The above is the title of the newest biography of Humphrey Bogart, written by Stefan Kanfer. The American Film Institute ranks Humphrey Bogart the #1 male movie-star of all time. Kanfer agrees with that, but he also points out that Bogart has had the most enduring and successful afterlife of any film star. Bogart died in 1957, but today, his popularity is still soaring.
I have to think that his enduring popularity is due, in large part, to his role in Casablanca. As Rick Blaine, he was not only the ultimate tough guy, but the ultimate strong and heroic American: hard-boiled and unwavering on the outside, but compassionate and duty-bound on the inside. That’s pure Americana.
Casablanca was made in 1942 when he was 42. His co-star, of course, was the beautiful and luminous Ingrid Bergman. She was only 27 at the time, so he was 15 years her senior. It’s interesting that the rather large age difference between them was never a factor in the story, not then, and not now. The very realistic toupee he wore certainly helped mitigate the age difference. Another obstacle that, if unaddressed, would certainly have marred their screen chemistry was the fact that Ingrid was at least two inches taller than Bogie. That was solved with various props, and when necessary, he wore 3 inch shoe-lifts. And besides being short, he was rather small; he typically weighed in the 130s -so not a big guy. I really think they padded his white dinner jacket in Casablanca. I have never read that anywhere, but I believe it. He looks beefier wearing it than he does in other scenes. Another movie in which they did that, and even more exaggerated, was In A Lonely Place. They made him look like a linebacker.
But, there is another reason why Rick Blaine is often considered the ultimate personification of the real Humphrey Bogart: and that’s all the smoking and drinking his character did. In real life, Humphrey Bogart smoked and drank heavily. Was he an alcoholic? He reportedly was at times in his life, but they say that he never let alcohol interfere with his work. His most famous quote is: “There are two kinds of men: professionals and bums.” On the set, he limited himself to one beer, and that was it until shooting stopped.
Bogie looked good in Casablanca, but just 15 years later, he died an agonizing death from esophageal cancer. It wasted him down to 80 pounds. Was it mainly the smoking or the drinking that killed him? Considering that it was esophageal cancer, it is impossible to say because both are strongly linked to it. If we say both equally, we won’t be far off.
Also, it’s worth noting that the culture of his day truly celebrated smoking and drinking. The status of alcohol was actually elevated by Prohibition. Bogart once said, “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t drink because it means he’s afraid to reveal himself.” The anti-smoking movement did not begin until the 1960s, which was after Bogart’s death. Bogart was a product of his era. His habits were commonplace, especially in Hollywood circles.
Unlike other stars of whom I have written, Bogart did not dream of being an actor as a child. He stumbled into it by chance. After a lackluster stint in the Navy at the tail-end of WW1, he returned to New York and drifted aimlessly from job to job. Then, an old boyhood chum, Bill Brady, got him a job as a stage hand at his father’s theater company. That led to small roles for Bogart because it was common to use stage hands to fill out scenes. Right away, he found out that he enjoyed acting and had a knack for it.
They say that Bogart came from wealth, but it hardly benefited him. His parents had no role in facilitating his acting career. His father was a prominent physician and surgeon in New York, but he became an alcoholic, a morphine addict, and a compulsive gambler. He died penniless and in debt, and young Humphrey assumed all his father’s debts and paid them off- even though he was under no legal obligation to do so. Bogie’s mother, Maud Humphrey, was one of the leading commercial illustrators of the early 20th century. She did the first Gerber baby illustrations that were used in advertising and on labels. She lived quite long and did leave some assets to her two surviving children (one daughter had died of alcoholism). However, Bogart saw to it that the money went to the care of his surviving sister Frances who was mentally ill her entire life. Bogart paid for Frances’ expensive care throughout, and it was something that motivated him to succeed in his career.
It was the Great Depression that took Bogart from Broadway to Hollywood. Hard times stifled the demand for live theater, but in contrast, the popularity of movies soared. Bogart was type-cast as a gangster, and he had some memorable roles, such as in High Sierra and The Petrified Forest. But then, the role of Detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon gave him a cooler, hipper image with audiences. And that led to his casting in Casablanca, which put him at the top of his profession, where he remained for the rest of his life.
But now, let’s delve into his health in more detail because that is always our focus on this blog. My impression is that, despite his bad habits, Humphrey Bogart was remarkably healthy most of his life. Unlike other stars, such as Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe, no movie ever had to be postponed because of his ill-health. And he made 75 of them!
As I mentioned, Bogart was always thin, and he struggled to maintain his weight, and I mean to hold on to it. Why? It was probably due mainly to his smoking and drinking. Both undermine digestion and assimilation. However, adding to that in Bogart’s case was the fact that he was simply not a food person. He had little interest in food. He ate to live, but he certainly didn’t live to eat. He was a conventional eater with working class tastes. He famously said that a hot dog at the ball park was better than a steak at the Ritz. The book I read said little about Bogart’s diet, but there was one incident concerning a stray cat that he adopted that shed some light on it. It said that he fed the cat whatever he ate, including half-raw meat, organs, milk, steak, rabbit, venison, and chicken. The cat also enjoyed potatoes, so Bogie named him Potato; and the cat lived for 15 years.
There was mention of food during the making of The African Queen. There was great concern about parasites and dysentery in Africa, so they did not drink the local water or eat the local food. Bogart said that he lived on canned baked beans and canned asparagus that they brought with them. I suspect a person living on such limited fare would lose weight, and he does look bone-thin in The African Queen.
What about exercise? Bogart was naturally athletic. He was an excellent golfer, and he was also an excellent sailor, which can be very physical. Reportedly, he also had his share of barroom brawls- also physical. And on the mental side, Bogart was a tournament chess player, just one level below Master. He once played to a draw against a leading grandmaster. He loved chess, and it was his idea to insert chess in his introductory scene of Casablanca.
Humphrey Bogart started getting sick in a serious way at the age of 55 in 1955. He was married to his 4th wife Lauren Bacall at the time who was surely the love of his life despite being 24 years his junior. It started with non-stop, uncontrollable coughing. He avoided seeing doctors at first, and his cancer was not diagnosed until 1956. He underwent multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. My impression is that nothing they did prolonged his life, and they probably shortened it. After all, radical treatment imposes a huge strain on the body, and we are talking about 1950’s Medicine. But when his death spiral set in, it was frightening, his weight falling off rapidly and his energy withering away to nothing. He was wheelchair-bound in his final months. Temporarily, on doctor’s advice, he would quit smoking and drinking, but never for long. He would leave the world the same way he went through it, and apparently with no regrets.
I am a non-smoker, a teetotaler, and a vegetarian. So, how did I wind up becoming such a Bogart fan? I’ll answer that by quoting another actor, Rod Steiger, who I believe was speaking for a lot of people when he said:
“Bogart has endured because in our society the family unit has gone to pieces. And here you had a guy about whom there was no doubt. There is no doubt that he is the leader. There is no doubt that he is the strong one. There is no doubt that this man can handle himself- and others; that he can protect the family. This is all unconscious, but with Bogart you are secure; you never doubt that he will take care of things.”
That was the image Bogart had in his life- and it only grew bigger after his death.