Physically, he was an unlikely star in any era. Balding, short, afflicted with a lisp and a face lined from drink, Humphrey DeForrest Bogart has nevertheless proved to be the most enduring of Old Hollywood stars.
Bogart's image, that compelling mixture of cynicism and integrity, so appropriate for audiences coming out of the disappointments of the Great Depression and into the crunching requirements of World War II, suits our time as well (he was recently ranked the number one movie legend of all time). Author Stefan Kanfer takes us through all the previously mined territory in a new biography, “Tough Without a Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart.' His life included a privileged background, dues-paying turns as a Warner Brothers' heavy, his heyday in the 1940s, when his cynicism made him all the more trustworthy when he decided to fight the Nazis, and the marriage to Lauren Bacall. It's worth the journey. Kanfer constantly reminds us of our youth-dominated movie market, and it gives his book value and makes his thesis: Humphrey Bogart appeals today because his image is that of an adult. He made his breakout role as Sam Spade at the age of 42.
Certainly this theory serves as a better explanation of Bogart's embrace by college kids in the 1960s than the existentialist-anti-war appeal he supposedly held. His screen image was hardly that of a man reinventing himself every day to cope with the world; he woke up cynically protecting his integrity and went to bed that way after the trench coat and hat had been put away. And his most famous role, that of Rick Blaine in “Casablanca,” was a once-idealistic soldier who fought in three wars. The youth of the sixties, bombarded with such boy men as Elvis Presley and Tab Hunter, and later, Peter Fonda, may have indeed been searching for this kind of father figure.
This is ironic when one learns that Bogart was terrified at becoming, at age 49, a father. “The little bastard will probably never get to know me,” he said of his only son. Eyewitnesses agree that he never grew into the role. He preferred to stay within the safe confines of his previous one and his preference for drinking buddies such as director John Huston over diaper changing reinforces his tough screen image. In short, he preferred his own kind and wasn't worried about getting in touch with his feminine side. The secret of his appeal to adult men today may reside in that unapologetic, lost, era of maleness.
Another appealing fact about the off-screen Bogart was his disinterest in the trappings of stardom. He was legendary in his putdowns to those who bought into the cult of celebrity (“don't come to me with your fucking problems,” he replied to a director who had announced that he had just wed a starlet.) Today he would probably view with distaste the fancy trailers and handlers of megastars. “He said his lines and then went home,” an admiring Huston stated.
The proof of Bogart's uniqueness is that no one has filled his void — the same is true of Errol Flynn, although Johnny Depp has tried to cover up his lack of anachronistic machismo with mincing pratfalls. Many male stars of today — Daniel Radcliffe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt—appear to be just out of the acne phase and rarely emote world weariness. Moviegoers who are tired of boy men, aged by economic uncertainty and several wars, still find Bogart a welcome change of pace from what appears to them on Blu-Ray.
But in his haste to immortalize Bogart's appeal, Kanfer downplays what may have been the most seductive part of the screen image: the actor's ability to be menacing and heroic at the same time. In our politically incorrect times, where James Bond has to fall in love and Indiana Jones has to be fatherly, Bogart turning in the woman he loves or hurling a glass of water at a little boy is something of a cathartic relief. Few stars today would risk such actions. If Bogart were a contemporary actor, his screen actions would be audience-tested and then excised or there would have to be a scene added where he adopts a dog.
All in all, Kanfer has managed something of an achievement with this Hollywood bio. He has taken material already done to death and emerged from it with a fresh explanation for the Bogart phenomenon. S