Lauren Bacall’s incendiary debut on screen in To Have and Have Not brings to pulsating life a fantasy of legendary Hollywood director, Howard Hawks.
He has created a new kind of heroine – one who is every bit the equal of her leading man. At the same time he has launched the career of a movie legend and lit the touch paper to one of Hollywood’s most celebrated off-screen romances. But even as the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall begins to fizz, it threatens to derail Hawks’ ambitions for his new star.
After a slow start, Lauren Bacall’s life is careering along at breakneck speed.
Lauren Bacall, lost girl
Rewind the clock a couple of years to 1942, and Lauren Bacall (then Betty Joan Perske, 17 years old, ambitious and totally unknown) is sitting in a movie theatre with her Mother and an aunt:
One Saturday morning in 1942, Mother and Rosalie took me to the Capital Theatre to see a movie called Casablanca. We all loved it, and Rosalie [Lauren’s aunt] was mad about Humphrey Bogart. I thought he was good in it, but mad about him? Not at all. She thought he was sexy. I thought she was crazy. Mother liked him, though not as much as she liked Chester Morris, who she thought was really sexy – or Ricardo Cortez, her second favorite. I couldn’t understand Rosalie’s thinking at all. Bogart didn’t vaguely resemble Leslie Howard. Not in any way. So much for my judgment.
She’s determined to be an actress (she has the stage rather than the screen in mind though she worships Bette Davis) and has been doing some pretty unglamorous modeling for the garment trade to earn a few cents. She’s had little success but things are about to change…
This year she has been introduced to Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, who organized a test shoot with Louise Dahl-Wolfe, one of the leading fashion photographers of the day. It was the first of a series of sessions for Bazaar, including a tricky one with George Hoyningen-Huene.
The following year (1943) Lauren’s career ignites:
In January I posed in a blue suit with an off-the-face hat, standing before a window with “American Red Cross Blood Donor Service” lettered on it. It was a color picture and would be a full page.…
About mid-February Diana called my mother to tell her there were stacks of letters on her desk asking who I was and where I could be reached. She said, “Listen, Mrs. Bacall, I think Betty’s too young to make these decisions, so I’m sending it all on to you.” Diana was always terrific to me and about me. She was so smart, had such wisdom. Also it turned out that the Blood Donor picture was going to be on the March cover. The cover! I couldn’t believe it when I heard; there’d be no living with me now.
Inquiries flood in. Lauren is invited to meet the head of David O Selznick’s office in New York. Columbia Pictures want her to be the Harper’s Bazaar cover girl in Cover Girl – an offer enthusiastically endorsed by Diana and Carmel Snow (the editor at Bazaar). Howard Hughes expresses an interest (well, there’s a turn up for the books!). But it is an invitation from Howard Hawks that Lauren accepts on the advice of her uncle Jack. So, age 18, she boards the train with her mother and heads for the West Coast.
Lauren Bacall, dream girl
To prepare for her screen test, Howard Hawks takes Lauren Bacall to see Perc Westmore.
[As an aside, this is a perfect example of how the studios, even back in the 1940s, were geared up to manufacture identikit stars – Lauren Bacall’s graphic eyebrows are one of her most distinguishing features.] Then there’s a portrait session with John Engstead, a photographer who works for the Hollywood studios and for various fashion magazines:
He walked me over to make-up so that Perc Westmore could have a look at me and said, “You know, Perc, the test is tomorrow morning, see what color Betty will need, and that’s all.” Westmore took me into his room, sat me before his make-up mirror, and examined my face. He said, “Umm-humm” and pushed my hair back. “We can pluck your eyebrows and shave your hairline, straighten your teeth.” I was terrified and very upset. I said I’d like to call Howard, which I did practically in tears and repeated it all. I said, “You don’t want that, do you?” He said absolutely not and spoke to Westmore, saying, “I want her exactly as she is, nothing changed, a light natural make-up for tomorrow.” Perc understood, he only thought some of those touches would be an improvement. But no, Howard had chosen me for my thick eyebrows and crooked teeth and that’s the way they would stay.
John Engstead arrived with cameras, and my first portrait sitting began. … He was marvelously easy to work with—not unlike Dahl-Wolfe. … The portraits were the best I’d ever had, and still are.
Howard can see Lauren’s potential to become his dream girl and offers her a personal contract.
I learned much later that he had always wanted to find a girl from nowhere, mold her into his dream girl, and make her a star—his creation. He was about to begin. … Howard’s idea was always that a woman should play a scene with a masculine approach—insolent. Give as good as she got, no capitulation, no helplessness. … A perfect example of Howard’s thinking was His Girl Friday, which was a remake of The Front Page, but changing the star reporter to a woman – Rosalind Russell. And it couldn’t have worked better.
Howard doesn’t go for shrinking violets. To complement the look and the attitude he has in mind, he tells Lauren to cultivate a lower, more throaty voice, which she does by finding a spot on Mulholland Drive where she can read The Robe aloud, keeping her voice lower and louder than normal (the smoking probably helps too). So Lauren’s voice becomes what Howard calls “a satisfactorily low guttural wheeze”. He insists that in future she should always speak naturally and softly. Above all, she should ignore suggestions for “cultivating” her voice.
It all comes together in her screen debut opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Lauren’s character says to Bogart’s:
You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve, you don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.
Her acting, with its insinuating sexuality and offhand independence, causes a sensation. For Howard, it’s a dream come true. The Big Sleep will follow.
Lauren Bacall, gone girl
Lauren’s first encounter with Bogie, set up by Howard, is unpromising.
He wanted to use Humphrey Bogart as the male lead. Bogart was making a film called Passage to Marseille at the time and Howard said, “Let’s go down on the set and see what’s going on.” Not a word about the possibility of my working. … He introduced us. There was no clap of thunder, no lightning bolt, just a simple how-do-you-do. Bogart was slighter than I imagined—five feet ten and a half, wearing his costume of no-shape trousers, cotton shirt, and scarf around neck. Nothing of import was said—we didn’t stay long—but he seemed a friendly man.
Perhaps that’s not surprising. Bogie is 25 years Lauren’s senior and married to Mayo Methot, a stage and screen actress but also an alcoholic and a depressive. Their relationship is, to put it mildly, stormy.
As filming gets underway for To Have and Have Not, Bogie and Bacall begin to fall for each other, they organize surreptitious rendezvous and they share private jokes in their scripted exchanges. Indeed their very real palpable mutual attraction is one of the factors that contribute to the film’s success with audiences.
Their happiness alternates with despair. Howard becomes increasingly jealous and warns Lauren not to risk ending her career just as it is taking off. He can see that Bogie does not want her to be actor first and wife second. Meanwhile, Bogie returns to Mayo several times, leaving Lauren in desperate suspense. All this is going on during the filming of The Big Sleep, with Bogie drunk, depressed and missing days on set.
Finally, he makes up his mind, and as his divorce edges forward, he sends Lauren a wire: “Please fence me in Baby – the world’s too big out here and I don’t like it without you.” The couple are married on 21 May, 1945 at Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio, the home of Bogie’s close friend, the writer Louis Bromfield.
Angry and resigned, Howard accepts that he’s lost his dream actress and sells Lauren’s contract to Warner Brothers.
Lauren Bacall on the silver screen
In To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, Bogie and Bacall played some of the greatest scenes of the era (and arguably in movie history). The atmosphere is electric, the dialogue sizzles. This is the stuff of Hollywood legend, as recognised at the time by Warner Brothers’ spoof, Bacall To Arms.
Had she not married Bogart, Lauren told The New York Times in 1996, her career would probably have flourished, but she did not regret the marriage.
I would not have had a better life, but a better career. Howard Hawks was like a Svengali; he was molding me the way he wanted. I was his creation, and I would have had a great career had he been in control of it. But the minute Bogie was around, Hawks knew he couldn’t control me, so he sold my contract to Warner Bros. And that was the end.
Want to know more?
The quotes are from Lauren’s autobiography, Lauren Bacall By Myself. For an overview and appreciation of her life and work, there are obituaries worth reading in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New York Times and Variety. There’s also a fascinating article about The Big Sleep on Cinephilia & Beyond.