Such a person is Humphrey Bogart, being indelibly linked to Warner Bros. films for most of his career. He started out in bit parts, proved he had screen presence in the Petrified Forest (1936), then languished in repetitive "gangster" parts until the one-two-three punch of High Sierra (1941), the Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) built his stardom.
So far as Bogart's Warner career goes, histories usually invoke the aforementioned four films and likely touch upon To Have and Have Not (1944), the Big Sleep (1946), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), possibly even citing his appearances alongside James Cagney in the Roaring Twenties (1939) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) as representative of his gangster roles; true Bogart aficionados will bring up Black Legion (1937). But what did the rest of Bogart's output look like?
I bought the recent DVD collection Humphrey Bogart: the Essentials which offered a decent overview of the actor's career at Warner from the Petrified Forest to Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but I noticed a lot of his career was skipped over - particularly the period during the 1930s where he was floundering. It makes sense for Warner to put forward the best of Bogart from their catalog, but what, I wondered, was being overlooked? Eventually, I delved into all of Bogart's Warner movies; many of them featured the actor in dull gangster parts, such as Racket Busters (1938). However, from the full range of Bogart's Warner career prior to High Sierra, there are eight films which I think are particularly unusual in terms of Bogie's performances; they're what I'd like to share with you:
Three on a Match (1932), directed by Mervyn LeRoy
This was early in Bogart's career and he ultimately made such a small impact on Warner that when he returned to them for the Petrified Forest (1936), many on the lot didn't remember his earlier work for them, even though this film was one of the biggest Warner pictures of the year. Bogart's part in the film (a gangster) is small, but he still managed to rank above Edward Arnold in the credits (Arnold's appearance is essentially a cameo). Three on a Match is known today as one of those "pre-code" movies where characters could engage in drug use and extra-marital sex without being nixed by the censors. Looking past the "racy" material, it's very odd for a modern viewer to look back and see how much of the cast is squandered; the "three" referenced in the title are Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis; Dvorak is almost forgotten today, but she carries most of the film; Blondell is somewhat remembered today, but her role peters out quickly; Davis is better-known now than either actress, yet her part is muted and her presence is almost invisible; the "three" aren't treated as equals by the film.
It's very late in the film when Bogart finally puts in his appearance. By this time, Dvorak's character has become addicted to cocaine and involved with a man who owes a lot of money to the mob; Bogart gets exactly one standout scene when he meets Dvorak: Dvorak angrily confronts the gangsters, then rubs her nose in the manner of an addict. Bogart glances back at his men, humourously rubs his own nose and declares through a sideways grin, "Uh-oh." It's the one moment which suggests an excellent actor was lurking beneath the paint-by-numbers gangster he'd been hired to play.
The Great O'Malley (1937), directed by William Dieterle
This film... boy, this film. Here's a movie which is pretty hard to define, at least by the typical genre conventions of movies. By Warner's standards, it's once of their "social" pictures, a movie about life and trouble during the Great Depression with a fairly strong left-wing message. But whereas a social picture like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) could be called a "prison movie," what exactly is the Great O'Malley? It's the tale of a police officer played by Pat O'Brien who believes in upholding the letter of the law, memorizing every piece of city ordinance and enforcing them on the populace, to the point of becoming a local nuisance but technically, being a good cop.
The problems begin when O'Brien stops Bogart to give him a ticket for his noisy muffler; consequently, Bogart is late for his new job and loses the position; ergo, he robs a store for money; thusly, he is arrested and, believe it or not, O'Brien involvement in this chain of events is seen as an embarrassment to the department, causing O'Brien to be demoted to working a croswalk at a school. Coincidence of coincidences, he befriends a little girl who turns out to be Bogart's daughter; through caring for her, he learns to become flexible about the law.
Then we reach the unbelievable climax: Bogart gets out of prison and hears O'Brien wants to see him; it's just so O'Brien can secretly deliver some gifts to Bogart's family, but Bogart panics, pulls a gun and shoots O'Brien. Before he passes out, O'Brien takes the gun from Bogart. The police capture Bogart and bring him before O'Brien's gurney bed to identify him as the shooter, but O'Brien insists he accidentally shot himself. Bogart is so grateful he winds up giving O'Brien a blood transfusion to make up for what was spilled.
Warner films of the late 30s got pretty lefty, but this takes the cake; it's so leftist, it might've inspired Ayn Rand to punish society by inflicting Objectivism upon it. The journey of a man from abiding by the letter of the law to its spirit is a decent enough premise - O'Brien's character is essentially reformed like Ebenezer Scrooge. But reforming to the extent of refusing to press charges after someone shot him with intent to kill? It would be like A Christmas Carol ending with Scrooge at first pretending to be the same old humbug as before the spirits visited him, only for Bob Cratchit to explode and bash him in the head with the coal scuttle; Scrooge responds by refusing to punish Bob and gives him gifts besides. On the one hand, you could read the Great O'Malley as portraying a very good Christian message about placing others before yourselves; on the other hand, you'd never buy Pat O'Brien as the Christ of the Depression.
Marked Woman (1937), directed by Lloyd Bacon
This film is notably mainly for pairing Bogart with Davis following the Petrified Forest (this time as more or less equals, albeit Davis in the lead). Davis' own career followed a path not dissimilar to Bogart's as she rose up the ranks (although she had to make her film Of Human Bondage (1934) with a different studio in order to finally get Warner's attention). Davis works in a nightclub which is being taken over by the mob; this time, Bogart is one of the good guys - a crusading district attorney who wants to get the mob and needs Davis' testimony to do so; unfortunately, their first attempt to go after the mob fails and leads to Davis becoming the titular "Marked Woman" when the mob disfigure her; steeled by this and Bogart's encouragement, eventually they get the mob. Although Bogart is something of a hero in the film, he has an interesting shade to his character in how heedless he seems of the danger Davis is being placed in by helping him; it's only after the mob have been broken that he seems to realize what a mess he's made of Davis' life. It isn't a performance you'd recognize as "typical" Bogart, but it's a very interesting stop along the journey.
Swing Your Lady (1938), directed by Ray Enright
Bogart considered this his worst film, which it might be (but see the next entry before you decide). It's a hillbilly musical-comedy, but I'm sorry to report, Bogart does not sing and dance. Rather, Bogart is a wrestling manager who brings his client to the Ozarks where the wrestler falls in love with a tough-as-nails hillbilly gal. Bogart at least received top billing for this picture, but at what price? AT WHAT PRICE?!
The Warners' musicals were only ever engaging when directed by Busby Berkeley; one wonders what a Busby musical featuring Bogart would have been like. Perhaps it would have been close to...
Men Are Such Fools (1938), directed by Busby Berkeley
Here is my nominee for the worst picture Bogart ever appeared in, a comedy-romance featuring Wayne Morris and Priscilla Lane, with Bogart causing complications as the third member of a love triangle. You might suppose the problem with this film lies in Bogart being in a comedic love triangle - surely if Bogart is in a love triangle it should be played for tragedy, right? This film is a tragedy - a tragic footnote in Berkeley's career.
The premise has Lane as a career-minded gal determined to climb the corporate ladder through hard work and initiative; Morris portrays a boor who determines he's in love with her and wants to give up her career and marry him (basically in that order). To force her to become engaged, he parks his car on train tracks until she complies. You might wonder (not without reason) why we should find this funny.
It feels as though everything Busby knew about romance and comedy from his earlier musicals was forgotten by the time he made this movie. It's not as though one character badgering another until they fall in love with them can't be played for laughs - it's certainly a staple of the romantic comedy genre. But here? Take the scene in Bringing up Baby (1938) where Katherine Hepburn steals Cary Grant's clothes while he's in the shower, all to force him to remain with her instead of rushing off to his wedding; with his clothes missing, Grant has to don a frilly nightgown belonging to Hepburn. That's funny because it undermines Grant's dignity. Compare this to the scene in Men Are Such Fools where Morris wants Lane to marry him so he dunks her under water until she agrees. There might be an angle to playing this latter scene for laughs but if there is, it eluded Busby. All we're left with is an unsettling sense the filmmakers want us to laugh at domestic abuse.
Bogart is far from the worst thing about the film; he gets some fine sardonic dialogue, although he's never credible as a romantic interest for Lane's character. Blessedly, his part keeps him off the screen for most of the picture. Swing Your Lady was just a simple, silly musical; I think it's far worse to appear in an unfunny comedy.
Men Are Such Fools has fallen into obscurity but it deserves to have its profile raised, for more people to be talking about it; above all, it deserves to be on more people's worst movies of all time lists.
The Oklahoma Kid (1939), directed by Lloyd Bacon
This wasn't Bogart's only western - it was followed by Virginia City (1940) - but even though the latter picture depicts Bogart (improbably) as a Mexican, I'm much more fascinated by this film. Here, Bogart is the villain to James Cagney's hero, as was typical for films they shared. The very idea of casting these two in a western is a small part of why I love going through the lesser-known studio pictures of the 30s; later on, you had actors who worked primarily in westerns or part-time in westerns, but actors appearing in genre films seldom criss-crossed between them. In 1939 the thinking seemed to be, "Westerns? Aw, they're just gangster pictures on horseback!"
It's actually a pretty good 1930s western picture (this coming from someone who doesn't typically like the western genre). Cagney and Bogart's presence is a little distracting but I never felt they were miscast. Cagney essentially plays his "I may be an outcast, but I won't work for the mob" character while Bogart is a mob boss with a fancy hat. It's as good as a Cagney-Bogart western could possibly be.
Dark Victory (1939), directed by Edmund Goulding
I'm cheating a little by including Dark Victory because it's a fairly well-known movie, considered one of Bette Davis' finest pictures. Here, she's a spoiled rich woman who loves horseback riding; Bogart is her Irish (yes, Irish) stable manager. Tragically, Davis comes down with a case of Hollywood Illness and begins reexamining her life, even dallying with the idea of romancing Bogart. Ultimately, she settles on the less-interesting doctor played by George Brent.
Bogart wasn't bad as a romantic lead, definitely feeling here like a credible rival for Davis' affections (whereas I couldn't see Priscilla Lane falling for him in Men Are Such Fools). The Irish accent was an odd choice which hindered his performance, but he did all right with the material; ultimately, it was Davis' picture and she carried it. The real impact of the film was the attention it brought Bogart at Warner Bros., as they finally saw his range and began seeking better roles for him. First, however...
The Return of Doctor X (1939), directed by Vincent Sherman
Ah, this film. When you think of the studios which produced the "classic" horror films you think of Universal (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy); RKO (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie); MGM (Mad Love, Mark of the Vampire); Paramount (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Island of Lost Souls). But although the Warners made a couple of chillers in the early 30s (Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Doctor X (1932)), by the late 30s they weren't involved in the genre; indeed, the horror genre was mostly dormant in Hollywood.
And so it was Humphrey Bogart became cast in a sequel to Doctor X... except, it's a sequel in name only. Bogart felt like he was being punished to appear in this film, where he was a mad scientist who'd learned the secret of bringing the dead back to life; being a dead man himself, Doctor X needed fresh blood to sustain his existence. It's all depicted in the clean, sanitary environment you expect to see in a 1939 Warner Bros. picture. Crisp black & white photography with warm, familiar character actors; it's too pleasant to be terrifying, not that the picture really attempts to mount any suspense until the end, when Bogart kidnaps the leading lady for her blood.
What better place to end my look at Bogart's less-notable work than one of the actor's own least favourite performances? The Return of Doctor X is available on DVD, believe it or not; for Bogart's only horror film role, you might expect more from it. Rather than a mad scientist, I think he'd have made a swell mummy. Or perhaps a mad strangler? I need to put more thought into this.
Thank you for reading; if this list entertained you, then please seek out some of the referenced pictures for your own viewing pleasure!