Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bogey, Bacall and Hemingway

Bogey, Bacall and Ernest Hemingway – and Cigarettes

     I’m not sure when I first became aware of Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart, but I do remember my first encounter with Ernest Hemingway. I read For Whom the Bell Tolls when I was a sophomore in high school. I realized I was reading a great book, and one I enjoyed as well as appreciated. The story was riveting, but I must admit one memory that sticks with me is Maria thinking about making love with Robert Jordan and how she felt the earth move. The kind of thing that definitely piques the curiosity of an extremely naïve fourteen-year-old who wasn’t really kissed until she reached college.
     And yes, I read the film fan magazines, so I knew all about Bogey and his Baby. I think the first Bogart film I saw was Key Largo. Most of the films from the forties I’ve seen on television, though a few were re-released in theaters. I know I didn’t view Casablanca, which I now watch every time I can, until I saw it on television. From what I’ve read, it’s quintessential Bogart, and I obviously enjoy watching the film. Much of that is because I am very much a fan of Ingrid Bergman, and her scenes with Bogart are worth seeing repeatedly.
     Last night for the first time I watched To Have and Have Not, a film based very loosely on one of Mr. Hemingway’s lesser-known works. It was so similar to Casablanca in so many ways I had to stop looking for Ingrid Bergman to come into the bar.  The film launched Lauren Bacall’s film career and also her love affair and later marriage to the many-years-older Bogart. At the time, the film was highly acclaimed and made an instant star of Bacall.
     Lauren Bacall was a beautiful girl … I believe she was nineteen when the film was made … and later a beautiful woman, and had a distinguished acting career. Watching the film from the vantage point of 2014 (it was made in 1944), it’s a little difficult to understand what the hoopla was about. I’ve never read the Hemingway book, but from what I Googled this morning (and oh, how I love the Internet), it's apparent Howard Hawks played fast and loose with the novel and basically just moved Casablanca west and made Bogart a small boat owner version of Rick, replete with piano player (Hoagy Carmichael in this case). 
     Bogart was an arresting presence on screen, and he played characters more interesting than the pretty much one-note character he played in this film. Sabrina comes to mind (I liked his vulnerability as Linus), and The African Queen. And certainly The Caine Mutiny, in which I thought he was brilliant.
     I also read via my Googling expedition that Hawks was “smitten” with Bacall when he signed her to a personal contract, so his nose must have really been out of joint when she became enamored of her leading man and began a relationship with him. The really interesting part of the story, an attempt to smuggle a political prisoner off of the notorious Devil’s Island, was never developed and seemed more like an afterthought … and an opportunity to present Ms. Bacall with a sort of rival. That was never developed, either. The politics of the film were pretty obscure, so I’m glad I did some Googling.
     Walter Brennan played a caricature of Walter Brennan, the befuddled drunk, and an actor named Dan Seymour played a political personage who seemed to be in charge of the island of Martinique as a caricature of a member of the Spanish Inquisition. He’d have given Eric Idle a run for his money in the Monty Python skit. Or maybe that’s where Eric got the inflection he used in that skit.
     One of the most fascinating things to me was the almost constant smoking. Cigarettes were omnipresent, generally one hanging unlighted from a character’s mouth until another character lighted it. It was Bacall’s first moment in the film, asking for a match (with a cigarette either in her mouth, or on the verge of being placed there).
    Lighting a cigarette was the first thing a character did on arising, and the last thing before retiring. I don’t recall seeing a cigarette smoked all the way down and then being extinguished. Generally they seemed to be placed in an ashtray, or if the characters weren’t indoors, they were just tossed aside. 
     I wish I had counted the number of times I saw someone in the film lighting up. What did the directors do in those days if they had to present a character who didn’t smoke cigarettes almost non-stop? What a great hand prop. There was so much that could be done with a cigarette, especially in the days before filters. Taking the pack from pocket or purse, removing the cigarette, maybe tamping the cigarette, lighting the cigarette, blowing smoke, picking tiny pieces of tobacco from the lips or tongue (yes, children, they sometimes did that; I know, gross), flicking the cigarette away or casually laying it in an ashtray. Oh, another hand prop. Or the sometimes present decorative cigarette box and table lighter.
     Cigarettes still sometimes appear in films, but certainly not to the extent they did in those days. Eventually I found it extremely distracting.
     More importantly, this film reminded me that Hollywood has ever played fast and loose with literary works. What’s the saying? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m not sure I’ll go to see Into the Woods. I love the stage musical. But at least nobody will be smoking.