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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Birth Of The Bogart Cult
When was the Humphrey Bogart cult born? The where is understood to have been the Brattle Theatre at Harvard. We’ve known years of students chanting dialogue w/ the screen, arriving in costume for Casablanca, etc. --- long before The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ve looked at published sources, as well as web mentions, and found at least five contradictory accounts. Maybe someone reading can help straighten this out. I’ve not been to Harvard, nor stepped foot in the Brattle. I do know they continue running Bogart, and often, for receiving program schedules. From what I understand, they used to have a festival each year around exam time, and double features of Bogart titles were shown. This is supposed to have started during the fifties --- but just when in the fifties? The Brattle switched from legit to screen shows in 1953. Did Bogart live long enough to be aware of the beginnings of a cult celebrating his films and screen image? It's hard to be sure based on so much conflicting info. The Brattle’s own website is indefinite on the subject. There were a couple of sources saying they ran Casablanca initially on April 21, 1957, barely three months after the actor’s death. And yet, the Casablanca Bar, which later became a restaurant and was located adjacent to the theater, is supposed to have opened its doors in 1955, so I’d have to think the movie played the Brattle prior to that 1957 date. There was a published account of the first Bogart festival being presented during the summer of 1956, at least six months prior to the actor's death. Is this accurate? I don’t know if the Brattle has maintained record of bookings from that period. I’d suspect not. Is there a reader out there who attended Harvard and might remember?

The Brattle is generally credited with having "transformed Humphrey Bogart into a global icon." Everyone assumes it began with the Casablanca revival, but I found a couple of sources crediting Beat The Devil for this. The March 1954 United Artists release did not do well theatrically ($975,132 in domestic rentals), but word got out among the intelligentsia that it was a "put-on" of straight crime thrillers Bogart had previously made, and it became something of an art house favorite. Bogart was aware of this --- he dismissed Beat The Devil as "a mess" and said "only phonies would like it." Apparently, they liked it at the Brattle, and indeed, it is said to have rung opening bell for a Bogart celebration that would last decades. Bosley Crowther wrote a 1966 article about the Bogart cult for Playboy in which he referred to a Brattle booking of Beat The Devil in 1956, followed by Casablanca and others the following year. Was it Beat The Devil, then, that initiated Casablanca's revival and led to the first flowering of Bogart-mania at Cambridge, or had Casablanca caught on prior to this? By 1960, the theater was running three weeks of Bogart a year. The owners were Bryant Haliday and Cyrus Harvey, Jr. They later established Janus Films as a means of assuring American distribution for foreign films they liked. Both these founders are gone now, and I haven't seen interviews with either regarding origin of the Bogart cult. Would Lauren Bacall remember? Was her husband aware of this gathering phenomenon before he died? If so, it would be interesting to know what he thought about it. Bogart’s a little like Bela Lugosi and Oliver Hardy in that he seems to have barely missed a new generation's renewed interest in his work. For Lugosi, it was the release of his Universal horror films to television the year after he died, giving birth to monster kids nationwide. Oliver Hardy passed shortly before Robert Youngson’s Golden Age Of Comedy unleashed a torrent of favorable press and fan enthusiasm for the silent comedies of Laurel and Hardy. Bogart’s backlog was just making its way to widespread TV distribution when he died, and that surely would not have gone unnoticed --- other stars of his generation, including Clark Gable, commented on this to the press on several occasions. It’s been assumed that Bogart died without knowing of Bogie's rebirth among college audiences, but I wonder. Can anyone out there tell us just when this cult had its beginnings?


Blogger Rich D said...

In regards to Janus Films- Bryant Halliday passed away in 1996. Not sure about Cyrus Harvey Jr., though.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I hope you get some definitive answers to your questions, as I'd like to know myself. I remember the burgeoning Bogie cult (I went to college in the '60s, after all), but I'm also old enough to remember when he was still alive. At the time of his death, if memory serves, his best-remembered movies were The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny, and maybe The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra; Casablanca was remembered as a good wartime morale-booster, hugely popular "in its day" but a bit of a relic "now" (i.e., mid-1950s). I suspect the Brattle deserves credit not only for igniting the Bogart cult, but for the rediscovery of Casablanca as well.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Derrick said...

Sort of off topic, but I'm curious about your source for the information you quote on film grosses. It's interesting to see in black and white how well a film did--or didn't--do, and how that sometimes contrasts with what hearsay evidence tells us.

1:36 PM  

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