December 25, 2019

Christmas with Bogart: A Look Back at the Golden Oldies of 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

“I can’t stop thinking of all the things that I should’ve said that
I never said ….”

I could quote that line from Kate Bush’s song, “This Woman’s Work,” at the top of every column, with a small but necessary change in the title. Until I checked online just now I didn’t know Kate had written it expressly for the climactic moment of the 1988 film She’s Having a Baby, where the woman in question is played by Elizabeth McGovern, known now to millions of Downton Abbey fans as Lady Crawley.

It’s typical of the pleasures and challenges of what I do every week that a Kate Bush song from the late 1980s leads to Downton Abbey. Given the freedom of a weekly writing assignment chosen by no one but yourself, you’re going to be tempted, intrigued, and distracted by more options than you have time or space for; thus the notion of having more to say than you have room for, given the realities of a more or less 1800-word limit and a Tuesday afternoon deadline. Last week at the hour of decision, there was nothing to do but to take a short cut and rethink the format as an open letter to the reader, saying, in effect, “time to go now, see you next week.”

Beginning Local

In keeping with the local aspect of the year in review, my January 2 piece evolved from the holiday ritual of  shopping visits to the Princeton Record Exchange, where I found the DVD of A Lady Takes a Chance, a romantic western screwball comedy road movie starring Jean Arthur and John Wayne. The bins at Prex also provided the DVD set of Norman Lear’s classic of sitcom quirkiness, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which shared the January 9 column with newly elected member of the House Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Thanks to a four-minute video of some Boston University students doing Breakfast Club dance moves on a city rooftop, I was able to open with a vision of Ocasio-Cortez “arms raised, black hair flying, as she uncoils, twirling, whirling, spiraling, the irrepressible embodiment of force and freedom dancing to the music of the French band Phoenix, a number from 2009 called “Lisztomania,” with lyrics that have a ring ten years later, ‘This is show time, this is show time, this show time/Time, time is your love, time is your love, yes time is your love.’ “

The Twilight Zone

Two weeks later, the guilty pleasures of being able to tune in to the happenings of the moment led to “Don Quixote and Captain Ahab Meet Kafka in the Twilight Zone,” a column inspired by the twilight zone we entered when the president shut down the government rather than give up his demand for a border wall. In honor of Herman Melville’s bicentenary I began with a quote from Moby Dick referencing “the trump of judgment,” and my thoughts on how the  “ever-deepening menace of a foreign adversary” evokes “a variation on Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ in which an entire country wakes up one morning to find itself transformed into a giant insect giving off an odor of kvass and speaking in a voice with a distinctly Russian accent.”

The same January 16 column ends with a quote from Melville’s The Confidence Man regarding those Wall Street naysayers who “trump up their black panics.” Left behind on the cutting room floor is a passage I’ve held in reserve for just this moment. In terms of topicality, it has less to do with economics than the scorge of misinformation.  The subject is the Panic of 1857. The speaker is insisting that “the depression of our stock was solely owing to the growling, the hypocritical growling, of the bears,” for “the most monstrous of all hypocrites are these bears: hypocrites by inversion; hypocrites in the simulation of things dark instead of bright; souls that thrive, less upon depression, than the fiction of depression; professors of the wicked art of manufacturing depressions; spurious Jeremiahs; sham Heraclituses, who, the lugubrious day done, return, like sham Lazaruses among the beggars, to make merry over the gains got by their pretended sore heads — scoundrelly bears!” In the course of denouncing “these same destroyers of confidence,” the speaker comes to those “fellows who, whether in stocks, politics, bread-stuffs, morals, metaphysics, religion — be it what it may — trump up their black panics in the naturally-quiet brightness, solely with a view to some sort of covert advantage.”

Bogart for Christmas

As happened last week, I find myself nearing the Tuesday deadline, this time having barely scratched the surface of a year of columns ranging from Ernie Kovacs to Mick Jagger, Doctor Who to the Hardy Boys; a year in which Frederick Douglass follows close on Freddie Mercury, Proust’s birthday leads to Goodnight Moon and Neil Armstrong, the Beatles cross Abbey Road again, Woodstock turns 50, and Mickey Mouse meets Susan Sontag.

Now look at the date. Up against the clock last year, I reprised portions of a seasonal column from 2007. With something similar in mind this year, when I check to see who of note has been born on Deceember 25, I find the movie star James Agee once referred to as “Nietzsche in dungarees.” Is Humphrey Bogart a fit subject for  the season of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Joseph and Mary in the manger, peace and good will? Stockings hung by the chimney in hopes that Sam Spade soon will be there? It’s like decking the halls with boughs of holly in the City That Never Sleeps. Like singing “Joy to the World” with the guy who has a voice like black coffee and cigarettes. Put a fedora on his head, deck him out in a trenchcoat, and you’ve got a ready-made film noir.

You can’t blame Warners publicity department for cheating in the interests of image and moving Bogart’s birthday from December 25 to January 23. There are some online who make the ludicrous claim that it was the other way around, that the studio geniuses actually fabricated the Christmas connection to give their dark star a cheerier glow. As if he were some kind of Johnny One-Note when the secret of his appeal is his moral ambiguity. In The Big Sleep, which sustains a human-comedy ambience even as it does full justice to the dark mood of Raymond Chandler’s novel, Bogart’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Matlowe turns up the brim of his fedora, puts on a pair of glasses, and becomes a simpering bibliophile while casing a rare book shop owned by a blackmailer. After easily divining that the moll clerking at the shop wouldn’t know a first edition from a pair of nylons, Marlowe goes across the street to another bookstore, which just happens to be run by beautiful Dorothy Malone, who literally lets her hair down as she succumbs to the Bogart charisma; as the rain falls, they have a drink, close the shop, and pull down the shade on the front door—just in case anyone might think even for a second that the bespectacled bookworm was for real.

A Thing of Wonder

Bogart’s transformation on film is a thing of wonder. In the quirky prison movie Up the River (1930), he’s slightly built, borderline effeminate, with a weak voice, a bit funny-looking, sweet but sappy, a circa-1930s nerd who at one point actually “goes home to mama.” He’s a step above the worst of the hapless leading men of the early talkies only because he delivers his lines with relative ease and lacks the usual pretty-boy good looks. If you told movie executives coming out of a showing of Up the River that the little guy with the laughable first name would one day be an international icon, the ultimate existential movie hero, the tough-guy incarnate voted “the greatest male screen legend” by the American Film Institute, you’d be met with incredulous laughter.

A mere six years after Up the River, that same clean-cut lad with the unfortunate first name is back on the screen as a tightly wound piece of pure menace named Duke Mantee. Unshaven, with eyes in which no light shines, haunted, harrowed, relentless, talking in a demented monotone, he doesn’t merely act the part, he’s apparently possessed by it, locked into it, you might even say straitjacketed in it. This may have been, as is generally accepted, his “breakthrough role,” but the killer who seems to be turning to stone before your eyes in The Petrified Forest is not the Bogart who lives on for generations of filmgoers. At his best, he’s the opposite of petrified. In The Maltese Falcon his Sam Spade is a study in tics and grimaces. Watch the way he’s always tugging at his ear as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. In The African Queen (1951), his Academy-Awardwinning performance is full of humor, character, and sheer physical energy; even his stomach gets into the act by growling at an inopportune moment.

The Gift of Bogart

The most obvious thing the star and Christmas have in common is the fact that in the season of giving, Bogart is a gift, as can be seen in any one of the performances that made him a legend. If you weren’t at last summer’s packed-house showing of Casablanca at Princeton’s Garden Theatre, you can always check out DVDs from the library or try TCM On Demand, or for immediate gratifictation, you can find clips of Bogie in action on YouTube. And of course you can always find him where I found A Lady Takes a Chance, in the bins at the Princeton Record Exchange.