Bogie and the Cherry Tree (An American Apology)

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By an amazing coincidence I read two biographies simultaneously. I started the first, George Washington: A Biography by Washington Irving, ( 718 pgs. edited and abridged by Charles Neider) and enthusiastically read three-quarters of it in a matter of a few days. Then one day, my beautiful girl came home from the library with a book she thought I might enjoy, Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart ( 255 pgs.) by Stefan Kanfer. I picked it up and started reading immediately. It got so I’d read about Bogie during the afternoon and evenings, then switch back to Washington’s biography when I retired to our bedroom (You know… the way you do). Anyway, half-jokingly I asked BB, “Mixing the two books won’t hurt me, will it?”

I have just finished both, wrapping George’s life around Bogie’s, finishing the second while rounding it out with the first book.I thought I knew both men fairly well, having been taught from the beginning of school the story of the American Revolution, and also being a huge fan of the cynical American caught up in a love triangle in a foreign land during WWIIin a film called, Casablanca. But I was wrong on both counts.

American ideology came about because of the tyrannicalcontrol of Great Britain, as taught in history. Freedom from oppressive influences, unfair taxes and mis-representation were valid reasons for our forefathers to decree a Declaration of Independence back in 1776. But how and why George Washington came to help mold our country’s political conscience was never more apparent than what has been revealed by the observations of Washington Irving, who was born after the war ended. In his book he shows the human side of a man who trusted in Divine Providence more than any soldier or President in American history.

It is interesting to note that early on, George Washington was in full support of England’s rule, having served with the British army as a Colonial officer under General Braddock during the 1750’s. George was hoping to receive a commission in His Majesty’s Royal Army, and pursued that goal with heroic enthusiasm. At the time, France was trying to usurp British control of the lands in and around the Mississippi, particularly the Ohio territory, and as far north as Canada. Ironically, some twenty years later, France would ally themselves with the American colonies in their war against Great Britain.

It was heart- rendering for me to read about a man who sought only the good of his country and fellow man. George Washington took no salary as Commander-in-chief of the American army, and several times found himself paying for the supplies badly needed by his men. Our country was in such disarray, politically speaking, that men who hadn’t deserted the cause of liberty found themselves without winter garb and served for months without pay. Picture an army bivouacked at Valley Forge without so much as a tent to protect them from the elements. Then imagine half-starved soldiers in desperate need of supplies, their blood dotting the snow from marching in bare feet. Many men didn’t even have guns to defend themselves, and gunpowder was scarce for those who did. Irving’s book shows the effect on Washington by his own letters, in which were written his admission to feeling inadequate to lead, along with pleas to government officials and wealthy acquaintances to give the army the funds needed to carry on the fight. The war for our right to be free might have turned out much differently had the British known just how badly the conditions were for the Americans, though they had an inkling according to Irving’s book. Many were persuaded to join the opposite side simply because they thought their country had abandoned them.

In 1775, when he received his commission, it could be said that 43-year-old Commander-in-chief General George Washington retreated to victory during the Revolutionary War. Though we won some decisive battles, many times we were in full retreat, repositioning ourselves or trying to predict where the enemy would strike next, preparing our men for a defensive battle that may or not be real. Politicians sought to remove Washington’s command from him, and a few of his generals tried to usurp him, but Washington had the favor of his men and the efforts to dispose him were squelched. When France finally came to our aid, the tide was turned. Eventually, Washington had his armies in a position to corner Cornwallis in Yorktown and a French blockade of ships prevented his escape. The surrender of Lord Cornwallis effectively ended the war. When the treaty was signed it marked the end of a conflict that had lasted eight years.

Washington would have been satisfied to settle his accounts with the newly formed government. Just paying him the expenses he incurred as Commander-in-chief and no more, then retiring to Mount Vernon to live out the remainder of his days, would have sufficed. But the country had other plans for him.

Humphrey Bogart was a man brought up as the only child in an affluent family and enjoyed all the prestige that came along with it. Having a passive father and a domineering mother, Bogie rebelled at a young age. He failed early on as an academist and also in pursuing a military career. Coming back from his service in 1919, he found his father’s lucrative medical practice had diminished and the family coffers depleted by bad war investments. The lifestyle he had enjoyed as a child was in a state of gradual decline. When his father died in 1934, Bogart was strapped with family debts that totaled over $10,000, a tidy sum in a world that was thrown into the Great Depression. In honor of his father, he vowed to repay every dime (and eventually did).

Bogart seemed to drift through his early life trying different jobs including being a tugboat inspector and a railroad worker. By chance (through a friend) he landed a job in a theater company as an office boy. From there, he failed as a director, a writer, and a stage manager. It was only because of that friendship that Humphrey continually labored long into the theater business. The owners knew Bogie “had something” but nobody knew just what, until it came to acting.

But Bogie was not an overnight sensation. His early bit parts were usually walk-on one-liners, ‘sprigs’ meant to clear the stage of actors to ready it for the next scene: something to the effect of, “Hey, gang, come check out what’s happening outside!”, as an excuse for the scene to end and have the actors depart. One famous line erroneously accredited to Humphrey Bogart was “Tennis, anyone?” It was in one such early play that Humphrey Bogart made up his mind to be the best actor he could be and gained the incentive to achieve that goal.

In one of the first reviews he received for a long forgotten play entitled, Swifty, Alexander Woollcott, renowned theater critic of the day, wrote of Bogie’s performance, “The young man who embodies the aforesaid sprig is what is usually and mercifully described as inadequate.” Other reviews of Humphrey Bogart’s first accredited performance were equally unflattering, but Bogie kept this one in his scrapbook and used it as a motivator for the rest of his life.

Our first president was a man that took the position that was offered to him willingly, but also with gracious humility. Much of our direction as a nation was attributed to George Washington’s designs and visions. He repeatedly acquiesced his leanings to a higher authority and prayed continually for guidance, wisdom and strength to accommodate the task set before him.

If the war had been difficult, the presidency of George Washington would prove to be even more so. Members of his own cabinet questioned his leadership ability and others sought to remove him from office. War between England and France had ignited a wave of discontentment towards America’s stance of neutrality. Our national debt had reached gigantic proportions because of our hard-fought independence with England and efforts to pay it seemed fruitless. Colonies were threatening to break off and form their own sovereignty in opposition to a consolidated, national form of government. In this scenario, Washington wrote:

“There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an independent power:

 1)  An indissoluble union of the states under one federal head.

2)  A sacred regard to public justice.

3)  The adoption of a proper peace establishment.

4)  The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.”

In stark contrast, Humphrey Bogart did not receive much in the way of accolades until his 43rd birthday. A supporting actor in many films, he finally hit pay dirt with a film rejected by another star, George Raft, (who was the number one box office draw at the time). That movie was High Sierra. Bogie got to play the lead for the first time (as gangster on the run, Roy “Mad Dog” Earle) and received excellent reviews. From there he starred in another film George Raft turned down, The Maltese Falcon. Portraying detective Sam Spade in a performance that would put gumshoes on the map and keep them forever embroiled in dames, double-cross and deception, Bogie became a star.

Casablanca was a film that almost didn’t get made. It was one of many being produced at the time, and though it contained many notable stars, it was not expected to do all that well upon its release. Based partly on a forgotten play (Everybody Comes to Rick’s), and containing a theme song that was over a decade old ( As Time Goes By), the cards were stacked against it from the very start. The screenplay was being written as the movie was being shot and nobody, including the writers, knew how it was going to end. To top it all off, the main actor wasn’t tall and handsome, spoke with a speech impediment, and was best known for his portrayal of gangster types. Humphrey Bogart as a romantic lead had to have some in the industry scratching their heads. But timing is everything…

America was just entering World War II at the time Casablanca was released. From page 87 of the book, Tough Without A Gun:

From January 14 to January 24, 1943, a secret meeting took place between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was held in Casablanca. No sitting president had ever been to Africa, nor had any chief executive left the country during a time of war. This was a historic event, deliberately kept from the press until both leaders had safely returned home. The following week,

Casablanca went on national release, accompanied by headlines like BULLETS, MYSTERY, SECRECY AND CENSORSHIP PLAGUED REPORTERS OF CASABLANCA CONFERENCE. Film Daily excitedly predicted that “this Warner picture should have the impact of a bombshell on film audiences of the country.”

The trade paper was correct; the news items were invaluable.

Casablanca went on to receive eight Academy Award nominations and won three, including Best Picture. But it accomplished more than that. It made Humphrey Bogart an international star and gave citizens of the U.S. an inside glimpse of what conditions were like in war-torn Europe. Their struggle to be free became solidly entrenched as America’s cause to liberate them.

So now, is it a stretch to put both men’s biographies in the same heading? Most people would probably think so, and I would have agreed with them before reading these books in the manner that I did. Both men embodied a spirit that our country needed at the time of their popularity, and the effect each has had seems larger after their deaths.

Historian Gordon Wood wrote that the greatest act in Washington’s life was his resignation as commander of the American armies. Such an act stunned the aristocrats of Europe and prompted King George III to call George Washington “the greatest character of the age”. Washington became the father of our country and a hero of folklore at a time when America needed such heroes. The story of George being extolled as a youth for chopping down the cherry tree and then declaring, “I cannot tell a lie…” when confronted, taught young people the need for honesty. His courage under fire, desire for justice and freedom, and his love for a new born nation are heralded throughout America and abroad as the best example of patriotism. George Washington: A Biography by Washington Irving puts a very real and human face to a man that has ascended beyond legend.

Humphrey Bogart was voted the Greatest Male Star in cinema history according to the American Film Institute. In 1997, Entertainment Weekly designated him the Number One Movie Legend of all time. His image is one of the most widely circulated in the world and while other stars of the era have faded, his body of work and persona are still very much with us over 50 years since his death. He symbolizes the American abroad who remains true to himself, his ideals and principles mirroring that of his country. When pushed, he pushes back. When trouble springs up, he rises to the occasion. There is a little bit of Bogie in all of us and yet, no one has been able to replace him.

Today in politics, there are many pretenders riding the coattails of great men of the past. Prestige and power are the rewards for such men. They seek to influence without having any substance themselves, they want to guide but have no plan. These are men that want to be leaders but take no stand on moral issues, or change position for the sake of votes. Our world is in the grips of such greedy men who know not the self-sacrifice and humility of a Washington, the grit and determination of a Bogart, or the honor of either man.

We are in a mad rush towards the mutual destruction of ideals and integrity without giving a thought to its consequences. We make allegations, we shout for our rights, and think we are made of Teflon as the world is sprayed with moral decay. After it is all said and done, we look to someone to come forth and be our savior, then ridicule the effort as human fallacy when it inevitably fails. And real men, real potential leaders, are either squelched by the corrupt system or beaten down by the affluent movers and shakers who do not want their own back-handed tactics to be brought into the light of day.

For a change… a real one, Americans need to look deep into our past and remember the struggle for independence and what great men were willing to risk everything for. When people decry The Star-Spangled Banner as an embarrassment, when God is removed from public buildings and pledges, when laws are broken with impunity, and rights are demanded for inane acts of self-indulgence, decadence and vice, does it really promote unity of the people as a whole? Remember Washington’s words, “….sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community”?

We continually ask our country to do its part for the individual, but where is the sacrifice of the individual for the community? This great nation that has risen to every challenge since its inception now stands in woebegone sorrow as every group, alliance, union, party and assembly fights for the right of their cause at the expense of all others. In doing so, they forsake the heritage of their blood and the champions of freedom’s sacrifice. Freedom without unity is like a body without a heart.

America needs and is searching for patriots of the heart. Now…

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

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