“Too Marvelous” — Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, and the Last Dance
Look at that face of hers. There you’ve got the map of Middle Europe slung across those high cheekbones and wide green eyes …. As a woman she holds all the cards. She’s beautiful, a good mother, a good wife, and knows how to run a home.
—Bogart on Bacall
It may not make a lot of sense if you look at it closely, but Bogart’s description of Lauren Bacall (1924-2014), which I found in Stephen Bogart’s book about his father, puts the geography of attraction nicely into words, along with hints of her style and his.
Bacall’s debut in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) was one of the most spectacular in Hollywood history. But the screen time that made her a star amounts to less than half an hour at most, and it helped to have the medium’s most charismatic antihero as the witness to her allure. The homemade Bacall montages on YouTube come mainly from scenes with Bogie: The Look, which accompanies her opening line (“Anybody got a match?”); the endlessly quoted “all you have to do is whistle” line; the first speech, the second kiss (“It’s even better when you help”); and the third and most serious kiss (“I like that … except for the beard”), evidence that a real-life romance is underway.
Agee Spreads the Word
Writing about To Have and Have Not in Time, James Agee neatly nails the star (“one of Bogart’s most edged portrayals of Nietzsche in dungarees”) on his way to putting Bacall into orbit in a stop-the-presses-worthy notice, hailing her as a “sensational newcomer” with “cinema personality to burn.” After comparing her to Garbo and Dietrich, he concludes that, even so, she’s “completely new to the screen.” He singles out her “born dancer’s eloquence in movement,” “fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness,” and a “stone-crushing self-confidence” that helps make her “the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.” Even in mandated Time-speech, Agee can swing a line like that, along with the one describing the film as “a loosely painted background for a kind of romance which the movies have all but forgotten about — the kind in which the derelict sweethearts are superficially aloof but essentially hot as blazes, and seem to do even their kissing out of the corners of their mouths.”
Agee’s review turns into a mini-profile of Bacall. Born in the Bronx in September 1924, she’s “part Rumanian, part French, part Russian (she thinks),” an only child, her idol was Bette Davis; she worked as an usherette and did some modeling for Harpers Bazaar, where a photo of her caught the eyes of Mrs. Howard Hawks, who showed it to her husband, the director; he signed her to a contract and, as Agee puts it, began a “shrewdly contrived campaign of artificialized naturalness” that produced the voice Agee compares to a trombone in Time and “a chorus by Kid Ory” in The Nation. For the better part of a year, Hawks “worked her out mainly in a vacant lot, bellowing anything from Shakespeare to odd copies of shopping news,” his purpose to turn something “high and nasal” into something “low and guttural.”
Agee includes an anecdote to show that Bacall was sometimes allowed to do things her way: “After a highly charged few minutes with Bogart, late at night in a cheap hotel room,” she “reluctantly retires to her own quarters. At this point in the shooting, she complained: ‘God, I’m dumb.’ ‘Why?’ asked Hawks. ‘Well, if I had any sense, I’d go back in after that guy.’ She did.”
To Whistle or To Smile
For the readers of The Nation, Agee offers a shorter, more cynical response, calling To Have and Have Not “a leisurely series of mating duels” between Bogart and “and the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde,” suggesting that whether or not you like the film will depend on what you think of Lauren Bacall. “I am no judge,” he writes. “I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her … without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a bellylaugh.”
I don’t have any sort of dilemma with Bacall. She leaves me smiling. So does the whole picture. Hawks has a genius for community; his ensembles are dreams of sweet disorder, like impromptu parties where everything falls into place. The story behind this film is that it was born from a bet between Hawks and Hemingway about whether Hawks could make a good picture from Hemingway’s worst novel. Out of that bet came romance and marriage for Bogart and Bacall. And only in Hollywood could you have the convergence in one film of two major American writers, however benighted the merging, Hemingway in tatters (a solid 90 percent of his “worst” novel having been “jettisoned”), Faulkner hacking out a wartime screenplay with Casablanca overtones that transforms Havana (to placate FDR) into Vichy Martinique and puts Faulkneresque charm into Walter Brennan’s lovable lush Eddie (“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”).
And don’t forget the pride of Bloomington, Indiana, Hoagy Carmichael as the hip, laconic piano man Cricket, who asks Bacall are you happy when she comes over to say goodbye before she and Bogart head into the Caribbean sunset; “What do you think?” she says: she’s beaming. So he sends her on her way with the song he composed in her presence, “How Little We Know,” the lyric by songwriting legend Johnny Mercer (a direct descendent of the General Mercer who died at the Battle of Princeton), and as she shimmies happily off, wiggling her scene-stealing hips, she joins arms with Bogart and gives him a smile that says their adventure has only begun.
In the coda to the updated portion of her memoir By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment), Bacall looks back from 2005 to 18-year-old Betty riding west alone on the Super Chief, too shy to leave her compartment, ordering ginger ale because she didn’t drink except for the rare Orange Blossom when she wanted “to feel grown up.” She finds an apartment in Beverly Hills, which she’s sharing with her mother when the affair begins and from which she will escape at odd hours of the night, like the time Bogart calls after midnight and asks her to meet him on a certain street corner. Writing in 2005, she remembers “running down Beverly Drive … arms held wide, green three-quarters coat flying, toward Bogie, waiting for me”); another time it’s four in the morning and he’s a little drunk, says he’s walking to town along highway 101 (“Come and get me”), it’s raining, her mother is “furious,” thinks she’s completely mad, “but I didn’t care, I was in love, I was on my way to meet my man,” and she drives for an hour in the wind and the rain on Highway 101, “hugging the right side of the road, looking frantically for Bogie. At last, as the sun rose, I caught sight of him — unshaven … and with a large sunflower in his lapel …. I don’t know how he got there. I slammed to a halt, rushed out of the car … and into each other’s arms we fell. It was the funniest, craziest thing I’d done so far.”
Heaven in Paita
In 2005, remembering, she calls it “the headiest romance imaginable,” seemingly beyond anything Hollywood could dream up for them. Until, perhaps, the closing scene in Dark Passage (1947), the third picture of their four films together and the first as a married couple. Without going into detail on the complex noir plot, suffice it to say that Bogart’s character is in hiding and on the run from the moment the film opens. Bacall takes him in, not as a lover but a sympathetic friend. Rather than the standard film noir femme fatale or the moll or the tramp, she’s a well-off young artist with a spacious apartment in San Francisco, and she appears strikingly close in style and manner to the real-life Bacall. During the time she’s hiding him out and taking care of him as he recovers from identity-disguising plastic surgery, they become chastely intimate, and the interlude of embattled domesticity they share leads to love; the song playing when they finally embrace is “Too Marvelous for Words.”
As the police close in, his only option is to get out of the country, she wants to go with him, he refuses to expose her to the risk. After he gets a ticket on a bus to the Mexican border, he phones her to tell her where he’s headed, Paita, in Peru, a little town on the coast, he makes her repeat the name, tells her “There’s a little cafe right on the bay, I’ll be there,” and in the last scene he’s sitting at a table with a drink, people are dancing, a live band is playing south-of-the-burder music, which suddenly gives way to a familiar melody. He looks past the dancing couples to the entrance, and there she is, smiling at him. It’s been three years since the smile she gave him as they walked off together in To Have and Have Not, two years since they were married. It’s a “Look at that face of hers” moment for Bogart. Lauren Bacall is smiling at her husband; no one else, no mere fictional character, would be worthy of such a smile. In the aftermath of Bacall’s death, more than one blogger sees this luminous moment as an image of a reunion in the afterlife, and why not, it makes a heavenly ending as Bogart, who has ten years to live, gets up from the table, and Bacall, who has 67, approaches. He takes her in his arms, and they begin to dance, moving among the other couples, as the orchestra plays “Too Marvelous for Words,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
Bogart’s quote is from a 1953 interview in the London Daily Mirror, included in Stephen Bogart’s book Bogart: In Search of My Father (Dutton 1995). Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment 2005) is distinguished by a brave, unstinting account of the ordeal of Bogart’s illness and death, in January 1957. Both books are available at the Princeton Public Library.