Tough Without a Gun
The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart
By Stefan Kanfer
Knopf, 304pp., $26.95
Physically, he was an unlikely star in any era. Balding, short, afflicted with a lisp and a lined face from drink, Humphrey DeForrest Bogart (1899-1957) has nevertheless proved to be the most enduring of Old Hollywood stars.
Consider, for a moment, transplanting the more-popular Clark Gable or Errol Flynn into our era: Gable’s claim to screen fame, an alpha male dominating an uppity female, wouldn’t play well with feminist sensibilities. Nor would Errol Flynn’s screen heroics, leading British imperialists in doomed charges or holding fast as Custer against blood-crazed Indians. But Bogart’s image, a compelling mixture of cynicism and integrity, appropriate for audiences coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II, suits our time as well. Otherwise, Stefan Kanfer taking us through the familiar territory—the privileged background, the dues-paying turns as a Warner Brothers heavy, the marriage to Lauren Bacall—might not be worth the journey. But Kanfer reminds us that, in a youth-dominated movie market, Humphrey Bogart appeals today because his is the image of an adult, whose breakout role (Sam Spade) came at age 42.
That’s probably a better explanation of his embrace by college students of the 1960s than any existentialist/antiwar appeal he supposedly exuded. Bogart’s screen image was not that of a man daily reinventing himself to cope with the world; he woke up protecting his integrity and went to bed after the hat and trench coat had been put away. The youth of the sixties, accustomed to such boy-men as Elvis or Tab Hunter or Peter Fonda, may have been searching for a father figure. Which is ironic, since Bogart was terrified (at age 49) of impending fatherhood. “The little bastard will probably never get to know me, “ he said of his son, and he never grew into the role, preferring the safe confines of his work and his personal preference for (predominantly male) drinking buddies, such as John Huston. Nor was Bogart especially interested in the trappings of stardom, of which he was famously contemptuous. “He said his lines and then went home,” stated an admiring John Huston. Chastened by the public reaction to his appearance in Washington in support of the Hollywood Ten, he was appreciably different from today’s actor/activists, admitting he had been a “dupe and a dope.”
Bogart’s greatest appeal may have been the most elusive part of his screen image: the actor’s ability to be menacing and heroic at the same time. In our times, where James Bond has to fall in love and Indiana Jones must be paternal, Bogart turning in the woman he loves, or hurling a glass of water at a little boy, can seem like relief.
Ron Capshaw is a writer in Richmond, Virginia.