Bogart and Bacall – Goodbye and Hurry Back: Missed Opportunity

The latest in a series of biography plays written by Leonard Schwartz, Goodbye and Hurry Back is about the romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall that began in 1944 on the set of her first movie, To Have and Have Not, when she was 19 and he was 44. Although at the Arctic Playhouse, the resident home of Schwartz’s own Daydream Theater Company, this production is staged by EPIC Theatre Company, directed by Jennifer Rich and produced by Kevin Broccoli.

The play opens with Betty Joan Perske before she would be professionally renamed “Lauren Bacall” (Christine Pavao) traveling from New York City to Los Angeles on a train, accompanied by Earl Robinson (Mary Paolino) for a screen test with famous movie director Howard Hawks (Michael Daniels). (It’s not clear who Robinson is supposed to be, given that Bacall in her 1978 autobiography By Myself clearly and in detail describes taking that train journey alone.) Following a successful screen test, she is offered a part in Hawks’ project To Have and Have Not based extremely loosely on the Ernest Hemingway cobbled-together novel of the same name published in 1937, but which had been dribbling out in disconnected pieces since 1934. Bacall falls in love with her co-star Humphrey Bogart (Justin Pimentel) who is in a failing marriage to Mayo Methot (Hannah Lum); both Bogart and Methot were on their third marriages. Bacall becomes Bogart’s fourth wife a few days after his divorce from Methot becomes final, they have a couple of children together, and following only a few brief years of happiness he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Bogart cheats on Bacall with his hairdresser (Vanessa Blanchette) and Bacall cheats on Bogart with his friend Frank Sinatra (Micaiah Castro). (It should be noted that in real life both Bacall and Sinatra denied having an affair while Bogart was alive.)

Methot’s alcoholism was debilitating and would kill her in 1951. Although Bogart’s alcoholism was just as bad, she was the kind of drunk prone to violence involving knives and guns, usually directed at her husband. Present in only a few brief scenes, Lum as Methot commands the stage as the crazed harridan who makes all others cower before her. Bacall in her autobiography unambiguously describes Bogart lapsing into unprovoked rages when drunk, at one point early on starting a fight with her because he was so intoxicated he confused her with Methot.

Despite some good writing and occasionally clever dialogue – director Howard Hawks tells Bacall, “You’re acting like a couple of teenagers,” to which she replies, “I am a teenager!” – the concept faces substantial, and eventually insurmountable, obstacles.

Both Bogart and Bacall are individual and distinct historical persons whose image, down to voice and appearance, are unforgettable to any prospective audience. In past biographical efforts, Schwartz has been able to avoid that problem by choosing subjects either not recognizable in that way (Batman collaborators Bob Kane and Bill Finger in Co-Creator), whose collective identity provided some diffusion of memory (The Brothers Marx), or whose iconic image could be successfully replicated on the live stage through sufficiently gifted acting (Buster Keaton: Fade to Black). As the program note from producer and artistic director Kevin Broccoli concedes, casting to replicate the appearance of Bogart and Bacall would have been ridiculous and impossible. Despite that challenge, both Pavao as Bacall and Pimentel as Bogart master the facial expressions and body language of their too-familiar characters. The fedora-hatted Castro, unfortunately, is wooden and miscast as Sinatra.

Nevertheless, one of the defining elements of Golden Age Hollywood was the total disconnection between private lives and public personas. The truth is that none of the people we remember on the screen from that era looked or behaved much like they did off-screen. The real Bogart was 5’4” and the real Bacall was at least 4 inches taller than he was, but you would never know that seeing them on the screen together. Bacall’s deep and sultry on-screen voice, perfected at the insistence of Hawks, was unlike her natural more nasal and higher-pitched voice, and it required enormous effort at training and practice.

The more serious problem that ultimately sinks the play is that there just isn’t much content. Running only about 1h15m including intermission, the love story overwhelms and kicks out everything else that could have been there. The political activism of Bogart and Bacall, their risky public condemnation of McCarthyism, their strong endorsement of and friendship with Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential election – none of that warrants even a mention. Although they appeared together in four films, only To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) are treated substantially while Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948) are barely referenced. The omission of Key Largo is particularly puzzling because the most famous scene in it, an Oscar-winning performance by Claire Trevor as a character singing off-key to the awkward embarrassment of the others present, was inspired by a real-life incident where a drunken Mayo Methot conducted herself similarly. There is no mention of Bold Venture, a successful radio series that ran for dozens of episodes in 1951-1952 and cemented the public perception of its stars Bogart and Bacall, reprising elements of their characters from To Have and Have Not and Key Largo by sailing around the Caribbean getting involved in the messy problems of other people.

The fatal flaw in the play is that the love story between Bogart and Bacall – the May-December romance, the infidelity, the brief period of happiness before they are separated by death – is utterly conventional. For ordinary people who were not movie stars, no one would think to write a play about them, although they might warrant a few Facebook posts. It is difficult to point to many specific elements of the play that are bad, but the missed opportunities are painful.

Some of the staging was mystifying. Re-enacting the filming of the famous scene from To Have and Have Not where Bacall asks Bogart for a match and a cigarette, the first appearance of Bacall’s trademark head tilt downward with eyes forward that became known as “the look,” we see her sideways instead of face-on. The scene is deprived of context in the play, stripped down to her single line. In the actual film, Bogart says to Bacall in the hallway, “Now I’m going to get some sleep. I’ll see you later.” Suggestively, Bacall follows Bogart into his bedroom without an invitation and he asks, “What do you want?” She answers, “I could use a match.” At an absolute minimum, Hawks could have recited stage directions to Bacall to explain the missing context for the audience.

The play is explicitly misleading in portraying Bacall’s career in an upwardly linear trajectory, especially in completely avoiding her second-released film, Confidential Agent (1945), which was so negatively regarded by both critics and the public that she was worried it would derail her career. (That film was based on a disposable novel written by Graham Greene in 1939 during a six-week period fueled by Benzedrine, a prescription amphetamine popular at the time, intended to raise cash while he worked on the novel he really cared about, The Power and the Glory.) Bacall said in her autobiography that she appeared in the film due to contractual obligation, had no idea how to play a humorless British aristocrat, and got no support from inexperienced director Herman Shumlin who was working on only his second film. The Big Sleep had already been filmed previously, but its release was delayed primarily by a protected negotiation between Hawks and the censors at the Hays Commission; before it could be released, Bacall and the studio reshot some of the scenes in The Big Sleep to respond to criticisms of Bacall’s bad acting in Confidential Agent.

A serious deficiency in the script is that Hawks’ wife, Slim, is mentioned but not portrayed, despite being in many ways the catalyst for the entire story: She had been a model who appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, and it was she who brought Bacall to the notice of her husband by showing him the cover of Harper’s Bazaar featuring Bacall. More importantly, the real-life Slim was the model for the character “Slim” in Hawks’ film version of To Have and Have Not, the character played by Bacall that would define her on-screen persona for the rest of her career. Hawks totally rewrote the Hemingway novel: moving the setting from Florida to Martinique, changing the villains from the American government to Nazi Germans, removing all trace of Marxist sympathy, and replacing the doomed prostitute of the novel, Marie, with the smart and snappy Slim.

According to film scholar Bruce Kawin in his 1980 annotated version of the screenplay, Hawks acquired the rights to the novel during a 1939 fishing trip with Hemingway, telling him, “Ernest, you’re a damn fool. You need money, you know… I can make a picture out of your worst story.” Hemingway asked what was his worst story, and Hawks replied that it was “that god-damned bunch of junk” To Have and Have Not. “You can’t make anything out of that,” Hemingway said. Hawks replied, “Yes I can. You’ve got the character of Harry Morgan; I think I can give you the wife. All you have to do is make a story about how they met.”

In her own autobiography, the real Slim wrote, “In film history, this clean-cut, frank female has come to be known as the Hawksian woman. She’s unusual in the Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties because, although she’s quite direct about wanting to be with a man, she’s not passive, clinging or dependent. On the contrary, she’s an equal…. There were many flavors of this Hawks woman. Physically, though, I think there were only two: Lauren Bacall and me. The former was created by Howard Hawks to be a screen image of his wife. I’m not saying that I was the inspiration for the Hawks woman – Howard had been working on this formula woman for years in his films. Rather, it was that, until he met me, the woman of his dreams was only in his head. And until Howard got to Betty Bacall, there hadn’t been an actress to make that dream come alive on screen.”

Certainly the most famous description of the Hawksian woman was a eulogy for the character type by Germaine Greer in 2006: “The Hawksian woman was an idea that flourished at a time of crisis, in the depression and during the war, when the full energies of women were needed if they were to survive. After the war she was supplanted by the female eunuch, weighed down with huge hair and false eyelashes, unequal to any challenge – all things to all men and nothing to herself.”

What seems to me the genuinely interesting story is how Hawks, personally obsessed with an abstract idealized woman, Svengali-like created successive approximations on the screen with actresses including Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck, married a woman in real life whom he transformed into that ideal, with her help constructed the most fully realized on-screen incarnation of his ideal in Lauren Bacall, and then watched as Humphrey Bogart fell in love with her. Unable and unwilling to play a “female eunuch,” Bacall saw her career decline because, as Greer put it, “She had some successes in the 1950s… but they only went to prove that nobody was writing films for grown-up women.”

What I expected from a biography play about Bogart and Bacall would have evoked their unique time and place in history as well as in popular imagination during and after depression and war. We don’t see that at all, and we don’t see much of anything of Bacall after Bogart dies. In fact, the ending of the play tells us only the love story really mattered.

Bogart and Bacall – Goodbye and Hurry Back, directed by Jennifer Rich, by Epic Theater Company, at Arctic Playhouse, 117 Washington St, West Warwick. About 1h15m including one intermission. Through Mar 25. Web: thearcticplayhouse.com/shows/bogart-bacall-goodbye-hurry-back; Facebook: facebook.com/events/1114653035329472; Tickets: tix.smarttix.com/Modules/Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&SalesEventId=6329

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