Sunday, August 16, 2009

Humphrey Bogart and American dope

For long flights, I always have onboard a lengthy biography, since that's one kind of book that will keep me hooked in just about any state of consciousness and exhaustion. For our trip to Ghana over the past two weeks, I toted Bogart by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax, a big brick of a bio I bought some years ago with a gift card.

I don't know why, exactly, I bought it. I haven't seen many films that feature Humphrey Bogart, nor counted myself among his fans. Probably I suspected his life would intersect with a lot of storylines about 20th century American culture, and most assuredly it does.

After something of a bad boy adolescence, which presumably lent depth to his future screen persona, Bogie started working in Broadway theater during the Great Depression. This passage made for fascinating reading during the current American depression.

"The 1933 season was abysmal for virtually everyone connected with the theater," we are told. "Of the 152 plays produced, 121 were flops. At the end of August only 6 plays were running." Performers groaning over declining audiences in 2009 should know that it could be much worse.

The tanking theater scene made an offer to work in Holywood attractive. After some smaller screen parts, his first "leading role in an attention-getting picture" came in 1937 with Black Legion, an expose of white supremacy in America (they don't write 'em like that anymore).

Here, Bogie's story intersects with the KKK when the Warner Bros. research department had the costume crew use a symbol that turned out to be patented. The white knights sued for copyright infringement on the film's use of "a white cross on a circular red background with a black square in the center" - which is covered by U.S. design patent 68219, filed by the Klan - but the suit was dismissed.

In addition to artists who wonder whether they should stick with their vocation through hard times, Bogie's story offers solace for aging performers. As his biographers point out, he emerged as a star when he was "undersized, rapidly balding and middle-aged" - nobody's flavor of any month. Furthermore, Mary Astor revealed that Bogie was a "wetter" - due to his nerve-damaged upper lip, saliva pooled in one corner of his mouth, making him shy away from onscreen kisses. Hardly an appetizing ingredient for a leading man!

On the other hand, Bogart's career reflects the fact (in my generation, musicians think of it as the Jeff Tweedy Factor) that, whatever your level of talent, it's the publicity machine that ultimately makes stars. Warner Bros. latched consciously onto Bogart's commercial potential after giving up on another star, Paul Muni. Studios need stars to sell pictures, and on the day Warner Bros. severed ties with Muni in 1940, the director of publicity distributed a memo: "I want you to give the utmost attention to the building of Humphrey Bogart to stardom in as quick time as possible". Cha-ching!

At that point, the FBI had been keeping a file on Bogart for four years, for doing such apparently "subversive" things as supporting striking farmworkers in California and newspaper reporters in Seattle. This union solidarity would haunt Bogart's career in the mid-'40s, when McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted Communists in Hollywood.

Bogart had no ties to the Party, but he did join a lobbying trip to Washington on behalf of the 1st Amendment; as the biggest star on the junket, he was covered on the front page of The Daily Worker, the house organ of Communist Party USA. Somewhat shamefully, Bogie caved into pressure from Warner Bros. and his partners in an independent production company he was attempting to start up, and went public with his admission that the lobbying effort was a mistake, that he was a dope - but "an American dope".

This biography is well worth reading simply for the account of the Red Scare in Hollywood and how pressures, external and internal, forced the influential movie industry to make a wide swing to the political right. In a day of Tea Baggers and fake populists protesting the proposed improvement of public health, it reminds us of dangerous fundamental patterns in American democracy.

Speaking of wide sweeps to the political right, I was surprised to read that Ronald Reagan was first announced as the actor for what would become Bogie's best-known role, that of Rick Blaine in Casablanca. It was a trial balloon, rather than an announcement of fact, and one wishes the subsequent political career of Reagan had similarly deflated in its trial balloon phase.

Before Jack L. Warner swung his studio to the right, Warner gave a speech to studio staff in August 1945, based upon a spring junket he had joined to tour the post-war ruins of Europe, including Nazi death camps. In this speech he passionately opposed immediately painting Russia as the next public menace, which he dismissed as "a racket" to keep the people divided.

Warner said, "It's a racket to keep labor, religion, everybody in turmoil, black against white, white against black, Negro, Jew against Catholic, Christian. That's what Hitler was successful in doing." So are a good many American dopes.


Alibris has some cheap used copies of Bogart as I post this.

No comments: