Bogart: a man going his own way

I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.

Thus spake Humphrey Bogart, shunning the love of his life and handing the murderess over to the authorities in The Maltese Falcon. Arguably, it is the greatest MGTOW moment in movie history (the conclusion of A Boy and His Dog is a close second). One wonders if misogyny trigger warnings precede screenings at college film societies.

Curiously, the Bogart screen persona was highly unlikely given his background. Like James Cagney and George Raft, two of his partners in crime in Warner Brothers’ gangster films, Bogart was a native New Yorker. He was not a product of the tenements, however. Far from it.

Bogart’s stated birth date of Christmas Day, 1899, is doubtful, but we can say he was born more or less at the turn of the 20th Century to a prominent family. His father, Belmont DeForest Bogart, was a descendant of patroons, the original Dutch settlers of New York and New Jersey. His mother Maud Humphrey Bogart, had ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. The Bogarts lived on the tony Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Bogart’s parents had more going for them than family trees with deep roots in America. Belmont Bogart was a cardiopulmonary surgeon. Maud Bogart was a famous commercial illustrator. An urban legend asserted that she used young Humphrey as the model for the Gerber baby food label. In truth, she did use him as a model, but for a baby food brand that was popular in his infancy (Gerber was not founded till 1928).

Maud Bogart was a suffragette, a celebrated career woman of her day. Her husband was well compensated but she made far more than he did, which may or may not have played a part in his opioid addiction. Humphrey and his two sisters were not exactly awash in maternal love, which may offer a hint as to why he was so convincingly wary of dames on screen. “I can’t say I ever loved my mother,” he observed. “I admired her.” Fittingly, Bogart’s obituary in the New York Herald-Tribune in 1957 stated that “Mothers never held him up to children as their ideal.”

Bogart attended, and flunked out of Phillips Andover Academy, an uber-elite Massachusetts prep school (his father’s alma mater) founded in 1778. He served in the Navy without distinction during World War I and got into acting after his discharge. He was a working actor, on Broadway throughout the 1920s, and in Hollywood starting in the 1930’s.

In film roles, for the most part, he started out as a heavy, so he was not expected to get the girl – or even to court the girl. That is the province of the leading man. Fittingly, Bogart’s filmography table on Wikipedia does not include a category for leading ladies until 1941 when The Maltese Falcon was released.

That same year Bogart enjoyed another breakthrough role in High Sierra. As Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, Bogart was a gangster who took pity on a crippled girl and paid for an operation to correct her problem in an ill-fated attempt to win her over. Another case of white-knighting gone awry.

High Sierra was in fact Bogart’s first true starring role. The Petrified Forest (1936) is often cited as his first big part, but his portrayal of gangster Duke Mantee, a role he originated in the play of the same name on Broadway, was in truth a supporting role. When the film came out, the names above the title were Leslie Howard and Bette Davis.

Despite Bogie’s lack of luck with women in 1941 releases, the next year, he starred in Casablanca, which is widely viewed as one of the most, if not the most, romantic movie ever made. Bogart starts out as a MGTOW (I’m the only cause I’m interested in” and “I stick my neck out for nobody”) scrupulously remaining neutral while World War II swirls around him. Then he re-ignites an old flame (Ingrid Bergman) whose husband is a Czech resistance leader and ends up sacrificing his self-interest for the cause. Bogie bows to the collective – not by committing to a woman but by giving her up so she can assist her husband!

While Bogart often played opposite A-list actresses, they were never able to dominate him on screen. When he had relationships, they were hardly of the tradcon sort. For the most part, his lot was that of an existential loner.

The late André Bazin, an influential French film critic, commented, “His existential maturity…little by little transforms life into a tenacious irony at the expense of death.” Author Truman Capote, who met Bogart in 1952 when they were working on Beat the Devil, described him as “permanently lonely.”

Raymond Chandler, author of The Big Sleep, observed that all Bogart had to do to dominate a scene was to enter it. Appropriately enough, the title of Stefan Kanfer’s 2011 Bogart biography was Tough Without a Gun.

Bogart’s roles did not always glorify the tough guy/loner types. On the positive side, he portrayed self-sufficient types (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep) with no illusions about women or anything else; at the negative end of the spectrum, he was equally convincing as a paranoiac (Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Caine Mutiny) or a psychopath (In a Lonely Place).

One of his best known films was The African Queen (1951), a contrived middle-aged romance co-starring Katharine Hepburn. This is a sterling example of the romance sub-genre in which a man and a woman start out with nothing in common, are at loggerheads in terms of personality, politics, or class, and maybe even hate each other’s guts, but fall into each other’s arms by the end of the movie. Happens every day, right?

Sabrina in 1954 was also a highly unlikely match-up, as it paired off Bogart with Audrey Hepburn, who was half his age – he was 54 years and looked it; she was 27 and looked even younger. Bogart felt he was miscast (Cary Grant, the first choice, would have been a better fit) but the movie was a hit. Ironically, even though Bogart was to the manor born, he just didn’t look like the scion of an old-money Long Island family.

In real life, the thrice-married (Helen Menken, Mary Philips, and Mayo Methot – actresses all) Bogart didn’t experience marital bliss till he married Lauren Bacall, a teenager when she met Bogart on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944, and fashion model just off the plane from New York.

Somehow Bogart managed to rob the cradle without getting pinched by the morality police. Since Bacall had a husky voice and appeared much more mature and worldly wise – in other words, sexually experienced – than other women her age, the incongruity of the relationship was less conspicuous. In their movies together, the others were The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo, one never gets the feeling that Bogie is making it with someone young enough to be his daughter.

The real life marriage of Bogie and Baby, as Bacall was called, caught the public’s fancy. While Bogart was occasionally paired up with a leading lady in a movie, he was never a family guy. The same was true in real life. He was pushing 50 when he learned he was going to be a father. So from then on it was Bogie and Baby and babies. Perhaps he had mellowed a bit.

Even so, Bogart’s lone wolf image prevailed on screen. He looked incomplete without a cigarette dangling from his mouth or a drink in his hand. Film-maker/film historian Peter Bogdanovich once observed Bogart going out of his way to pick up a cocktail glass before he answered the door. Arguably, his death from throat cancer in 1957 was the price he paid for maintaining that image.

Sixty years after Bogart’s death, one wonders whether or not it is possible to fashion a career as a MGTOW leading man. Even in Bogart’s day, it wasn’t easy. Note that the only time Bogart won an Oscar was in 1951 when he and Katharine Hepburn were matched up in The African Queen. In Hollywood as in society at large, if you seek validation, sooner or later you must acknowledge gynocentrism.

Today we have no shortage of action movies and tough guys, but they’re no match for Bogart. He didn’t need to bulk up with steroids to fill up the screen, and I’m pretty sure he never had a personal trainer or studied martial arts. His dominance had nothing to do with being buff. “Physically, I’m not tough,” he said. “I may think tough. I would say I’m kinda tough and calloused inside.”

In past eras, physical toughness might have been an asset, but it is of little survival value in a high tech world. Mental and emotional toughness are essential to manhood and always have been.

That’s why Bogart became an icon. That’s why he remains one today.

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