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“Nothing like Bacall has been seen on the screen since Garbo and Dietrich. This is one of the biggest and hottest attractions we have ever had. If this sounds like I’m overboard, well I am.” So gushed Warner Bros.’ publicity chief Charles Einfeld when he first saw a 19-year-old’s screen debut with an audience at a sneak preview of To Have and Have Not in the early summer of 1944. A star was born, in a way unique and now legendary to the Hollywood of that era, and she remained a star, the last of her kind, until her death on Tuesday at age 89.
Today, Lauren Bacall‘s entrance into film immortality would be accompanied by a stern warning from the surgeon general, so tied is it to the sultry glamour of smoking. In her first scene with Humphrey Bogart, he tosses her a box of matches so she can light a cigarette, ever so provocatively. What we have come to learn is that Bacall was so nervous on that first day that she was shaking, incapable of catching the box or cleanly striking the match until she found that she could mostly disguise her nerves by keeping her head tilted down, which only increased her allure.
Immeasurably aided by her director, Howard Hawks, who patiently shot take after take until her confidence grew, and by Bogart, who made light of it all and joked around with her, she got through it and ended up stealing the film. As Hawks had told Bogart at the outset, “You are about the most insolent man on the screen and I’m going to make the girl a little more insolent than you are.”
Nervous and insecure as she was, it’s an extraordinary testament to the strength and tenacity of the woman born 89 years ago as Betty Joan Perske that she could tangle with personalities as strong as Hawks and Bogart and come out on top with both of them. The teenager was in deep and treacherous waters during the making of To Have and Have Not, straits riven with male pride, lust, jealousy, possessiveness, love and anger, as well as considerable professional stakes.
In its most simplistic rendering, Bacall’s story is as classic a Hollywood fairytale as Louella or Hedda could have concocted themselves: Lovely young model and aspiring actress is discovered in a magazine photo by top Hollywood director, who casts her opposite the screen’s leading tough guy, who then woos, marries and has two children with her, a romance ending only with his death 13 years later.
What Bacall actually had to navigate was vastly more complicated. She was actually first noticed by Hawks’ wife Slim, a sharp and sophisticated fashion plate of the first order who sensed that the model she noticed in a Harper’s Bazaar photograph had “a bit of the panther about her.” The photo provoked interest from others as well, including David O. Selznick and Columbia Pictures, but Betty’s uncle Jack was familiar with Hawks’ films and recommended she accept his offer of a train trip from New York plus $50 per week until a screen test was made.
Hawks already had a reputation for noticing and enhancing the potential others had ignored in numerous actresses, including Louise Brooks, Carole Lombard, Frances Farmer and Rita Hayworth. But the director had always dreamed of discovering an unknown and creating a star from whole cloth, and Betty seemed to present real possibilities. Within an hour of arriving in Los Angeles, the emotional crosscurrents began, as Betty was taken to lunch by Hawks’ sharp and urbane business partner Charles Feldman and immediately developed a huge crush on him.
For her part, Slim made fast friends with the new arrival, no doubt partly as a preemptive move against her husband’s anticipated interests. Not that she really needed to worry; when Betty met Hawks for the first time at lunch at the Brown Derby, she found him imposing, inscrutable and terrifying, as well as mesmerizing in his boasts about what he had done for other actresses and what he would do for her.
His first instructions were to start exercising her voice to make it as low and strong as possible, which she did by driving up into the canyons off of Mulholland Drive to loudly project passages from The Robe to the coyotes. It was also Hawks who, after much consideration, came up with her new first name, Lauren. In the end, no matter how decisive a role Hawks played in her life, she simply didn’t find him appealing in “that way.”
Nor did the prospect of being paired opposite Bogart excite her personally; her dream had actually been to co-star opposite Hawks favorite Cary Grant, and her first encounter with Bogie, when Hawks took her on the set of Passage to Marseille to meet him, was uneventful. Then at the top of his stardom in the wake of Casablanca, Bogart was in the throes of marital misery with his third wife, Mayo Methot and, 25 years her senior, he was old enough to be Betty’s father. But nearly all the scenes shot during the first two weeks of filming To Have and Have Not involved the two of them, and the heat lightning between them was evident from the outset. As the film’s publicist, Mickey Seltzer, later recalled, “The electricity between them was not to be believed. It was so tangible you could feel it in the air. I knew something was going to come of it.”
And so it did, around the second or third week of shooting. The liaison had to be kept secret for numerous reasons, but when Hawks realized what was happening, he was livid, his ego and pride severely hurt. He called “his” discovery on the carpet at his home, dressed her down for her ungrateful behavior, threatened to sell her contract to the Poverty Row company Monogram and predicted that Bogie would dump her as soon as the shoot was over.
For her part, Bacall knew that Hawks “had quite a crush on me, but of course he was tangling with the wrong people because there was no way he was going to get anywhere, with Bogie and me involved. He wanted to be my Svengali.” In the end, she recalled, “He finally forgave me, but he couldn’t handle it.”
The need to keep her relationship with her co-star a secret was exacerbated by another pressure that weighed upon her; she felt she had to hide the fact that she was Jewish not only from Hawks, who occasionally dropped anti-Semitic remarks, but also, remarkably enough, from Feldman, the only Jew in Hawks’ inner circle but a man who, Betty had been warned by none other than his wife, Jean Howard, had a personal aversion to Jewish women.
No matter how emotionally burned by Bacall he felt, however, Hawks knew how to use the private sparks that were flying between his co-stars to the film’s advantage; the characters played by Bogart and Bacall called each other Steve and Slim, Mr. and Mrs. Hawks’ private names for each other, and it’s hard to think of another Hollywood production in which the sexual vibes between two stars are as palpable as they are in To Have and Have Not. In later years, glossing over any hurt feelings, Hawks would say, “Without Bogie’s help I couldn’t have done what I did with Bacall. Not many actors would sit around and wait while a girl steals a scene. But he fell in love with the girl and the girl with him, and that made it easy.”
The film was such a hit that an encore was quickly prepared, with Hawks and his illustrious writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman building up the female lead so that Bogart and Bacall could co-star again in an adaptation of Raymond Chandler‘s The Big Sleep, which also became a major success. Although many lingering tensions remained — Bogart was drinking heavily during the final months of his marriage to Methot, Bacall experienced a recurrence of severe nerves, and Hawks felt the need to upbraid both actors due to their erratic behavior, while pairing Betty with surprise dinner date Clark Gable at his home in hopes of distracting her from Bogie — Hawks managed to recapture much of the stars’s erotic energy in the new film. The pace of filming was relaxed, the mood often raucous, prompting a frustrated Jack Warner, who was barred from the set, to send down an immortal memo: “Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop.”
To the intermittent detriment of her own career, Betty Bacall turned down many roles after marrying Bogie in 1945, having two children with him, accompanying him on wild adventures during the far-flung shoots of John Huston‘s The African Queen and Beat the Devil, among others, and seeing him through to the end of his battle with cancer, in 1957.
I enjoyed her on Broadway a couple of times, in Cactus Flower and Applause, and while we had entirely cordial dealings on a handful of occasions, especially when she answered any and all questions I posed to her in connection with my biography of Howard Hawks, she was always intimidating, the suggestion persistently hanging in the air that the slightest affront or misstep could trigger a withering response.
That this steeliness and sense of self-protection was evident as early as her late teens, in time for her to deal successfully with men as shrewd and experienced as Hawks, Bogart, Feldman and others, has always been a source of wonder and admiration. Few so-called products of the dream factory, stars fabricated in name and nature to fulfill particular fantasies of the world public, have made it to the finish line of both public and private life so unchanged or undamaged, their personalities, psyches and egos so entirely intact. From beginning to end, she prevailed.
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