Bogart Lip

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?

19 Responses to “Bogart Lip”

  1. It bugged me as a youth when people would say Bogart was “of course not a great actor” since one of the jobs an actor has is to do lines justice, and Bogart’s quotability is surely a testament to how good he was at this. Oh, here meanwhile is an excellently sober Reed talking brilliantly about his learning of the ropes.

    You may have already linked to this, my links are going crazy and taking me to a spam site, sorry.

  2. Interesting you mentioned Mason’s lack of accent, in BIGGER THAN LIFE, he plays a small-town American teacher who used to play football and he sounds like James Mason!

    It’s miscasting yet it works!

    Louise Brooks suggested in her profile on Bogart(where she states that ‘In A Lonely Place’ offered the performance closest to the real guy) that Bogart chapped his lip in a bar fight. With Bogart, he became such an indispensable cultural phenomenon, that it’s hard to treat him as an artist. But he’s definitely great.

  3. Some of these odd bits of casting serve to demonstrate how insignificant the details of a character are (nationality, class), and how getting the heart of it right is all that matters.

    Bogart does fervid neurosis very well, but he’s even better at underplaying. Which of course is always underrated in movie stars.

  4. That’s kind of disappeared nowadays. That is ‘heart over accent’, like Laurence Olivier in ‘Carrie’ for instance, a remarkable performance but perhaps not totally American. Another magnificent miscasting is Burt Lancaster as the Prince in The Leopard, a part Visconti meant to cast Olivier in.

    Bogart is a quintessential movie actor, even if he had considerable theater experience. Like at the end of The Maltese Falcon, the casual, calm way he describes the falcon as, “the stuff that dreams are made of”, he’s soft-pedaling it.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    The lip was also alluring to the tactile thumb (viz. Belmondo in BREATHLESS).

  6. So glad you mentioned Louise Brooks, Mr. Ramani. Her sympathtic profiles always underscored aspects of the actors we thought we knew that we really didn’t.

    In movie spectacle terms casting Burt Lancaster in The Leopard was a major coup. He modelled his entire performance after Visconti himself. And Visconti was so impressed that he cast Lancaster as his ater ego in his apologia pro vita sua Conversation Piece

  7. Lancaster was an avid reader, and he walked into Goffredo Lombardo’s office(to discuss another film) immediately recognizing the book and talking about how great it is. Lombardo immediately sized him up. Visconti was angry and then he met Lancaster who grew up with Sicillian immigrants and totally understood the grudges underpinning the film.

    Don’t treat me as a stranger, Mr. Ehrenstein, I am the blogger formerly known as ‘Arthur S’, this is my real name.

  8. And Louise Brooks’ piece on Bogart is available online:

  9. mndean Says:

    Thankfully, Bogart did few roles like in the 1932 film LOVE AFFAIR. Him as an engineer spouting enthusiastically about aircraft design and romancing Dorothy Mackaill made me long for Young Doug or even David Manners. In a way, I find him the opposite of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at that stage of their careers. The more menace in Bogart, the better he is. With Young Doug, it’s the opposite – when he acts the tough, I want to see him beaten to a pulp for being such a punk.

  10. Hilary Barta Says:

    Bogart has been one of my heroes since I was a pup, but over the years I’ve come to realize his limitations. I still love him, but for his understated roles, not so much for those where he flexed his neurotic tics. IN A LONELY PLACE is brilliant, but the one note that always seems false is his overplaying when “acting” the part of the strangler. And he’s downright bad in some of his thirties films. Considering his rep as a tough guy, it’s surprising how unbelievable he can be as a Warner’s gangster. This takes nothing away from his great years in the 1940s, when he seemed to find himself and his character.

  11. I think the mistake is the sinister lighting on Bogart when he play-acts the strangler in In a Lonely Place. His performance is quite sinister enough.

    (Reminds me of that story about Christopher Walken, when he sees someone position a reflector at his feet. “What are you doing?” “We’re just going to bounce a little light up into your face, make you look sinister.” “You don’t need to do that.”)

    Bogart played quite a few weaselly gangsters, and it was too obvious type-casting, which I think is why it doesn’t please. Whereas he’s such a surprising hero.

    On the other hand, I’m always amusing to see the young Bogie in preppie roles. It tickles me.

  12. The man of a thousand haircuts strikes again. Particularly good work from both actor and his hair.

  13. richmonde Says:

    The lip – funny how the same thing happened to Gloria Grahame and Barbara Stanwyck. It didn’t hurt their careers either. (Search for an early photo of Gloria – she was clearly a victim of trout pout/nerve damage.)

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    Don’t know about Stanwyck, but Robert Mitchum said Gloria G. would stuff kleenex or toilet paper between upper lip and gum. Thought it made her look sensual or something. Nothing permanent, but it made the kissing scenes a chore.

  15. Like kissing The Godfather!

  16. According to Grahame’s biographer Vincent Curcio, nerves were damaged in her upper lip during one of her many plastic surgeries. She reportedly hated the deep lines of her upper lip area and wanted them reduced. After the surgery, in an effort to either mitigate the damage or protect her reputation (i.e. thinking eccentricity would be better received than repeated vanity surgeries) she stuffed tissue in her upper lip.

    Curcio’s bio is quite good. Hard to find but if you get a chance to read it, do so.

  17. Thanks for the tip. The only source I have is Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, the memoir by her last lover.

  18. richmonde Says:

    ssbn, I think you’re right that Gloria wanted to downplay or even deny the surgeries. But I think the “tissue” was just a story. But she certainly worked that botched surgery – she was wonderful. (Very sad to see what Emmanuelle Beart has done to her face.) Back to the topic: Bogart was a great actor. See The Maltese Falcon.

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