Her voice comes at you low and flat, wildly insinuating, electric and lingering. In another age, Lauren Bacall’s voice might have been called mannish. When she opened her mouth in To Have and Have Not — taking a long drag on a cigarette while locking Humphrey Bogart in her gaze — she staked a claim on the screen and made an immortal Hollywood debut. But in 1944 at the exquisitely tender age of 19, she was also projecting an indelible screen persona: that of the tough, quick-witted American woman who could fight the good fight alongside her man.
She may not have been Rosie the Riveter and building bombers, but there was something about Bacall, a New York girl turned Hollywood starlet, that suggested a stubborn strength that could stand up to the times. The movie is best remembered for its oft-quoted whistle line (oh, you know how), but there’s far more to Bacall’s performance than that bit of dialogue. Liberally adapted from the Hemingway novel, the Howard Hawks film would cement Bogart as a romantic lead after Casablanca. He plays Morgan, aka Steve, a caustic American who charters his fishing boat off the coast of Vichy-controlled Martinique. Bacall plays Marie, aka Slim, a thief and possibly a prostitute who lifts a wallet off a chump under Bogart’s watch, but later helps him smuggle French partisans out of the country.
If the movie’s political backdrop tends to go missing in the mists of the Bogart and Bacall legend — they fell in love during its making — it’s understandable given how they steam up the joint. Before teaching him how to whistle, Slim slides into Steve’s lap and leans down to kiss him. “Whaddya do that for?” he says, as if the question needed asking. “Been wondering whether I’d like it,” she says. He asks her verdict. She murmurs “I don’t know yet” before going in for another try. This time, he pulls her close, his hand circling her neck, and they kiss deeper and longer. She stops, pulls back and stands, taking the camera with her, and delivers the film’s other great line: “It’s even better when you help.”
Decades later, Bacall’s performance in To Have and Have Not has been so memorialised and near-mummified that it can be easy to forget its initial shock waves. James Agee liked Bacall in To Have and Have Not (“the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde”) and predicted in his review that the movie’s appeal was predicated on whether you liked her even if he admitted he was no judge.
Not everyone was wholly sold on Bacall’s coming out. Writing around the same time as Agee, the critic Parker Tyler noted “the mild Mephistophelian peaks of her eyebrows” and compared her with screen goddesses like Gene Tierney and Rita Hayworth. Tyler was confounded by Bacall’s husk and doesn’t seem to have known that, per Hawks’s instructions, she had stripped away any trace of what he deemed a potential feminine flaw.
After signing her, Hawks had begun shaping Bacall, telling her, in an anecdote related in Todd McCarthy’s invaluable biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood: “When a woman gets excited or emotional, she tends to raise her voice. Now, there is nothing more unattractive than screeching.”
For Tyler, the results were mannered and synthetic. Yet he also rightly pinpointed an androgynous quality in Bacall that helped distinguish her debut and made it such a playful gloss on the classic femme fatale: “Her Hepburnesque Garbotoon, clearly confirmed in her subsequent pictures, equals Dietrich travestied by a boyish voice.” Like Garbo and Dietrich, two other goddesses that Tyler invoked, Bacall’s on-screen presence in To Have and Have Not draws on both feminine and masculine qualities that suggest an excitingly capable woman. Guided by Hawks, Bacall calmed her trembling chin, gave Bogart a sexy little slap and filled out her character with so much personality that she transcended her third billing (after Walter Brennan) to become an erotic emblem of American wit and war-ready grit.
There’s another calculus in the Bogart and Bacall pairing. Ingrid Bergman may have warmed Bogart up in Casablanca, but it was Bacall who lit him on fire. She later complained about being in his shadow; in truth, each burnished the other’s legend, as all four of the movies they made together prove. She made some good ones without Bogart, who died in 1957, including the fizzy How to Marry a Millionaire. But after the 1940s, as pneumatic blondes blew up and gender roles were re-established, she didn’t often find the film roles that suited her cool, steady gaze. The movies couldn’t see it, but she was born to go quip to quip, curled lip to lip, with a man.
The New York Times