Movie moments imprint themselves on us like tattoos. Whenever my best friend, Bob Stone, and I get together, it is not our health, our families, our jobs we talk about. Right off the bat, we break into our KEY LARGO routine, Bob doing his best impersonation of Johnny Rocco browbeating his ex-moll, Gaye Dawn, to “Sing it! Sing ‘Moanin’ Low’!! Sing it NOW!!” and me then warbling “Moanin’ Low” more off-key and ear-grating than Claire Trevor ever did. This is followed by Bob’s equally spot-on version of Edward G. Robinson’s classic, “Soldier! Soldier! I’m not armed! Soldier!” Then we both crack up laughing. For Bob and me, as for many who have seen or will see KEY LARGO, these scenes are indelibly superglued to our movie consciousness. ” KEY LARGO and classic movies like it train us to worship and cherish their words and images long after the first time we heard and saw them. They take up permanent residence in our collective movie heads and we are happy to have them there.
The story KEY LARGO tells is a slim one, and under the guidance of less accomplished performers and a less able director, it might merely have become a passable B-movie. But the hard polish and genuine grit of Humphrey Bogart’s Major Frank McCloud, and the real sleaze and deceptive menace of E.G. Robinson’s gangster, Johnny Rocco (by the way, one of Robinson’s most memorable roles in a long career that created many), and especially the heart- breaking pathos of Claire Trevor’s lost and lonely Gaye Dawn—Trevor won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year and is alone worth the price of admission—make KEY LARGO an assured and re-assuring masterpiece, an absolute “must see.”
A key player in the movie is the hurricane that hits the island soon after the characters have been introduced. The movie, from that point, crackles and spins like the winds of the hurricane itself, driving the people to hide inside where they must claustrophobically confront their demons and fears, propelling the action forward with tremendous force and speed. We, too, feel the threat, not only that the characters make toward each other but also that the storm makes toward them. They are spinning tops caught in a larger spinning top, spun by Mother Nature. They are tough, but the elements are tougher. Their first challenge is to survive the storm, their second, to survive each other. The awful gales act as a dramatic catalyst to show the characters the stuff they are made of or, in the case of some, NOT made of. They stand up to it in ways they surely never thought possible. The reader might be interested to know that all of the hurricane footage is from another movie, Ronald Reagan’s NIGHT UNTO NIGHT, but is blended seamlessly into the movie as if it were made-to-order.
The great John Huston’s direction is sure-fire, swift, taut, and he couldn’t have come up with a more suspenseful ending if he’d tried. No spoilers here but the final scene with Rocco’s “Soldier! Soldier!” taunts in the boat are moments of sheer white-knuckle pleasure. (After a long run as a leading man and star—in their earlier movies together, Bogart took second billing to him—Robinson became more of a character actor and in KEY LARGO, he supports Bogart’s performance, not the other way around). Yet, Robinson was such a splendid actor, he excelled in smaller roles like this one, and his star shone undiminished for the rest of his film career.
Adapted from a hit Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, the movie boasts Robinson’s tour-de-force and Bogart’s anti-hero, but also sexy Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Bogart) whose Nora Temple rides the line expertly between tough and tender, savvy yet vulnerable, especially in those scenes where she is clearly falling for Frank. Claire Trevor is nothing short of perfect as saloon girl, Gaye Dawn, whose now former-boyfriend, Johnny Rocco, keeps forcing her under threat of violence to sing his “favorite,” “Moanin’ Low.” Poor Gaye’s singing voice (if ever she had one?), ravaged by years of booze and abuse, cannot come to her rescue or please the sadistic Rocco. Her absolute humiliation at the hands of her ex will tear at you like few movie moments can. (Interesting tidbit: Trevor agreed to play Gaye Dawn only if she could lip-sync to another singer’s recording. When John Huston told her she would be doing her own singing AND that the song would not be pre-recorded, that she would be singing on-set, Trevor became a nervous wreck, thus adding to the believability of her as a washed-up chanteuse. Huston knew what it took to make a scene work, sometimes even at the expense of his actors’ egos.
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A word or two about Humphrey Bogart; it has been said that he was a great star but not a great actor. Because he lost himself inside the “Bogie” persona that studio moguls molded for him, he, it is said, sacrificed his craft as an actor in favor of being a movie supernova. To some degree, in some of his movies, this is true; his line readings could be flat, often monotone, his mouth barely able to open, that way he had of twitching his upper lip over clenched teeth (a result, by the way, of a war wound that never fully healed. He looked like he was in pain because he WAS!) He was a small man, small in stature—5′ 7″—and often had to stand on orange crate boxes in his scenes with taller actors, especially his leading ladies. And yet, in the War and the post-War years, Humphrey Bogart stood tall—his stony, craggy face and steel bearing raised themselves monumentally against the rising tide of fear that engulfed the country and the world as first, Hitler, and then the Cold War, aimed their deadly intent at us. Bogart made us feel safe—plain and simple. His tough guy act was just that, an act. He was, by all accounts, a shy man: shy about his acting abilities and self-conscious about that Bogie lisp we all came to love and mimic, a sensitive man with soulful, world-weary eyes, eyes that had seen it all, but were still watchful, brave, and knowing. But on the screen—oh! up on that big screen—he was, to audiences all over the world, ten feet tall. Somehow, this little man with the lisp and a lifelong predilection for the gin bottle, was able to transform himself into a symbol of all that was righteous and good about America. In fact, my mother and aunts used to say, “Humphrey Bogart won World War II for us,” and they were not far off the mark because the country needed his steel, his unsparing courage, his unsmiling, no-nonsense pluck to get us through those awful and trying times. This is part of the reason why movie stars are loved, and loved long beyond the times they represented. Yes, a righteous, flag-waving United States is maybe now a ghost of the past, but Bogart, whose screen persona carried us nobly through hard times in our history, remains forever in our minds, our hearts, and in our consciousness as someone who was there when we collectively felt most scared, most vulnerable, most alone. Bogart was and is an old friend. In classics like CASABLANCA, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and KEY LARGO, we see him emerge from the fog of our memories, a spirit from another time and place, and yet still here. Remembering his face and name, we remember our own…who we used to be…who we have become…