A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax’s biography of Humphrey Bogart, arguably one of the most popular and deeply influential film stars of the 1930’s through the 1950’s and beyond, is a masterful blend of careful critical appreciation and analysis, personal and historical documentation, and dramatic storytelling. Sperber initiated the project, and her draft of the book was based on hundreds of personal interviews with Bogart’s friends, family, and coworkers, and on years of archival research, especially into the workings of the Hollywood studio system. After Sperber’s death, Lax brought the book to completion by, as he says in a prefatory note, “adding here, subtracting there, and forming the narrative into a finished piece.” The result is an accessible, entertaining, and extremely informative account of Bogart’s life, structured as a tale of dramas within ever- expanding dramas. Much of the book focuses on family background and personal relationships. Yet a great part of what makes the life of Bogart add up to so much more than a hill of beans, to paraphrase a famous comment by Bogart’s character Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), is that it is integrally connected with broad social, cultural, and political events and movements. One of the great strengths of the book is the authors’ subtle but constant insistence that the story of Bogart is simultaneously the story of tumultuous (and often abusive) early to mid-twentieth century Hollywood and tumultuous (and often depressed and paranoid) early to mid-twentieth century America.
The first circle of influence—and sometimes of hell—in a person’s life is the family, and Sperber and Lax show how many of Bogart’s fires were lit and issues were set by the particularities and peculiarities of his upbringing. The outward success of his parents—his father was a doctor, and his mother was a thriving artist and book illustrator—masked a far more sordid reality of social pretension, alcoholism, drug abuse, physical intimidation of their children, and overall emotional sterility. Sperber and Lax avoid simplistic, reductive psychologizing, but their brief chapter on Bogart’s childhood is a compelling reference point for much of what follows. Bogart’s early aimlessness and failures (at school and in the Navy) and much of his later insecurity, self-doubt, loneliness, heavy drinking, and barely controllable anger and depression undoubtedly trace back to the tensions and abuses of his less than idyllic family life in picturesque upstate New York and fashionable uptown New York City.
Not surprisingly, many of Bogart’s personal relationships replayed his early family dynamics. His marriage to Mayo Methot is perhaps best described as an affair of mutual abuse, some of which was self-conscious, stagy, and exaggerated by the press (which exploited wild stories of the “Battling Bogarts”), but which nevertheless dramatized how the emotional failings of one generation live on in the next. Even his marriage to Lauren Bacall, such a vital part of the legend of Bogart and the cultural belief that high and lasting romance is not incompatible with personal freedom and independence, was colored by, as the Hollywood press would say, booze and bickering.
Sperber and Lax are concerned primarily with the real-life relationships and emotional development of Bogart but also with the formation of the Bogart persona. Missing from the book is a detailed critical examination of the depth and complexity of Bogart’s screen image and any analysis of the “resonance” or cultural (indeed, international) appeal and popularity of this image. Yet scattered throughout the book are brief comments on what Bogart’s image evokes, comments more often than not illustrating the continuity between Bogart on and off screen. His early family life, for example, was a training ground in illusions, the perfect background for a career in Hollywood. Films explode, as well as exploit, illusions, and Bogart’s recurrent role was as a person who saw through and withdrew from pretense: His characters, as Sperber and Lax put it, give off not so much an “anti-establishment air” as they do a sense that “they are familiar with the establishment and know where its rot lies.” As volatile as his characters are, they are also strangely sympathetic and vulnerable, particularly because their faces and body language instantly convey a history of violence that they may transmit but do not originate: Duke Mantee, for example, Bogart’s breakthrough role on stage and in film in The Petrified Forest (1936), is immediately recognizable as an archetypal image of violent abuse, a legacy he ruefully passes on. The “petrified forest,” a landscape of inscrutable violence, emotional paralysis, impossible dreams, and fated romance, was one in which, according to Sperber and Lax, Bogart grew up and that he knew intimately, and this helped account for his powerful portrayal of self-destructive, haunted, often unreachable loners.
The melodrama of his early life in Seneca Point, New York, was echoed and amplified by his life in Hollywood, and Sperber and Lax repeatedly illustrate that the Hollywood studio system was like the...
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