This Summer We’re Channelling: Lauren Bacall in Key Largo

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo”, 1948. Warner Brothers.

When John Huston watched Key Largo for the first time years after its release, he told Barbara Thomas in 1978, “I liked the whole picture.” There is something to this film that I really love. I think it just feels very entertaining despite or maybe because of the contained, claustrophobic setting of a small hotel in Florida, and all the actors do such a fantastic job playing out their fates during a compressed period of time, during a hurricane, as contrasting characters brought together by circumstance.

Humphrey Bogart, as Frank McCloud, is an embittered army major, who visits a hotel in Key Largo, Florida, to meet Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) and James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the widow and father of his friend war buddy killed on the front. Edward G. Robinson plays fugitive gangster Johnny Rocco, who takes over the hotel together with his entourage and holds everybody hostage as the hurricane strikes. He is introduced sitting naked in a bathtub, chewing a cigar. “I wanted the look of a crustacean with its shell off,” said Huston in an interview with Dan Ford, in 1972. “Robinson is immediately established as obscene and dangerous, like an animal caught out in the open.”

Lionel Barrymore’s character was in a wheelchair. The actor had been confined to a wheelchair for some years. In one scene, he had to draw himself from his wheelchair defending Franklin Roosevelt. In reality, he hated Roosevelt and Huston told the rest of the crew “to watch how he greeted his teeth when he had to praise him – John loved stuff like that,” Lauren Bacall remembered in her book.

“Bogart was extraordinary in that,” Huston would say about his experience of working with Bogie on the film. “We were friends, but it was the image Bogart projected on screen that made him right for my movies. I never wrote a scenario with Bogie in mind. After the screenplay was written, however, I would say, “Only Bogie can play this role.””

Bacall and Bogart were at their forth (it would also be their final) film together. In the book Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart, Richard Schickel describes Bogart’s scenes with Lauren Bacall as having an “unguarded quality”, something Bogart had never done when playing opposite other women. That is very true. They were made for each other, and had a very special rapport, on and off screen.

They, of course, had the most intense chemistry when they first appeared together in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, where “a very knowing, yet actually not widely experienced young woman meets an older man, knows at once what she wants, and proceeds to tempt, tease, and taunt him into an instinctive, erotically charged rapport,” as Todd McCarthy described their love story in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.

In The Big Sleep, Bacall and Bogart’s second film together, the same Howard Hawks wanted to recapture the provocative groove of their previous film, aiming at creating another vehicle for the Bogart-Bacall magic, and worked out the script with the intuitive view of the two characters’ relationship and dialogue in mind. Key Largo was different. Not only was it in the hands of a different director, but the director was John Huston. “Key Largo was one of my happiest movie experiences,” Bacall would recall. “I thought how happy a medium the movies were, to enable someone to meet, befriend and work with such people. What a great time of life that was – the best people at their best. With all those supposed actors’ egos, there was not a moment of discomfort or vying for position. That’s because they were all actors, not just ‘stars’”.

Dressed in a full, pleated wool skirt with generous side pockets and white dress shirt, pieced together with a wide buckle belt and espadrilles (the iconic flat shoes became popular in the United States when they were seen on Lauren Bacall in this movie), she channels the same restrained elegance and distinction that Bogart’s look – in matching pleated tweed trousers, white shirt and belt – does. She was “one of the boys”. Indeed, she was the honorary female member of the Rat Pack. She was the real deal, one of a kind. Just as Bogart. She may have seemed sultry, tough and unattainable from afar, but she defied all these stereotypes about herself, as it so clearly comes off in her book. It was her independent spirit, grace, statuesque beauty, strength of character and sharp wit that were so unattainable about her. He stood tall in everything he did and was – “Bogart in real life was what he was in movies,” were John Huston’s words. “We were good friends, we would drink together, we liked to tell nonsensical jokes and laugh together. He was a wonderful companion. He did not know what being serious meant, and if he noticed that other people were being pretentious, he would attack them in the most direct way.” Together, Bacall and Bogart became their best selves.

The practical 1940s suited Lauren Bacall, style-wise, and she would carry on her utilitarian, razor-sharp outfits into the 50s, her enigmatic femininity and feisty and unconventional nature in glorious contrast to the feminine excess of the next decade. Bacall and Bogart both had well established individual styles and together they became even more iconic. I like how coordinated to the smallest detail their costumes in Key Largo are, they even have the sleeves of their white shirts turned up and the top shirt buttons unfastened. She could carry off mannish tweeds and a white shirt as well as any of the guys. Nobody could straddle both tomboyish and feminine playfulness better than Lauren Bacall. Audrey Hepburn would wear a very similar ensemble five years later, in Roman Holiday, but we appreciate Lauren’s look – created by Leah Rhodes, who also dressed Bacall in The Big Sleep – in a different way. Audrey’s, just as her character, has a gentle innocence and a sweet, unabashed girlish quality to it, while Lauren wears it with boldness, bravery and a grown-up femininity, the kind of maturity she had reached in real life early, through a natural sense of independence, but especially through life itself and love, her life with Bogart the greatest educator in the realities of life (she was 19 when they met, he was 25 years her senior). “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”

editorial sources: John Huston interview with Dan Ford, 1972; John Huston interview with Barbara Thomas, 1978; John Ford interview with Michel Ciment, 1984 (all interviews part of the book John Huston Interviews, edited by Robert Emmet Long). By Myself and Then Some, by Lauren Bacall. Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart, by Richard Schickel. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy



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