So many Hollywood actors from past decades whom you used to see regularly on television are now far rarer – presumably because many of their films have not been digitised. A striking example is Humphrey Bogart.
His films seemed omnipresent on TV in my youth in the 1970s and a check on the BBC Genome website provided some evidence to support this impression. Films on BBC in this era were frequently screened in thematic seasons based on genre or starring actor. One series I clearly remember was “All-Time Greats” on Sunday nights, because, as recently posted, it gave me my first view of Citizen Kane. This group of 30 films on BBC1 over the winter and spring of 1972-73 featured four which starred Bogart, more in that series than with any other leading actor: The Caine Mutiny, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then, immediately after “All-Time Greats” ended in the June, five further Bogart films were screened on subsequent Sundays.
I don’t remember any particular reasons offered for Bogart’s resurgence in the 1970s, over a decade after his death, but here are some possible factors. There were now many older actors such as David Niven who could eulogise on TV about Hollywood’s “golden age” and its many personalities. Bogart’s own widow, Lauren Bacall, still fairly young and glamorous, was also a regular on the talk show circuit. Woody Allen had written a successful play and film Play it Again Sam, where the main romantic loser character seeks guidance from the ghost of Bogart. Some US musicians of the period adopted Bogart’s name as a verb, as in “don’t bogart that joint”, thus suggesting that Bogart was still a model of cool to be copied. Perhaps most significantly, modern versions of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-style private eye which Bogart had played earlier were appearing in the Robert Altman version of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and TV’s The Rockford Files.
The Bogart persona – a man who is tough, free-thinking, experienced, resilient, able to defend himself by violence if necessary but still on the right side, good at cracking jokes, respected by other men but attractive to women, still ready to love and be loved – was appealing especially to young men trying still to forge their independent identities – and perhaps still is.
The IMDB website credits Bogart with 86 films, but most are now forgotten. That Mr Cool reputation probably always rested on a handful of performances, many of which were originally planned for other actors: The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, Key Largo, In a Lonely Place, and perhaps also the more masculine, less romantic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Bogart’s powerful impact in these films owes a lot to his co-stars and skilled directors like Howard Hawks and John Huston. He was certainly an actor of limited range. Like many in that hugely productive and successful era of Hollywood, he seems to have preferred more often to enjoy the material benefits of his acting work rather than stretch himself creatively.
The Bogart film which is most popular today, judging by TV screenings and the IMDB 250, is certainly Casablanca, perhaps because its story of wartime romance is still easy to appreciate and because of its wide range of rich supporting characters, such as Claude Rains’ chief of police, Paul Heinreid’s resistance leader and Dooley Wilson’s club pianist.
While I share the enthusiasm for Casablanca, my own preference is for The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks’ version of the Raymond Chandler novel, if only for the comic turn where Bogart’s Philip Marlowe pretends to be an effeminate book buyer and the tantalising exchange of horse race innuendo between Marlowe and Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge.