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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Kellow Fiorini

Bogart - Before he was Bogey Pt 1

Updated: May 23, 2022

A young Bogart arrives in Hollywood circa 1930.

Humphrey Bogart wasn’t always “Bogey.” His journey to legendary superstar was longer and bumpier than most people know. While he struggled in his early years as an actor, everything, including love, came together later in life — at about age 44. His screen persona was a mix of world weariness and tough guy that would, for a time, define American masculinity and be paid homage to by everyone from French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo to Woody Allen and Peter Falk. But who was Bogart in the years before he became Bogey?

He was born into money on the Upper West Side of New York in 1899. His father was a surgeon and his mother a successful commercial illustrator who gave equal attention to her career and family — a concept that made her ahead of her time. Bogart was not overly close with his mother even though he took care of her after he was famous. At private boarding schools, he was an underachiever. In the 1920s he started working in theater becoming a stage manager and then an actor. Believe it or not, his first roles were as conventional pretty boys.

Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Fox in "Midnight," 1934.

His first film contract was with Fox Studios in 1930 for $400 per week. Fox didn’t really know what to do with him, and after a year they ended his contract. He went back and forth between New York and Hollywood for several years, working on Broadway until a studio would lure him back with the promise of a contract. He would make a few movies, nothing much would happen, and he’d return to New York vowing to never go back. He worked with stars like Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, but studios still couldn’t find roles that would make him a presence on screen and a star — which was the studio’s job. It either happened eventually, as it did for Myrna Loy and Carey Grant who both similarly struggled, or it didn’t.

Frank McHugh, Humphrey Bogart, and Joan Blondell in "Bullets or Ballots", 1936.

Things finally changed when Bogart was cast against type as a gangster in a play called “The Petrified Forest.” When Warner Brothers decided to do a film version of the play, Bogart’s co-star, Leslie Howard (Gone with The Wind), said he would only do the film if they let Bogart reprise his role too, and so Bogart was signed to a studio contract again.

Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart in "The Petrified Forest", 1936.

Warner Brothers was the studio of the working class. Their stars where guys like James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Edward G. Robinson, and their films spoke to first- or second-generation Americans. By this time Bogart was 37 years old and no longer a young, pretty boy, but he didn’t have a definable ethnicity and could be thought of as just American. Usually cast as the bad-guy heavy, even in quality movies like “The Roaring Twenties” with James Cagney or against type as the good guy horse trainer in “Dark Victory” with Bette Davis, he still wasn’t a standout on screen. It’s incredible to see him play a role like Igor in a bad horror movie, “The Return of Doctor X,” as late as 1939. Who would’ve thought the next two years would bring “They Drive by Night,” “High Sierra,” and “The Maltese Falcon?” Bogart’s philosophy was “just keep working.” He saved his money religiously and called his bank account his FU fund that would someday buy him freedom to tell Hollywood big shots to go to hell.

Bogart as the "Igor" character in the cheapie horror movie "The Return of Dr. X" 1939. At this point he'd been in Hollywood off and on for nine years and was turning 40, but his big break would come just two years later in 1941 with "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon."

In 1937, the insubordination of actor George Raft gave Bogart’s career its needed traction. Raft made a career of playing gangsters, even befriending actual gangsters like Bugsy Siegal and Meyer Lansky. Raft turned down a role in the movie “Dead End,” because it was rewritten to include a “crime doesn’t pay” message aimed at kids. Bogart got the part instead. Raft then turned down “High Sierra” because he was tired of playing “guys who got shot at the end.” Bogart, who wasn’t hung up on this plot point, once again took the part. This gave him the opportunity to make his gangster a romantic hero who dies tragically — an image he honed over the next few films until “Casablanca” when it was fully formed.

With Ida Lupino in High Sierra, 1941.

Bogart’s tough guys were seemingly non-committal outsiders, but when given something to care about, coolly rose to the challenge. A modern version of this persona could be Han Solo in “Star Wars.” This blend of “unsentimental masculinity” in the midst of World War II brought audiences a new American hero — and Bogey.

Next month: Bogart, Part II — When Bogey Met Bacall

Much of this writing is based on Karina Longworth's episode Bogey Before Bacall on her You Must Remember this Podcast. Listen to it here.


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