March 11, 2013 —
The life, career and film legacy of Humphrey Bogart has been chronicled and scrutinized down the decades in numerous biographical studies. Among the more noteworthy and significant of these are Joe Hyams’ “Bogie: The Biography of Humphrey Bogart” (New American Library, 1966), Nathaniel Benchley’s “Humphrey Bogart” (Hutchinson, 1975), Robert Sklar’s “City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield” (Princeton, 1992) Anne M. Sperber and Eric Lax’s “Bogart” (Morrow, 1997), Jeffrey Meyers’ “Bogart: A Life in Hollywood” (Houghton-Mifflin, (1997) and finally Gerald Duchovnay’s “Humphrey Bogart: A Bio- Bibliography” (Greenwood Press, 1999).
A recent addition to already extensive literature on Bogart is writer and film critic Stefan Kanfer’s “Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart” (Knopf, 2011), which in structure and content follows generally along the lines of Sperber and Lax’s “Bogart.” As was the case in his two earlier biographies “Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx” and “Ball of Fire,” both published by Knopf, in “Tough Without a Gun” Kanfer combines the jeweler’s eye of the scholar with the wit and wisdom of the story teller. The result is a work that casts a new and fresh perspective on the already well-known facts of Bogart’s life and times.
Kanfer sets the stage for his study with a brief look back at Bogart’s forebears who were among the earliest Dutch settlers in New York City. Long before the film star became an American legend, Kanfer points out, the Bogart name was already associated with a high degree of achievement and class consciousness. In this context he uses as a case in point Bogart’s grandfather Adam whose inventive skills in the field of lithography gained for him entry into the highest echelons of New York City society. Furthermore, it was through Adam Bogart’s strength of character, determination and guidance that a path was set and a foundation laid for Belmont Bogart’s subsequent successful pursuit of a medical career.
Turning to Bogart himself, what follows is a balanced and well-integrated discussion of the actor’s personal and professional growth, his four turbulent marriages (to Helen Menken, Mary Philips, Mayo Methot and Lauren Bacall), his political views and his final losing battle with esophageal cancer. Kanfer is especially adept at summarizing the plot lines of Bogart’s major films, and this account is made even more interesting by the wealth of anecdotal material he supplies along the way. Here we learn, for example, that Jack Warner had originally offered the Bogart role of Roy “Mad Dog” Earle to Paul Muni who turned it down because the award-winning actor was at that point in his career only interested in biographical films. In addition, Kanfer skillfully and with great insight identifies the forces and factors responsible for transforming Humphrey Bogart from a troubled and rebellious teenager to a gangster stereotyped actor and then to a screen legend of infinite complexity. In the course of his narrative, Kanfer also beautifully captures the ambience surrounding the Hollywood of the 1930’s, forties and fifties.
A high point of “Tough Without a Gun” is undoubtedly Kanfer’s discussion of the film “Casablanca” where he provides a riveting account of the movie-going public’s fascination with the Bogart role in this film masterpiece interleaved with a fast-paced review of the unfolding war-time events of the day. In this context Kanfer writes, “Made at a cost of $1,309,000, the movie [Casablanca] grossed almost three times that amount in its initial run, riding the waves of national optimism about the war. Earlier in the year, defeat was in the air. By the first month of 1943 battles had gone to the Allies in North Africa, Stalingrad and Guadalcanal. It was in Churchill’s words, perhaps not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Now Rick Blaine was not just the fulcrum of a melodramatic movie. He was the symbol of the nation itself, at first wary and isolationist, then changing incrementally until he headed in the opposite direction” (87).
As its subtitle indicates, in addition to recapitulating the well know facts of Bogart’s life, in “Tough Without” a Gun Kanfer also provides a provocative albeit brief account of the film star’s posthumous influence upon the mores, morals and popular culture of contemporary society. In making a final judgment on this biography as a whole, I predict that it is destined to become the standard work on Humphrey Bogart.
NY: Knopf, 2011. Pp xi + 288. Hard Cover. $26.95.