Had Humphrey Bogart - The Essential Collection been released in 2001 instead of 2010, my reaction would have been giddy enthusiasm instead of mere mild curiosity. This set of 24 features starring the iconic actor, highlights of Bogie's dozen years under contract to Warner Bros. (1936-1948) includes some of the greatest films from any actor, plus many underrated gems. It's also positively crammed with extra features, literally several days' worth of material: 16 audio commentaries, 13 historical featurettes, "Warner Night at the Movies" supplements including contemporaneous cartoons, musical shorts, and trailers. There are blooper reels, vintage radio adaptations of many of the films, and a feature-length documentary, The Brothers Warner.
And none of it is new to DVD.
Moreover, three of the titles - The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) - are already out on Blu-ray, and odds are as many or more will be released sometime in 2011, probably To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and maybe High Sierra (1941) or Key Largo (1948). The other films in the set: The Petrified Forest (1936), Black Legion, Marked Woman, Kid Galahad, San Quentin (all 1937), The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), Dark Victory, The Roaring Twenties, Invisible Stripes (all 1939), Virginia City, Brother Orchid, They Drive By Night (all 1940), All Through the Night (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Passage to Marseille (1944), and Dark Passage (1947).
The set also includes a 48-page book with handsomely reproduced stills, a postcard-size set of Bogie 1-sheet posters and studio correspondence reproductions (the latter direct from this reviewer's old job at the USC-Warner Bros. Archives).
All of this would make an ideal gift for the lifelong Bogie fan that's been living in a cave since 1997, when the DVD format debuted, or maybe a teenager or young adult that only recently discovered the actor, and wants to gorge himself with the epic movie marathon this set offers.
For everyone else, it really all depends on how many movies one already owns, how many are likely to turn up on Blu-ray eventually, and whether double- (or triple- or quadruple-) dipping is worth it. In this reviewer's case, I already had all but six of the 24 films but, admittedly, I was really eager about those six, four of which I hadn't seen before.
Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) is most closely identified with Warner Bros. Studios, though his show business career stretched all the back to around 1921, when after several months as a stage manager he made his acting debut playing a Japanese butler (!), a one-line part. Contrary to his later screen image, Bogie's early career was dominated by juvenile parts in drawing room comedies, a reflection of his upper-class breeding and the son of wealthy Manhattanites: a prominent surgeon father and commercial illustrator mother. One apocryphal story - one of many attributed to Bogie - was that he introduced the line, "Tennis, anyone?" on Broadway. (Bogart later denied this. Nor was he the original Gerber baby. More myths are debunked here.)
He made his film debut in a now lost two-reeler starring Helen Hayes, The Dancing Town, and made his feature debut a few years later in Up the River (1930), not at Warner Bros, but Fox. It was directed by John Ford and was Spencer Tracy's film debut, but Bogart, fourth-billed, didn't exactly set the world on fire. He did more films for Fox, Universal, Columbia and even Warner Bros. (memorably, in Three on a Match), but nothing stuck, and he returned to Broadway to support Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest. When Warner Bros. bought the movie rights, they wanted Howard but not Bogie, intending to retool Bogie's part for Edward G. Robinson.
But, famously, Leslie Howard wired studio head Jack L. Warner from far-off Scotland: "Att: Jack Warner Insist Bogart Play Mantee No Bogart No Deal L.H." Bogart's performance as "world-famous killer" Duke Mantee, whose gang holds the occupants of a roadside diner hostage, made a strong impression and won Bogie a long-term contract with Warner Bros. Bogie was forever grateful to Howard, and later named a daughter in his memory.
Conventional wisdom is that between The Petrified Forest in 1936 and The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Bogie was relentlessly typecast in gangster roles, myriad variations of Duke Mantee, and that his few non-gangster parts - in the hillbilly comedy Swing Your Lady (1938), as the zombie-like title character in The Return of Doctor X (1939), and as the leader of a group of banditos in the Errol Flynn Western Virginia City (1940) - had him embarrassingly miscast.
In fact his roles varied quite a bit, some far removed from his gangster stereotype, and even within that narrow field he exhibited much range. Black Legion (1937), for instance, is something of a revelation. Though a fictionalized account of the real Black Legion, a band of right-wing thugs splintered off from the more infamous Ku Klux Klan, with a 2010 perspective, this prescient film anticipates the rise of the Tea Party and similar movements: in a depressed economy Bogie's factory worker is whipped up into a state of paranoia by right-wing radio feeding into his xenophobia, prompting him to join a band of anti-immigrant "patriots" whose organization in fact is the brainchild of millionaire corporate opportunists looking to make a fast-buck selling chumps memberships and other merchandise.
In Marked Woman, Bogie is at the other end of the law, playing a district attorney modeled after Thomas E. Dewey, best remembered today as the Republican Presidential candidate who didn't beat Harry Truman after all, but who back in the 1930s went after such notorious gangsters as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano. In Marked Woman, Bogie's character is subservient to top-billed Bette Davis's coded prostitute, who reluctantly agrees to testify against her mobster boss, chillingly essayed by Eduardo Ciannelli. But Bogie's fine in this excellent, implicitly violent film.
It's true that Bogie tended to support bigger stars in these films. As racketeer "Turkey" Morgan, he battles Edward G. Robinson in the unexpectedly emotionally potent Kid Galahad; he's a sympathetic convict star Pat O'Brien is unable to reform in San Quentin, a colorful but routine prison melodrama; and in Invisible Stripes Bogie's trapped in another gangster role, this time supporting George Raft, perfectly fine as hapless ex-con Cliff Taylor, who can't get a break - but you're left wondering how much better the film might have been had the two switched roles. When The Roaring Twenties subverted the gangster film into something like wistful historical melodrama, Bogie played yet another bad egg, this time opposite James Cagney's misguided war veteran. In one of Bogie's first scenes, as a fellow doughboy in the trenches, he gleefully picks off German soldiers with his rifle - a defining moment of the ruthlessness audiences came to associate with the rising star.
Watching and re-watching these titles, I was amused to see the actor Joe Sawyer reappearing in film-after-film, almost always playing a rabble-rouser who gets Bogie or one of the other leads into deep trouble. His importance (and Sawyer's billing) slowly fades through the 1930s (though Sawyer himself remained a reliable character player for decades after that), suggesting the career path Bogie might have taken were it not for directors like John Huston and Raoul Walsh. Who knows? If things hadn't worked out Bogie might've ended up playing Sgt. Biff O'Hara on Rin Tin Tin instead of Sawyer.
High Sierra, by Walsh, and The Maltese Falcon, by Huston, proved ideal transitional works that reinvented Bogie as an acerbic antihero, a "citizen of the world" who might say he sticks his neck out for nobody, but whose personal code of conduct distinguishes him from the truly bad guys, from selling out his partner and going down those stairs into Hell like Mary Astor at the end of The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon especially, a modest, cheap little film, became a huge hit and the public responded to Bogie in a way they hadn't before. The intervening war not only fueled Bogie's new image, it charted the rest of his Warner Bros. career. In Across the Pacific, also for Huston, he plays the first of several discredited and/or mysterious loners who, finding himself in the middle of the war, reluctantly takes on the Nazis and/or Japanese.
Casablanca is, I suppose, his signature role, and a finer film has yet to be made. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, made a fortune for Warner Bros., and firmly cemented Bogie as their top male star, narrowly eclipsing Cagney and, further down, Errol Flynn. He was in fact the only Warner Bros. star in Quigley's Annual List of Box-Office Champions for most of the 1940s. What changed? Not Bogie, not really. I suspect Bogie's violent, cynical, looking-out-for Number-One screen persona was at odds with the optimism FDR and his New Deal stood for, but that the outbreak of World War II subtly changed the movie-going audience, making that screen image more appealing.
(Reader Sergei Hasenecz argues, "No, what changed was that now he was the loner brought back to the good fight, the stained, jaded former idealist who regains his ideals. His moral code brings him back when he is needed most even if he is the one who makes the sacrifice, e.g. Casablanca. In his earlier Warners movies, when he wasn't playing an out-right villain - The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces - his characters had a moral code, as in Invisible Stripes, High Sierra, although they usually ended up dead.")
For the next several years, Warner Bros. tried to out-Casablanca Casablanca. Both of Bogie's 1944 films, Passage to Marseille, featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, all veterans from the earlier film, and To Have and Have Not, Howard Hawks' Casablanca by way of Ernest Hemingway, were big showy films. Passage to Marseille is colorful but utterly ludicrous, undone by a brain-twisting flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback structure that, years later, Saturday Night Live once obliquely but hilariously spoofed.
To Have and Have Not is much better, and was the screen debut of 19-year-old Lauren Bacall, soon to become Bogie's fourth and final wife. "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve [Bogie]. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow."
More films followed with Hawks (The Big Sleep), Huston (Key Largo), and Bacall (Dark Passage, as well as the previous two), but Bogie's Warner Bros. career really climaxed with Treasure of the Sierra Madre, arguably director John Huston's masterpiece, and in which Bogie gives one of his finest performances as the down-on-his-luck Fred C. Dobbs, whose growing paranoia after striking it rich harkens back to his fine work a dozen years before in Black Legion. Bogie left Warner Bros. soon thereafter, forming one of the earliest influential production companies founded by a former contract player, Santana Productions. The movies, usually released through Columbia, were hit and miss, however. Until his death in 1957 Bogie alternated between challenging roles in wildly successful films (The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny) and duds (Tokyo Joe, Sirocco).
Video & Audio
The movies, all in their original full-frame format, are presented in 12 double-sided DVDs in six slimcases, with two movies per disc, one per side. All of the films are supported by English and French subtitles; most but not all have Spanish subtitles also. The menus and bonus content seem to be identical to previously released versions of these films, with a few minor exceptions. The Big Sleep, for instance, includes only the 114-minute 1946 cut, and not the 1944 pre-release version that's included on some of the earlier DVD versions (though a featurette noting the differences between the two is included). Some viewers dislike these double-sided discs, but all the titles I looked at played just fine, without any problems.
Most of the films have audio commentaries, featuring among others: Bogart biographer Eric Lax, film historians Anthony Slide, James Ursini, Richard Jewell, Alain Silver, director Vincent Sherman, Alan L. Gansberg, Roger Ebert, Rudy Behlmer, and others. Most also feature the "Warner Night at the Movies" option, allowing the viewer to precede the feature with a collection of shorts from that year, usually a trailer, newsreel excerpt, cartoon, and 2-reel short. There are many original featurettes, almost all of which are excellent, and which do a fine job putting the pictures into cultural and historical context. Warner's in-house annual blooper reel ("Breakdowns of 19xx") are also included, featuring much amusing (and jarring) profanity from the studio's biggest stars. And there are numerous radio adaptations with some of the films, usually featuring one or more of the original stars.
The awkwardly titled The Brothers Warner (2008) is an okay documentary, though one wonders why Warner Home Video didn't dig out one of its several Bogie documentaries to include instead. The hardbound booklet is nice if light on text, more a mini-coffee table type offering; the studio correspondence reproductions, however, are fascinating. I wish Warner Home Video would include more material like that, especially easy to include reams of the stuff on Blu-ray format.
This is a great set 10 years too late. For a narrow range of customers, it's just the ticket, but most classic film fans will likely already have some combination of 25-100% of these titles already. Worse, more than a dozen (admittedly lesser) Warner-owned Bogart titles have never been released to DVD at all; this set would be a lot more attractive if a half-dozen or more of those had been included. If you've held off till now or are new to the world of Humphrey Bogart, this set is must, even with the emerging Blu-ray format, while others need not concern themselves with it. Split down the middle, a mild Recommendation.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.