- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2011

By Stefan Kanfer
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95 304 pages

Should you check the bibliography at the end of Stefan Kanfer’s biography of Humphrey Bogart, you’ll discover there are already some 27 biographies of the actor in print, not counting 70 secondary source books. And this is not to mention the seven books devoted to the iconic “Casablanca,” an additional seven on “The Maltese Falcon,” three on “The African Queen,” plus six novels “with or about Humphrey Bogart” (two of which are authored by his son Stephen Bogart.)

But what do we get with this positive plethora of Bogart material? Mainly we get Mr. Kanfer, a longtime movie reviewer for Time magazine (and more recently biographer of Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Groucho Marx), showing that the actor’s fans’ “fanatical devotion [to Bogart] made him bigger in death than he had been in life.”

Actually, Bogart’s most iconic roles reflect relatively unglamorous figures, private eyes and the like. His second wife recollected the husband of 1927 as “a strangely puritanical man with very old-fashioned virtues.” His family background could not have been more alien to the roles for which he is now so well remembered. The family was one of privilege and wealth. His father, Belmont DeForest Bogart, was a graduate of Phillips Andover Academy and Columbia University, and received a medical degree from Yale. His practice was that of a society doctor. And yes, he was disappointed in his son’s career choices.

The future actor’s suffragette mother was a cold and unloving woman but a successful commercial artist. The father did his best to get his son enrolled in prestigious Philips Andover, but the boy failed miserably, winding up enlisting as a teenager in the Navy in the early years of World War I.

Family connections got the young man work in the Broadway theater, as a stage manager at first and eventually an actor of sorts. Following his move to the West Coast, there was a fairly steady pattern of wives, drink, sailing, and acting in B-level movies.

Bogart was in some 20-odd stage productions, all virtually unmemorable, and 75 assorted feature films shot over a quarter of a century. We remember, of course, the likes of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Big Sleep,” “To Have and to Have Not,” “Key Largo,” “We’re No Angels” and, naturally, those classics: “Casablanca” and “Maltese Falcon.” But whoever orders from Netflix today his films “Thank Your Lucky Stars” or “Two Guys from Milwaukee”?

Nevertheless, as Mr. Kanfer happily reminds us, the American Film Institute has proclaimed Bogart the country’s greatest male screen star. He adds that Entertainment Weekly deems him “the essential movie legend of all time.” He enters into virtual swoon mode, describing Bogart as “self-sacrificing, most romantic Hollywood hero of the war years.”

On May 25, 1942, when “Casablanca” went into production, Mr. Kanfer judged him only as a star without stature, but by the time the film was finished, by Aug. 1 of that same year, he had become “the kind of man American males yearned to be,” the most important American film actor of his time and place.

Humphrey Bogart died from cancer relatively young at 58, stoically, and with a touching dignity. A bronze plaque affixed to a building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on a portion of 103rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue renamed Humphrey Bogart Place states, “Mr. Bogart lived at this site from the time he was born until 1923.” It goes on to note that “his film career spanned almost 30 years and 75 films. Mr. Bogart became not only a mythical American hero but a popular culture icon known worldwide.” Clearly, as Mr. Kanfer is aware, this is a tribute merited by no other American actor of his or any other generation.

Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer and critic.

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