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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Where Bogart Became A Cult Figure

Tracking The Brattle Bogart Bonanza --- Part One

I don't know what hangs me up on the Harvard/Brattle thing with Humphrey Bogart. This was where the cult was said to have begun, my question being when? Greenbriar has delved there before. I looked to trades for something like a Bogart celebration at mainstream theatres, but nothing so far prior to the 60's, except --- a surprising month-long festival held at the Savoy Cinema in Cheshire Sale, England, which took place during April of 1954. That ambitious booking ran for consecutive Sundays and was US-reported by Boxoffice magazine. A ballot listed six of Bogart's films from which patrons were asked to select their three favorites. Prizes for participants included "a gentlemen's shirt, a handsome tie, and guest tickets to the Savoy," this a hook-up with local haberdashery, where photos of Bogart were displayed to customers along with bally for the shows. Poster copy read: "Humphrey Bogart, the Man Of The Month. Here For a Month For You!" The trade reported excellent business and patron requests for another Bogart month.

It may not have been beginning for a Bogart "cult" as we'd come to know it, but the notion of his films in festival format was demonstrated as one that customers would respond to, and as early as 1954. Warners may already have been aware of Bogart's potential in pairs, having reissued Treasure Of The Sierra Madre with Key Largo in 1953. Attitudes and reception to Bogart oldies would go fascinating directions once the Brattle tied on. The theatre had begun as legit purveyor at Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., switching to movies in the early 50's. The first instance I found of a Bogart playing there was The Maltese Falcon in September 1953. A review appeared in campus newspaper the Harvard Crimson, the twelve-year old revival called "one of the finest detective stories ever filmed," but little said of Bogart other than singling him out as "a fine actor in any role." The film seemed to its reviewer to be "full of quotations," thanks to having been imitated so constantly, an interesting observation in light of crowd recital of favorite lines that would come with The Maltese Falcon's absorption by the Brattle/Bogart brigade.

Beat The Devil was lauded in the 3/24/54 Harvard Crimson, seen not at the Brattle but instead at mainstream Loew's State in downtown Cambridge. Harvard's observer parted from exhibitors and most of a public nationwide in citing Beat The Devil's "deftness of line and surprise of situation." Here was germ of the film's appeal for intelligentsia that would persist from '54's mainstream rejection of Beat The Devil to the present day. It would show up often at the Brattle from 1956 onward, always a pet of The Harvard Crimson and Brattle patronage who felt Huston's send-up spoke directly to them. A beginning of camp sensibility can be found in earliest reception of Bogart films at the Brattle. Dead Reckoning played there in February 1956, almost a year before HB died, and according to witness reviewer Robert H. Sand, was "great, if unintentional, comedy." The picture itself was not a decade old; had the thing dated so badly then, or would Harvard's brain trust have laughed at it as much in 1947 when new? The Brattle run of Dead Reckoning was apparently not part of a Bogart week, so had not protection of better pics for buffer. "If the film were not so hysterically funny, it would be corny and bloody," said the review, which invited the audience to laugh "at, if not with, the characters."

For Bogart festivals at the Brattle, held at least yearly and usually during exams ("a packed, unruly, and partisan crowd"), it was a matter of rounding up the usual suspects. Sometimes there'd be snafus when a print couldn't be located, or one came in that was damaged. Howls of protest greeted a banged-up Casablanca one year where crucial dialogue went missing. It needed a full house to bring the Bogarts to life, as much of appeal came of communal watch and shout-out of lines. When the Brattle tried a summer series, less crowded auditoria fell silent and stayed so, first-time attendees coming away in wonder of what all the Bogart fuss was about. Revisionist opinion would sometimes call on venerated titles, as with "shuddering loser" High Sierra, to which a 1958 reviewer attached words like "dismal" and "acutely embarrassing."

Often it was a matter of keeping Bogart on message, that is, hewing by way of selection to the icon's accepted image as tough guy and lone defender of coolness. Observance of said rule kept out The African Queen, twitchy Captain Queeg of The Caine Mutiny, and much of what Bogie did after leaving Warners. Perceived clunkers like The Big Shot, Crime School, and San Quentin, were tasted and spat out by loyalists who learned quick that Bogart's name in credits was no guarantor of satisfaction. Off-casting occasion might be tolerated here and there, but only just, a 1959 Brattle run of Sabrina adjudged OK "for those who like champagne," but once again, a beat print was to blame for diminished fun. It's easy to forget in our digital landscape an earlier era's bane of classic bookings, so much of celluloid delivered to then-theatres in barely usable shape.

Part Two of the Bogart Cult is HERE.


Blogger antoniod said...

Bogie seems to have held a special appeal for spoiled rich kids. Perhaps because he had once been one.I'm sorry, but this takes me back to a time when I thougt ALL people in their 20s were opper-middle class.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Battered prints was a rule of thumb after a while. I booked EASY RIDER in 16mm for a week. Print was awful. Poor color, broken sprockets, you name it. Got a 2nd print 2nd day, 3rd, 3rd day then found out the 1st was supposed to be the best.

Thankfully, with digital, those days are gone, gone, gone.

9:14 AM  

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