Archive for May 4, 2012

Bogart Lip

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2012 by dcairns

He seems to be smiling, but really he’s just pushing one side of his face up with his knuckles. It’s the manly version of Lillian Gish in BROKEN BLOSSOMS.

Among the many interesting things about Bogart, his paralysed upper lip may not feature highly, but it’s in there somewhere. According to various conflicting stories, Bogie suffered some kind of injury to his mouth while serving in the Navy — one version has him getting hit by shrapnel in a U-boat attack (but the dates don’t work — this was two weeks after the armistice!); the alternative has him being smashed in the face by a manacled prisoner he was transporting; the truth may well be less glamorous still  — and the result was the lishp and the stiff upper lip.

The lishp, fortunately, was of the Sean Connery variety rather than something more Karloffian, which might have hindered Bogart in hith tough guy roleth, but it was probably more hindrance than help anyway. The paralysed lip, however, may have been in some ways a boon.

Actor/director/inspirational demon Ken Campbell, in his studies of the art and science of ventriloquism, observed that certain South Seas islanders, when going to war, intimidate their enemies with displays of vocalization sans lip movement. So there’s something inherently threatening and dangerous about communicating verbally through a rigid mouth-slot. Which explains a lot of the feelings I always had about Shari Lewis.

Here’s a trailer for a new movie looking at Ken Campbell’s ventriloquial pupil and heir ~

Anyhow, what I’m saying is that possibly Bogart’s air of controlled menace was enhanced by his facial disability (I mean, the lip, I don’t mean his homely face, although that obviously helped too). There’s something more powerful about a character who exerts intimidation without seeming to try. It has to be inherent.

There was a TV show called In at the Deep End in which the presenters had to perform a new, unusual task each week, and one time the task was to play a movie villain. So he went to speak to Oliver Reed. Which was very interesting, because Ollie was sober, which wasn’t his usual style for interviews. And he was in tutelary mode, which was also a surprise — rarely can you find Ollie talking about his craft. Outside of this conversation, I can only recall one quote where he talked about the importance of growing real facial hair, “because it moves with your face,” rather than having a fake bushel spirit-gummed onto the old chin.

“I’m known as the sound man’s enemy,” said Reed, “Because I speak so softly. Dangerous men don’t shout, only loudmouths shout.”

Understatement again. It’s relatively easy for stage-trained actors to adjust their volume for the cinema, but adjusting facial movement takes a little longer — it’s possible that British actors trained to enunciate make less effective screen tough guys than American actors who often have less of a theatrical background, having come straight from Schwabs. Brits often get cast as villains, because they sound effete and intelligent to American ears, but they’re less likely to be manly heroes. But that might be changing — a new generation of British actors have started turning up in American film and TV with a mastery of dialect that seems not to have existed in the days of either James Mason or Bob Hoskins, and their ability to not only sound American but act American is impressive indeed. But will any of them make it to full movie stardom, or what passes for it today?