Bogart, an actor so iconic that all you have to do is say his last name and it instantly defines a whole style and genre. The name conjures an image of a craggy, gravely voiced tough guy wearing a fedora and battered trench coat. Ever present cigarette filling the scene with an eerie haze.
It might surprise some who have only seen his later movies, that this quintessential tough guy got his start playing preppy college students and rich kids. He also had a long stretch playing 2nd banana villains, informants and general weasels in gangster films.
Humphrey Bogart was born Christmas Day, December 25, 1899, into a fairly wealthy family in New York, New York. His father was a surgeon and his mother an artist and suffragette. Originally intended by his parents to follow in the footsteps of his father, he showed little interest in academics and was ultimately expelled from prep school, some sources say he pushed the headmaster into a pond, others say poor grades and drinking led to it.
Bogart ended up joining the US Navy in 1918 towards the end of the First World War. After the war he worked a variety of jobs and acted with growing success in plays, frequently acting in comedies as a preppy college kid. His first film appearance was in the now lost film The Dancing Town. The 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing depression sharply reduced funding for theater and Bogie headed west to Hollywood along with many other stage actors. He was signed by Fox as a bit player for $750 a week.
Now Bogie was splitting his time between Hollywood and New York and frequently out of work. This plus the death of his father in 1934 exacerbated a lifelong, recurring drinking problem.
While acting in a play called Invitation to A Murder he caught the attention of a producer who gave him his major break. A role as escaped criminal Duke Mantee in the upcoming pay The Petrified Forest. The play continued for 192 performances and was a smash hit. A hit film starring Bogart and Bette Davis soon followed.
Despite this success in an A list picture, Warner Bros continued to cast him in low level villain roles for a few more years.
Some of this professional shunning may have been due to Bogart’s famous dislike of pretentious phonies. Something Hollywood possessed in abundance even back then. The list of famous feathers he ruffled through his career would be an article by itself.
The final nudge to stardom came in 1941 when he was cast as tragic gangster Roy Earle alongside film noir great Ida Lupino.
Bogart worked well in the film and impressed screenwriter John Huston enough that he cast him as Sam Spade in John Huston’s directorial debut, the legendary Maltese Falcon.
This film defined Bogart’s career and the characters he would play for the rest of his life. The modern image of Humphrey Bogart was born. Gravelly voiced, leathery and tough with a constant cigarette dangling from his lip. Not quite a goody two shoes hero, but not a bad guy either. His characters tended to live on the margins of law and order. Basically good, but not afraid to defy authority if they felt it was right, or they could benefit from it. Today we call this character type, the anti-hero and Bogie along with other film noir leading men and women, went a long way towards defining it.
A string of classics followed The Maltese Falcon including Casablanca, Sahara and To Have and Have Not. On the set of the latter film he met the other half of the Bogie legend. Young model Lauren Bacall in her first film performance. The two of them fell in love almost immediately and they married in 1945.
After To Have and Have Not, they were paired in the film noir classic The Big Sleep. Dark Passage and Key Largo were the other two films featuring the two together and all 4 films show the powerful chemistry between the two.
Other notable roles include the psychologically damaged captain of a mine layer in the 1954 classic, The Caine Mutiny.
A river boat captain shanghaied by Katherine Hepburn into attacking the Germans in The African Queen
A successful but oddball casting as the serious Linus Larrabee opposite Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina.
One odd fact most people don’t know, is that Bogart and Bacall were the founding members of the famous Rat Pack, not Frank Sinatra. The way I’ve heard is that Sinatra and several other future Rat Pack members were frequent guests of the Bogarts and several epic parties resulted. After one especially memorable one in Las Vegas, Lauren Bacall observed the wreckage, human and otherwise and said: “You look like a goddamn rat pack.” And a Hollywood legend was born. After Bogie’s death the leadership passed to the Chairman of the Board himself.
A habitual smoker, Bogart developed a severe cough and difficulty swallowing. The diagnosis was cancer of the esophagus. Multiple surgeries and chemotherapy did not halt the cancer and he passed away in 1957. His legacy includes 87 film credits, an Academy Award and starring roles in some of the most iconic films of Hollywood’s golden age. Humphrey Bogart, truly a film legend.