Humphrey Bogart toiled for more than a decade in movies before becoming a major star. Most casual movie fans will remember such “Bogey” classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but there are several often-overlooked Humphrey Bogart movies that deserve attention.
Black Legion (1937), directed by Archie Mayo. Once in a while in his early years at Warners Brothers, Bogart would be awarded a lead role. In Black Legion, he plays a factory worker who sees the foreman position he was counting go to a bright young “foreigner”. Frustrated and angry, Bogart is coaxed into joining The Black Legion (think Ku Klux Klan), and soon finds himself involved in house burnings, floggings and worse. That Bogart somehow remains a sympathetic figure throughout the film shows just how fine an actor he was, even if Warner Brothers didn't realize it yet.
Dead End (1937), directed by William Wyler. Not exactly a lesser-known film, but one that is often forgotten when fans discuss great Bogart performances. The socially-conscious play Dead End would have been a perfect match for a Warner Brothers picture, but it was actually Sam Goldwyn who brought the hit play to the screen. Bogart was borrowed from Warners to play the part of gangster “Baby Face Martin”, one of his finest portrayals to date. The film made stars of the six young “Dead End Kids” (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, et. al.) who had appeared in the play. After the success of Dead End, Warner Brothers added the kids to their roster of stars, and when Bogart was teamed with them again in 1938’s Crime School, he still couldn’t catch a break: The Dead Kids got top billing.
The Return of Dr. X (1939), directed by Vincent Sherman. Not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but a perfect example of Bogart’s work ethic, which boiled down to “Just keep working”. Although he would grumble and complain sometimes about the roles he was being given by Warners, he rarely turned a film down, such as this one in which he plays a pale, bespectacled undead doctor who needs the blood of others to stay alive. Just keep working indeed: it was just one of seven pictures Bogart appeared in that year.
Invisible Stripes (1939), directed by Lloyd Bacon. This gangster film starred George Raft, with Humphrey Bogart typically listed fourth in the credits. Yet Bogart outshines Raft throughout the entire film and by a wide margin. With talents like Raft, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Errol Flynn at Warners, it seemed as if Bogart would never become a star. Ironically, it was Raft who paved the way for Bogart’s eventual stardom, by turning down lead parts in movies he felt were beneath him, such as High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon.
The Wagons Roll at Night (1941), directed by Ray Enright. The Wagons Roll At Night feels like a somewhat desperate attempt to get Bogart into a picture, any picture, to capitalize on his success in High Sierra, released earlier in 1941. What Warner came up with, a remake of the classic boxing film Kid Galahad (1937) but given a twist by making it about lion taming(!), makes you realize what kind of pressure Warner Brothers writers were under in coming up with dozens of new scripts each year. Yet Wagons is a fun film with a great cast featuring Sylvia Sidney, Eddie Albert and Sig Ruman, and Bogart, as circus owner Nick Coster, breezes through the film as if he hasn’t a care in the world. His next film would be The Maltese Falcon, which made him a full-fledged star, and in 1942 he would star in Casablanca, which won the award for Best Picture and which, through years of repeated television airings, would turn Bogart into an almost mythical icon.