Humphrey Bogart: The Non-Essentials


“I made more lousy pictures than any actor in history.” So said the man who would eventually be voted number one in an American Film Institute poll of the greatest screen actors of all time. It may have been Humphrey Bogart’s typically self-effacing brand of humor talking, or a by-product of both his honesty and Bogie’s weariness after decades of fighting with studio executives, but whatever the reason, rare is the movie fan who would agree with him. Neither would Warner Home Video, who this week released Humphrey Bogart: The Essentials Collection, a 13-disc set featuring 24 of the quintessential screen tough guy’s most memorable films.

Now, since this is a Warner release, it’s not that surprising that some of the actor’s key later pictures for other studios–The African Queen, Beat the Devil, The Caine Mutiny and The Desperate Hours among them–are not included in the set, but it does offer a good overview of Bogart’s 1935-1948 body of work. What’s also missing, however, are some of those so-called “lousy pictures” that he made in the first decade of his Hollywood career. Bearing in mind that the worst Bogart movie still offers a performance more interesting than some of today’s top actors’ best–I’m looking at you, Ashton, Julia and Keanu–here are a few films that Bogie probably had in mind when he made the above quote:

A Holy Terror – Rare was the actor or actress in the 1930s and ’40s, particularly early in their careers, who avoided being cast in a low-budget Western or two (Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum, for example). This 1931 Fox entry was Bogart’s first foray in the genre, and had him playing a  nasty ranch foreman who thinks top-billed hero George O’Brien is after his girl. As incongruous as the sight of Bogie with a Stetson. kerchief and six-guns always was, this B-effort also mixed 19th-century frontier life with contemporary touches (such as O’Brien flying out west by plane), and the film’s wooden leads and already-stale plot would have put it out to pasture decades ago had it not been for Boagrt’s performance.

Swing Your Lady – What do you get when you mix pro wrestling, backwoods hillbillies, and Humphrey Boagrt? Sadly for Bogart’s image and Warner Bros.’ bottom line, the  answer was this unfunny and unsuccessful 1938 comedy in which sports promoter Ed Hatch (Bogart) and his star athlete, grappler Joe Skopapolous (Nat Pendleton) arrive in the Ozarks looking for some competition and some easy money. Hatch arranges for a match between his “Greek Adonis” and the local blacksmith…who happens to be widow Sadie Horn (Louise Fazenda), and who the slow-witted Joe falls for.

The Return of Doctor X – Bogie as a vampire? Well, not really. Unrelated to Warner’s 1932 mad scientist shocker Doctor X with Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, this infamous 1939 shocker–one of the studio’s occasional attempts at entering the horror genre that Universal excelled at–cast the unhappy actor as the titular Dr. Xavier, a deranged medico who was executed for conducting bizarre experiments in prolonging human life , but later revived as a pasty-faced killer with a skunk-striped hairdo and a need for a rare blood type to maintain his artificial existence. Bogart’s zombie-like turn probably came as much from his dissatisfaction with the role as from the director’s instructions. As he himself said, “I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner’s blood, or Harry’s, or Pop’s, maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”

You Can’t Get Away with Murder – After the success of producer Samuel Goldwyn’s 1937 juvenile delinquency drama Dead End, Warner Bros. snapped up that film’s young leads (Leo Gorcey, Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Bernard Punsley) and re-cast them over the next several years in several similarly themed movies.  To borrow a phrase, when these films were good–as in 1938’s Crime School and Angels with Dirty Faces–they were very good, but by the time of this 1939 outing the basic storyline of tough street kids and the hoods they looked up to had run its course. Neither did it help that Bogart, who by this time could play this sort of flint-hearted bad guy role in his sleep, had only the weepy Halop to play off of here.

Dark Victory and Virginia City – Okay, so these two are pretty good films and are both included in the Essentials Collection. But whether he was miscast as an Irish-born horse trainer drawn to terminally ill heiress Bette Davis in the 1939 melodrama Dark Victory or playing a half-breed Mexican-American outlaw going up against Union officer Errol Flynn in the 1940 Civil War frontier saga Virginia City, it’s charitable to to say that, whatever Humphrey Bogart’s many talents as a thespian were, mastering convincing accents wasn’t necessarily one of them.