Bogart by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax: Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Duke Mantee, Fred C. Dobbs, Charlie Allnut, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Harry Morgan, Rick Blane, Roy Earle, Frank McCloud, Lt. Cmdr Philip Francis Queeg, Linus Larrabee…

Humphrey DeForest Bogart was all these men and more. His life and career went through three marriages, survival from playing two-bit thugs, and an almost career long battle with Jack Warner. “Bogie” survived his second marriage to Mayo ‘Sluggy’ Methot, who literally stabbed him in the back, and more importantly survived his ill-advised trip to Washington to stand up to the Un-American committee. During a time of cold war paranoia and a “better dead than red” mentality that spawned a communist witch hunt in Hollywood, Bogie managed to keep one step ahead of the hunters, but he never recovered from the stress and strain of “losing face” that he had to resort to.

What Bogie could not survive was oesophageal cancer, despite a two surgeries and a valiant fight by the man who immortalized the gangster with a heart. When Bogart died he left the most beautiful woman in Hollywood a widow with their two young children in a state of mourning. Stephen Bogart was lucky, he got to spend some time with his famous papa, Leslie was just 4 when Bogie died so her memories were non-existent.

A M Sperber spent 9 years collating all the material that went into the book Bogart. When she died in 1994, the publishers had boxes of material on Bogie, but no one to put it all together. Eric Lax (what an ironic name, the same last name as the initials of the LA international airport) took over and managed to put all the collected material together in a cohesive manner.

This book tells a lot of things about Bogart, his childhood, his parents, and his start in the business. From a juvenile actor on Broadway to more leading character driven parts that lead to his working with English actor Leslie Howard on The Petrified Forest as Duke Mantee. Playing Mantee made Bogart and it was due to Leslie Howard’s insistence that Bogart reprise his Broadway performance in the film with Howard that ensured Bogie got his “proper” start in Hollywood.

I have read quite a few biographies about Bogie and this one is quite easily the most complete. The authors manage to make us privy to his private life without being overly intrusive or sensational. The book goes to great length to show the disparities of Bogies personality and his inner demons that made themselves apparent all too often.

It is interesting that I managed to pick up both this wonderful book about Bogart and another wonderful book about Cagney. Both actors were childhood heroes. Like many other men my age, when I was younger I would walk around lisping, “Play it again, Sam,” as Rick in Casablanca or snarl menacingly as Cagney, “You dirty rat.” Neither of which either actor really said in a film, but impressionists used both of these lines to great effect.

Still from just one of the films that Bogart and Cagney made together.

Both men started playing gangsters and both men moved to the top of their profession. Completely different backgrounds, Bogie born with silver spoon in his mouth and Cagney born into abject poverty. Cagney of course was an expert song and dance man and Bogie was a consummate actor.

It is also interesting that both books left you in a different state of mind after reading them. Cagney’s book left one feeling good and full of kind thoughts.

Bogart left one feeling sad and not a little depressed. Such a horrible end for one of life’s more interesting characters who was such a wonderful actor.

As an actor Bogie played roles that were unforgettable, whether he was the “loner” Rick Blane forcing his true love to go with her duty instead of her heart, or whether he was the “mad” Lt Cmdr Queeg incessantly playing with his two ball bearings, Bogie brought a truth to them all. He was another of the “remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture” type actor, like Cagney or the unique talent that was Spencer Tracey.

Bogart was a living contradiction. He got his start playing two-bit thugs on-screen and this continued after his break-out role of Duke Mantee. Yet he was an educated man from good stock. He was so politically active he wound up on the FBI’s list before his involvement in speaking out against the unfairness of the Un-American committee. He was at turns, a tough guy and sentimental slob.

Bogies story has been told with tact, humour and sensitivity. He was a perfect example of someone who “paid” for his success in terms that most of us would find too painful to accept.

This book was a wonderful telling of Bogart’s story and the people in his life that he worked with and lived with; a 5 star book about a 5 star actor and man.

Humphrey DeForest Bogart (b: 1899 – d: 1957)

Cagney by John McCabe More Yankee Doodle than White Heat

When I was a kid, I idolised James Cagney. To me he was not only an actor, but was an actor of short stature who came over on the screen as someone who was huge. He was a giant. I’m not talking about the old cinema screens of my youth that made anyone who appeared on them about 50 feet tall. He looked like a giant on the small television screen. He had power in his performances, an aura that made his characters bigger than life.

I did not even see Cagney on the big screen. I first saw him in a Bob Hope film called The Seven Little Foys (1955 from Paramount studios, three years before I was born), on television. Cagney played George M. Cohan, he was reprising his role in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy; a biopic of the grand old man [Cohan] of American entertainment.

There is a scene where Bob Hope, as the equally legendary entertainment figure Eddie Foy, has a table top “dance off” with Cagney as Cohan. It is, as they say, a show stopper. Hope has always been a more than capable hoofer (dancer) and Cagney actually seemed to “tone himself down” in the scene. After I watched this film, I became almost fixated on this short dancer from New York who, I knew from my parents, had started playing gangsters for Warner Brothers.

In my youth it was not easy to see really old films (in my day that counted as films made before the 60’s). The VCR had not been invented yet and apart from “all nighters” that showed a wealth of work from any given actor, you just had to hope you could catch future screenings on TV by reading the TV Guide in advance.

“Top of the world, Ma!” As Cody Jarrett, White Heat 1949.

The next film of Cagney’s I watched was White Heat. There cannot be a film fan in the world who doesn’t immediately think of Cody Jarrett screaming, “Top of the World, Ma!” Surrounded by fire, his world is about to end in a blaze of irony. The two characters that I’d seen Cagney play were polar opposites and he sold each one, completely.

I have read about James Cagney over the years in various books, Hollywood anthologies, and other biographies of entertainers, but McCabe does a brilliant job of bringing this legend to life. Perhaps the fact that John McCabe was a personal friend of Cagney’s and as a result was able to see more of the entertainer’s humanity and lack of guile.

I always refer to James Cagney as an entertainer versus an actor because he started out in vaudeville as a song and dance man (where he met his only wife, Willie, who stayed with him till he died) and he never lost his ability to dance the feet off of most of his peers. *He used to say he could never come close to Fred Astaire.*

Cagney was born in an area of New York that was heavily Jewish (he learned Yiddish as a boy) and poor. Most of his boyhood pals wound up in prison or at the gallows. His tough Irish mother taught him and his brothers how to box. The amount of things that McCabe relays, with the help of Cagney, is astonishing.

He paints as thorough a picture of the entertainer as possible. He does so without being overly sensitive with the more “unhappy” moments in Cagney’s life. If you are a Cagney fan, this book will be a revelation. Printed in 1997, there are very few things not covered in Cagney’s career and personal life.

When I read actor’s biographies I always finish feeling slightly down. Most “celebrities” pay highly for their success in the entertainment business. Some, like David Niven, seem to have almost been punished by their success. (Don’t go by the two self-penned books by Niven, but read the other two books about his live by Sheridan Morley or Graham Lord) When I finished McCabe’s recounting of Cagney’s life and career I felt happy and uplifted.

Cagney, despite the ravages of old age and all the pain that it brings, was a deeply contented man, who wrote poetry, painted, raised horses and cattle and loved the same woman till he died. This same contented man entertained literally millions of people over the years by his portrayal of a broad spectrum of characters.

This book is one that I would call the definitive work on Cagney; his work and his life. One that shows how he became a Hollywood legend and adored by his fans the world over; this is a real 5 star book that you should not miss if you’re a fan of Cagney or film.

A grapefruit in the mush…as Tom Power in The Public Enemy 1931.