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THE BOGART MYSTIQUE
By Alejandro Grattan
(Reprinted by Request)
One synonym for the word “mystique” is magical, and it is indeed magical that today, some fifty years after his death, Bogart is a bigger star than he was even in his wildly successful heyday during the ‘40s and ‘50s. More amazing is that his fans are currently comprised mainly of young people. For those who doubt these assertions, I offer the following exhibits:
* There have been more than fifteen books published about Bogart. Gable and Garbo rated two each. Brando and Monroe three apiece. Moreover, several of the Bogart books were written by highly literate and sophisticated men (e.g., Alistair Cooke and Nathaniel Benchley) who ordinarily had little interest in the history and/or highjinks of filmdom’s rich and famous.
* In 1993, the editors (most of whom were in their 30s and early 40s) of Entertainment Weekly voted Bogart the greatest movie star ever. Amongst a list of thirty, some of the current stars whom he easily eclipsed are Connery, Newman, De Niro, Eastwood, Hoffman, Nicholson and Brando. The Top Thirty included such screen legends as Hepburn (K.), Grant, Monroe, Gable, Chaplin, Davis, Stewart, Cagney, Cooper, Bergman, Wayne, Astaire, Taylor (Liz), Olivier, Garland, Tracy, Dean, Temple, Fonda (H.) and Valentino.
To have been included among such protean talent would have been a huge honor—to top such a list is a passport to posterity.
* Since the early ‘60s, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. has run a series of Bogart films during Exam Week at Harvard. It has been reported that the students (both male and female) invariably know Bogart’s movies so well, they sit parroting his every line of dialogue, and rise in unison at the end of Casablanca to sing “La Marseillaise.”
Finally, a few years ago, the American Film Institute conducted a poll among its 3000 members—all of whom are still actively involved in the industry—as to who was the greatest film star of all-time. Bogart won again.
Yet the rationale for picking Bogart doesn’t fully explain his enduring popularity, or the perpetuation of his powerful mystique. They said he “was the onscreen essence of inner strength,” and an “icon of majestic indifference.” Other stars of his same era were outrageously good-looking, physically impressive specimens, while Bogart was an anomaly: short, rather scrawny, with a scarred lip that caused him to lisp and decidedly unhandsome in his later years. Yet, as the eminent film critic Pauline Kael once said, Bogart could dominate a scene simply by entering it.
Okay, fair enough … but not quite far enough.
One often overlooked reason for Bogart´s enduring popularity is the astonishingly high caliber of so many of the films he made. No other screen actor ever starred in so many outstanding movies. In the ‘30s, it was The Petrified Forest and High Sierra. In the ‘40s, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, Sahara and the film many (myself included) consider his best, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
By the ‘50s, Bogart was himself in his fifties and poised to give three of the finest performances of his career in The African Queen, The Barefoot Contessa and The Caine Mutiny.
By now it should be obvious that this list of films contains within it another reason for Bogart’s enduring legend: his artistic range and professional courage. In 1948, when he made Treasure, Bogart was the top box office attraction in the entire world. Yet he took a role which was anything but heroic, and one in which his character (a grimy-looking, borderline psycho) dies a brutal and ugly death at the end of the picture.
There are today very few top-rated film stars who take the same courageous risks with their career—Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery. Certainly Brando in his prime was the most adventurous of all. But most stars seem scared silly to attempt any role which the public hasn’t already pre-approved.
Such actors are, in effect, like a line of automobiles whose designers will never improve them for so long as a passive public keeps buying the current model.
In an industry clogged with conformism, Bogart was a flamboyant risk-taker, not only in his career, but in his personal life, as well. And here, I think, is where the secret to his enduring mystique lies.
Throughout his long sojourn in Hollywood, he was famous for fighting against everything from censorship to blacklisting, and was equally (though secretly) admired for his fearless assaults on the pompous and self-adoring maharajahs of the movie industry.
He was the first major star to openly condemn the despicable “pro-American” tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, this at a time when most of Hollywood was hiding under the bed. He was the first film actor to set up his own production company, even as the film industry was reeling under the initial impact of television.
Yet for all his fame and undeniable achievements, Bogart was a supremely modest man, rare in a profession given to avid self-congratulation. Whenever asked the secret of his success, he would answer without a moment’s hesitation: “I was lucky, that’s all.”
Bogart had a strong sense of who he was and what he stood for. He once sailed into the harbor at Newport, California, and took his skipper along with him into the yacht club bar. An official quietly told him that the yacht club was restricted, and no place for “hired hands.” Bogart called for his bar check, and on the back of it he promptly wrote out his resignation. One month later, the club’s chastened board of directors dropped the restriction.
This, and a hundred stories like it, would eventually make a deep impression on the general public. Hence, it is not surprising that by the end of his life Bogart the man had merged in some mysterious way with the most idealistic of his screen portrayals—a perception that has withstood the toughest trial of all, the test of time.
Today, in an age cancerous with cynicism, Bogart remains a role model for young people—the bruised but gallant loner who in the midst of insidious corruption and craven self-deception somehow manages to hang onto his code of honor.
As his friend and film mentor, John Huston, so succinctly put it at Bogart´s funeral in 1957, “He is quite irreplaceable. There will never be another like him.”
Some fifty years after Humphrey Bogart´s death, time has proven how true those words were.