Since the 1960's were before my time one thing that always fascinates me about the period is the posthumous rise of Humphrey Bogart. We're currently in a culture where anyone can practically on a whim buy a domain name and spark their own mini revival simply by blogging, getting found and having just a handful of others show a healthy interest. But in a time before the internet, VCR's or even cable TV, how the heck did this cult of Bogart thing get rolling in such a way that ten years after his death it'd be big enough for casual reference in advertising:
My curiosity was aroused this time around by the arrival of a batch of Time Magazine back issues from the 1950's including the June 7, 1954 issue featuring Bogart on the cover as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Inside is a feature length article titled "The Survivor" which I dug into with a related curiosity of the perception of Bogart during the latter part of his career, the final years of his life. The sparks of the coming cult are there in both the author's contemporary description and Bogart's own living, breathing words:
Actor Bogart, now a hardy 54, is one of the most un-actorish of his breed. He seems to take genuine delight in the marks of erosion that time and hard liquor have left on his face ... Prattle about theatrical art stirs him to open contempt. But he is full of surly pride in his own competence. "I don't approve," he says, "of the John Waynes and the Gary Coopers saying, 'Shucks, I ain't no actor--I'm just a bridge builder or a gas-station attendant.' If they aren't actors, what the hell are they getting paid for? I have respect for my profession. I worked hard at at."
Of his current project the author writes, "As Queeg, Bogart is likely to achieve a measure of secondhand immortality. The captain of the Caine has become almost as memorable a figure of World War II as Admiral Halsey, and legions seeing the movie are bound to remember him in years to come as at least part Humphrey Bogart." Gee, ya think?
What's interesting is that The Caine Mutiny and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial have survived over the years, remade on film and revived on stage, and Queeg would be remembered to some degree today even if Bogart had never touched him. But since he did I think it's safe to say that most of us are picturing Bogie rolling those stress balls over his palm and becoming way too upset over strawberries when we think of Queeg.
Actually, not unlike the audience this 1954 Bogart cover story was originally aimed at, I became familiar with Herman Wouk's Queeg from inside the pages of the book before I ever saw the movie--thanks to my Grandmother's extensive age toned collection of 1940's-70's Book of the Month Club offerings--and even after being influenced enough by the book that it made me hunt down the movie on video in the 80's, I can't imagine Queeg as anyone but Bogart. And who's this Halsey guy? Just kidding, but I can certainly imagine someone a few years my junior asking that!
The 1954 article gives a nice summary of Bogart's entire career through the time of The Caine Mutiny plus includes a good deal of biographical information even including an image of his mother's illustration of the "original Maud Humphrey baby." The article wraps up with a section titled "The Quiet Life" punctuated by a series of Bogart quotes, my favorite, the final one about bad movies: "I don't give a damn about the industry. If they go broke, I don't give a damn. I don't hurt the industry. The industry hurts itself--as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car."
When Bogart died in 1957 the coverage didn't much hint what was to come in following years. In the New York Times there was a pretty standard obituary, follow-up coverage of his funeral a couple of days later, and finally a couple of days after that Bosley Crowther used Bogart's death to reminiscence more generally about the top actors of the past, present and future.
Crowther lists several of Bogart's contemporaries and wishes for them to keep working though with snide hopes of them steering clear of age inappropriate projects such as Bing Crosby in High Society and Clark Gable in The King and Four Queens. Crowther congratulates Fredric March on his well-chosen character parts before wondering about the future careers of the current crop of young stars. But other than using Bogart as a lead-in congratulating him on successfully spanning the 1930's and navigating the bridge of time across World War II and beyond there is yet any talk of a posthumous popularity. In fact the most interesting part of Crowther's article is when his discusses the awkwardness of seeing youthful versions of our then aging stars in television broadcasts of their earlier films. Crowther writes:
This practice may be an embarrassment to any of them who are vain, and it also may cause some confusion to the juvenile customers. There is something bewildering about seeing a stalwart fellow tonight on TV and seeing that same man looking twenty years older tomorrow on the theater screen. This disturbs the emotional apparatus of the viewer who wants to admire.
His words offer an interesting perspective from a different time. He's wrong now, but he could have been right then. I don't know. As someone who matured during the video boom I know for sure that being exposed to say a youthful Sean Connery as James Bond never altered my opinion of Connery as he aged into his more mature roles. I do understand the bewilderment Crowther refers too, I mean I've often found myself saying, Oh wow, he got old, when someone I haven't seen in awhile pops up in a new feature, but truth be told I'm more likely to watch something old featuring a younger version of that actor afterwards, reinvigorating their legacy in my mind rather than damaging it in any way.
But back to Bogart, back to another old magazine, and ironically back to Bosley Crowther. The best road map I could find tracing Bogart's 1960's rise actually comes from an article by Crowther in the June 1966 issue of Playboy Magazine. The section titled "The Bogart Boom" is actually two articles, one by Kenneth Tynan, "The Man and the Myth," and another by Crowther, "The Career and the Cult," the latter of which actually details what did happen.
Most of the reflections on this Bogart Boom seem to center on the mid-1960's, which appears to be when it hit the mainstream. I figure if the idea of a Bogart poster was widespread enough to be featured in a 1967 Life Magazine advertisement then the boom must have hit the mass American audience well prior to that. Crowther traces it to the familiar location, the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachussets, but this article goes back further then I've typically seen, saying it began in the summer of 1956, when Bogart was still alive, with a showing of Beat the Devil, then a two year old film.
It tickled sophisticated fancies with its wacky, slightly beat comedy, much more so than it had seemed to tickle audiences in the regular theaters its first time around. Patrons especially indicated they dug Bogie's style, his manner of being hard-boiled and contemptuous in a nice, dry, sardonic way.
The following year the Brattle showed Casablanca, and as you might imagine the response was even stronger. Crowther writes that "the Brattle's astute managers realized there was something about Bogey--about him in particular--that got its audiences here. It took to booking more of his pictures, singly and then in groups of several over a two-week period. These were known as Bogart Festivals."
Returning to the 1957 Times obituary it's interesting to note that there's nothing that reflects any special interest in Bogart at the time, but the text does actually hint at why the 1960's generation would embrace him. On the whole the piece is typical, describing Bogart's final days and the cancer which took his life before looking back over his career. It's obvious that the man who has just died was a major Hollywood star, but it's not at all obvious that he'd come to be seen as a legend. There's a certain confusion over Bogart's image and it's that lack of understanding which actually clarifies what was soon to happen:
Mr. Bogart was one of the most paradoxical screen personalities in the recent annals of Hollywood. He often deflated the publicity balloons that keep many a screen star aloft, but he remained one of Hollywood's top box office attractions for more than two decades ...
He had a large, seemingly permanent following among the mass audience. Yet he said he deplored "mass activities." Furthermore he did everything he could to confound the popular image of a movie star.
Hardly an image which jibes with typical notions of Eisenhower America; however a perfect fit for the youth of the 60's.
He's bigger than the surfboard, but it's an interesting choice for the ad conjuring images of danger and youth, almost a metaphor for the who, how and why of when Bogart's legacy was reborn.