Last weekend Hurricane Irma clobbered Florida, and we offered by way of aural consolation a special edition of our Song of the Week dedicated to "Songs in the Keys of Florida". It included this 1980s hit by Bertie Higgins:
We had it all
Just like Bogie and Bacall
Starring in our own Late Late Show
Sailing away to Key Largo...
Which made me think maybe it's time for Key Largo as our Saturday-night movie date. And then I thought some more and decided that the Bogie/Bacall film I really liked from that neck of the woods, or seas, was set in another patch of Irma-devastated real estate. So we're going to do what Howard Hawks did when he bought the rights to Ernest Hemingway's original novel of To Have and Have Not: Hawks relocated the story from Key West to Martinique, and likewise we're swapping Key Largo for Martinique, where we have at least a couple of readers, whom I hope are holding up okay. And, if you're one of our Keys readers, well, Humphrey Bogart's fishing boat in this film retaines its Florida origins: the Queen Conch, registered in Key West.
It started as a dare. Howard Hawks bet Hemingway that he could make a picture of his worst book. Hemingway said: "What's my worst book?" Hawks answered: "That bunch of junk called To Have and Have Not." "I needed the money," pleaded Hemingway, before declaring that nobody could make a decent picture out of it. So Hawks called in various old hands to work on the script, including Hemingway's longtime novelist rival and now penniless loser William Faulkner. And by the time it opened in late 1944 Hemingway's story had turned into Casablanca sideways: This time not French North Africa but the French West Indies; not Claude Rains as the cynical Capitaine Renault, but Dan Seymour as the cynical Capitaine Renard; not Mr and Mrs Victor Laszlo as the famed Resistance figures who need to be spirited out of Casablanca, but M et Mme Paul de Bursac as the famed Resistance figures who need to be spirited out of Fort-de-France; not Rick's Café but the Marquis hotel, where sitting at the piano is not Sam but Cricket. And through it all there's Bogart, playing the world-weary politically indifferent American who remains studiously neutral before being forced to choose sides.
But, if we've seen all this a year before, one thing we hadn't seen was Lauren Bacall. To Have and Have Not was her screen debut, at the tender age of nineteen. Bogie, a quarter-century older, fell - and, as their on-screen chemistry was warmed by their off-, Howard Hawks bulked up her role. The names they call each other in the movie were Mr and Mrs Howard Hawks' names for each other - Steve and Slim. Which sounds sweet, until you learn that Hawks himself spent the shoot conducting an affair with the second-billed actress, Dolores Moran. Still, it was Slim Hawks who spotted a small picture of Lauren Bacall in Vogue, and brought the model to her husband's attention.
Hawks and his writers sketch the story very efficiently: We open with Bogart's world-weary etc Harry Morgan taking a stuffed-shirt play-fisherman, Mr Johnson, out on his boat. Walter Sande's portrayal of Johnson is one of the many small delights of the picture. They are accompanied by Eddie, an old rummy played by Walter Brennan who irritates everyone except Bogey by demanding incessantly to know, "Was you ever bit by a dead bee?" This scene tells us two things: First, like Rick in Casablanca, Harry Morgan is fiercely loyal. Second, he suffers fools, not gladly but because he needs the dough. Mr Johnson owes him $825 and promises to get it for him when the bank opens in the morning. For that reason, back at his hotel, Harry declines an offer to help out a couple of the Free French lads in their efforts to avoid the Vichy authorities. "I know where you stand and what your sympathies are," he says. "I don't want any part of it. They catch me fooling around with you fellers and my goose will be cooked."
Well, we've heard that song before. But more important is the brief exchange with a new arrival at the hotel, who looms with a cigarette in the doorway of Harry's room, and issues the men with an invitation to rise to the occasion: "Anybody got a match?"
Harry lobs a matchbox her way. She lights her cigarette and tosses the match insouciantly over her shoulder and into the corridor, all the while staring at him. Then she throws the box back. "Thanks."
And with that two-line scene Lauren Bacall enters the movies. Harry is intrigued by Slim. Later he watches the stranded girl lift Johnson's wallet in the lobby, and discovers the Richie Rich guy had the money all along, in travelers' checks, and was planning to fly out before the bank opens. Harry orders her to return the wallet, and Johnson asks where she got it. "I stole it," she says. Confronted by Harry, Johnson is about to sign over the travelers' checks, when French officialdom shows up, guns a-blazing. Capitaine Renard is suspicious at the sudden presence in town of the alluring Slim. "Why did you get off here?" he asks. "To buy a new hat," says Slim, coolly.
She says everything coolly, of course, most famously her instructions to Harry:
You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. 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? You just put your lips together ...and blow.
These lines are delivered, like all her other famous lines, in the doorway to Harry's hotel room, either as she's just leaving or just entering. Hawks told Bogart he was the most insolent star in movies, so he wanted to try something a little different and make the girl even more insolent - or "objectionable", as the Vichy cops call her. She's not yet twenty - it's an ingenue part, or ought to be - but something about the way the hair hangs over her face or the big eyes or the cigarette or the throaty voice reverses the expected balance of the roles. Bogey's like a kid, all boyish smiles, and she's the teacher. Slim initiates a kiss, again by the door. He returns it. "It's even better when you help," she says.
The plot chugs along after that. The Free French guys are holed up in some native hut, someone's gotta be picked up in some cove, someone else has to be sprung from Devil's Island, someone takes a bullet and there's no doctor and so Harry has to clean the wound... None of it matters very much. It's Bogey and Bacall's picture from the whistling on. It was supposed to be a thriller with a girl, but the girl stole the picture and made it not exactly a romance but an anticipation of a romance - hence all the doorway dithering; it's all foreplay, what Hawks called "three-cushion dialogue" - just stuff you bounce around for a bit not because it's important in and of itself but to communicate the pleasure the principals take in each other. And at some point, without you ever quite spotting it, it becomes a relationship and they're bantering like a Caribbean Nick and Nora Charles. Bogart is obliged to remove a fainted woman from the room, and arriving to find him carrying the slumped form Miss Bacall remarks, "What are you doing - trying to guess her weight?"
So it's an anticipation of a romance punctuated by some perfunctory Allons-enfants-de-la-patrie-la-jour-de-gloire stuff nobody's really invested in, and quite a bit of great music. That last is the one element where To Have and Have Not actually improves on Casablanca: The gal doesn't just tell the pianist to play it again, she gets up there and sings it with him. In lieu of Dooley Wilson as Sam, Hawks cast the songwriter Hoagy Carmichael as Cricket. Hoagy is the composer of inter alia "Stardust", "Georgia on My Mind", "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and "The Nearness of You". So he's way too good to be playing the ol' joanna in some fleabag joint in a rinky-dink colony run by Vichyist thugs. But Carmichael is such an eccentric and endearing character actor that it seems far more natural to find him in the lobby of Frenchie's Hotel Marquis in Fort-de-France than in the Stork Club. Hoagy sings his idiosyncratic "Hong Kong Blues", about "a very unfortunate colored man who got 'rrested down in old Hong Kong", which is obliquely appropriate to the situation, and with Miss Bacall performs "Am I Blue?" and a song written for the picture that never quite became a major standard, "How Little We Know". There's a persistent rumor that a young Andy Williams dubbed the teenage newcomer's singing voice. So I asked Andy about it back in the Eighties. He said, "No, that's Bacall singing." It's a creditable performance, too - although I regret that she chooses to speak rather than sing the line "As others have done". Other than that, she comes close to matching Hoagy in eccentric charm.
It is a remarkable film debut, and nothing after quite matched it. She wasn't Slim, and she didn't have that insolent ease. Hawks explained that, when feeding her lines, you could give her something "insolent" to say and she said it in a way that was sexy and made you like her - as opposed to writing her off as a vicious bitch. It was just an accidental discovery in rehearsal that made the character more interesting. But everyone ever after expected her to be cool, amused, and able to teach you how to whistle just like Slim did. Many years ago, I found myself sitting on a sofa between Miss Bacall and Ali McGraw. It was one of those nights: JFK Jr was there, and Anthony Newley. Down my end of the couch, Miss McGraw was rather delightful company, Miss Bacall not quite so much. I don't hold that against her: she had a reputation for prickliness, which I would have enjoyed witnessing (with my late Telegraph colleague Martyn Harris, she escalated very quickly to "Now listen, buster..."), and in fairness she had a lot to be prickly about - like doing a joint press conference with Nicole Kidman, and only getting one question directed her way. But that night she was bored - partly by me no doubt, partly by Miss McGraw perhaps, but mostly it seemed by the sheer tedium of having to be be Lauren Bacall. Life didn't seem to offer sufficient compensation for spending decades dragging around the sagging mantle of "silver-screen legend".
But oh, what an opening. After seeing Bacall in To Have And Have Not Marlene Dietrich fumed to Howard Hawks, "You sonofabitch. That was me 15 years ago." Which is true, as Hawks acknowledged. "That's right," he agreed. "And 15 years after Bacall did it we'll do it again with somebody else." I'm not sure it was ever that easy, and it's certainly gotten harder in the last 15 years. Look at the final scene, where Hoagy and the band strikes up, and she can't resist shimmying out of the joint, knowing every man's eyes are on her - in spite of, as the song says, how little they know.
~If you disagree with Mark's movie columns and you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to have at it in the comments. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. If you're in the mood for less visual storytelling on a Saturday night, Mark will be back later this evening with the sixteenth episode of our latest Tale for Our Time, Joseph Conrad's classic novel The Secret Agent.
For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here - and don't forget, for the Steyn fan among your friends and family, our new gift membership.
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: