Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good example of how recycling characters and plot from a wildly popular movie can led to tedious viewing. This week’s film recommendation is an infinitely more successful effort to rip-off a prior cinema classic: Howard Hawk’s To Have and Have Not.
Perhaps the greatest film ever produced via the old Hollywood studio system — Casablanca — was still playing in a few theaters when production began on To Have and Have Not. Although putatively based on a Hemingway novel, To Have and Have Not recycles Casablanca’s characters, plot, style and indeed some of its cast to tremendous effect. In the Ingrid Bergman role of a resourceful, beautiful woman with a past, the incomparable Lauren Bacall became an instant star as well as Bogart’s real-life bride.
The plot: Humphrey Bogart again plays an outwardly cynical man of the world who doesn’t want to get involved in World War II intrigue, despite the pleas of the idealists around him. But the better angels of his nature and an alluring stranger (Bacall) pull him into the fight on behalf of the Free French versus the hateful, corrupt Vichy regime that oversees the Island of Martinique. Nearly peerless entertainment ensues.
The movie has exciting moments of high tension as well as some laughs, but what positively sizzles here is the interaction between “Bogie and Baby”, who were soon to become an enduring Hollywood power couple beloved by millions. May-December romance in the movies can be unrealistic and even downright gross, but here it’s so deeply felt that it works. The two stars were in each other’s thrall, which puts spark and wit into their scenes together. Some immortal lines in the script (“You know how to whistle don’t you?”) enliven their exchanges, which is a credit to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner (Since the average Faulkner sentence runs about 50 pages, I lean towards crediting Furthman with the best one-liners).
The film also features one of Walter Brennan’s many memorable supporting actor turns, this time as Bogie’s alcoholic friend Eddie (See Carl Rollyson’s thoughtful take on Eddie here). Also on hand is the appealing actor-musician Hoagy Carmichael (for another fine Hoagy performance see my recommendation of Canyon Passage). He’s well-cast as the piano player at Rick’s Cafe, um, I mean, Frenchy’s bar. In one of the movie’s highlights, Hoagy and his band back up Bacall as she gives a sultry rendition of his song “How Little We Know”. The studio has originally planned to dub her, but she pulled off the musical number on her own.
I first saw To Have and Have Not as a teenager, and immediately fell in love with Lauren Bacall. I suppose it may reflect a lack of emotional development on my part that I am still just as enchanted by her three decades later…but what can you do?.
p.s. The film might have been the only high point in Lauren Bacall’s career if not for some luck and favorable Hollywood politics surrounding The Big Sleep. I relate that intriguing bit of cinema history here.