Before Humphrey Became Bogie

Humphrey Deforest Bogart models his new flippers.       

For that small number of gifted actors who become screen legends, the path to stardom is rarely predictable. Sometimes it’s a case of pure luck. Other times it’s achieved after years of honing their craft and screen persona through hard earned experience. And I can’t think of a better example of the latter than Humphrey Bogart who made twelve films (two of them short subjects, 1928′s The Dancing Town and 1930′s Broadway’s Like That) before his breakout supporting role as the vicious gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). The irony is that despite playing that same character on Broadway where he won unanimous critical acclaim, Warner Bros. wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role. If it hadn’t been for the film’s star, Leslie Howard, who played opposite Bogart on Broadway and demanded that he be cast in the film or he would quit, Bogart might not be as famous today.

Yet he obviously had genuine talent and a unique screen presence which you can see in his early films before casting directors or the studios knew what to do with him. Probably my favorite example of this is LOVE AFFAIR (1932) which I finally got around to watching after recording it off TCM last December when Bogart was the star of the month.

In what was his first leading role, Bogart plays Jim Leonard, an aspiring airplane engineer who is pursued by Carol Owen (Dorothy Mackaill), a vivacious socialite with a wild streak. Jim is an earnest, unpretentious working class hero with a personality that fluctuates between stolid and cheerful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile this much before in a movie – at least in the first half when he’s falling in love – and it’s a smile that’s open and innocent. Not the fixed, cynical grin or self-satisfied leer he would flash in his later films. He also displays character traits which would be unthinkable in later roles such as a distinct bashfulness. The scene where Jim is sitting at his kitchen table in a sleeveless undershirt and fooling with a model airplane is particularly memorable. Carol drops in on him unexpectedly and he is clearly embarrassed by his appearance and messy apartment and excuses himself to change. When he reemerges from the bathroom, he is dressed in a jacket, shirt and tie – for breakfast. There is also a tenderness in his love scenes with MacKaill (they have great screen chemistry) which reflects none of the confident sexual swagger of his flirtatious spurring with Lauren Bacall on screen. Clearly, it’s a requirement of the part he is playing – the young male ingenue or romantic leading man – which was essential for films like LOVE AFFAIR and others aimed at female audiences of its era.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA8OJDb_kB4]

But most of all, it’s amusing and fascinating to see him this young – with a full head of hair, a higher pitched voice and noticeable makeup that makes him appear a little less cadaverous than his mad scientist in The Return of Dr. X (1939). At the same time, some of Bogart’s iconic persona is already in place – that distinctive way of moving his arms when he walks; his gift for talking fast, enunciating each word clearly, when he’s agitated; his ability to convincingly shift from passive to aggressive in a heartbeat and an array of facial expressions (disdain, cockiness, self-amusement, defeat) that look forward to his more effectively realized performances of the ’40s. I also tend to forget that his unique way of speaking, marked by an immobile upper lip and a slight lisp, was not a personal affectation but caused by an accident though the details vary from source to source. Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia states that he was on board the Navy vessel Leviathan when he was injured by a shell that left him with scars and a partly paralyzed upper lip. Another account, submitted by reader Tom Kiley, claims that “Bogie’s lip was cut when he was escorting a prisoner to Portsmouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire.  He and his man changed trains at South Station in Boston and when the man asked Bogie for a light he hit him in the face with his manacled hands and tried to run away. Seaman Bogart unholstered his Colt .45 and shot the man as he tried to escape.  The doctor who stitched his lip wasn’t very good and that’s why he had the trademark lip/lisping thing.  He didn’t report to the Leviathan until AFTER the end of WW1…the shell splinter story is one of the many non-facts about him that still persist.”

LOVE AFFAIR was not a Warner Bros. production; it was made for Columbia Pictures during a period when Bogart had returned to Broadway and was about to give up on moviemaking altogether. Someone at Columbia had seen Bogart on the stage opposite Helen Hayes in After All in 1931, however, and the studio offered him a six month contract which only yielded this one film. While the movie is little more than a formulaic romantic drama on a B-budget, it is still an engaging minor entertainment.

LOVE AFFAIR begins as if it’s going to be a screwball comedy with Dorothy Mackaill playing Carol as a slightly less daffy socialite than the ones who drive the narratives of My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby. She hires Jim to take her up into the clouds in his two seater plane and he takes an almost sadistic pleasure in breaking her cool composure, performing daredevil spins and loops (the aviation footage is quite thrilling). In turn, she offers Jim a ride back to the city and proves to be a wild, reckless driver who likes speeding through stop signs at 70 mph. Just when it seems that LOVE AFFAIR is creating an early blueprint for Love Me If You Dare (Yann Samuell’s 2003 comedy fantasy in which Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet try to outdo each other in outrageous competitions), it transitions into a romantic drama with two storylines. The main one is the popular scenario of the bored, wealthy society girl who is attracted to the penniless but attractive suitor who holds the promise of true love among the rich playboys and sugar daddies in Carol’s life. The second storyline is less compelling but provides a negative flipside version of the Jim-Carol courtship. Jim’s sister, Linda (Astrid Allwyn), is an ambitious actress who has been led astray by crooked theatre producer Georgie Keeler (Bradley Page). He has convinced her to blackmail her lover Bruce Hardy (Hale Hamilton), a wealthy entrepreneur, in order to raise the money needed for a star vehicle produced by Keeler. At the same time, Hardy, who has been pursuing Carol for years, is pressuring her to marry him and the time may be right since she has lost all of her investments in the stock market.

The movie, directed by Thornton Freeland (Flying Down to Rio, 1933), follows these dual narratives in a predictable, unsurprising manner up to the point where they collide and Hale and Jim clash over both Carol and Linda’s blackmail scheme. LOVE AFFAIR then throws us a curve ball, culminating in one of the more bizarre and unlikely resolutions for a movie of this type. Carol, realizing that her own selfish, irresponsible behavior has ruined her chances at happiness, goes to the airport and rents a small plane for the day (this is the first time we realize she knows how to fly). Her intention is to kill herself and she leaves a suicide note with Gilligan (Jack Kennedy), Jim’s boss. Jim arrives in time to read Carol’s note and see her racing down the airstrip. What does he do? He runs after her and manages to jump on the tail of the plane as she increases her speed and achieves liftoff. Soaring into the sky, Carol is oblivious as Jim crawls up the back of the plane and eventually manages to squeeze himself into the cocktail with her. It might not be the conventional happily-ever-after finale to this 68 minute programmer but it’s certainly original.

At the time LOVE AFFAIR was made, the Production Code was not being heavily enforced yet so the film does reflect a looser attitude toward romantic and sexual relationships though it is rather benign compared to more risque fare such as Baby Face (1933) and Safe in Hell (1931); the latter also stars Dorothy MacKaill and is one of the more memorable performances of this often overlooked actress. According to AFI notes on LOVE AFFAIR, “…the Hays Office strongly urged that shots of “Carol Owen” crying in the mirror the morning after she sleeps with “Jim Leonard” be eliminated from the film in order to avoid enforcing the fact that she indeed did sleep with Jim; the scene remained in the film, however. The Hays Office also was against the portrayal of “Georgie Keeler” as a “pimp” who urges “Linda Lee” to have a sexual affair with Hardy so that she can use “Bruce Hardy’s” money to support Keeler’s theatrical career, and insisted that Hardy propose to Linda Lee early in the film, thus making his payment of $10,000 to her at the end of the film part of a “breach of promise” settlement, instead of the efforts of a man to buy off his mistress.”

When LOVE AFFAIR was released, it was a modest success but no boxoffice hit and it didn’t help advance Bogart’s career. In fact, his name didn’t even appear in the opening credits for his next movie, Big City Blues (1932), in which his part barely qualified for a cameo role. Bogart would have to wait several years before he got a shot at top billing again – Two Against the World in 1936 – but he wouldn’t become a major star until 1941 with the double whammy of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon.

LOVE AFFAIR, which is not currently available on DVD or any format, is certainly worth seeking out for any Bogie fan who wants to see a tentative, unpolished version of him. The potential is clearly there though it needs a lot of work but even in scenes when he isn’t at his best, it’s still a treat to watch a screen legend at an embryonic stage of development.

26 Responses Before Humphrey Became Bogie
Posted By Cool Bev : December 12, 2010 6:54 pm

I love the detail about the paralyzed lip. I’ve read that Robert Mitchum’s sleepy eyes are due to a boxing injury. That such accidents can have such effects.

Posted By Cool Bev : December 12, 2010 6:54 pm

I love the detail about the paralyzed lip. I’ve read that Robert Mitchum’s sleepy eyes are due to a boxing injury. That such accidents can have such effects.

Posted By Gemma Frances : December 13, 2010 3:48 pm

I have read a biography of Bogart. I think this was not covered. I’m glad to learn of this work. I believe the author spoke of these films as very forgettable. That sounds misleading.

Posted By Gemma Frances : December 13, 2010 3:48 pm

I have read a biography of Bogart. I think this was not covered. I’m glad to learn of this work. I believe the author spoke of these films as very forgettable. That sounds misleading.

Posted By morlockjeff : December 13, 2010 5:38 pm

Most Bogart biographers dismiss most of his early films (even Bogie would have been unkind) but any true fan of the actor should relish the opportunity to see his early work. It is in these early films that you can see him working out his later screen persona. It’s relevatory when you get a glimpse of the real Bogie and other times it’s fascinating to watch him try to fit a mold which isn’t made for such a idiosyncratic performer.

Posted By morlockjeff : December 13, 2010 5:38 pm

Most Bogart biographers dismiss most of his early films (even Bogie would have been unkind) but any true fan of the actor should relish the opportunity to see his early work. It is in these early films that you can see him working out his later screen persona. It’s relevatory when you get a glimpse of the real Bogie and other times it’s fascinating to watch him try to fit a mold which isn’t made for such a idiosyncratic performer.

Posted By Tom Kiley : December 14, 2010 12:48 pm

Bogie’s lip was cut when he was escorting a prisoner to Portsmouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire. He and his man changed trains at South Station in Boston and when the man asked Bogie for a light he hit him in the face with his manacled hands and tried to run away. Seaman Bogart unholstered his Colt .45 and shot the man as he tried to escape. The doctor who stitched his lip wasn’t very good and that’s why he had the trademark lip/lisping thing. He didn’t report to the Leviathan until AFTER the end of WW1. With respect, the shell splinter story is one of the many non-facts about him that still perisit.

Posted By Tom Kiley : December 14, 2010 12:48 pm

Bogie’s lip was cut when he was escorting a prisoner to Portsmouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire. He and his man changed trains at South Station in Boston and when the man asked Bogie for a light he hit him in the face with his manacled hands and tried to run away. Seaman Bogart unholstered his Colt .45 and shot the man as he tried to escape. The doctor who stitched his lip wasn’t very good and that’s why he had the trademark lip/lisping thing. He didn’t report to the Leviathan until AFTER the end of WW1. With respect, the shell splinter story is one of the many non-facts about him that still perisit.

Posted By morlockjeff : December 14, 2010 1:02 pm

Tom, thanks for pointing out that biographical information about Bogart’s damaged lip. What was your source (or sources) for that information? THE FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA is one source that repeats the rumored shell attack version.

Posted By morlockjeff : December 14, 2010 1:02 pm

Tom, thanks for pointing out that biographical information about Bogart’s damaged lip. What was your source (or sources) for that information? THE FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA is one source that repeats the rumored shell attack version.

Posted By Fairportfan : December 14, 2010 1:20 pm

Sorry – i think someone’s got the real world confused with the film “The last Detail”. If the story about the prisoner were true, i promise it would be a *lot* better known.

That sounds like something a studio PR man would come up with.

The most plausible story i’ve heard about the injury to his lip is that it was a shipboard incident, but that it involved a fall on deck that caused him to split the lip on either a signal lamp or a gun (i’ve heard both from different sources).

Posted By Fairportfan : December 14, 2010 1:20 pm

Sorry – i think someone’s got the real world confused with the film “The last Detail”. If the story about the prisoner were true, i promise it would be a *lot* better known.

That sounds like something a studio PR man would come up with.

The most plausible story i’ve heard about the injury to his lip is that it was a shipboard incident, but that it involved a fall on deck that caused him to split the lip on either a signal lamp or a gun (i’ve heard both from different sources).

Posted By Suzi : December 14, 2010 1:29 pm

I like the early Bogie movies. It’s interesting how he was “tested” in a variety of genres before his star image was solidified. Even when he was a bit miscast, he was always the most interesting actor to watch.

Posted By Suzi : December 14, 2010 1:29 pm

I like the early Bogie movies. It’s interesting how he was “tested” in a variety of genres before his star image was solidified. Even when he was a bit miscast, he was always the most interesting actor to watch.

Posted By Heidi : December 14, 2010 1:36 pm

Thank you for this post. Bogie is one of my favorites and I have not seen this. Will keep my eyes open for it and hope it comes to TCM in the future.

Posted By Heidi : December 14, 2010 1:36 pm

Thank you for this post. Bogie is one of my favorites and I have not seen this. Will keep my eyes open for it and hope it comes to TCM in the future.

Posted By chris : December 14, 2010 1:43 pm

Bogart’s lip injury was caused by a fall from a tree as a child. His father, a surgeon, repaired the laceration. All stories of it being a result of military service were fabricated by the studio, his agent, or Bogart himself.

Posted By chris : December 14, 2010 1:43 pm

Bogart’s lip injury was caused by a fall from a tree as a child. His father, a surgeon, repaired the laceration. All stories of it being a result of military service were fabricated by the studio, his agent, or Bogart himself.

Posted By morlockjeff : December 14, 2010 1:47 pm

Boy, the lip injury story gets curiousier and curiousier. Does anyone know the real story and have reliable sources to back it up?

Posted By morlockjeff : December 14, 2010 1:47 pm

Boy, the lip injury story gets curiousier and curiousier. Does anyone know the real story and have reliable sources to back it up?

Posted By Nellie : December 16, 2010 1:42 am

This is a very interesting website. I enjoyed reading the different stories about the lisp/lip injury. I wonder if he ever told Lauren Bacall the true story behind the scar. I have the video of “LOVE AFFAIR” and plan to watch it again soon. I remember the first time I saw it I could not get over Bogie’s voice, it seemed light and high pitched. I guess we can blame the years of smoking and drinking for the deep, rich voice we came to like and admire from the 1940s until 1957.

Posted By Nellie : December 16, 2010 1:42 am

This is a very interesting website. I enjoyed reading the different stories about the lisp/lip injury. I wonder if he ever told Lauren Bacall the true story behind the scar. I have the video of “LOVE AFFAIR” and plan to watch it again soon. I remember the first time I saw it I could not get over Bogie’s voice, it seemed light and high pitched. I guess we can blame the years of smoking and drinking for the deep, rich voice we came to like and admire from the 1940s until 1957.

Posted By errol23 : December 17, 2010 6:58 pm

Great column.

Posted By errol23 : December 17, 2010 6:58 pm

Great column.

Posted By Tom Kiley : December 17, 2010 7:58 pm

The biography of Bogart by Nathaniel Benchley is where I first read of the manacle in the face incident. But, like so many of this type of thing, the one real(if any)reason may never be known. I mean, can you name the ONE consistent reason why John Wayne never was in WW II ? These Hollywood tales build upon themselves over the years and becme apocryphal in and of themselves, it seems.

Posted By Tom Kiley : December 17, 2010 7:58 pm

The biography of Bogart by Nathaniel Benchley is where I first read of the manacle in the face incident. But, like so many of this type of thing, the one real(if any)reason may never be known. I mean, can you name the ONE consistent reason why John Wayne never was in WW II ? These Hollywood tales build upon themselves over the years and becme apocryphal in and of themselves, it seems.

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