Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Book Notes

A Bogart bio that will send you straight to his films.

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I watched the Golden Globes Awards show shortly after finishing Stefan Kanfer's excellent biography of Humphrey Bogart, Tough Without a Gun, and I was struck by how little has changed in Hollywood. As my wife and I gossiped about assorted celebrities and who they are married to and what scandals they were involved in, I was reminded of Bogart's tumultuous love life, his marriages, movies, and fame, as told by Kanfer.

But there is also a distinct difference between today's Hollywood and that populated with characters like Bogart, Bacall, and Bergman. At the height of his career, including his most famous role in Casablanca, Bogart was in his 40s. Certainly contemporary movie stars remain stars into their 40s, 50s, and older, but for a star to be made at that age is near unthinkable today. And yet it was his age and experience, reflected in his slouching frame, his weatherworn and scarred face, that ultimately made Bogart "tough without a gun," as novelist and sometime screenwriter Raymond Chandler called him, the distinctive star we remember today.

Kanfer's book tells Bogart's story, from his troubled youth as the son of an aristocratic New York family, through his halting career as a Broadway actor, into the films for which he is famous, and finally (and perhaps most interestingly) his legacy. In part because Kanfer has also written biographies of other Hollywood luminaries like Marlon Brando and Groucho Marx, he is particularly adept at bringing Bogart's story to life. It unfolds as if it were happening now, splayed across the front page of a Hollywood tabloid, but with significantly less glitzy language. Kanfer's prose occasionally bogs down in the midst of extensive plot summaries of Bogart's films, but merely suggesting that the reader go watch the films probably wouldn't suffice, either. And this is precisely what his account makes us want to do. With a new perspective on the inner workings of Bogart's life and times, the necessary recourse is to revisit his classic films.

Read this book, or you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is managing editor of Patrol: A Review of Religion and the Modern World.

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