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Merry Christmas, one and all
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Today I’m going to tell you a story from Christmas over 120 years ago. That was the birth of Humphrey Bogart.
He entered the world in New York on Christmas Day in 1899 (a date later adjusted by studio press releases, to nudge it into the twentieth century). His parents were wealthy, of Patroon ancestry, and he was sent to prep schools. His background was the opposite of the streetwise toughs he would later portray on screen. In a New York of extremes, he was of the haves. A childhood of nannies and toys awaited.
On that December 25, the newspapers carried reports of the campaign in the Philippines (American military rule wasn’t going easily; General Otis’ weekly death report of soldiers killed was included). The Boer War was raging too. Relevant for our story, the news also included Judge De Haven’s district court decree that minors over 18 (so boys 18-20) could join the navy without a parent’s permission.
Bogart’s parents hoped he would go to Yale. When he flunked out of high school, he instead joined the navy (as an enlisted man, not an officer). I’ve always associated him with the Second World War (thanks to Casablanca), but his military service was in the First.
After the war, he moved into theatrical work (both on and offstage) and various other jobs. He wasn’t highly rated as an actor in New York, judging by reviews at the time. But he joined the throngs of actors heading west to Hollywood by the 30s. He got a studio contract and supporting roles over the next decade.
The old studio contract system is often decried as being exploitative, and indeed the big stars whose court cases led to its downfall were better off as free agents. But for up-and-comers (and indeed, actors destined to always be bit players), a guaranteed weekly salary was a much better deal than scratching it with various other jobs between auditions, which is what most actors face now. Indeed, a Humphrey Bogart today probably wouldn’t make it. He couldn’t afford to spend over a decade chasing the occasional role, for which he might be paid scale, and would have abandoned the enterprise before stardom struck (Bogart’s family lost their money during the Depression, and his father died in debt).
Indeed some of the culture of nepotism that has arisen in Hollywood in the decades since is due to this higher barrier to entry: no outsiders are being discovered by a studio scout while sitting at a soda fountain.
But Bogart was able to stick it out and work for years, before becoming a star. He spent the 1930s appearing in dozens of movies (many forgettable), as well as keeping up with stage work in New York. His acting improved, the notices got better, even as he disliked being typecast as a gangster. When top billing finally came his way, he was ready.
He wasn’t very tall, or all that handsome, and yet he made it work as a leading man. You see him now, on endless “Hollywood” themed murals, in diners, on posters, often next to Marilyn Monroe with her skirt flying and James Dean in a leather jacket. For Bogart it’s always the fedora and trenchcoat, the costume as recognisable as his face (or indeed any particular role).
He was older than a lot of the stars he worked with (notoriously 25 years older than Lauren Bacall who would become his fourth wife), because he only hit the big time as a star in his forties. (In Sabrina, he played the love interest to Audrey Hepburn, who was 30 years his junior). When he picked up the trophy for The African Queen, Bogart was the last Best Actor Oscar winner born in the nineteenth century. He got away with it because he was one of those people who seemed to have been born middle-aged. He played 35-50 for his whole career.
But he was born on Christmas, in a world before radio broadcasts, before the Wright Brothers took off, before Henry Ford even started making cars. In a New York City that was changing fast, but in a family linked to the earliest days of New Netherland. He represented the twentieth century in his stardom, but connects us to an earlier world.
Best wishes to you and yours if you celebrate.