The star system and star image was the foundation for Hollywood ﬁlm making during the time of a vertically integrated Hollywood. Box oﬃce returns would determine the economic success for a studio and when a studio had a bankable star, their image was critical to selling a picture to exhibitors as well as audiences. As Tino Balio states in the book Grand Design, “At the production level, the screenplay, sets, costumes, lighting, and makeup of a picture were designed to enhance a star’s screen persona… At the distribution level, a star’s name and image dominated advertising and publicity and determined the rental price for the picture.”
Certainly story and plot play a major role in the success of a ﬁlm along with the director and key players involved in creating the ﬁlm; but even today, how often when talking about seeing a ﬁlm, have we heard or uttered a phrase similar to, “Let’s go see the new [insert star name] movie”? The reason being is that stars throughout the history of cinema have ﬁlled a “type” or “role” in our cultural awareness and identity. The stars are also a key aspect of providing the audience with a hint as to what the ﬁlm will provide without knowing what the ﬁlm is speciﬁcally about. Thinking in terms of a contemporary star like George Clooney, one would generally assume that he’s going to play a suave, well-dressed, charming, witty, playboy- type (a modern-day Cary Grant.) While the audience may not know exactly what will unfold in the course of the ﬁlm, we have a pretty good idea of the ride that we are in for. A properly marketed star will set oﬀ a chain-reaction of reference within the audience’s collective understanding of what a ﬁlm will be about and what someone can expect when paying admission to see a ﬁlm.
What may be even more interesting is how a star’s image can create a cultural phenomenon when it comes to shaping an identity for a generation and possibly beyond. By far one of the most lasting and important actors, not just of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” but of all time, is Humphrey Bogart. Much of the actor’s early career was spent playing the “gangster” or a “criminal-type” in supporting roles to the studios major stars. Not surprising is the fact that Bogart’s breakout role as a leading man came in the ﬁlm High Sierra, where he plays a recent parolee who is brought in by his former boss to help a gang of criminals pull oﬀ a robbery at a California resort. However, after hits like High Sierra and his detective turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Warner Brothers Studios would craft a diﬀerent image for Bogart that would take him from the image of the criminal to the romantic lead. But regardless of the marketing strategy employed Bogart’s core traits were those of a smart, insightful cynic. And it was the cynicism of his characters that led to his display of humanity and kindness.
In many of his roles, Bogart oozed cool. He was dressed in a way that was the pinnacle of style and fashion, and was quick to throw back a drink chased by a cigarette. Knew all the angles and how to play the game. His lines were delivered with a dry wit and his expressions said so much even in the briefest moment of camera time. He was in style and substance the idea of masculinity. He built an image that would inspire audiences as the guy who cared without showing an ounce of outward concern.
In the following essay, I will demonstrate how Bogart’s star status and newly created image through Warner Brothers publicity department would deﬁne masculinity in the post- Depression era, through World War II; in a generation of ﬁlm goers that would follow in two of his most iconic roles: Rick Blaine in Casablanca and Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. In my analysis, I plan to incorporate materials developed by the studio to market the ﬁlm, the actual ﬁlm text itself (highlighting particular aspects of his performance to support my claim), fan magazines of the period which highlight his oﬀ-screen persona, and articles written about Bogart and the impact his persona had on American culture.
According to Harris in Stardom Industry of Desire, “the successful stars have been those whose appeal can be catalogued into a series of such traits, associations and mannerisms.” While The Maltese Falcon was produced a year or so before Casablanca, Bogart’s character possesses many of the same qualities. The character of Sam Spade can see through people’s lies. He diﬀuses tense situations with a quick wit and dry sarcasm. He utilizes subtle gestures, glances and smirks that are distinctly Bogart, ﬁtting the image created for him in the early days of his career and time at Warner Brothers. He smokes, drinks, and struggles with internal conﬂict but ultimately does the right thing in the end.
In an academic essay by Mark Miller, S. Charles Einfeld, head of advertising and publicity at Warner Brothers, charged long-time publicist Marty Weiser noting the following, “Bogart has been typed through publicity as a gangster character. We want to undo this. For Bogart is one of the greatest actors today… Sell Bogart romantically.” In looking at the pressbook created by Warner Brothers, there are many instances of suggested posters and advertising for the re-release of Casablanca. The posters all show the same image of Ingrid Bergman’s forehead pressed against Bogart’s cheek, his head casting a slight shadow onto her. They don’t look into each other’s eyes, rather his gaze is oﬀ into the distance. This imagery creates a sense of closeness, warmth, tenderness and love between the two lead characters; however, Bogart’s look into the distance shows a strength, resolve and sense of responsibility and protection. The concept demonstrated in this simple poster is what drives Rick’s actions in the ﬁlm, and is the embodiment of masculinity around this time. Feelings are meant to be masked. Love is demonstrated through actions and not through words. Bogart’s sense of stoic, calm, cynicism dominates emotions.
The poster also includes the tagline, “They have a date with fate in Casablanca”. Much like the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we know that heartbreak is on the horizon. The usage of the word “fate” paints the sense of a predetermined outcome. That choice and desire isn’t going to weigh into the outcome, yet forces at play in the grander cosmos will determine what will happen. It is this sense of a “man needing to do what a man needs to do.” It further emphasizes that a man is to be strong, to set aside emotional feelings because it is important to be tough. Bogart’s toughness doesn’t come through in the form of physical strength, but rather an emotional toughness where men must put aside feelings and desires for what is required.
One reporter writes in looking back at Bogart and his illustrious career, “…he became everything an American man was supposed to be, a tough guy who could throw a punch, swig some gin, chain smoke, look good in a suit, but be tender enough to let the girl get another guy, to always do the right thing.” While Casablanca ends with Rick doing the “right thing” by letting Ilsa and Laszlo take the papers for transport to Lisbon and then America, we also see the tender moments in his tough guy exterior. In the ﬁlm, Rick oﬀers witty repartee to his interactions with the patrons, employees and the police who monitor the guests at his establishment. All the while Bogart conveys a sense of his cool, collected outward image. However, there are subtle, private moments in the performance of Bogart that show a vulnerable aspect of his personality. When Ilsa returns after she and Laszlo ﬁrst appear in Rick’s café, Bogart ﬂashes a brief smile which he quickly wipes away. This again is a perfect representation of masculinity that permeated into several generations. For example, those types of statements that people make, such as, “women are emotional and men are rational.” While Bogart acts tough and displays a strong outward appearance in public, it’s when he’s alone that he is allowed to display any type of emotion.
Late in the ﬁlm, there is a moment where a young couple, Jan and Annina, are seeking papers for passage but don’t have the money to pay the bribe. Annina approaches Bogart’s character with a plea for help as her husband gambles for the funds to pay the police oﬃcial. Bogart exits to the casino at the back of the café. He walks next to Jan, with no explanation to the man, and tells him where to place his bet, which hits. He lets his winnings ride on the same number, which hits yet again. When the woman thanks him for what he did, he shrugs it oﬀ saying, “Just a lucky guy.” It’s a way for Rick to do the right thing, but not oﬀer a handout. A way to not embarrass another man. This is yet another way of showing him doing the right thing, providing a lesson of what it means to be a man…and how men treat other men.
In much the same way his characters like Sam Spade and Rick Blaine display this tough exterior, Bogart himself shares a glimpse into his personal life that somewhat imitates his on- screen persona. In a Photoplay article from July 1949 (penned by Bogart), he discusses the impact that the birth of his son, Steven, had on his life. The star writes, “His [Steven’s] actual arrival cost me money, frustration, and an incalculable amount of nervous strain. I may forgive him eventually, but I’m pretty bitter now.”7 Later in the article, he goes on, “Last, young Steve has unfortunately smiled at me, too. That was his meanest trick. The day he got home he tore his eyes away from his mother for a second, turned his tiny noggin, and gave me the full treatment. The result was Bogart became a jellyﬁsh, right there in the nursery. The additional result was Bogart resolved to live a life of dignity, intelligence, and responsibility.” Bogart provides a glimpse into his personal life. A life, like his characters, charted on a distinct path only thrown oﬀ course by the arrival of, instead of a beautiful woman, a baby determined to turn the hero’s life upside down. And while there is resistance, resentment and distrust, the hero softens and realizes what’s right. In this case, to be a good father and by proxy a good man.
Some may argue that Bogart’s roles—particularly that of Rick Blaine—aren’t as focused on what it means to be a man, but rather are a subtle message on patriotism. In fact, Rick is largely seen in his “Café Americain”—a metaphor for the safety of the United States. He eventually does his patriotic duty by utilizing the documents to perpetuate the cause of freedom represented by Victor Laszlo’s resistance against the tyranny of the German occupation in France. In contrast, the character of Sam Spade in Maltese Falcon is solely acting in his own interest of self-preservation when he is accused of the murders of Archer and Thursby. While I would contend that both of those views are valid and accurate inferences and interpretations of the film’s message or meaning, I would argue that on a deeper level, these ﬁlms are designed as a lesson in manhood/masculinity. It helped shape an understanding that would become—consciously or unconsciously—a formative blueprint that would shape young men’s understanding, opinion and perspective on how men were to behave and act. The characters portrayed by Bogart were tough, hard-nosed, deep and emotionally guarded. This was how men were meant to act, and emotions were things that were to remain private and tucked away.
Bailo, Tino, “Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939 “(Berkley: University of California Press, 1996), 144.
Bogart, Humphrey, “The Most Unforgivable Character I’ve Met,” Photoplay, July 1949.
Casablanca. Turner Classic Movie Channel. Directed by Michael Cur4z. Los Angeles: Warner Brothers Studios, 1942.
Harris, Thomas, “The Building of Popular Images” in Stardom: Industry of Desire, ed. Chris4ne Gledhill (London: Routledge, 1991), 40.
The Maltese Falcon. Turner Classic Movie Channel. Directed by Sam Huston. Los Angeles: Warner Brothers Studios, 1941.
Miller, Mark S. “Helping Exhibitors: Pressbooks at Warner Bros. in the Late 1930s,” Film History 6, no.2: 195.
“Now! The Biggest Stars in Their Biggest Hit! [poster],” Casablanca Pressbook (1942): 7, Cinema Pressbooks from the Original Studio CollecSons (Reel 3), Microflim Collec4on, Oakland University Krege Library.