“You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve?” ~ Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not
Lauren Bacall was magnetic on the screen and she is one of my favorite actresses. She was born Betty Joan Perske in the urban reaches of New York City in 1924. Her parents divorced when she was around five and she never saw her father again. In her teens, she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and modeled part-time. When she landed the cover of Harpers Bazaar in 1943, Nancy Hawks showed it to her husband Howard who then invited her to a screen test, and thence ultimately signed her to play the lead in To Have and To Have Not. Thus began the legacy of Lauren’s sophisticated, sultry beauty as well as her natural acting abilities and range to play both comedic and dramatic roles.
In her film debut, she also discovered the love of her life, Humphrey Bogart. In her first memoir, Lauren Bacall By Myself, she recalls their love affair and subsequent marriage. They were soul mates whose time together was cut short by Bogart’s untimely death from cancer. The sections where she talks about his dying days will break your heart. The book has no chapters; it is a continuous outpouring of her being. The writing is lucid and intense especially wherever it it concerned with Bogie. I can still envision them enjoying dinner on TV trays, which was their favorite way to eat! She was to marry briefly again but it was to Bogart that her heart always remained true. And we learn in her second autobiography, Now, that she continues to judge all men by the standard set by Bogart.
In Now, she continues her story focusing more on motherhood discussing the two children borne with Bogart and one from her second marriage to Jason Robards, and to the craft of acting. She notes that “acting requires boldness”. In her third book, By Myself and Then Some, she retells much of her life’s story but includes additional details including more discussion of her friendships, and the pain of losing them when they pass away, including such notables as Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and others.
Bacall made her screen debut in To Have and Have Not (1945) when the real-life love affair between Bacall and Bogart began. In this exciting thriller, sultry Marie Browning (Bacall) convinces the weary Harry Morgan (Bogart) to help French Resistance fighters in 1940’s Martinique. The film is based on a book by Ernest Hemingway with the script written by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman. This is a film classic that should not be missed.
The Big Sleep (1946) is another great performance by Bacall and Bogart with their magnetic attraction once again capturing the screen. William Faulkner’s screenplay of a Raymond Chandler book is outstanding. Private detective Philip Marlow (Bogart) helps two wealthy sisters (played by Bacall and Martha Vickers) through a twisting plot of murders and blackmail. There are so many twists to this film that you need to pay very close attention or you’ll find yourself lost.
Edward G. Robinson plays the gangster who keeps a number of people hostage in a resort hotel on the Florida Keys during a hurricane in Key Largo (1948). Bacall plays Nora Temple, the daughter of the hotel owner. Her father is in a wheelchair and unable to take on the gangsters. Their only chance is if ex-GI Frank McCloud, played by Bogart, can save the day … but can Nora convince the war-rattled McCloud to find some more fight in him?
In Young Man with a Horn (1950), Kirk Douglas portrays a jazz musician obsessed with success but one who ultimately falls victim to his personal demons. Bacall plays a socialite that charms the jazz musician away from his first love played by Doris Day. The film should end tragically and the only flaw in this commanding film is that it doesn’t. There is an artificial ending that the Hollywood studios of this era deemed necessary to include. But don’t let that stop you from seeing this film! Then you’ll know how the film really ended.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) is one of my favorite films of all time. As my husband will attest, I watch this film at least a couple of times every year. Bacall plays Chotzi, the mastermind who realizes that if you want to marry a millionaire then they need to rent an apartment where millionaires live. She enlists two other friends, the visually-challenged Pola played by Marilyn Monroe and Loco played by Betty Grable. They rent an already furnished apartment but as time passes without snagging a husband, they begin to sell off the furniture to make the rent. Lots of funny twists and turns happen throughout this wonderful film, and ultimately, real love – and not love driven by dollar signs – wins out for all three friends. For me, Bacall always steals every scene and is absolutely brilliant as the smart and savvy Chotzi. This film also demonstrates the wonderful comedic talent of Marilyn Monroe that is unappreciated by her critics.
In Blood Alley (1955), Lauren Bacall helps rescue a merchant sea captain, played by John Wayne, who has been imprisoned by the Chinese for not being a communist. The adventure continues as Wayne must pull off the impossible by getting a Chinese village that is unhappy with the communists out of China along with the fiesty Bacall and himself.
Designing Women (1957) is a wonderful romantic comedy starring Bacall and Gregory Peck who fall in love and marry while on vacation. When they both arrive back in New York City, they realize how little they actually know about each other. Sports writer Peck loves poker and going to the fights, while fashion designer Bacall reads plays and socializes with her artist crowd. But the plot thickens as Peck’s former girlfriend starts working for Bacall and Peck finds himself on the run because of a hard-hitting article he wrote. The way the stories advances is unique and wonderfully told. Don’t miss it!
For all mystery fans, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is sure to please. Albert Finney plays Hercule Poirot along with an all-star cast including Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery. This is my favorite adaption of Agatha Christie’s brilliant story about the murder of American millionaire Widmark while aboard the Orient Express.
Bacall and Wayne team up again in The Shootist (1976) for Wayne’s last film where he plays a career gunfighter who hopes to live his last days peacefully when he learns he is dying of cancer. He boards in the home of a widow, played by Bacall, and ultimately befriends her and her son (played by Ron Howard). My husband, a lifelong Wayne afficionado, said that he watches this film only through teary eyes.
Bacall received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the selfish mother in The Mirror has Two Faces (1996) starring Jeff Bridges and Barbra Streisand. In this touching remake of the 1958 French film, Barbra plays a woman looking for love who falls for Jeff Bridges but complications ensue as the two professors get together for different reasons and with opposite expectations.
For class, sophistication, style, beauty, talent… Bacall has it all. I hope that you’ll enjoy these films, and her books, as much as I do.
“I think your whole life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that”
“It’s inappropriate and vulgar and absolutely unacceptable to use your private life to sell anything commercially”
“I hope Bogie knew how much I loved him, how much he meant to me, how I highly valued him. I’ve had another life since then, but he was my first love, and you never forget your first love.”
Ann Marie is the Library Director of the Oliver Wolcott Library and someone who finds that today’s cinema falls far short of the works produced in the Golden Era of Hollywood.