Memorial Day Meditation on Manhood
James J. O'Meara
Man Among the Cockroaches
“Bogart was a medium-sized man,” said John Huston. “Not particularly impressive off screen.” Put him on camera, however, and “those lights and shadows organized themselves into another nobler personality, heroic.”
Recently Andrew Hamilton wrote about “The Courage of Jodi Foster” on Greg Johnson’s Counter-currents blog, the courage in question being her outspoken standing by, if not exactly ‘supporting’, the always controversial Mel Gibson.
Looking at Ms. Foster, as many of us like to do anyway, and meditating on her life and work, one word comes to mind: Aryan.
What also comes to mind is Stefan Kanfer’s new book, Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart
(New York: Knopf, 304pp. $26.95), where the subject’s “outstanding characteristics — integrity, stoicism, a sexual charisma accompanied by a cool indifference to [the opposite sex]” are not only “never out of style when he’s on-screen” but applicable to Ms. Foster as well.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m pushing Ms. Foster as the new Bogart — although she probably wouldn’t mind — but the task Mr. Kanfer sets himself is to not merely provide another Bogart bio. You could say he wants to explain why adding another bio is unnecessary; for Bogart, even over fifty years after his death (from cigarette-induced esophageal cancer, which today would be the ironic death of a Mad Men character) is as well known, as popular with movie-goers, as quoted, as imitated (a point we will return to) and as influential on filmmakers and actors as he was at the height of his Hollywood career.
How, then, did this not particularly handsome or multi-talented guy, born in 1899 [!] manage to make such a mark that the American Film Academy named him the Greatest Hollywood Legend?
Hamilton has already suggested the answer:
Foster is a member of that curious set of Hollywood figures who come from privileged backgrounds: John Lodge, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Otto Kruger, director Robert Aldrich. She attended a French-language prep school, the Lycée Français de Los Angeles, and since her teens has frequently lived and worked in France.
For “privileged” read: upper class WASP; in Foster’s case, descendents of Mayflower passengers; for Bogart, a society doctor and a famed illustrator. He attended, but was expelled, from Phillips Andover; and while he may never have dubbed his own films like Foster, I heard he’s really big there anyway.
Kanfer says he needs to examine not only the social context Bogart emerged from, but also “the changing image of masculinity in the movies” — at which point I, and perhaps you, usually cringe. But fear not, there’s no “queer theorizing” or anything particularly feminist here. What emerges, perhaps unconsciously, is a portrait of the actor as the embodiment of Aryan Virtue.
For all his rebellions against [his parents], for all his drunken sprees and surly postures, Humphrey could not escape the central fact of his life. He was the son of straitlaced parents whose roots were in another time. Their customs and attitudes may have become outmoded, but they were deeply ingrained in their son… They showed in his upright carriage and in his careful manner of speaking, in his courtesy to women and frank dealing with men. He came to recognize that he gave “the impression of being a Nineteenth Century guy,” no matter how hard he tried to be au courant. But it worked in his favor. (p. 20)
It helped first of all because the theatrical fashion at the time was for indolent playboys, but although looking the part, Bogart was actually not very good playing it; as we shall see, it was mis-casting that made his career. (Near the end of his career he made another, failed stab at playing a Long Island playboy-industrialist in Sabrina
.) It played a more important role behind the scenes; Bogart learned early that “there were only two kinds of actors, professionals and bums” (pp. 19-20),] and he had resolved never to be a bum.
Directors liked how dependable Bogart was, always showing up on time and knowing his lines, and saving the drinking, though heavy, for after hours. (His frustration on Sabrina showed when he insisted on leaving the set each day at the contractual 6pm, no matter what, after an assistant handed him his highball.) Actresses liked to work with him because there was no funny business, and actors trusted him not to upstage them. Once he got a leg up in the movie business, he remembered his friends, and lent a helping hand to Peter Lorre, Fatty Arbuckle, Gene Tierney, and Joan Bennett.
During the run of Petrified Forest Bogart “made a special point of courtly offstage, in direct contrast to [his character’s] snarling persona.”
It was now apparent to all … that he was truly old school. He never believed in totally immersing himself in a character ; there was no fusing of the performer and the part that was to mark film and stage acting in the decades to come. (p. 39)
One recalls Noël Coward’s similar dismissal of “The Method School,” describing his method as finding the emotion in oneself, learning how to imitate it on stage, and then dismissing it.
Once he got to Hollywood, Bogart’s career got many unexpected boosts from his “old school” professionalism. His very debut, reprising the Broadway role of Duke Mantee for the film, came about when Edward G. Robinson got a swell head after Little Caesar and began demanding more money and deference. Though he was the obvious choice, Jack Warner decided to teach him a lesson and gave Bogart a call. Robinson would get his revenge by killing him in numerous films, until Bogart finally got the drop on him in Key Largo.
Later, George Raft made the same mistake, began believing his own press, and Warner again turned to the unassuming professional, Bogart, for High Sierra, one of the last great noirs.
Meanwhile, Bogart was driving a battered Chevy, wearing old suits, and telling reporters he wouldn’t make the rookie mistake of “blow[ing] themselves on Cadillacs and big houses.” Bogart put every cent in his FU fund (p. 45).
His genetic endowment didn’t just shape his attitudes; even his appearance was a plus:
Bogart was something new onscreen… The appeal of [Robinson, Muni and Cagney] was ethnic [each was half or wholly Judaic]. … In contrast to those stars, Humphrey was a WASP…. He represented the notorious malefactors from the heart of the heart of the country… all of whom had been dramatically and savagely hunted down and killed in 1934. … Duke Mantee seemed a guarded and intense man who lived outside the law, yet had a speck of nobility buried deep within. (p. 43)]
Although the country was well over 90% White, apparently Hollywood was so Judaificated by 1934 that a real WASP was a hot new commodity; and just the thing to portray the new White Rage rising in the heartland. Today, Bogart might be playing Timothy McVeigh, or debuting in Natural Born Killers.
Tom Shone’s review has nicely summarized the interplay of Bogart’s heritage, career, and legend:
His entire film career was to rest on a single, judiciously prolonged piece of miscasting: his stiff, slightly old-fashioned patrician bearing was slightly redundant when deployed in the service of patricians, but transplanted into the bodies of toughs, condemned men, and private eyes — the closest the modern world has to the knights of the round table— and the result was a brand of hard-bitten, rueful integrity that fit the times like a glove.
The whole premise of Kanfer’s book — Bogart as the greatest film legend — makes it unnecessary to go through the classic films to come; except perhaps to note that Bogart was no ingénue; he was well into his 40s, and had made over 30 films before becoming a ‘star.’ Kanfer does an excellent job explaining the old studio system, the backstage business and general cultural background, in order to provide us the context in which Bogart created some of the most iconic film roles.
And Kanfer also documents what he calls Bogart’s greatest role, a man dying relatively young from cancer, hiding his pain to spare his family and fans. The doctor treating him said:
“When a man is sick, you get to know him. You find out whether he’s made of soft wood or hard wood. I began to get fonder of Bogie with each visit. He was made of very hard wood indeed.” (p. 220)
Earlier, he had given a more public display of manhood when dealing with the tangled loyalties of the Hollywood blacklist.
Kanfer seems to be a pretty standard liberal guy, but he’s refreshingly independent of what he calls “the romantic wish dream” (p. 131) of the Hollywood left: the blacklisted as brave men and women, just ordinary citizens, standing up to ignorant, corrupt, badly-shaved politicos, as epitomized [of course] by Woody Allen’s The Front.
In fact, as Kanfer says:
More than half of the hostile witnesses had lied to their own lawyers about their Communist past or present, and presented themselves to the Committee for the First Amendment [the support group Bogart had joined] as innocent victims framed by the government.
After witnessing their performance at the hearings, and making a few inquiries of his own, “Bogart was furious” one blacklistee recalled, “shouting at Danny Kaye, ‘You fuckers sold me out’” (p. 127).
Though he remained liberal in private life, he felt a justifiable anger about the way his name and reputation had been used (p. 132).
Alistair Cooke later recalled:
“Bogart was aghast” to discover how many of the protestors “were down-the-line Communists coolly exploiting the protection of the First and Fifth Amendments… He had thought they were just freewheeling anarchists, like himself. (p. 127)
If Bogart was an anarchist, he was a Conservative Anarchist, in the tradition of Céline or Jünger, whose “Anarch” sounds like the typical Bogart character:
[A]n extreme aloofness, which nourishes itself and risks itself in the borderline situations, but only stands in an observational relationship to the world, as all instances of true order are dissolving and an “organic construction” is not yet, or no longer, possible.
Or even a “Bohemian Tory” like Noël Coward, men for whom personal integrity, professionalism and loyalty to friends [like Foster with Gibson, Bogart stood behind those he could personally vouch for, using his star power to keep them working], were more important that politics or ideological purity. And to that extent Kanfer is justified in finding Bogart to have created a “new” masculinity, not the “post feminist” sort but more like one of Evola’s “men among the ruins.”
[To name names or not] was a matter of great importance to those affected, but it was not the only way to take the measure of a man, and many refused to be defined in such narrow terms. Humphrey Bogart was one of them. As the decade wound down, he continued to present his own brand of masculinity, which had nothing to do with polemics [such as the contrasting but self-exculpating works of Miller or Kazan]. (p. 132)
(In his recent book Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, Paul Kengor presents some intriguing bits of evidence to suggest a “Bogart” enrolled in a New York City indoctrination program in the 1930s could have been Bogart. See: “Was Staunch Anti-Communist Humphrey Bogart Once a Young Commie Dupe?”)
Speaking of communism, Aryan masculinity, and Noël Coward, consider their interplay in Beat the Devil, based on the novel by Communist Claud Cockburn (whose son, Alex, has just published a new edition), with a screenplay by Truman Capote. We know how Bogie hated commies, what about queers?
Bogart’s attitude to homosexuals seems to have been amusement or puzzlement, but capable of changing to good will when they showed the same professionalism he embodied. The famously flamboyant Capote earned Bogart’s respect for his ability to crank out countless rewrites, sometimes daily, even from a hospital bed. Capote returned the compliment after Bogie’s death, recalling the way he divided the world into professionals and bums, and “God knows he was [a professional].”
Moreover, he even beat Bogart at arm wrestling, and hustled $50 out of him doing it; an incident oddly reminiscent of an episode of All in the Family where Archie’s old pal comes out while they arm wrestle.
It’s also reminiscent of the way Sam Spade deals with Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon, the first time Bogart, Huston and Lorre teamed up. And yes, I know Bogart isn’t Sam Spade, and that Spade is in fact an entirely fictional character. But what made Bogart’s Spade unforgettable, when studios had already flopped twice with other actors, was Bogart himself, and Spade’s character does give us a chance to see the range of Bogart’s response to sexual deviation.
Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, with his lisp, piss-elegant clothes and scented handkerchief, even resembles Capote. He is easily knocked out and disarmed, almost playfully (Spade allows himself a puzzled sniff of the handkerchief); but at the end of the scene Cairo gets the drop on Spade and insists on carrying out a search of his office. Spade, impressed by Cairo’s persistence and competence, lifts up his arms and says “Go ahead, go ahead” while Bogart gives a rather forced giggle. Fade to black; is there a sexual undercurrent here?
Spade deals otherwise with the gunsel, Wilmer (seemingly pronounced ’Wilma’ by everyone). Played by Elisha Cook Jr., he’s an obviously overcompensating fruit, swathing his scrawny frame in a thick overcoat, carrying two guns in his pockets and talking in “tough guy” lingo (“The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter” Spade sneers, articulating the Aryan’s contempt for theatricality.) “What is it?” says the hotel dick, and Spade answers, “I don’t know, I’ve been watching it.” His conclusion is that Wilmer is weak and incompetent; Spade enjoys disarming him and then displays Aryan modesty: “A crippled newsie took them away, I made him give them back.”
Spade is right in his evaluation. Wilmer is incompetent and a coward, who literally kicks Spade when he’s down and out; Spade repays him by offering him up as the fall guy, and the gang eagerly agrees. The actor will redeem himself in Bogart’s next detective film, The Big Sleep, where his wimpy character is killed protecting his girlfriend; “Your little man died to keep you out of trouble” Marlowe points out to the ungrateful shrew.
Finally, Kasper Gutman, Oxford scholar gone bad. Wodehousian accent, possibly Jewish, searching the world for the Maltese Falcon, like his contemporary, Otto Rahn, another homosexual academic Grail hunter (and possible inspiration for Indiana Jones); and a classic, even Classical, pederast. Here, Spade’s Aryan virtues play him false; his respect for Gutman’s age and erudition allows Gutman to mesmerize him, first with words and then with a mickey. A parable for the history of Aryan-Jewish interaction?
And yes, Bogart even teamed up, after a fashion, with Coward himself. Here’s how Lauren Bacall tells it:
He and Bogie were guests of Clifton Webb one weekend. Bogie and Noël were assigned to the same room and Noël was gay, as everybody on Earth knew, but nobody cared, because he was so great. Just to be in his presence was quite enough. And at the end of the evening one night, they were changing into their PJs to hit the sack. Bogie was sitting on the edge of the bed, and at one point put his hand on Noël’s knee. Bogie said: ‘Noël, I have to tell you that if I had my druthers and I liked guys you would be the one I’d want to be with. But, unfortunately, I like girls.’ And from that moment on Noël never mentioned it, and Bogie never mentioned it. Class behavior! And they became fast, fast friends.
In his final chapter Kanfer addresses his broader theme: the unprecedented dominance of the Bogie icon. He gave us the answer already on his very first page, when he corrects Norma Desmond: the pictures did became bigger, and the actors smaller. The 20 highest-grossing films of all time are all “blockbusters” made for teen audiences, and their actors have the same dewy innocence and immaturity. Since it’s experience that produces character, today’s actors, however highly trained, are indistinguishable and interchangeable; no one, Kanfer points out, impersonates Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Christian Bale, the way men like Bogart or Cagney or even wispy Jimmy Stewart were a staple part of a comedian’s repertoire.
One could quibble a bit here; Christian Bale, certainly, has given comics from South Park to Riff Trax a comedic foothold with his raspy Batman voice. And Bale’s The Dark Knight, despite showing up as Number 8 on Kanfer’s list, is arguably at least an attempt to create a more mature, more conflicted, Batman, perhaps not unlike one of Bogart’s bad guys with principles, making hard choices in a world morally adrift (See Trevor Lynch‘s meditations on The Dark Knight here.)
On the other hand, I confess that even after watching it about eight times, I still don’t understand the narrative of The Departed, since the three principals, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon and yes, DiCaprio, seem exactly the same person to these old eyes. (Or was that deliberate?) Needless to say, no problem recognizing old school Jack Nicholson.
Of course, Bogart’s scars, lisp, and cigarette-rasp were only the external signs, useful for an actor, of his inner maturity. In his review of Kanfer cited above, Shone also says:
These days, we measure toughness by the damage dished out to others — by body counts and kill ratios. Bogart’s toughness was an inside job.
In Men Among the Ruins, Baron Evola summarized The Roman, and generally The Aryan, as:
The sober, austere, active style, free from exhibitionism, measured, endowed with a calm awareness of one’s dignity. To have the sense of what one is and of one’s value independently of any external reference, loving distance as well as actions and expressions reduced to the essential, devoid of any exhibition and cheap showmanship—all these are fundamental elements for the eventual formation of a superior type.
That was Bogart: tough without a gun