Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers, and Huston: Revisiting Key Largo

largohustonOne of my courses this semester includes a section on an auteur—that fancy French word for master director. I let my students choose which director to study from a list that included a variety of filmmakers from different eras. To my great surprise and delight, they selected John Huston over more recent and more famous directors.

I began the section on Huston with Key Largo, a crime drama released in 1948. The film stars Huston favorite Humphrey Bogart as WWII veteran Frank McCloud, who visits the Key Largo home of one of the men from his unit. The young man had been killed in combat, and McCloud feels compelled to call on the man’s father and widow, Nora. Nora is played by Lauren Bacall, and the father is portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, who, by this point in his career, was forced to play his roles in a wheelchair because of the crippling effects of arthritis and two hip fractures. Barrymore’s character owns the Hotel Largo, which has been taken over by gangster Johnny Rocco, played with great flair by Edward G. Robinson. While Rocco and his gang wait for an associate, a hurricane hits the Florida Keys and confines all of them inside the Hotel Largo.



As usual when I watch a film familiar to me from previous viewings, I was drawn to details that I had not noticed before, particularly the references based on real-life events.  Frank tells the grieving father about the battle that took his son’s life, which occurred in San Pietro in the Italian campaign. During the war, Huston had directed the documentary The Battle of San Pietro for the U.S. Army, a frank account of the actual conflict. His cameramen had filmed alongside the soldiers as they fought their way toward San Pietro. (According to the new book, Five Came Back, at least some of the footage was staged. See comments section below.) Also, Huston dared to include close-ups of the dead soldiers’ faces as they were being placed into body bags, which disturbed the military brass. The Battle of San Pietro was shown to soldiers as part of their training, but its release to the general public was delayed, because of the frank portrayal of the soldiers’ plights. In an indirect way, Huston exposed the harsh conditions of the battle and its high cost anyway via the description given by Frank in Key Largo.



As the hurricane reaches a peak of fury, the gangsters reveal their fears and anxieties. Barrymore’s frail and disabled character, who cannot physically fight back against the mobsters, gets even by playing on their fears. He takes great delight in telling the story of a previous hurricane that destroyed part of the Florida Keys. Barrymore’s considerable vocal talents dramatize the story into a frightening experience for the gunsels, but the hurricane he was talking about was an actual event in Florida’s history. The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 was a category 5 storm that hit the Upper Keys on August 31. It blew through Matecumbe, Plantation, and Tavernier Keys with such ferocity that it permanently wiped out Matecumbe’s pineapple plantations and lime groves—a staple of their economy. The statistics for the hurricane are devastating: 200-250-mile winds; a 25-foot surge; 500 people killed. Most of the victims were WWI veterans building a highway through the Keys for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC had adopted a hurricane evacuation plan for the men in which a train from the mainland was to head for the Keys at the first hint of a severe storm. For reasons never divulged, the train did not leave Miami on time. It arrived in Matecumbe, where the workers were stationed, in the middle of the hurricane. The train had barely started back when it was derailed by the storm surge. Most of the workers were drowned, whipped to death by the wind, or crushed by debris. In 1932, these same vets had been part of the Bonus March on Washington D.C. in which 15,000 jobless veterans had traveled to D.C. to persuade Congress to pass a bill that would allow them a promised bonus early. Instead, President Herbert Hoover sent army troops to run the marchers’ out of their makeshift camp with bayonets and tear gas.  American soldiers thrusting bayonets at American veterans did not make good front-page copy for the sitting president. Franklin Roosevelt gave many of the vets jobs through the CCC to make up for Hoover’s p.r. nightmare. After the hurricane, an outraged Ernest Hemingway, who was among the first to visit the devastation, wrote a scathing article, denouncing the government for failing these veterans—twice. Roosevelt demanded an investigation, but if anything was uncovered, it was never revealed, and no one was held accountable.



The character of Johnny Rocco was based on Lucky Luciano. In the film, Rocco had been deported because he was a powerful mobster. He grew wealthy during Prohibition when America let legalities slip in order to continue drinking alcohol, and he became powerful enough to influence politicians until reformers rallied to deport him. Rocco was trying to stage a comeback to the rackets. Luciano had been imprisoned in 1937 for heading a massive prostitution ring, among other charges, though he continued to have influence on his faction of the mob from prison. During WWII, he made a deal with the U.S. government to relay useful scuttlebutt regarding German or Italian movements that might come drifting through the New York docks. (The mob controlled the docks.) In exchange, his sentence was commuted, but Luciano was deported in 1946. While his dealings with the military were secret, his deportation was still fresh enough in everyone’s mind to connect Rocco to Luciano.

Key Largo was the last film on Huston’s contract with Warner Bros. The film was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, which was purchased by Warner Bros. as a property for Bogart. The scenes based on actual events were added by Huston and Richard Brooks, his cowriter on the film. Huston did not like the play, and Brooks had to continually coax him into working on it during preproduction. The original play had starred Paul Muni as a disillusioned veteran of the Spanish Civil War who visits the Keys to see the family of a friend who had died in the war. There he tangles with a gambler and his associates who have taken over the hotel. Brooks updated the storyline to 1948 and borrowed from the Luciano legend to turn the gambler into a mobster, which appealed to Huston. Brooks wrote a great deal of the script, but Huston steered him by challenging him about character motivation, theme, and relevancy. He tweaked the script and added details that gave it distinction and color. In the scene in which Rocco whispers vulgarities into Nora’s ear, Brooks had rewritten the dialogue from the play without the obscenities because the Production Code would not have allowed them. Huston decided to cut the dialogue altogether; instead, he had Rocco whisper so that the audience could not hear anything. Nora’s reaction indicated just how disgusting his suggestions were.



Huston and Brooks stayed at the real Hotel Largo in Key Largo during the height of the summer while they were writing the script. It was the only hotel on that key at the time, and it was officially closed. The owner opened it for Brooks, Huston, and their wives. The weather was hot and humid, and the hotel had no air conditioning, which is why small Florida hotels were closed in the summer. One evening, Huston burst into Brooks’s room while he was taking a bath. Brooks was soaking in a tub with a fan blowing directly on him. When Huston saw this, he knew how he wanted to introduce Rocco to the audience. Originally, Rocco was supposed to descend the stairs, but Huston introduced him in a medium shot in a tub, smoking a huge cigar with the fan blowing. Then he tracked into a close-up of Rocco’s arrogant face—a great introduction to a character played by a bona fide movie star.

Feedback from my class about Key Largo, was positive; many noticed Huston and Brooks’s terrific dialogue and legendary Karl Freund’s subtle but effective camera movements. Bogart received a lot of comments from the students who were impressed with his acting and his star image. As my student Asia noted, he “communicates tons more emotion and conflict than is explicitly stated in the script.” One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to introduce young students to the unique joys of classic films; a special thanks to John Huston for making my job easier.

21 Responses Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers, and Huston: Revisiting Key Largo
Posted By Vienna : April 14, 2014 3:01 pm

I love the thought of young folk discovering films from the classic era.
Keep up the good work!
Key Largo , so well written and great cast.

Posted By LD : April 14, 2014 4:38 pm

Thank you Susan for this informative post about one of my favorite noirs. I knew Huston had served during WWII but had no idea he filmed a documentary on the Battle of San Pietro.

Until a couple of years ago, I lived on the coast of the Florida panhandle for almost a decade. June 1 is the opening day of hurricane season and a tradition of mine is to view KEY LARGO around then. Most Floridians have had experiences with hurricanes. Mine was being at ground zero in 2004 for “Ivan”. The 1935 hurricane related in the movie is legendary, as is the one that hit Galveston in 1900.

Except for the opening of the film along the Overseas Highway, or US1 (a trip I have made from Key West through the Keys), KEY LARGO was filmed on a set. This helps give the film it’s claustrophobic feel and noir quality. It also intensifies the helplessness Rocco and the other gangsters feel in the face of nature behaving badly in an alien environment. With the assistance of Barrymore and Bogart’s characters of course. When Bogart’s character suggests to Rocco he may want to shoot his gun at the storm to stop it, he reinforces that now Rocco is powerless.

A great supporting cast. Claire Trevor certainly earned her Oscar. Huston may have tricked her into singing “Moanin’ Low” but the effect was worth it.

The incorporation of the Native Americans, with an immediately recognizable Jay Silverheels, adds another aspect to the story. I wonder if this was in the original play because it is my understanding Huston made a lot of changes.

Now I am in the mood to watch KEY LARGO earlier than usual this year.

Posted By Joan : April 14, 2014 4:39 pm

Thanks for sharing the historical elements of Key Largo. My husband and I watch it frequently, along with The Petrified Forest, and continually pick up on nuances that had eluded us before. I’m a history buff so your contribution to this blog has really enhanced my appreciation of this movie. Thanks again.

Posted By Mark Mayerson : April 14, 2014 5:37 pm

If you read the new book, Five Came Back by Mark Harris, you will learn that Huston’s film The Battle of San Pietro was a re-enactment. Huston arrived in San Pietro after the battle was over and all the footage was staged.

Posted By Ben Martin : April 14, 2014 6:18 pm

I love that Lauren Bacall, whom to me never looked lovelier than in Key largo, gets to play a simple girl next door type – one conceivably who could have been played by, say, Donna Reed. I think this is only her fourth, maybe fifth movie, and could have been typecast as a sexy lounge singer type as she was in To Have and Have Not. ALSO i wonder if the film would have been made ten years earlier if Humphrey Bogart – in full Duke Mantee mode – might have played the gangster and another Warner’s contract player – say George Brent – might have taken on the Bogart role. Interesting to consider. (I say this because as a kid, watching Key Largo for the first time, I wondered why Bogart wasnt tougher with these mobsters. He’s even downright wimpy at times. I figured he had to be a mobster himself.) when i grew up and saw it again, i was grateful for the casting! a real gem.

Posted By Emgee : April 14, 2014 7:57 pm

Briliant movie, watch it once a year. The only scene that makes me cringe every time is when Bacall starts thumping Robinson’s chest like a petulant schoolgirl. A slap in the face would have been much more fitting and effective.

Thanks for a great informative piece; never knew the legendary Karl Freund lensed this.

Posted By robbushblog : April 14, 2014 8:28 pm

It’s been far too long since I last saw this. I must rectify that situation soon.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 15, 2014 1:21 am

Am so glad others are a fan of this movie. It is my favorite Bogart-Huston collaboration.

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 15, 2014 6:17 am

See Arthur Penn’s NIGHT MOVES for a more cynical and downbeat take on KEY LARGO’s ending…also ripped off by the Joe Don Baker classic, MITCHELL!

Posted By Marty : April 15, 2014 12:31 pm

Key Largo is a terrific picture from the medallion and Warner fanfare to the last image on the screen and the last note of end title music.
Bogart’s attention and concentration is riveted to Bacall through the entire picture. He believed that concentration was one of the actor’s sharpest tools.
But to me, Edward G. Robinson is the picture’s real star. HIs entrance…cigar smoke billowing over a newspaper whilest sitting in the bathtub…he lowers the newspaper and there he is.
And this picture is full of great Warner-style Eddie G. dialogue.
When Rocco talked people listened…what Rocco said went.
I thought you were a wise guy from WAY BACK!
You’d give your eye teeth to nab me wouldn’t you copper? Get your picture in the papers…well listen hick!
And of course, Claire Trevor was perfect as Gay Dawn. I also enjoyed their return pairing in Two Weeks In Another Town.
Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Gomez…always great.
And there is the Warner orchestra and the score by Steiner…melodramatic in spots, noble and uplifting in others.
If there was a Warner house style (and there was!) Key largo would be a perfect example.

It’s a favorite of mine and I try not to miss it.

Posted By Joel : April 15, 2014 3:44 pm

Enjoyed the article. “Key Largo” is right up there among my Bogart faves, though “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “In a Lonely Place” might rank above it.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 15, 2014 7:09 pm

Mark: Thanks for the info about Five Came Back. Our library just got the book in, and it was checked out before I could get my hands on it for this essay. I adjusted the post accordingly, though.

Posted By Steve Bliss : April 16, 2014 1:47 am

I never know whether to post responses here or on your Facebook page. Is it fair to post both places?

You know I love reading stuff you write about film. It is both enjoyable and rewarding for many reasons. As an academician, your attention to detail always goes well beyond the usual Photoplay fanzine stuff – tho I know you well enough to know that you would never denigrate Photoplay! Your obvious affection for your topics is what makes your pieces enjoyable to read, but your foundation of solid info is what makes reading them a rewarding experience.

Thanks for your great piece on Huston and KEY LARGO. I am second to no one in my admiration of that film. Has your Florida experience enhanced your appreciation of the film? It’s a fantastic film and a great Huston/Bogart vehicle, tho I will always consider TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE to be their masterpiece, and perhaps the most existential work of American art ever created.

But, like Johnny Rocco, I want more! Yeah, that’s what I want! More!

Posted By Steve Bliss : April 16, 2014 1:49 am

Hmmm, it says I posted that comment at 1:47 am. Wonder what time zone that is?

Posted By Susan Doll : April 16, 2014 2:09 am

Steve: Comments anywhere are always appreciated, though this format allows people to make longer comments. Thanks for the compliments; I truly do appreciate them. I always think no one is going to care about the topics I pick to write about. And, sometimes few do! But, who doesn’t like Key Largo?

Yeah, ever since the blog re-design last fall, the blog clock has been wrong.

Posted By robbushblog : April 16, 2014 1:24 pm

I think WordPress is somewhere in Greenland.

Posted By Parallax ViewThe View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of April 18 » Parallax View : April 18, 2014 4:35 pm

[…] Susan Doll notes the real-life echoes, from WWII battles to deported mobsters, gathering before the storm in Key Largo. […]

Posted By MedusaMorlock : April 20, 2014 2:53 pm

As a fairly recent Florida transplant (as you are) this is clearly required viewing and what a great backstory it had. I have not seen this in a long time but need to watch it again soon!

Wonderful article!

Posted By The Roundup: April 22 | The Frame : April 24, 2014 6:20 am

[…] Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers and Huston Revisiting Key Largo – Susan Doll looks at the making of Key Largo, one of my favorite John Huston films […]

Posted By » Movie Review – Key Largo: The Quiet Hero – Humphrey Bogart Fernby Films : July 20, 2014 5:32 am

[…] Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers, and Huston: Revisiting Key Largo […]

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