A Humphrey Bogart Film Festival is held every year on the tropical island of Key Largo within easy reach of several airports and an easy drive from some of Florida’s most popular destinations. Which means it is now less demanding to get there than it was for Frank McCloud, Bogart’s character who arrives by boat at the Largo Hotel just ahead of a hurricane at the beginning of this film.
Key Largo is noteworthy because it marks perhaps the last high point of an era and reunites Bogart with people from phases of his career thus far: Edward G. Robinson (who had worked with him in Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s), John Huston (director of The Maltese Falcon and other gangster roles in the early 40s), and then of course there’s his pairing with Lauren Bacall, who had only recently become his wife (and you will remember Film Club marked her passing by screening The Big Sleep a while back).
When producer Jerry Wald (Mildred Pierce, Caged) brought the 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson (below) to the attention of John Huston, the director thought it too hard to adapt. However, recognizing a good pairing of Bogart and Bacall after their success in four previous films, the producer kept pressing and, with the help of Richard Brooks (1912 – 1992), Huston came up with a workable screenplay in which Brooks (pictured below, left) deployed tension, understatement, anticlimax and emotion – all qualities that would lead him to become a director n the future and receive 6 Oscar nominations.
However, in the original play, Bogart’s character was a deserter from the Spanish-American war: a Bogart hero could never do such a thing (desertion could never be other than cowardly in a Hollywood movie), so Bogart became a man rather vaguely disenchanted after the war – as he does in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. So, of course, he overcomes disillusionment and audiences could be depended on to fill in the blanks using the Bogart formula from past pictures. And while some half dozen Anderson’s plays had already been adapted for film with hardly any changes Huston and Brooks did a pretty complete re-write of this one, including changing character names.
So while it is adapted from a play (and indeed also staged much like the play it is based on) Key Largo is quite different and avoids being at all claustrophobic – chiefly because there are plenty of colourful characters and dialogue exchanges to hold our attention: Edward G. Robinson and his mobsters dominate the majority of the film; the wheelchair-ridden hotelier, Lionel Barrymore (acting in a wheelchair now for 10 years since becoming crippled with arthritis while filming You Can’t Take it With You) and his daughter (Lauren Bacall) try to keep things in check but – wouldn’t you know it – she is falling in love with Bogart! Then Rocco and his boys all start to suffer with itchy trigger fingers – as you do in the heat of the Florida keys … probably. (right: director John Huston stands between Bogart and Bacall on the set of Key Largo).
But it is also true to say that Bogart is uncharacteristically quiet in this picture, which really belongs to Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973). He had always previously appeared above Bogart in the credits and here gets the showboat role of Rocco (based partly on Al Capone, who died in Florida, and partly on Lucky Luciano); chewing a cigar (if not the scenery) and waving a machine gun, Rocco talks up his own greatness to the point where we have to admire a star who didn’t mind being obnoxious on the screen. This is particularly impressive in the context of events brewing in America at the time when, as anyone who saw the recent – and highly recommended – Trumbo (in which he is played by Michael Stuhlbarg) will be aware, Robinson was under considerable pressure. A complex (and often conflicted) personality, Robinson realized that, as he says in Trumbo, he had only his face to trade on (exemplified by the above shot from Key Largo), so he could not (like Trumbo) use a false name to disguise his political affiliations in order to overcome vicious attacks from rabid anti-communists out for blood.
Born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest his family had emigrated to America when he was 10 after being attacked by an antisemitic mob. On the Lower East Side, he changed his name and went to City College with a view to becoming a criminal lawyer but was distracted by acting and eventually wound up on Broadway, where he was spotted and went on to make 3 films before 1930. A sensitive, softly-spoken and cultured man, who spoke seven languages, Robinson appeared in 40 Broadway plays and over 100 films during a 50-year career. He was never nominated for an Academy Award, but in 1973 was awarded an honorary Oscar in recognition of his “greatness as a player, a patron of the arts and a dedicated citizen.” A classical music buff (counting Gershwin and Stravinsky among his friends) and a keen art collector (he had one of the finest collections of Impressionst and post-Impressionist paintings in the country), he had entered political life in 1938, when 56 prominent stars, writers, directors and studio heads – including James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, Groucho Marx, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, Paul Muni, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Warner and Jack Warner – gathered at his home to discuss the situation in Germany and Western Europe.
But in 1945 Robinson appeared on the initial list of actors to be investigated by HUAC and in the summer Key Largo was filmed (1947) the FBI believed Robinson was a member of the Communist Party and that Red leaders found his political views “to be very sound and mature.” His home was placed under surveillance and the license plate numbers of everyone who
visited him was recorded. Now desperate, he backed the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA), a group which included Robinson, Marsha Hunt, Paul Henreid, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly (some of whom can be seen arriving in Washington in the picture above), which sought to denounce HUAC’s actions. Nevertheless three years later Robinson was persona non grata in the industry he so loved. Called several times before HUAC, Robinson was humiliated into naming names yet his career went into a nose dive anyway and never really recovered. He was partly rehabilitated (though somewhat snidely, one can’t help thinking) by being given a role of the Hebrew informer Dathan in The Ten Commandments (1956) – ironically by Cecil B. DeMille, one of Hollywood’s most prominent anti-Communists. But even then he had to wait almost 3 years before being offered another significant part.
What we see in Key Largo therefore is an actor at the height of his powers before being caught up in a storm he could not control. Robinson was no radical, let alone a Red, and his downfall, in the words of film historian Steven J Ross, ‘sent an even greater chill throughout the industry than the incarceration of the Hollywood Ten. … If the government could drive a left-liberal like Eddie out of the business, a man whom even anti-Communists like Ronald Reagan called “one of the warmest-hearted, truly kind people in the world,” then they could go after anyone. And if a star of Robinson’s magnitude could not survive such attacks, was anyone safe? A whole generation of Hollywood activists took note of his fate.’ (See a fuller account here) In the light of these contextual events, the impending hurricane from which the characters are sheltering in Key Largo could be interpreted as being symbolic of the political storm brewing in Robinson’s adopted country.
In any case, he is surrounded by great character actors in Key Largo, like Clare Trevor (Gaye, his moll – a lush and ex-singer), Thomas Gomez (his chief lieutenant) and Dan Seymour (his henchman). As one commentator says, this may be the fattest gang of hoodlums assembled on screen until The Sopranos. A high point of the film comes, however, when Gaye has to sing a song for Rocco before he will allow her to have a drink. Clare Trevor was nervous about the scene and assumed she would be ‘lip-syncing’ to someone else’s voice. She kept asking Huston to rehearse it, but the director kept saying, “There’s plenty of time.” Until one afternoon he said they would shoot the scene now, without any rehearsal. The piano gave her a starting note and, still assuming she’d have another chance to lip-sync, she just went for it, singing it herself in front of the whole cast and crew. “You try singing in front of that group!” said in a later interview. “It’s not so much fun!” It was raw and ragged and edgy – and bad! But it was just what Huston wanted and that take was used in the film. But Ms Trevoe got the last laugh by winning the Oscar for best supporting role.
And then, of course, there’s Bacall …