books
October 28, 2011

Tough Without A Gun
The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart

by Stefan Kanfer - Alfred A, Knopf (2011)

Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers


One would have thought that into the second decade of the 21st century, Humphrey Bogart would have been gone, really gone. No longer emulated in characters on screen or mannerism imitated on stage, Bogart, it seems, had faded into Hollywood table-top anthologies, referenced as a quintessential cool, tough guy actor with the great fortune of having married the beauty Lauren Bacall when he was 45 and she 20.

But author Stefan Kanfer thinks different. Bogart lives on in an “extraordinary afterlife” that goes beyond the actor’s screen life, love life and masculinity, and into shared yearnings of a public to embrace someone with character, conviction and a denotative acceptance that one can only do the best one can when faced with the challenges in life. In doing so, those choices reflect something beyond the individual.

It’s an ambitious task to explain the appeal of Humphrey Bogart. Doing so, one had to get as close as possible to knowing the man. Difficult since Bogart died in 1957 and his contemporaries have followed in the years since. Bacall turned 87 in September and as one would expect said all she needed to say about her first husband in her book By Myself, which won a National Book Award in 1980 

Kanfer lists Bacall’s book as a primary source for Tough Without A Gun along with other books on Bogart, Bogart’s Hollywood peers, the Hollywood studio system, films and books on films. Herein lies the problem of Kanfer fulfilling his ambition with the book, a challenge he recognizes in the Acknowledgements section by writing:

“Humphrey Bogart has been gone for more than fifty years. Today the job of measuring his influence falls more to the social historian than to the interviewer.”

Seemingly, Kanfer gave it his best but from this reader’s point of view, Tough Without A Gun is more a biography redone than examination of a unique creative talent with an inner life camouflaged by rebellion, anger and sadness. Bogart inhabited the characters he played rather than the characters inhabiting him. That is why he always seemed to be Bogart no matter what character he played. For the most part that immersion and mirroring of the real and imagined in his roles gave weight to his art and drew audiences to him.

Depending upon whether one knows much of Bogart or not, Kanfer’s book illuminates or rehashes this actor’s life. His middle-class upbringing through the dynamics of a distant but feminist-minded mother and accommodating physician father gave Humphrey comfort in his early years, later diminishing as the marriage began to disintegrate.

Not attuned to the discipline of academic life, Bogart took to the Navy at the close of WWI. With the end of that conflict, he drifted toward theater and 1924 saw Bogart starting his professional acting career. As the Depression left actors hungry for work, Bogart headed west beginning his film career in 1930 with Fox. A few years later, Bogart became the property of Warner Bros. in a studio system that both rewarded and punished the actors under its control. Bogart waged an almost life-long battle against the Hollywood studio system.

For the most part Kanfer notes that Bogart acted in a lot of B movies and fell into leading roles with luck and unlikely circumstance of some great films beginning with The Petrified Forest in 1936. As Kanfer recounts the reasons behind Bogart’s rise, he includes the added tension brought on by his drinking, women and the Hollywood caste system. Against that backdrop, Kanfer reflects on what Bogart’s roles revealed in helping interpret the times, be it the Depression, World War II or growing emptiness and paranoia of changing America in the post-war period.

On one level the book is fascinating, on another a disappointment. The broad historical touchstones don’t adequately explain Bogart’s appeal, still evident on the Internet. Kanfer’s marking of time does, however, point to Bogart’s uncanny choice of roles, his superb acting skills and increasing worry of being cast aside because of age and an inability to secure meaningful roles.

Only in the last few chapters does Kanfer concentrate on the timelessness of Bogart’s appeal and how filmmaking has largely abandoned the world-weary character as a larger marker of a particular cultural time. The closest Kanfer gets to delineating Bogart’s ongoing appeal is by quoting Bacall.

“Bogart was ‘the only man I have ever known who truly and completely belonged to himself. His convictions about life, work and people were so strong they were unshakable. Nothing — no one — could make him lower his standards, lessen his character.’ He possessed ‘the greatest gifts a man could have: respect for himself, for his craft,’ and ‘integrity about life as well as work.’”

Audiences recognized all what Bacall relates in the roles Bogart played, be it Roy Earle in High Sierra, Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Frank McCloud in Key Largo or Charlie Allnut in The African Queen.

Bogart brought his character to the screen in addition to the character he played. That is the essence of his appeal and as long as his films are seen, it will remain so, especially in this time of spin, propaganda and the suffocating smallness of most public figures.

As good at Tough Without A Gun is, it’s incomplete in contrasting Bogart's rock-hard integrity with the mushiness of the modern world.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publsher_editekc@kcactive.com.