moviegoers.

One of Humphrey Bogart’s earliest radio appearances was on a June 28, 1934 broadcast of Rudy Vallee’s The Fleischmann Yeast Hour, where he performed in a truncated version of his Broadway hit Invitation to a Murder (along with Walter Abel and Gale Sondegaard).  Humphrey would return to Vallee’s show on several occasions, and throughout the 1930s and 1940s parodied his “tough guy” persona on shows headlined by Phil Baker (Take It or Leave It), Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Al Jolson.  Bogart would also reprise film roles (not to mention appear in original plays) on the popular radio anthologies of the era, notably Academy Award TheatreThe Cavalcade of AmericaThe Gulf/Lady Esther/Camel Screen Guild TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreSuspenseThe Theatre Guild of the Air, and The Theatre of Romance.  Rounding out Bogie’s radio resume are guest appearances on the likes of Command PerformanceHedda Hopper’s HollywoodMail CallThe Shell ChateauShirley Temple Time, and Stagestruck.

Humphrey Bogart’s prominence in movies like Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948) handicapped him when it came to committing to a weekly radio series—though he did participate in a September 17, 1949 audition entitled “Dead Man,” which featured him as both host and performer.  Bogie wouldn’t be heard regularly on radio until 1951-52, when he and Lauren Bacall (now Mrs. Bogart) starred in the syndicated adventure Bold Venture.  As soldier-of-fortune Slate Shannon, Bogart owned both a hotel and the boat of the program’s title…and engaged in weekly escapades with his “ward,” Sailor Duval (Bacall) in the Caribbean.  Mr. and Mrs. B were able to record 3-4 episodes a week ahead of broadcast (netting a nice $4,000 per episode) and Bold Venture went on to become one of Ziv Syndication’s most popular shows, broadcast over 400 radio stations at the peak of its popularity.

Despite now critically-acclaimed turns in movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and In a Lonely Place (1950), Humphrey Bogart would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar just twice more after his first nod for Casablanca. The second time was the charm for Bogie; his thespic peers awarded him a trophy for his role as a drunken boat captain in The African Queen (1951), and his third and final nomination also recognized his seamanship as martinet Lt. Cmdr. Philip Francis Queeg in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny.  By the time of Mutiny, however, Humphrey’s health had begun to deteriorate from a lifelong habit of heavy smoking and drinking.  After his cinematic swan song in The Harder They Fall (1956), Bogart succumbed to esophageal cancer in January of 1957 at the age of 57.

Humphrey Bogart was not the type of actor to toot his own horn about his films, but he had uncharacteristic praise for The Maltese Falcon. “[I]t is practically a masterpiece,” he went on record as saying. “I don’t have many things I’m proud of…but that’s one.”  Radio Spirits’ Smithsonian Legendary Performers: Dashiell Hammett collection features our birthday boy in a September 20, 1943 broadcast of The Lady Esther Screen Guild Theatre that reunites him with co-stars Myrna Loy, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet in a half-hour radio version of that classic film.  You’ll also hear Humphrey and the missus josh with Jack Benny (from January 5, 1947) on the RS set Jack Benny & Friends and he’s one of several high-wattage celebrities profiled in the 4-DVD compilation Hollywood’s Greatest Screen Legends.  Happy birthday, Bogie!

One Comment

  1. Dario Witer says:

    One of America’s greatest actors, who is also one of the top Hollywood icons of all time. A true talent!

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