Updated: Jan 30
Let’s get straight to the point. Humphrey Bogart is the greatest male movie star in the history of motion pictures. It’s not just me saying that, The American Film Institute named Bogie the number one male star in its list of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars. So, who’s disrespecting him? The old studio system, that’s who.
From the very beginning of Bogart’s 30-year film career he was discounted by Warner Brothers Studio. Even when his first “A” picture, The Petrified Forest (1936) was a huge success, Bogart was given an insulting 26-week contract at $550 per week. He was also typecast as a gangster and put in a long string of “B" crime dramas.
Bogart was even a gangster character in Westerns such as The Oklahoma Kid (1939), where he played James Cagney’s evil nemesis all dressed in black. In the Errol Flynn/Randolph Scott shoot ‘em up, Virginia City (1940), he was the dark, mustachioed outlaw John Murrell. It seemed Bogie was handcuffed and playing variations of his Duke Mantee slash Petrified Forest character until the public and the studio was tired of it.
When a reporter asked Edward G. Robinson who was the tougher gangster, him or Bogart, Robinson said, “Ah, I killed him four times. He only killed me once.” The truth is they ended in a tie with three kills each. They simultaneously killed each other in a couple of films.
Humphrey Bogart pondered his physical existence not only in Hollywood, but in life itself.
"I can't get in a mild discussion without turning it into an argument. There must be something in my tone of voice, or this arrogant face—something that antagonizes everybody. Nobody likes me on sight. I suppose that's why I'm cast as the heavy."
Between 1936 and 1940, Bogart appeared in a Warner Brothers film every two months. The studio did cast Bogart in a couple of non-gangster roles during this time. He played a wrestling promoter in the hillbilly musical, Swing Your Lady (1938). He considered it his all-time worst performance, but things were going to get even worse, and in a creepy way. The following year, he played a dead child murdering scientist brought back to life by the blood of unwilling donors in The Return of Dr. X.
"If it'd been Jack Warner’s blood... I wouldn't have minded so much. The trouble was they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie."
The Return of Dr. X was Humphrey Bogart’s only horror film and the only film he refused to ever talk about in public.
His home life was no blood-free bed of roses either. Bogart and his third wife, Mayo Methot were known around Hollywood as “The Battling Bogarts.” He reportedly love to needle and provoke Mayo, who would in turn, in a drunken rage, set their house on fire and stab Bogie with a knife. By all accounts, he love their relationship.
"I like a jealous wife...We get on so well together (because) we don't have illusions about each other...I wouldn't give you two cents for a dame without a temper."
By 1944, Mayo Methot was paranoid and absolutely convinced her husband was having an affair with his co-star, a 19-year old model named Lauren Bacall. We all know how that turned out. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.
Bogart played his last major gangster role in 1941’s High Sierra, but the only reason he was given that part by Jack Warner is because Paul Muni, George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson all turned it down. It was an unforeseen career-making break for Bogart. Veteran actor Walter Huston had a son who wanted to get into directing, so since the studio now thought the project would be just another run-of-the-mill gangster picture with Bogart, it decided to let young John Huston be the film's director.
High Sierra turned out to be a box office bonanza. It sparked a life-long friendship between Bogie and John Huston who cast his new drinking buddy in his next movie, The Maltese Falcon (1941). That film showed studio bosses a new Bogart persona and lead to him being cast as the romantic lead in Casablanca (1942).
Casablanca gave Bogart the first of his three Academy Award nominations. He would win the Oscar for Best Actor in 1952 for another John Huston film, The African Queen.
Humphrey Bogart had become Warner Brothers’ top star and the highest paid actor in the world. Despite that status, Bogart was still squeezed by the studio into less than stellar films such as Conflict (1945) and Battle Circus (1953). He was forced to lower his usual $200,000 salary to win the role of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954). It made him bitter and in private he let Lauren Bacall know it.
"This never happens to Cooper or Grant or Gable, but always to me,"
Even at a reduced rate, Bogart still earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Captain Queeg. In the end, it was Bogie who had the last laugh because he was Humphrey Bogart after all. He was the biggest movie star in the universe who rarely saw his own films.
He loathed anything and anyone pretentious or phony, even when it came to his own work. His 1953 comedy spoof of film noir crime dramas, Beat the Devil is held in high esteem by many film critics and film scholars, but Bogie had a typical, unpretentious opinion of the picture which might also have been his opinion of Hollywood.
“Only phonies would like it.”