Idols

Here’s lookin’ at you Humphrey Bogart

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Few American actors have left as distinctive a mark on cinema history as Humphrey Bogart. His charisma and confidence made him irresistably attractive, and cemented his stardom forever. Even today, many modern actors borrow shamelessly from the Bogart cache. Every distinctive element of his style and his physical mannerisms has become fodder for impersonations and tributes. The legendary Bogey lines that are familiar to filmgoers worldwide became classics as soon as he uttered them on screen for the first time.

Born Humphrey DeForest Bogart on December 25, 1899 in New York City, he was the son of a noted Manhattan surgeon and a successful magazine illustrator. Unlike the struggling artist of lore, he was born into social and financial comfort. He was sent to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in preparation for medical studies at Yale, but met with disciplinary problems and was expelled. When he entered World War I, he joined the Navy. On board the vessel Leviathan during a shelling, he acquired the scarred and partly paralyzed upper lip that later accounted for his tight-set mouth and characteristic lisp. Though the story of his service injury was well known, publicity machines and the public often made up better stories to suit the quintessential tough guy they saw on film.

After his discharge, Bogart approached a friend of the family, William A. Brady, for employment in the theater. He started out as an office boy and worked his way up to road company and stage manager. He also performed various chores at Brady’s New York film studio, World Film Corporation. In 1920, while on the road, Bogart decided to switch to acting and for a while found the going rough. In a much-quoted Alexander Wollcott review of the play, “Swifty,” Bogart’s acting was referred to as “what is usually and mercifully described as inadequate.” But he went on to play indifferent stage roles, mostly romantic or callow juveniles, throughout the 1920’s.

Bogart took his first excursion to Hollywood in 1930, making his film debut in a ten-minute short, Broadway’s Like That.He then played a succession of bland second-lead roles in features for Fox, Universal, Columbia, and other production companies. Dissatisfied, he kept shuttling to Broadway for additional stage roles. The year 1935 provided Bogart with his first important break, when he was cast as the baleful gangster ‘Duke Mantee’ in the Broadway production of Robert E. Sherwood’s “The Petrified Forest.” Leslie Howard played the role of Alan Squier. When Warner Bros. acquired the film rights to the play and intended casting Edward G. Robinson in the Mantee role, Howard threatened to withdraw unless the role was given to Bogart. The studio gave in. The Petrified Forest (1936) proved a tremendous success, and Bogart was on his way to stardom.

Humphrey Bogart

The following five years were an intermediate stage in Bogart’s career. In between 1936 and 1940, he appeared in no less than 28 feature films, mostly in standard gangster parts, often as the lead villain. He also appeared in two Westerns. Another turning point came in 1941, with an alliance that fostered the roles that were the beginning of the ‘Bogey’ legend. A screenwriter by the name of John Huston provided the impetus, with the script of High Sierra (1941; in collaboration with W. R. Burnett). Bogart gave a remarkable performance as a gangster with soul. Later that year, Huston directed Bogart in his tour de force performance as the ruthless private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Bogart sustained his peak of popularity through such films as Casablanca (1942), The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). On the set of To Have and Have Not (1944), he met and fell in love with-and later married-his co-star Lauren Bacall (his fourth wife; the other three, also actresses, were Helen Menken, Mary Philips, and Mayo Methot). In 1947, he formed his own production company, Santana Pictures. In the following year, he played one of his most memorable parts, the greedy, paranoid prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). The 1950’s saw him extend his acting range as never before with wildly diverse roles in such films as In a Lonely Place (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Sabrina (1954) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). He won the Academy Award for his captivating performance opposite Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen. Shortly after the release of his last film, The Harder They Fall (1956). In March 1956, Bogart underwent an operation for cancer of the esophagus. He died in his sleep at his Hollywood home on January 14, 1957.