Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Tough Without a Gun:" A Flat Tale of a Dimensional Star

My beginnings as a cinephile were unusual, going, as I did, to a Waldorf school where TV was frowned upon, and belonging, as I did, to obedient parents. My sister and I were, however, allowed the requisite one or two movies on the weekend. Disney was verboten, so there was a lot of Shirley Temple flicks, which graduated into Rogers and Astaire, and finally, pivotally, Noir.

The foreign twang of the word was enough to satisfy me and my 14-year-old cohorts; eager, budding culture snobs that we were. Sleepovers were popcorn-packed nights of Hitchcock, Gilda, The Third Man, and Humphrey Bogart. Finally, ultimately, Humphrey. We fell for the cantankerous, weather beaten antihero as so many had before us, sketching out lines from To Have and Have Not in our margins and whistling for our imaginary Steves. (To my everlasting delight, my high school sweetheart met my Lauren Bacall in full rumrunner regalia one Halloween.)

All this is by way of saying that I had to read “Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart” by Stefan Kanfer. I was excited to learn about my gruff idol, find out if he was the face of the Gerber baby, and how it was that he had dodged his third wife (whom he called “Slugger”) to make Lauren his fourth.

I got my answers but the delivery was a little dull. Kanfer clearly reveres the star and faithfully takes his readers through Bogart’s life, which began in 1899. Humphrey was born to a well-to-do family in New York City, the eldest, with two younger sisters. Although bright, he rebelled against authority and it was evident early on that he would not be following in his father’s footsteps toward the medical profession.

Bogart got his start on Broadway, as most stars had to at the time. He married and divorced, slowly rising to roles of more prominence. Upon Bogart’s move to Hollywood, Kanfer patiently unpacks his cinematic choices and outlines how one sort of movie led to another, culminating in the films that define how Bogart is viewed today: He is renowned as classic, unshakably masculine. He withholds his affection but there is tenderness beneath the crust.

Kanfer spends a good amount of time quoting reviews from the era. He details the many ways that history intersected with Bogart’s career, affecting his trajectory as a star and sculpting his image. These tie-ins were often striking, and yet when Kanfer directly quotes his subject, Humphrey never comes off the page. Even Kanfer’s descriptions of Hollywood and the Bogarts’ travels in Africa fall flat. There are glimmers of dimension but ultimately the biographer sticks too close to his facts without illuminating the contours of the scenes or personalities. I never felt like I got to know Kanfer’s subject better, though he handled the impact of Bogart’s afterlife with much more skill.

My sense is that the author’s respect for the figure and for his family outweighed his desire to make Bogart human. The decision to avoid sensationalist guesses about his fidelity is admirable, but Kanfer’s whitewashed approach is tiresome. Somewhere there is a happy medium, maybe the next biographer will reach it. Because it is obvious that though Bogart reached his cinematic heights in his 40s, and died more than 50 years ago, this is only the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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