Yeah, this is turning out to be a bad week.
I don't know when I first fell in love with Lauren Bacall. It might've been while seeing her in Jean Negulesco's "How to Marry a Millionaire", Wild Bill Wellman's "Blood Alley" or even Jack Smight's "Harper". The timing's just about right, so picture a young Uncle Mikey crouched in front of the glowing late-night eye of the family's old black-and-white Motorola. I'm finding myself being drawn to this leggy blonde who's smoothly moving about. Confident, possessing a trademark small smile which could carry nuance cross-country and back, and a pair of eyes which has turned generations of men into little boys.
Uncle Mikey, meet Sultry. Sultry, meet Uncle Mikey.
(And, back then, I didn't even like blondes. Go figure.)
Betty Bacall . . .
In a world of girls she was a Woman. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck could go one-on-one with men in a man's world. On the other hand, Lauren could do it and still heavily underline the fact that she could be feminine. Other female actors would take years to develop this sort of talent, with many of them failing miserably. By comparison Lauren would hit the ground running in her first film role: as "Slim" Browning in Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not".
Watch her in this film. At the tender age of 20 she's worldly beyond her years. Handling men the way Ricky Jay handles a deck of cards. Always landing on her feet (she came by those cat eyes honestly) and, if anyone in a situation was going to break, the money was even or better that it wouldn't be Slim. Small wonder she catches the attention of Harry Morgan (played by Humphrey Bogart). Caught his attention, and then some. "To Have and Have Not" is as entertaining a chemistry lesson as anyone could hope for, and the viewer can easily see the elements forming between the film's two stars. By the time the story ends, the smile Lauren gives Bogart is born out of more than just script direction (and punctuated with a sway to the hips which made me wish I had that swing in my back yard).
Ever been bit by a dead bee?
No, but Bogart sure as hell got stung, and never regretted it for a moment. Watching them together it was clear why they became one of Hollywood's happiest and most enduring couples. Bogart was a complex character, and Lauren was more than able to click into place alongside him. I'd be hard pressed to imagine anyone more suited for Bogart than the girl from the Bronx who gave lessons in whistling.
(Humphrey Bogart: screen legend and lucky SOB.)
Lauren wouldn't always be in the same films with Bogey, but fortunately her range of talent wasn't limited to giving adoring looks to her husband. Watch her with the Duke in "Blood Alley". As Cathy Grainger she's got a lot on her plate (up to and including the loss of her father), but you can see her gradually growing attraction for John Wayne's Tom Wilder. Trying to smuggle an entire town of people out of communist China, Wilder's sort of got his hands full throughout the film. But even he can't ignore the look in those eyes.
Schatze Page, in "How to Marry a Millionaire", is out to snag a rich husband. As such, Cameron Mitchell's Tom Brookman seems clearly out of her league. Bit by bit, though, Brookman begins to edge his way around her defenses, and a lot of the fun in this movie is watching Lauren's resolve slowly crumbling away. As Diana Rigg (another founding inductee in Uncle Mikey's Secret Girlfriend List) remarked in "The Assassination Bureau", surrender is not defeat for a woman. Romance has always been an excellent spectator's sport. In Lauren's hands it became an Olympic level event.
Her range would take her in other interesting directions. Elaine Sampson in "Harper" is Schatze Page gone over to the dark side; as beautiful and as sleek as practically any reptile. Small wonder Paul Newman acts as if he wants to scrub his hands raw after being with her. Almost a decade later, and Lauren's playing Harriet Belinda Hubbard in Lumet's "Murder on the Orient Express". Brassy . . . in your face . . . and the viewer can be apologized for wishing that she could be thrown under the wheels of the titular train. And, as if all that wasn't enough, she would put a cherry on top by providing the voice of the Witch of the Waste in the American release of Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" (along with everything else, Betty was a Miyazaki fan!).
(Did I mention that I was in love with the woman?)
A small objective part of me tries to maintain that Lauren grew old. I could never see it, though. I can't. Even with my eyes wide open I can see her slinkily arranged on Harry Truman's piano . . . gazing at Bogart from the doorway of a Martinique dive . . . giving a bittersweet final farewell to John Wayne in "The Shootist" . . . regal and beautiful . . . confident and beautiful . . . funny and beautiful . . . dramatic and beautiful . . .
And now we're left with nothing but cheap little girls who would have to struggle to ennoble the term "trash".
Bye, Betty. Here's another broken heart you've left behind. And thanks!