“Anybody got a match?”
In about a month it’ll be 70 years since Lauren Bacall said those, her first words on the silver screen. Hers was a movie debut for the ages. If many movies, from both a commerce and cultural point of view, can be described as being about cents and sensuality, that film, “To Have and Have Not,” was a harbinger for a postwar America that would move, within two decades, to an explicitness that would make a WWII sailor blush.
Bacall, who passed away last month, would have been 90 tomorrow, Sept. 16, 2014. To honor her, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) will be playing a number of her films, including “To Have and Have Not” tonight, Sept. 15, 2014. “To Have and Have Not” is scheduled for 6 pm. PT (9 p.m. ET). It’s not available to stream on Netflix, but can be streamed on Amazon Instant Video. Though the movie was made for the big silver screen, with its warm close-ups that seem to whisper and snuggle next to both us and Bogart and Bacall, its real magic is revealed through the intimacy of your TV screen, even today’s relatively large ones.
The movie came out on Oct. 11, 1944. Americans, immersed in the Second World War, were feeling pretty good about how the war was going at the time. In the European theater of operations, both France and Belgium had recently been liberated. In the Pacific theater, General Douglas MacArthur was about to make his return to the Philippines.
Girls and women had real hope that their fighting boys and men would soon be returning.
But they could only dream that they’d have the same witty sparring and fun banter as Bacall had with Bogart in this movie.
Bosley Crowther, then the top movie critic for The New York Times, in his original review of “To Have and Have Not,” called Bacall “plainly a girl with whom to cope.” And a girl she clearly was—while filming the movie she was 19 years old, 25 years younger than her leading man in the film, Humphrey Bogart.
A week and a half later, in his Sunday column, Crowther had more space to talk about Bacall: ”Whether Miss Bacall is an actress remains, we confess, to be seen, for the part which she plays in this first picture is not an exacting role. From the moment she steps into the doorway of Humphrey Bogart’s hotel room and inquires in a cool and cynical fashion whether anyone has a match, hers is mainly a job of radiating as much sex as the law will allow. … But no one can say that Miss Bacall, in her sullen and sinuous way, does not possess personality as it is frankly accepted on the screen.”
James Agee in Time magazine put it this way: “[Bacall’s cinema personality] is compounded partly of percolated [Bette] Davis, [Greta] Garbo, [Mae] West, [Marlene] Dietrich, [Jean] Harlow and Glenda Farrell, but more than enough of it is completely new to the screen. She has a javelinlike vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.”
At the same time he was the movie critic for Time, Agee was the movie critic for the Nation magazine. For that niche upscale readership he wrote about “To Have and Have Not”: “The best of the picture has no plot at all, but is a leisurely series of mating duels between Bogart at his most proficient and the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde, Lauren Bacall. Whether or not you like the film will depend, I believe, almost entirely on whether you like Miss Bacall.”
I think that’s true. Agee continues, “I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her — she has a voice like a chorus by [trombone player] Kid Ory — without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a bellylaugh. It has been years since I have seen such amusing pseudo-toughness on the screen.”
How Betty Joan Perske Bacall landed this part is my favorite of all the stories about people being discovered by Hollywood.
It begins with director Howard Hawks, one of the truly creative people making movies during the 1940s and 1950s, and a meeting Hawks had with novelist Ernest Hemingway.
According to the introduction of the 1980 published version of the script of “To Have and Have Not,” Bruce F. Kawin writes up a story Hawks told him.
So one day Hemingway and Hawks went off on a ten-day fishing trip.
Hawks had been trying to get Hemingway to write scripts for some time, but Hemingway had said he was good at what he was already doing and didn’t want to go to Hollywood.
“You don’t have to go to Hollywood,” said Hawks. “We can meet just the way we’re doing now. You don’t even have to write down the story. I’ll dictate it.”
Hemingway remained adamant, and Hawks said, “Ernest, you’re a damn fool. You need money, you know. You can’t do all the things you’d like to do. If I make three dollars on a picture, you make one of them. I can make a picture out of your worst story.”
“What’s my worst story,” asked Hemingway.
“That god damned bunch of junk called ‘To Have and To Have Not’ (sic).”
“You can’t make anything out of that,” said Hemingway.
Hawks said, “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 of how they meet.”
Kawin said that Hemingway and Hawks worked out the story while on Hemingway’s boat, most likely sometime in 1939.
Flash forward to 1943. Hawks has got Bogart to play Harry Morgan, a character not too unlike the Rick Blaine part that Bogart had portrayed in “Casablanca.” But he still hasn’t landed an actress to play the woman who meets and hooks up with him.
Hawks complains to his wife — nicknamed ‘Slim’ — about having no luck finding an actress for the role. Slim checks out the cover picture of the latest (March 1943) Harper’s Bazaar, featuring a model named Betty Bacall.
James Agee, writing in Time magazine, picks it up from here: Slim Hawks “caught on [Bacall’s] face the way a skirt catches on barbed wire. She showed it to her husband; … Howard was caught too. He wired the magazine, asking whether she was available.”
Bacall herself, writing in one of the best Hollywood memoirs I’ve read, “By Myself” in 1978, says that besides interest from Hawks, the Bazaar cover drew interest in her from producer David O. Selznick and from Columbia Pictures. The latter was for a cameo in the movie “Cover Girl” that Columbia was about to make with Rita Hayworth, and included a one-year contract with the studio.
The 18-year-old Bacall huddled with her Uncle Jack, a lawyer who at least had some contact with the media business — he represented Look magazine.
Bacall writes that after much discussion her Uncle Jack said, “If you accept the … Hawks offer, you will make a screen test which Hawks will direct. If he likes you, he will sign you to a personal contract [Hawks was not under contract to any one studio]. It seems to me with Hawks’ record [at that time Hawks had already made lots of movies, including “His Girl Friday,” “Twentieth Century,” “Only Angels Have Wings” and “Bringing Up Baby”] and reputation you’d be better off going with him. He’d give you personal care and you’d know quickly whether he liked you enough to keep you out there or not.”
Bacall said she thought about the movies Hawks had made and how much she liked them, so she agreed with her Uncle Jack. Besides, she writes, “Better to have care taken by one director than to be one of ten cover girls (Columbia was thinking of using) with maybe one or two lines to speak. I’d never be noticed in a movie with Rita Hayworth and those other really beautiful, professional models. Not with my face.”
She comes out to Hollywood and Hawks sees something he likes, if only he can get her voice lower. He her tells her to practice reading scripts out loud and lowering her voice. Bacall, an eager student who is eager to please, accomplishes this. Hawks decides that her first name should become Lauren.
Hawks picks up the story next, from the 2006 book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute,” edited by George Stevens Jr.
[W]e had a party out at the house [on a] Saturday night, and I asked her to come out there. I said, “Can’t you get somebody to take you home?” She said, “I don’t do too well with men. …” I said, “Well, try insulting them and see what happens.”
So she came around the next Saturday and said, “I got a ride home.” I said, “What happened?” “Well, I insulted a man and he liked it.” I said, “What did you do?” She said, “I asked him where he got his tie, and he said, ‘What do you want to know for?’ and I said, ‘So I can tell people not to go there.’ ” “Who’s the man?” She said, “Clark Gable.”
Hawks then adds, “So on Monday I went to [Jules Furthman] who was working on the screenplay of ‘To Have and Have Not’ and told him about this girl who could insult people and make them like her. Insolence, you know — that they liked. I said, ‘You know, Bogie is the most insolent man on the screen. Do you think we can write a girl that is as insolent as he is?’ [Furthman] said, ‘It would be fun to try.’ ”
Months after Bacall had arrived in Hollywood, Hawks felt she was ready to do a screen test to get the role opposite Bogart. For all intents and purposes, the test was being made for one man – studio chief Jack Warner – whose approval Hawks needed, since Warner Bros. was co-producing the picture.
It was clear just from the screenplay that one of the keys to the part Bacall was to play was a sense of believability that this was a sultry woman who had been around the block more than once. Yet at the same time the character was young (supposedly 22) and needed to show that she had a great sense of humor about herself and whatever hand life had dealt her.
The screen test would be the famous “whistling scene,” written by Hawks himself. Since the scene is in the movie, no spoilers here.
Writes Bacall of the screen test, “It was a good scene, very adult, sexy – much better than anything I had ever hoped for, with a great tag line about whistling. I’d do the best I could and Howard would guide me – I trusted him completely.”
She adds, “He drummed into my head that he wanted me to be insolent with the man – that I was being the forward one, but with humor – and told me of [other] scenes he had directed actresses in to give me examples of the attitude he wanted. I hung onto every word, trying to figure out how the hell a girl who was totally without sexual experience could convey experience, worldliness and knowledge of men.”
The test was a success and Bacall was indeed about to convey all of that and more in the film itself. It’s quite a performance. It helped that Bacall and Bogart were actually falling in love during the making of the movie — they were married within a year. Hawks sold Bacall’s contract to Warner Bros.
Many years later, looking back at her life in “By Myself,” Bacall writes, “What was not real in Howard Hawks’ version of me [back in 1944] is not real now. I remain as vulnerable, romantic, and idealistic as I was at 15, sitting in a movie theatre, watching, being, Bette Davis.” She adds that as she’s gotten older she’s been fortunate to have held onto her wit and sense of humor.
Classy lady. Miss her already.