The Best of Bogey in New Tribute Film Festival

Culture Watch
tags: MoMA, New Tribute Film Festival, Humphrey Bogart, Museum of Modern Art

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at


In any poll of best actors, tough guy Humphrey Bogart is always ranked in the top ten. He defined the hard-nosed film noir detective as gritty Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon in 1941, the quintessential ex con in The Petrified Forest and later won laurels as Naval Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, Charlie the independent rogue riverboat captain in the African Queen, a role for which he won his Best Actor Oscar and, of course, Rick in Casablanca. He starred in 80 films in his 26 year career, many of them standouts and all, polls showed, fan favorites.

His movies covered numerous historical fields, such as World War II, 1930s crime, urban blight, and World War I. He himself became a cultural icon through all of his movies, his tough guy persona as both a criminal and detective making him a film idol in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s and, through television, ever since.

The folks at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) on W. 53rd Street in New York are some of his fans and have mounted a two month long retrospective of his films, B is for Bogart, that runs on weekdays as part of its Modern Matinees film series. It opened September 1 at the museum’s theater and will continue through October 20. Among the films to be shown shortly are The Petrified Forest, Wednesday, September 7, Dead End, September 8 and High Sierra, September 22.

The series is nicely planned. It is chronological and begins with Bogart’s first films in the early 1930s and continues through his last films in the 1950s (the actor died in 1956 at the age of 57). Included in the series are many of his well-known films such as The Maltese Falcon, Angels with Dirty Faces, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny and Sabrina.

The series kicked off with early films like Up the River and Body and Soul, in which he had minor roles. It goes into high gear this week with the 1936 film, The Petrified Forest, in which he played tough guy ex con Duke Mantee.

In The African Queen, Bogart plays Charlie, a skinny, middle aged captain of a small, beat up river boat who finds himself trapped in the middle of World War I in Africa trying to carry a woman missionary away from her troubled village to safety. They wind up attacking a German warship with their bedraggled boat, African Queen. Along the way, down a dangerous river, the two fall in love. The film shows the hard and soft side of Bogey, especially in the scenes where he mimicked jungle animals, such as hippos and monkeys, all to the delight of the missionary, played by Katherine Hepburn, who frolics with him and puts her life on the line with him sailing the ship through dangerous waters.

Bogart gives a tremendous performance of a guy in middle age who finds love at long last but in the middle of a war on a trip which seems doomed from the start. Who can forget that memorable scene of him, determination written all over his face as he pushes through clumps of river reeds in the river, pulling the African Queen? He gave one of the great performances of all time.

And then, of course, there was Bogey as Rick in Casablanca (not shown in the series), the story of people fleeing the Nazis in North Africa at the start of World War II, generally considered one of the three or four best movies of all time. Everybody has seen it somewhere. Critics loved him in it. “Once more, as in recent Bogart pictures, they have turned the incisive trick of draping a tender love story within the folds of a tight topical theme. They have used Mr. Bogart’s personality, so well established in other brilliant films, to inject a cold point of tough resistance to evil force afoot in Europe,” wrote a critic enamored by Bogart in the New York Times.

Bogart’s career did not start his career in Hollywood, but on the New York stage, where he impressed all. He was not some poverty stricken kid looking for success in film. He was the son of a prominent physician and well known illustrator (his mom used him in numerous baby advertisement drawings). He flunked out of an elite prep school and joined the Navy in World War I where he sustained an injury to his lip that caused his famous sneer and memorable voice inflection. Then it was off to the New York stage where he was in several dozen plays. A Hollywood scout discovered him there and took him to Los Angeles, where Bogart was cast in several not well received films in the early 1930s. It was back to the stage and the role of Duke Mantee, in The Petrified Forest. He played that role in the movie and it made him a star.

Five years after that came his legendary role as San Francisco detective Sam Spade, who fought off two women and a flotilla of police to crack the case of a jewel filled Maltese falcon. That film, shown on television later hundreds of times, made him a superstar.

Bogart put a lot of himself into Sam Spade and other roles. “(Bogart) achieved class through his integrity and his devotion to what he thought was right,” wrote Nathaniel Benchley in his biography of the actor, Humphrey Bogart. “He believed in being direct, simple and honest, all on his own terms, and this ruffled some people and endeared him to others.”

Bogart also took advantages of opportunities in Hollywood. He stepped into two starring roles thanks to superstar George Raft, whom critics always said was too picky in his selections of films. Raft was scheduled to star in High Sierra in 1941, but balked when his character, Roy Earle, was scheduled to be killed at the film’s end. He refused the role and Bogart fought hard to get it. He did.

“Bogie created sympathy for the guy (Earle), developing the Earle character as a last-of-a-dying-breed type. Audiences responded,” Stephen Bogart, the actor’s son, wrote in his biography of his dad, Humphrey Bogart.

Raft was scheduled to star in The Maltese Falcon. Again, after Raft read the script several times, he turned it down, angering the film’s director, John Huston.

Huston had worked as the screenwriter on High Sierra and had become friends with Bogart, who starred in that movie. He told Bogart about the Sam Spade role in The Maltese Falcon and Bogart grabbed it.

Son Stephen Bogart said that the roles Bogart had in many films were not memorable parts, but were made memorable by the way Bogey played he character.

Bogart was a very professional actor. He was “conscientious” about his career, wrote his son. “He was always on time for work at the studio,” said biographer Alan Barbour in his book Humphrey Bogart. The author of a short biography of him that ran in the program of the first Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, held in Key Largo, Florida, earlier this year, said that “He was committed to the art. In the more than 80 films spanning his career he was ever once late to the set or unprepared for his lines. He held a deep respect for actors who were serious about their performances and was professional in every aspect of his own career,” the writer said

Bogart loved complex roles and often chose the bad guy over the good one. That was the case in his classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948, in which he played Fred C Dobbs, one of three treasure hunters who spent the film looking over each other’s shoulders. “Suspicious, unfeeling, savage, and easily corruptible, he seems clearly destined for a tragic fate almost from our first meeting with him” wrote biographer Barbour of Bogart as Dobbs.

His fame grew in the 1940s and fell in love with Lauren Bacall, his co-star in To Have and Have Not. She was 18 and he was 45 when they married (it was his third marriage). The couple had two children. The pair had a happy marriage and befriended numerous stars in Los Angeles as the Bogarts became mainstays in the social life of the film colony. Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn, Peter Lorre and Judy Garland were frequent house guests. Bogey died of cancer in 1956 and Bacall, who always treasured her years with him, went on to a stellar entertainment career on stage, screen and in television, but never remarried.

Even though he was devoted to film, he left his job behind at the studio when he went home and lived a carefree and fun filled life with Bacall, his kids and friends. In his touching eulogy, director john Huston, who made many of Bogart’s films, said that “himself he never took life seriously, but his work most seriously.”

The films Bogey and Bacall made together were box office and critical hits and in 1982 Bertie Higgins even sang a hit song about them, Key Largo. She made him a better actor, many said. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in 1948 of the pair in Dark Passage that “Mr. Bogart does not appear at his theatrical best (at the start of the film). However, the mood of his performance is compensated somewhat by that of Miss Bacall, who generates quite a lot of pressure as a sharp-eyed, knows-what-she-wants girl.”

If you are a Bogart fan, and there are a lot of them, the MOMA film fest tribute is for you.

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