Silver Screen Standards: Bacall Beyond Bogart

Silver Screen Standards: Bacall Beyond Bogart

Lauren Bacall Headshot
Lauren Bacall was just a 19-year-old newcomer when she appeared in To Have and Have Not (1944) and instantly launched into stardom.

From the moment you see them together on screen in To Have and Have Not (1944), you know there’s something special about Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They embody that magical idea of “chemistry” between actors; the electric thrill of the sparks flying between them is just as potent today as it was when they shot that first film, even though more than 75 years have passed. She gives him “the look” that would become her trademark and nickname, she asks him if he knows how to whistle, and the moment becomes an iconic piece of Hollywood history. The story of Lauren Bacall’s arrival as a star and the great love of Humphrey Bogart’s life is truly fascinating, but there was a lot more to Bacall than just making Bogart whistle. She was married to Bogart for a little over a decade; she lived nearly sixty more years after his death and never really stopped working. In order to appreciate Lauren Bacall more thoroughly, we have to see her celebrated romance as one (albeit very important) part of a long, full life.

“Lauren Bacall” was a cinematic fantasy dreamed up by Howard Hawks and inspired by his wife at the time, whose nickname was Slim, but Betty Joan Perske – later Betty Bacall after her parent’s divorce – was born in New York City on September 16, 1924. Hawks’ wife saw the teenaged model on a magazine cover and brought her to Hawks’ attention, which led to the 19-year-old beauty getting a screen test that turned into a starring role in To Have and Have Not.

Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Starring in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable gave Bacall an early hit that did not involve Bogart.

Like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus, Bacall emerged into stardom in that first role. There was no apprenticeship of small parts growing into larger ones, no starlet training ground, no uncredited background work that offered an early peek. That sudden stardom would have been a lot to handle for any young actress, but Bacall forged ahead, into more leading roles and marriage to a man almost 25 years her senior with three divorces behind him. They had two children together, Stephen and Leslie, who were still quite young when Bogart died of cancer in 1957. A second marriage to Jason Robards produced a third child, Sam, but ended in divorce in 1969. Bacall continued to work through all of these life changes, either in films and television or on the stage; she earned her only Oscar nomination, for her supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) quite late in her career and contributed her distinctive voice to several animated films, including the English version of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). By the time of her death on August 12, 2014, she had appeared in more than 40 films, only four of which co-starred Humphrey Bogart.

Those four films are all classics that deserve our love and attention, with Bogart and Bacall creating intense chemistry in each. After To Have and Have Not they burned up the screen with The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948), and each film takes full advantage of their celebrated off-screen romance. They are evenly matched as romantic leads, both strong-willed, world-weary, and unimpressed by the tough guys and macho posers who populate their worlds. The Big Sleep is probably the best of the set, and certainly the most celebrated, thanks to its perfect noir style and the popularity of Philip Marlowe as a big screen detective (not to mention Martha Vickers’ wild turn as Bacall’s troubled little sister).

Although Bogart and Bacall would not appear in films together after these four, they did work together in radio and television productions, including a live 1955 television version of Bogart’s stage and screen success, The Petrified Forest (1936), in which Bogart reprised his role as Duke Mantee and Bacall played Gabrielle, with Henry Fonda taking the role of Alan Squier.

Lauren Bacall in The Shootist (1976)
Bacall was in her 50s when she costarred in John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist (1976), in which she plays the widowed mother of Ron Howard’s aspiring gunfighter.

By herself, however, Bacall continued to make pictures, with leading men like Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, and John Wayne. With Bogart, she had become associated with film noir, but on her own, she made comedies, Westerns, dramas, and mysteries, as well. The most popular of her early solo films is undoubtedly How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), a sharp romantic comedy in which Bacall plays the most pragmatic of three young dress models looking to land rich husbands. Other films in the 1950s included Young Man with a Horn (1950), Woman’s World (1954), The Cobweb (1955), Designing Woman (1957), and Northwest Frontier (1959). She made fewer films after Bogart’s death in 1957, partly because she enjoyed working in stage productions and partly because she had two young children with Bogart and then a third in 1961 with Robards. Her career, however, was far from over. After Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Harper (1966) in the 1960s, Bacall made memorable appearances in two Agatha Christie film adaptations, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Appointment with Death (1988), and also took a leading role in John Wayne’s swan song, The Shootist (1976). She was busier with films in the 1990s than she had been for decades, taking roles in Misery (1990), Ready to Wear (1994), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), and My Fellow Americans (1996). The early 2000s saw her in Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), while her voice work as the Witch of the Waste in the English version of Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved animated feature, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), introduced her trademark husky voice to a new generation.

Lauren Bacall in The Forger (2012)
Bacall made her final big-screen appearance in the 2012 drama, The Forger, when she was in her late 80s.

I love Bacall and Bogart together, but I also love the breadth and depth of Bacall’s career after Bogart. She’s great even in pictures that probably didn’t deserve her, and she ages in films with the same strength and frankness that her characters embody. As beautiful as she is at 19 in To Have and Have Not, she’s just as remarkable at 52 in The Shootist and at 72 in The Mirror Has Two Faces. There’s so much more to Lauren Bacall than her famous romance, more than we can even begin to discuss here. She was nominated for Emmy and Grammy Awards as well as her Oscar, and she won two Tony Awards for her Broadway roles. She wrote three memoirs, the first released in 1978 and the third in 2005, and if you want to learn more about her life, her work, and her opinions about both, those are the place to begin. The first one, tellingly, is titled By Myself, while the third is By Myself and Then Some, which serves as an apt summary of this great leading lady’s long life and career.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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One Response to Silver Screen Standards: Bacall Beyond Bogart

  1. Tam May says:

    Wonderful article! I hate it when people assume that an actress heavily associated with a well-known actor (through marriage, love, or on-screen partnership) is only defined by her roles with that actor. So many of them went on to kick butt in their careers very well without the men. Immediately coming to mind here is Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers (Fred Astaire was NOT her Svengali, thank you very much!) Nothing wrong with those actors, don’t get me wrong. But these women were so much more than that.

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