Now don’t get sore, shweetheart. When my friend DP brought the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival to my attention a few years ago, it was a “someday” thing. Somehow and someway, someday became October 18 to October 22, 2017, at the Playa Largo in Key Largo, Florida. DP and I each shelled out $500 for the all-inclusive Bogart Pass plus more smackeroos for the related hotel resort and the airfare from California. A week later, Hurricane Irma “destroyed” the Florida Keys. A day later, DP texted me, “I will bet you a very nice restaurant dinner that the festival isn’t happening that year.”
I should have taken that bet. A fortnight later, our BFF (you know, Bogart Film Festival) emailed to say: it’s on like Donkey Kong, muthaf-ers. Or words to that effect, filled with encomiums to the resilience of the Keys and their people. Turned out that Playa Largo hadn’t really sustained damage beyond uprooted trees. And wifey liked the idea of a tropical vacation. Not so much the constant moviegoing. So the three of us “sailed away to Key Largo” (to quote the Bertie Higgins song; we didn’t sail), but only DP and I attended the festival, which included presentations of memorabilia and panel conversations with children of the stars of Casablanca.
Wifey may have had a point. There was something decidedly odd about repeatedly jumping from air-conditioned 1940s-film screening to 85-degree tropical paradise and back again. Odd and…wonderful? I may have scratched a lifetime itch, or it’s possible I was working my way to this festival experience my whole life. Typing this, I have that weird feeling you get when you finish a lifelong goal…now what?
By the standard of under $300 a night, the Playa Largo is a fine resort. I loved our large lanai and its view of the Gulf of Mexico, whose clouds can change the water from deep blue to emerald green like flipping a light switch. The pool and 24-hour hot tub and hammocks and swim rentals were all top-notch. Among other things, I found out you can’t ordinarily deep dive off of Key Largo. But we can deep dive here, and ask: what the heck does it mean to watch ten Humphrey Bogart movies in four days in 2017?
(Minor spoilers follow. All of these films are at least 63 years old.)
Well, the first movie we watched was The African Queen (1951) on a tarpaulin screen on a beach. That aspect was amazing. The smell of salt water, the sound of the lapping waves, the peripheral sight of the stars coming out, the feeling as the wind rippled the screen…probably enhanced because the film is set in the Congo.
Anyone ever notice that Bogart’s two most famous films are set in Africa and feature zero Africans? Other than that tiny problem, The African Queen is hard to fault. No, it’s not the first time we’ve seen a working-class earthy guy meet an uptight schoolmarm and watched as lessons and romance emerge. But we return to that formula because it’s aces, and director John Huston keeps things moving with such pace and variety that you barely notice any clichés.
My film purist friends may be wondering: did we actually watch projected celluloid film on…a beach? With sand in the sprocket holes? It is with heavy heart that I must report that the answer is no. It is with even heavier heart that I must report that the five-day festival featured exactly NO films on, uh, FILM. Every film we watched was on DVD. I confronted a festival organizer about this. Of course it was about money, and also obscure exhibition rules by the studios. I pointed out that every other film festival in America has, you know, celluloid film, but I should have been less snobby: even teenagers going to horror films on Halloween in 2017 have an expectation of film being projected. I dealt with it, but not before telling the organizer that going to a film festival without film is like going to a coffee plantation without coffee.
DVDs are no guarantee of quality or even the most authoritative (think: “director’s cut!”) version of a film. I was reminded of this the hard way with the next film we saw, Beat the Devil (1953), directed by Huston with a script by him and Truman Capote. I had never seen it, and I learned why…after I asked the same festival organizer WhaHoppen. (Oh, he fell in love with me, all right.) The DVD was the only one Santana Films ever got the rights to, and the only one that Bogart’s son was in turn empowered to exhibit. The original financier, an Italian studio called Romulus, might have some longer copy sitting around, or someone might have preserved one they once sent somewhere, or all versions have been lost except the one we saw. I hope 1953 audiences saw more than we did for their sake, because almost every scene ends in medias res, on a line of dialogue that in no way concludes the scene, as if the movie had to be trimmed to a 90-minute running time. The picture is a mish-mash of an awkward love quadrangle meshed with a cautionary tale about colonists trying to find uranium in Africa. It never gels, and the ending is particularly forced and weird, as though George Lucas, while Luke is attacking the Death Star, decided to end Star Wars with a sudden and final title card. At one point Stephen Bogart told us that his father was proudest of his relationship with John Huston, so it’s a shame to see that one of their joint projects has been passed down to us in such disarray. (Or maybe it was always a mess, but knowing Huston, I doubt it.)
Speaking of disarray, I wish I had been a little more organized when I booked my hotel, airfare, and festival pass. I told DP that renting a car was foolish and unnecessary when our sandy feet could hop between silver screen and tropical beach for four days. Well…putting aside the cost of Lyfts from Miami International Airport to Key Largo and back, there was also the small matter of the festival theater venue being miles from the hotel in a town called Tavernier. I told DP that we could stroll down the beach, not knowing a) the Keys aren’t known for strollable beaches, b) the venue was six miles from the hotel. We did actually consider taking the hotel’s beach-cruiser wide-load-seat bikes back and forth (we saw people doing that), but DP said: “thirty minutes of sweating in eighty-five degree heat each way?” So yeah, we wound up taking a lotttttttta Lyfts. And that was, uh, not cheap, but worthwhile to learn from so many locals about their Hurricane Irma experiences. And never let it said there are no mountains in Florida. Everywhere we went, we saw mountains of debris piled higher than cars.
The next picture we watched was Passage to Marseille (1944), which had so many flashbacks within flashbacks that at one point I whispered to DP, “I hear in the next scene, Ellen Page jumps off DiCaprio’s apartment building and the kick takes us up all the levels.” This is a France-glorifying war picture that stars a bunch of Frenchmen…played by Americans and Brits who don’t even bother with Pepe-Le-Pew-level French accents. As lead Frenchie, Bogart’s character is so repeatedly revered (“He is the one man who can stop the Nazis”) that you almost wonder if real-life Bogie had been jealous of the way Victor Laszlo was described in the previous year’s Casablanca. Obviously, Passage to Marseille is no Casablanca (what is?), but it was fine for what it was…although (minor spoiler alert) DP complained of false advertising when the picture ended without us ever having seen Marseille.
That day, Thursday, featured a 5:30 trivia contest and costume contest. Tragically, these were not combined. For the trivia contest, they handed out cards with T on one side and F on the other, and I thought: True-False? Too easy! Then a bald man took the stage mic and started saying things like “My father was a golfer” and “I was born in Los Angeles.” The hell? I realized later that that man was Stephen Humphrey Bogart, son of the famous Bogart. I couldn’t tell if he was saying he was Bogie or what, but even if I had known him, I’m terrible at celebrity trivia. Ask me how many movies he made with Lauren Bacall, or what happens to Fred C. Dobbs at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre…well, they asked, but by then I was eliminated. Eventually, a woman won who hellllla deserved it.
I had considered bringing a white tux to Key Largo, but 1. I didn’t want to make my school’s costume contest fit me. 2. I didn’t want to burden myself with checking a bag. (Little did I know that United and American now make Economy passengers check anything larger than a purse; learned that the hard way on this trip.) 3. Figuring that the festival is flush with Florida retirees, I didn’t expect there to be all that many costumes. Before the afternoon of the contest, DP and I speculated that the over/under was 18 (out of more than 200 attendees). It was a spectacular speculation, because the number was close, and gave us something to argue about the whole time. When Bogart called people to the stage for the contest, some came wearing nothing more appropriate than a 1920s flapper hat (?!?!), and the crowd, tasked to applaud their favorites, knew when to be tepid. The winners: Mrs. Archer from Maltese Falcon, Sabrina from Sabrina, Ferrari from Casablanca, and Vincent Parry (Bogie’s character) in surgical bandages from Dark Passage. Loved all the winners.
The next film was Key Largo on the beach at Key Largo introduced by Stephen Bogart, only son of Bogart and Bacall. I suppose I can admit that we were now pretty much living in that Bertie Higgins song. In case you don’t know, the movie is about America’s leading washed-up gangster trying to benefit from a hurricane that hits the Keys…if only that could somehow be relevant to Trump and Irma. (Ba-dum-ching!) Bogart even delivers some strong dialogue about the value of military service. Probably Key Largo isn’t a perfect film, but from the minute Edward G. Robinson appears on screen, the film has a rumble and brumble that never crumbles. These days, a face-off between two stars like Bogart and Robinson would almost have to end in some kind of epic brawl, but director John Huston wisely keeps the focus on their wits until just before a quick exchange of gunshots at the end. It’s a potboiler, but you can’t stop watching those tiny bubbles.
At some point, DP and I realized that attending official festival events wasn’t going to get us anywhere near a) the “Largo Hotel” as seen in Key Largo and b) The African Queen boat as seen in…something. The next day, we awoke at some ungodly hour to hire a Lyft to tour us around for an hour. This is trickier than it sounds, because of arcane Lyft rules about stopping and starting. I was interested in all the missing signs, in every pile of rubble. One driver told us that Miami people, rather than pay to dump their trash in Miami, drive it down to Key Largo to leave it in one of the to-be-mulch piles. We were frequently told that Key Largo survived the storm quite well compared to the lower Keys, which (according to Lyft drivers) still look like a bomb hit them.
Fans of the film The African Queen know its namesake boat is durable AF, and yep, we saw the officially licensed artifact sitting unscathed in drydock around 9am, perfect for surreptitious selfies. Had we waited until 10am, we might have been forced to wait for it to return from a tour or (gasp) pay for a tour ourselves (shudder). The visit to the Key Largo hotel was a big fat zero. Nothing looked recognizable from the film (which was mostly, but not entirely, shot outside Key Largo), not even the sugar shack on the water. We came, we saw, we took pics, we got more out of the drive-thru Starbucks on the way back (its lady-logo had been blown off).
We returned just in time for that day’s big event, Illeana Douglas’s Q&A with Stephen Bogart. I always liked Douglas in movies, now I like her even more on movies, as in her TCM show “Trailblazing Women.” Bogart is a true mensch. He didn’t need to start the conversation by saying that he hoped that the Harvey Weinstein revelations could result in long-needed changes in the industry. He just did it. He was perspicacious and unpretentious about news, Hollywood, and his place in the world as the only son of, well, two undisputed members of Hollywood royalty. Douglas and Bogart together had obvious, unforced comity and mutual respect.
But…they left out something. After Douglas opened up to audience questions, I said something like:
“Mr. Bogart, what your parents did during the time of the blacklist was amazing and I think still under-appreciated. They weren’t alone, but very, very few stars of their caliber were willing to stand with the accused writers, stand up to the government witch-hunters, stand up for freedom of expression…I guess I’m wondering, is there any star today whose advocacy compares to what your parents did then?”
Bogart waved his hand deferentially to Douglas, as though to say “she’s the expert.” Douglas talked about the HUAC days, and Bogart said, “Yeah, in terms of today, it’s hard to say…the internet and social media has kind of ruined everything, hasn’t it?” Everyone laughed and we moved on. My sycophancy paid off!
Our first movie of the day was Sabrina. Compared to the 90s remake starring Harrison Ford (!), DP and wifey aren’t wild about the Bogart picture, and I’m not Wilder. Billy Wilder fascinates me, because sometimes he’s making two of noir’s masterpieces with Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, sometimes he’s directing two of Hollywood history’s most delightful, messy, human comedies back to back with Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, and sometimes he’s making…Sabrina. It’s not bad, but it’s…very much about glamour and ballroom dancing at mansions and designer clothes on tennis courts and convertibles and 65th-floor offices. Sabrina feels like a throwback to the 1930s chamber comedies of Wilder’s mentor Lubitsch, perhaps a bit like Ninotchka (1939) (which Lubitsch directed from Wilder’s script), which is, you know, okay, but in 1954…why? Bogart being double Audrey Hepburn’s age doesn’t help the feeling of the picture seeming to be past its sell-by date, or production-designed for a “Vogue” spread. That said, thanks to Wilder’s pacing, it’s never unwatchable, as parts of Beat the Devil are. If The African Queen was about a scruffy man and an uptight woman, Sabrina reverses the genders even as it relies upon the familiar Casablanca third-act structure: which of these two men will she wind up crossing the Atlantic with? At a Bogart festival, perhaps Sabrina stands out for presenting Bogart on full cruise control, years after winning his Oscar, with nothing to prove and nothing to do but marinate in his full Bogie-osity. If he’d lived past 1957, there might have been dozens more movies like Sabrina. Or we might have been lucky and had more like The Caine Mutiny (1954).
One can always find fault with a festival’s choice of films – personally I’d hoped in vain for High Sierra (1940), Dark Passage (1947), or anything from the 1930s, back when Bogart was roughly tenth-billed in Bette Davis pictures and entered rooms in a white cardigan saying “Tennis anyone?” (Bogart stands as a shining example of how some were never meant to play the “juvenile” of theater casting, or to put it more simply, how some things get better with age.) One can always find fault with the scheduling of a festival – why so many opportunities to see We’re No Angels (1955) and so few to see The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)? I hated having to choose between The Caine Mutiny and In a Lonely Place (1950). But what prompted me to complain to that organizer (his love for me deepened further!) was the choice of screens within the multiplex venue. DP and I chose not to see at the multiplex what we’d later see, with free cocktails, at the Playa Largo, and this meant that we were shunted into tiny 80-seat venues for all of our multiplex shows. Sabrina wrapped up a little early, so I peeked into the theater showing Casablanca – only to see a glorious 300-seat theater, easily twice the size of the two tiny screens where we saw every film we saw in that town. The organizer explained that Warner Bros. and other studios have specifications for screen size, house size, and amount of screenings when they permit public screenings. I was like, even of DVDs?!
You might think that this being the fifth annual festival, certain kinks would have been worked out. Or you might think that the fifth means that by now, we’re down to people who don’t care. It wasn’t all retirees, as I’d expected, but DP and I, in our 40s, were some of the youngest people there. The festival attracted perhaps 250 paid guests, most of us wearing Hawaiian shirts, most of us schlubby, you know, like you’d see on a cruise. Probably everyone was a film geek of some kind, though it was hard to tell…except for this one guy who, when I was talking to DP about a Bugs Bunny cartoon featuring Bogey and Bacall, approached us with his phone playing the cartoon! Homeboy was a font of geeky information, and I love that. (Later, his question in the Stephen Bogart Q&A was about that same cartoon, called “Slick Hare,” and I later saw him on a hotel-lobby sit-down one-on-one with Illeana Douglas.) Being the fifth time they’ve done this festival, you have to wonder how often people can keep coming back for what’s basically the same experience. Right?
The next film we watched was The Caine Mutiny (1954), one of the first films I ever deeply analyzed for my masters degree in film. (I read the book and even traveled to the Academy to research the director’s and producer’s notes.) DP had never seen it, and I knew him to love Navy films from Top Gun to Crimson Tide, so I liked the thought of seeing him see it for the first time. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t hate it, but he felt he’d seen all of it done better in other places, including my favorite part, the courtroom scenes which obviously inspired A Few Good Men (1992). I still love seeing the WWII Navy in full color shot with wide lenses, but there’s no doubt that actors affect the long-term durability of a film, and The Caine Mutiny centralizes two zeroes, Van Johnson and Robert Francis. They’re so stiff it’s a wonder we don’t see the Navy use them as ballast. I love the performances here by Fred MacMurray and Jose Ferrer, but they’re not in the film hardly enough. In the context of seeing ten of Bogart’s films back-to-back (more or less), Bogart’s acting truly shines here. As Queeg he’s willing to make himself more unlikeable than, say, Cary Grant ever did, yet he’s hardly a simple villain; he may in fact be the moral backbone of the film, and for me, Bogart maintains that tension exquisitely. But hey, we can’t all love the same movies.
After Caine, we returned to the Playa Largo for another layabout. This was by far the most time I’d ever spent in Florida south of Orlando. My whole life, I’ve been a Hawaii snob as a supplement to being a California snob: if you’re in Cali and have to fly five hours either way, why would you choose the one without the mountains and Aloha attitude? Yet I found myself loving the tropical Florida Keys, dreaming on the notion that you could drive from Margaritaville to New York City. That evening we consumed seafood and tropical drinks, and they tasted…at least 90% as good as they do in Hawaii. That’s high praise, hoaloha.
I haven’t mentioned that every single festival film was preceded by a brief promotional video for the festival as well as an ad for Bogart’s Gin, Bogart’s Vodka, and Bogart’s Rum. Granted, these are the products that provide income for Bogart’s two kids, Stephen and Leslie. (They certainly don’t make residuals from their parents’ films.) Still, the ads were weird in context: aren’t we already here? And aren’t we already getting the drinks for free (well, included) at the evening screenings? But hey, whatever floats your officially licensed boat.
That evening, our complimentary cocktails serviced an outdoor screening of To Have and Have Not (1944), which is probably not one of Bogart’s five best films, but the screening made sense in context: it’s a Caribbean island picture (Martinique), Steve’s (Bogart’s) boat says “Key West, Florida” on it, it’s an adaptation of Hemingway’s novel and everyone knows Hemingway lived in the Keys (in the book, Steve shuttles between Key West and Cuba), and as Stephen Bogart said by way of introduction, “If it wasn’t for this film, I wouldn’t be here.” We reacted with rapturous laughter, since we all know that Bogart and Bacall met on this film, when she was 19 and he was 44 and married. (As Mark Harris tweeted two years ago, it would be like if Ben Affleck started dating Chloe Grace Moretz.) Stephen, who may have been named after Bogart’s character, said he digs watching his parents fall in love while watching, and yeah, that’s not an over-reading. Bacall’s character is called “Slim” after her real-life mentor, the wife of the film’s producer, so biography is all over this thing. Probably no screen adaptation of a Hemingway novel was quite so altered as this one, and it was indeed noticeably Casablancaized, with Bogart as the American ex-pat who supposedly won’t stick out his neck for anyone, but who winds up helping the French resistance anyway. This film makes the resistance leader’s wife a silly temptation so that censors can’t object to Bogart and the female lead (Bacall) boarding the plane together at the end. I’d say the whole film is pretty excellent, partly thanks to William Faulkner’s ear for arch dialogue, partly thanks to Howard Hawks’ timing, partly thanks to some songs, and largely thanks to the surprise chemistry of the leads.
The crowd didn’t spend a lot of time hooting and hollering (during any film), but we did give a wave of enthusiastic applause to “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” At one point Slim is named as being 22; DP mentioned that Bacall at 19 seems too wise to even be that young; he thought she should have been named as 25 or so. I see Bacall/Slim in the context of 1940s women onscreen like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and so many others, who were brassy, ballsy, and never dependent on men for validation. It makes perfect sense to me that in 1944 the right 19-year-old actress, or even 22-year-old regular person, could emulate these actresses down to their archest eyebrow. Maybe that’s what “to have and have not” really means: some people have it, some people haven’t.
Next day was our last one at the festival. At 10am, Illeana Douglas took the stage with Jessica Rains, the daughter of Claude Rains; Monica Henreid, the daughter of Paul Henreid; and Stephen Bogart. (Rains and Henreid had done separate events earlier; see, I didn’t tell you everything.) I thought Henreid said it best when she described Casablanca as her older brother, the one she could never live up to. The four panelists reviewed the basics that all the fans know: the film was just one more on Warner Bros.’ assembly line, Ingrid Bergman couldn’t wait to get off of it, it features only two American characters, the script was considerably altered from the obscure source play, the final scene (arguably cinema’s finest ten minutes, ever) was largely improvised on the fly, the film only became a hit because the war happened to hit Morocco in early 1943, et cetera. When someone asked Stephen if his father considered Casablanca his legacy or masterpiece, I liked that Stephen immediately said “I doubt it.” Bogart may have leaned toward Huston movies for the 14 short years he lived after Casablanca, but the truth is that the film, which was a hit and did win the Best Picture Oscar, helped his star image immeasurably, proving him a romantic lead and America’s leading representation of “I stick out my neck for nobody”-ness, the ultimate reluctant hero. Anyhoo, the panel was fun. I like hearing about their early lives. And so, when Douglas called on me, it went a little something like this:
“Wondering if you saw Feud, the recent TV-movie with Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford…”
Bogart: “Yeah, it was terrific.”
Me: “Oh, cool. Well, just wondering what you thought of that film’s take on the childhoods of classic-era stars, and more generally, if you think of films like Mommie Dearest and Postcards from the Edge, is there any film that us common people…”
(Laughter from the common people in the audience with me)
“…can watch that shines a light on your childhood experiences?”
Henreid said “None of the above.” Rains, who was spaced out for the whole festival, said, “What?” It doesn’t surprise me that the daughters of Henreid and Rains didn’t exactly grow up in a San Simeon-like party atmosphere – their dads weren’t stars, and probably were quite middle-class. Bogart didn’t answer, but that night he did tell me personally at dinner that he liked the question. (Score!) Bogart did apologize that he couldn’t get any of Ingrid Bergman’s kids to the festival. Eh, I’d say he did pretty well.
Our last day at the festival provided the best of our triple features. We started with Sahara (1943). Somehow I had never seen this widely esteemed war picture, and now I can’t imagine how it could have been done better. It’s one of those movies where a ragtag motley crew comes together to fight off a much bigger ragtag motley crew that wants to kill them. Brilliant use of the tank, the Islamic ruins, the water well, and the desert more generally. At a certain point a “Sudanese Brit” joins our heroes, and his accent is nothing but American, but this is forgiven because of the pleasure of having a black man fighting alongside the good guys. The film makes his race into a statement of purpose; a captured German doesn’t want the (presumably impure) black man touching him, and eventually this “Sudanese” kills said Nazi. I cheered. Another moment worth savoring occurs when this same captured German argues with a captured Italian over their future under Hitler and Mussolini. These are poignant words for a 1943 film, and I always wondered why more non-Italian films (of any period) didn’t and don’t do more with German-Italian tensions in World War II. I also like that the film didn’t tack on a needless heterosexual romance, presumably to cater to female viewers, as we saw with Passage to Marseille and The Caine Mutiny. Sahara’s lack of over-weening sentiment means you can focus your love on unsentimental Bogey. He doesn’t do more than he needs to, but sometimes that’s exactly what you want your hero to do. Who sounds like Bogart? Who can do his voice? Nobody, really, which is part of why you easily buy him as a platoon leader. It was easily the best film of the festival that I hadn’t already seen.
Can’t we just rent these films, you’re saying. Why pay $100 a day to see these films, you’re saying. To pay homage to the theatrical experience, I guess. At one moment, I wavered for a second, noticing that we could have easily snuck into the new Idris Elba-Kate Winslet picture. But come on, we’re here for Bogart, we’re here because of a love of (some) things that happened before we were born, we’re here for the only festival centered around one actor (uh, I think), we’re here because…yeah, I probably wouldn’t pay to do this again.
Final kvetch: it would have been nice to have had one person explaining the significance of Humphrey Bogart to film history, quoting Robert Sklar or whoever, saying something like “Bogart represented how America saw itself in the 1940s, a world-weary underdog that never started fights but always finished them.” I guess they had Leonard Maltin filling that role at previous festivals. I happen to know a guy who could do this for them named Daniel Smith-Rowsey, but he doesn’t come cheap.
Our final film at the multiplex was the sort of film that would benefit from a scholarly introduction, the noir masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946). By then Douglas had already told the notorious story of screenwriter Leigh Brackett (one of her show’s trailblazing women) stopping production while she called novel author Raymond Chandler to find out who killed a certain character. Chandler famously replied he had no idea, which remains kinda funny. The film may not entirely make sense, but somehow that might actually lend it gravitas; coming a year after an epoch-defining war, it may be about a world that doesn’t entirely make sense. Some scholar, I can’t recall who, described the film as a sort of commercial haunted house of noir, and that feels right; Bogart as Marlowe is walking you from room to room, scene to scene, with almost no repetition of location or dialogue. The amount of leggy women that turn up in these scenes just to flirt with Bogart make The Big Sleep a precursor to the Adam Sandler oeuvre. Nonetheless, this film remains one of the frequently cited reasons Howard Hawks is considered a great director of/for women, and that’s down to Bacall’s take-no-guff performance as well as a whole LOT of clever dialogue that Brackett may or may not have written. Read the imdb quotes page.
I remarked to DP that if they remade The Big Sleep, Marlowe’s initial stakes would be considerably raised; perhaps his apartment would be burned to the ground, or perhaps the (missing, maybe dead) Sean Regan would be Marlowe’s mentor or likewise. These days, you can’t have a detective (or superhero, or spy, or whatever) who isn’t on the verge of an existential crisis from the get-go. Plus, a modern Marlowe would have a comeuppance. Watching Bogart as Marlowe compared to, I don’t know, say Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, is both more and less: it’s less in-your-face intense, but it’s also more pleasurable in many ways. I love the scene where Marlowe is tied up and Vivian/Bacall takes the cigarette in and out of his mouth; without modern over-editing, Bogart’s smoking/talking looks as unforced as if he’d been doing it all his life. Maybe he had. (No, the throat cancer that killed Bogart wasn’t because of smoking; look it up.) And I don’t need a modern Marlowe stewing about his life choices; that would get in the way of the “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up”-ish snappy wisecracks. Sometimes, dark fiction can work for its light friction.
The Big Sleep was to be followed by The Big Dinner, but in the interregnum DP and I went to a souvenir shop called Shell World – wow does she ever sell seashells by the seashore! The place’s floor was the size of a football field, and they had Key Largo and Key West and Florida EVERYTHING – shirts, mugs, magnets, shot glasses, jewelry, KITSCH. The selection was so extensive that I almost looked for my kids’ names among the personalized mini-license plates…almost. (My kids’ names are way too uncommon for those things anywhere.) I never know what to buy. We owed our house-sitter above and beyond the four figures we were paying her, so I got her…uh, a green Key Largo shirt. By the way, during the trip, we called California way too often. I missed my kids and new dog very terribly. (Though I’m glad we didn’t bring them.) Why did we never see Bogart as a dad onscreen? Why can we only know about that through his real kids? Back in the 40s and 50s, stars didn’t have to play roles where they had to make it up to their family in the end, and maybe that’s a hidden source of our nostalgia for classic films.
I didn’t bring a white tux, but I managed to pack a collared shirt, khakis, and a nice pair of Florsheims, figuring that the final evening would be a tropically formal-ish affair. DP only had flip-flops. We arrived at the grand ballroom, and my instincts had paid off. Stephen Bogart was dressed pretty much exactly like me. Here’s looking at that kid.
I won’t say the evening went off without a hitch – the crowd was placed in queues for no reason at multiple times, and the bar started charging for drinks until a Bogart family member corrected them – but it was a great night. Bogart posed for pictures with schmucks like me (that’s when he told me he liked my question), giving me that degree of separation to, well, as good as Hollywood has ever been. Dinner was delicious. We got complimentary DVDs of The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, all autographed by Stephen and his only sister, Leslie, who was also in attendance. Drinks were flowing. Our table was raucous, and they all heartily approved when I snuck my wife in, after dinner, to watch the (semi-official) 75th anniversary of Casablanca.
Does it make any difference to watch Casablanca with three of the stars’ kids at a table nearby? Meh, probably not. Does it make any difference to watch it while drinking during every famous line? Uh…probably yes. Bucket list CHECK. I had always meant to do it, but never had quite so much complimentary gin, vodka, and rum at my disposal. Let’s just say that by the time of Rick’s “hill of beans” speech at the end…it’s a good thing DP and I weren’t flying Victor and Ilsa’s plane.
I used to avoid showing Casablanca in survey film-history classes, presuming that my students had seen it. Turns out they hadn’t (damn kids these days), and when I started showing it, they suddenly seemed a lot more receptive to my more general points about the quality and scope of classical-era Hollywood. I get that. I think modern audiences are happy because of the editing and camerawork (Mike Curtiz keeps the camera moving adroitly) as well as the relative diversity of the main cast (American, American, Czech, German, French, French Moroccan, Norwegian, Italian, plus two Bulgarians and whatever Ugarte is).
Bogart and Bergman are both estimable figures for many reasons (not least taste in scripts); in Casablanca they instantly communicate a certain apparent meaning (the rascally American, the idealistic European) but then considerably deepen and shade that meaning through their performances. The script is heavily reliant on having a woman so sublimely incandescent that you instantly understand why two accomplished men could never get over loving her. (Jack Warner had to beg David O. Selznick to loan him Bergman.) I love Lauren Bacall, and I mean that, but she couldn’t have convinced as Ilsa; her slyness would have scanned as duplicity. You don’t see Ilsa as slutty or, in turn, Rick as an objectionable drunk, and all credit is due to Bogart and Bergman for every day bringing magic to an assembly-line-like working set.
One other factor that always gets me is that song. At the panel, Henreid’s daughter unveiled an anecdote I had never heard: Max Steiner, who in 1942 was such a powerful and singular force in soundtrack music that his name appeared on stand-alone title cards on almost every festival film we saw, watched part of Casablanca and declared that the “Play it, Sam” song (no, not “Play it again, Sam,” nerds) had to be his new composition. One tiny problem was that the actors actually named the song onscreen, so Warners would have to reshoot scenes like the one where Bergman says “No one plays ‘As Time Goes By’ like Sam.” Yet Steiner got the reshoot scheduled, only to find that Bergman had walked off the set and chopped off all her hair in order to star in the movie she’d truly wanted to make, For Whom the Bell Tolls. If that story is true, I can only say: wow, bullet dodged.
I just don’t think the movie works as well if Sam’s song was any old thing by Steiner, or, say, “Ta Ta, Old Bean.” (For a fun adventure, google why I used that example.) There’s a reason Warner Bros., the most successful studio of the 2000s decade, uses the riff from that song every time the logo comes up, as though to say “From the studio that brought you Casablanca.” There’s a reason that house-published books have been called “You Must Remember This” (also a great podcast!), “A Kiss is Still a Kiss,” “The Fundamental Rules Apply,” and “As Time Goes By.” As Ilsa had suggested, the way Sam (Dooley Wilson) does “As Time Goes By” touches me and others in a very personal place, a place that believes in love and hope even, or especially, while the world insists on destroying both. And it’s somehow also about all the time we waste, the evanescence of moments, the importance of doing things for love. When Wilson sings “as time goes by” I hear both eternity and my own eyeblink of an existence, and I shudder.
Being at the festival made me feel lucky to be alive right now, because I truly believe that for as long as there are people watching movies, people will be watching Casablanca. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare died, and 325 years from now, someone will be looking at Casablanca. She might even be interested in the original, non-colorized, non-4-D version. The people on stage assured us and themselves of a tiny connection to immortality…as time goes by.