Friday, August 15, 2014

Bacall Without Bogart

While much has been written in the past few days about the classic films starring Lauren Bacall and her husband Humphrey Bogart, she also had an interesting career without Bogie. She appeared in a wide range of films, including "The Cobweb," "Sex and the Single Girl," "Murder on the Orient Express,"  and "Misery," just to name a handful. As recently as 2003 she appeared in Lars Von Trier's "Dogville," which shows you the old girl was still willing to work with cutting edge directors. 

Here are some more favorites.  They weren't all masterpieces, but they are certainly worth remembering as we mourn the passing of a true Hollywood star...

"Young Man With A Horn" (1950)

With Harry James performing the trumpet licks, Kirk Douglas plays Rick Martin, a bitter musician who experiences some dizzying highs and depressing lows.  Bacall plays Ricks' wife, a rather unlikeable character who is too self-absorbed to give him the love he needs. Michael Curtiz' film is loosely, and we mean loosely, based on the life of 1920s jazz cornet king Bix Beiderbecke. "...the unseen star of the picture is Harry James," noted The NY Times, "the old maestro himself, who supplies the tingling music which flows wildly, searchingly and forlornly from Rick Martin's beloved horn."   The resulting Columbia 10-inch studio LP hit the top spot on Billboard's popular albums chart.

Bacall's character is supposed to be a lesbian, which is why Rick described her as "a very sick girl."

“How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)

Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Bacall play three women on the hunt for rich husbands. Although billed third, one could make a strong argument for Bacall being the film’s real star. Her talent for comedy helped make this Fox's highest grossing movie of 1953. “How to Marry a Millionaire” also happened to be the first film ever to be photographed in the new CinemaScope wide-screen process.

As the scheming Schatze Page, Bacall has a great line about her interest in older men, with an obvious nod to Bogart who was 25 years her senior: "Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at old fella what's his name in "The African Queen."

"Blood Alley (1955)

This one feels like a pastiche of "To Have and Have Not" and "The African Queen," with John Wayne playing a merchant marine who finds himself transporting an entire village to Hong Kong on an ancient paddle steamer. Bacall is on-hand as Wayne's love interest. William Wellman directs a beautiful, atmospheric movie set in China, but the public was cool on this one. Not violent enough for Wayne's fans, perhaps.

Wayne, the film's producer, only accepted the lead role after Robert Mitchum was fired. Bacall worried she might dislike Wayne because of his conservative politics, but wrote in her memoirs that she found him "warm, likable, and helpful." 

“Harper” (1966)

Bacall floundered a bit in the 1960s. Her tough, no-nonsense style wasn't a good fit for the era of James Bond and Playboy. Still, she found her way back to crime film territory as Elaine Sampson, a wealthy California matron who hires PI Lew Harper (Paul Newman) to find her kidnapped husband. The story, based on a novel by Ross MacDonald, featured as many plot turns as “The Big Sleep” from two decades years earlier. Snazzy music by Johnny Mandel, and a strong cast featuring the likes of Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, and Shelley Winters, combined to make “Harper” one of the year's most successful pictures.

Bacall would not appear in another big screen movie for eight years.

“The Shootist” (1976)

This Western tearjerker follows the final days of John Book (John Wayne), a dying gunfighter who wants to go out with dignity. Wayne, who had enjoyed working with Bacall in “Blood Alley,”  specifically requested Bacall be cast as the owner of the rooming house where Book stays. The casting of Wayne and Bacall works well, for their scenes together have a quiet warmth about them.

Despite their friendship and mutual respect, Bacall complained often to director Don Siegel that Wayne spit when he spoke. 

"The Fan" (1981)

Bacall didn't appear in many stinkers, but if you stay in the business long enough, you'll be in one. Here, in a role originally intended for Elizabeth Taylor, Bacall plays a famous actress who is being stalked by her biggest fan. The film didn't attract much of an audience, but it created a small amount of controversy since it was on the heels of the murder of John Lennon, and the case where Jodie Foster was stalked by John Hinkley.  It also rankled Gay groups, for the stalker is portrayed as a demented closet case.

Bacall doesn't mention "The Fan" in her memoirs, although the fact that she didn't act in a movie for seven years after this says a lot. 

"The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996)

Barbra Streisand directed and starred in this romantic comedy, one of the ultimate chick-flicks before the term was even coined. In another role originally considered for Elizabeth Taylor, Bacall plays Streisand's mother. The production was a war-zone, with nearly the entire crew fired and replaced, as well as some actors. Bacall stuck it out and made it to the end. She eventually praised Streisand as a director and actress. "Some say she's tough and difficult," Bacall said. "But the same has been said about me." It's no wonder Bacall had kind things to say - her performance was good for a Golden Globe Award and, for one of the few times in her career, an Oscar nomination. 

Bacall and Streisand both favored their left sides. Bacall said this was a minor problem when it came time for their scenes together. Streisand won out.  "I didn't care," Bacall said. "It was her film."

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