Book review: Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart

Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart
By Stefan Kanfer
Published by: Borzoi Books, aka Alfred A. Knofp, Random House, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-27100-6
Review copy purchased by reviewer

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This has got to be one of the best books I ever read about one of my favorite celebrities! I’ve been a Bogie fan for as long as I can remember, and I’ve read a lot about him as an actor and a man, but nobody humanizes him as completely as Stefan Kanfer does. He goes into great detail about Bogie’s background and life—his socialite parents, the exclusive prep school that he dropped out of, his brief naval career and less than successful acting career on Broadway before he got his big break in the movies, his three failed marriages before he met Lauren Bacall—but he never gets boring, judgmental or moralistic. This Stefan Kanfer is a straight-shooter; he tells it like it was for one of America’s greatest male show business icons, and lets us be the ultimate judges on what kind of man Humphrey Bogart was.

The book includes black and white photos from Bogie’s past, showing us what a cute little Gerber baby he was, and how boyishly handsome in his naval uniform near the end of World War I, and in his ongoing ingénue roles on Broadway. By the way, his mother, Maud Humphrey, was a famous illustrator who specialized in kid’s picture books and labels for kid’s products, but contrary to popular belief, he was not the model for the original Gerber baby food label.

But he didn’t get his big break until he was in “The Petrified Forest”, which started as a play by Roger Sherwood in 1936. Thanks to Bogie, the play was such a big hit it was soon snapped up by Warner Brothers Studios, where he was able to reprise his role as Duke Mantee, an escaped convict who takes over a rundown diner in the Petrified Forest area of Northern Arizona, with a cross-section of citizens as hostages. Among them, a faded British intellectual and writer named Alan Squier, played by Leslie Howard.

After “The Petrified Forest”, there was nowhere to go but up. But it was a long, hard uphill climb. The Warner Brothers, Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack, four Polish refugees from Canada who ran their studio like a major corporation, with as little regard for their employees, knew they had a valuable asset in Bogart, but in their desire to typecast him as an action hero, they kept throwing silly scripts at him. Scripts that had more action in them than heroics, like the forgettable “Isle of Fury” (1936), where Bogie had to fight a fake octopus, like Bela Lugosi did in Ed Wood’s “Bride of The Monster” (1955). He also did “Bullets or Ballots” (1936), one of many gangster movies in which he co-starred with Edward G. Robinson, another big favorite at Warner Brothers. Incidentally, Robinson almost got the role of Duke Mantee in the movie version of “The Petrified Forest” instead of Bogie. If he hadn’t demanded more money and top billing over the then more popular Leslie Howard, that is.

In between battles with Sam and Jack Warner over scripts, Bogie battled with his brides as well. His first two wives, Helen Menken and Mary Philips, were also actresses and former co-stars on Broadway, who were more interested in their acting careers than in settling down. His third wife was a ball of fire named Mayo Methot, a hot-tempered, hard-drinking actress who was so jealous she was always accusing him of infidelity with his female co-stars. And she was usually wrong, until Bogie met Bacall.

This sweet, nineteen-year-old Jewish girl from Brooklyn, originally named Betty Joan Ann Perske, started out as a model until she caught the eye of Nancy “Slim” Hawks, wife of Howard Hawks, the famous director and producer, on the March 1943 cover of “Harper’s Bazaar”. Between them, the Hawks did a makeover on the young lady and cast her in a movie based on one of Ernest Hemingway’s least successful stories, “To Have and Have Not (1944), in which she co-starred with Bogie.

Talk about star-crossed lovers! It took him a while, but he fell for her like the proverbial ton of bricks. Mind you, he was forty-four years old at the time, and as pragmatic as they come. But he was also unhappily married to an alcoholic shrew, “A tough lady who would hit you with an ashtray, lamp, anything, as soon as not,” as Bacall admitted in her own biography, “Lauren Bacall: By Myself” (1978). Another long, hard uphill climb followed as Bogie fought to free himself of his boozy bride so he could be with Betty, or Baby, as he preferred to call her. (She always called him Bogie.) Eventually they got their happy ending, resulting in a happy marriage with two kids that ended only after Bogie’s death from esophageal cancer.

In between the happy times were hard times; good and bad movies, most of which they co-starred in, politics (he liked Ike, she liked Stevenson), the House Un-American Activities Committee, Bogie’s drinking, his constant defiance of authority, which got him in trouble with Warner Brothers as well as with the Commie-hunting Senator McCarthy, who equated dissent with treason. But through it all, Humphrey Bogart remained a man among men, the only real man in a business where good looks usually trumps talent. Take Justin Bieber—PLEASE!!!

To sum it up, the fundamental things apply when you want the straight dope on a straight-shooter like Humphrey Bogart. So buy this book and devour it from cover to cover; I guarantee you’ll be satisfied with Stefan Kanfer’s respectful, but not overly reverential treatment of Bogie. It’ll make you want to rent all of his movies and watch them with fresh eyes. Or, as the man himself said to Claude Rains at the conclusion of “Casablanca”: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”