At just 42 minutes long, A&E's Biography: Humphrey Bogart is completely inadequate for its towering subject, one of Hollywood's biggest and most enduring stars. One might have assumed this Cliff Notes telling of the iconic actor might have been produced early in Biography's nearly 20-year run on A&E but no: this episode is just a few years old, dating from 2003. The absence of good clips is a major shortcoming: Bogie (1899-1957) spent most of his career at Warner Bros., and either they refused to license clips or, more likely, A&E didn't want to shell out the cost to use them, hence the program's unimaginative reliance on PD trailers.
The show races through his long career and personal life at breakneck speed. It hits most of the salient points but Bogart's entry in the late Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia and even his biography page on the IMDb offers more detail than this, let alone the many full-fledged biographies that have been written since Bogart's untimely death.
A&E's cheapness is especially apparent when the show talks about Bogie's early career in the movies: the successful Broadway actor who came to Hollywood around 1930, appeared in about 10 flops and who almost lost the career-defining part in the film version of The Petrified Forest (1936), then struggled with bad casting at Warner Bros. until High Sierra (1940) and The Maltese Falcon finally established him as a major talent. His film debut is mentioned but we don't even get to see a poster or a still, let alone a film clip. Through all this the show offers just a few dog-eared trailer clips and some footage from Stand-In (1937), a United Artists release apparently now in the public domain.** And isn't it about time A&E retired that overworked footage of the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Pearl Harbor bombing that seems to appear in every other Biography?
Post-Casablanca (1942), there's a bit more in the way of home movies (in color) of Bogie on his beloved sailboat, the Satana, newsreel footage of his Washington protests during the Communist witch hunts, Bogie's funeral, etc., but very little stands out. The rushed quality is especially apparent in footage where Bogart wins his only Academy Award, for 1951's The African Queen: we see him being handed the Oscar, only to cut away just as he's about to make his acceptance speech.
Interview subjects are a mixed bag as well. Son Stephen Humphrey Bogart and Evelyn Keyes (once married to Bogie's pal and collaborator, director John Huston) offer a few personal anecdotes, while Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese do a good job explaining the actor's appeal, but did we really need the Bogie impersonator? Also interviewed are writers Foster Hirsch (The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir) and Ernest Cunningham (The Ultimate Bogart), the ubiquitous A.C. Lyles, and Chazz Palminteri.
Video & Audio
Biography: Humphrey Bogart is full frame and looks okay. The bare bones disc consists of the 42-minute show with "Play" and "Chapters" buttons. That's it. No subtitles, no Extra Features. Nothing. With an SRP of $24.95 it's not what you'd call one of your better bargains.
Indeed, for $24.95 you can get your hands on any number of actual biographies - you remember, those boxy things called "books?" For those with only a passing interest in Humphrey Bogart, this makes an okay rental, but that's about it.
**Almost ten years ago this writer worked at the USC-Warner Bros. Archives in Los Angeles. Some years before that, the photo archives for many of Bogart's movies were stolen, which meant that the archive held acres of stills from movies like Sh! The Octopus (1937), but no studio stills for movies like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Since then what are apparently these same lost photographs have turned up again and again in shows like this one.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian. This is his 500th DVD Talk review.