Origin Stories

 Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, and Jerry Lacy in "Play It Again, Sam" (1972)

Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, and Jerry Lacy in "Play It Again, Sam" (1972)

This is the best I can do. Just trying to retrace the steps here.

By 1972, I knew all about movies. I’d already made some sort of emotional connection around going to the movies; it was a special thing when I was a kid. That’s how you had a night out when you were my parents, in your 20s with money tight and three little kids. You piled them into the station wagon with pillows and popcorn, and you went to the drive-in.

Also by 1972, I’d discovered my attraction to acting, and already had been in a couple of plays. I was poised, prepped, a sponge waiting to soak. Enter Play It Again, Sam.

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The theatrical version of Woody Allen’s story about a neurotic film buff who conjures up the ghost (I guess) of Humphrey Bogart to give him some tough-guy advice on love and the ladies was a big success when it hit Broadway in 1969. It elevated Woody Allen into the 1970s, and without the 70s you don’t know the name today. It was pretty much everything to his career.

And in 1972, Herbert Ross directed the screen version, using the original Broadway cast—Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, and Jerry Lacy as Bogart. My brother and I went to see it in a double feature with Harold & Maude, another memory to savor a little. That was an awesome film to see when you’re 14.

But back to Play It Again, Sam. It’s an easy call for me to make, putting that at the epicenter of my interest. The opening scene of Allen in a dark theater, solitary and engrossed, watching the end of Casablanca and mourning his manhood. How come he can’t be as noble and confident as Bogie?

I wasn’t much interested in the neurotic thing, although the film is funny and I’m sure I laughed. I was fascinated, though, by the idea of someone who watched movies the way I assumed some people listened to classical music, with history and some sort of aesthetic. I think this pretty simple comedy was the first time I realized that movies were a sort of art form.

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I was also fascinated by Bogart. I knew of him vaguely, and that mostly from old Warner Bros. cartoons, where he showed up occasionally, usually with Lauren Bacall on his arm, and usually voiced by a comedian and voice artist by the name of Dave Barry (really). I’m pretty sure I’d never seen one of his movies. I’d definitely never seen Casablanca.

And it turned out that Bogart made a lot of movies, and that local TV stations would often show these movies, late at night or the middle of the afternoon. I embarked on a program of self-study, then, parked in front of the TV in the summers, watching these famous faces from when they got that way.

I’m tempted to compare, and I can’t. The calendar equivalent to me watching Casablanca in 1973 would be a 15-year-old today watching Top Gun, but that doesn’t work. The visual arts are tightly entangled with technology, and so a film from 1941 wasn’t old as much as it was historical.

Anyway. I think that’s when it happened. I got nudged by a movie to watch another movie, and so it goes.

It wasn’t just Bogart. It was Bacall. It was Mary Astor and Ingrid Bergman. It was Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

And it was Cagney and Robinson and Muni and Garfield and Lupino and Crawford and it was definitely Bette Davis. I immersed myself in this, lazy hot afternoons with Dialing For Dollars or else The Late, Late Show at night, developing favorites, always eager for a new discovery, always watching.

But it was mostly Bogart, because why not? There was nobody like him, and there never was. He wasn’t the most versatile actor, and he pushed his talent as he aged, but he had something unique and I knew it at 15.

So I became something of a teenaged authority. Bogie made over 70 films, including silents, and I’ve seen most of them. There are probably 15 I’ve seen multiple times, but I had a list and I crossed them off for a while.

I don’t think I ever saw Three On A Match, though. It was an early one, a 1932 film directed by the Steven Spielberg of the era, Mervyn LeRoy, in which Bogart has a small role as a thug (he’d often played the juvenile roles—young male parts—on the stage, and had already been offered up a year before in a leading role in Love Affair, although he quickly moved to playing bad guys for the better part of a decade). I noticed it was on FilmStruck, and I noticed it was due to leave. Yesterday.

And I noticed that it was barely an hour long, not atypical for the era. So I watched it.

 Bogie's big scene from "Three On A Match"

Bogie's big scene from "Three On A Match"

It was enchanting. It wasn’t Bogart, or really any of the actors (including a very young Bette Davis, along with Joan Blondell). It was an 86-year-old movie, made when my grandparents (two of them, anyway) were teenagers. It might as well feature a cameo from Abraham Lincoln.

It was also a pre-Code morality tale, a melodrama that took its lessons seriously and a little garishly, when you consider what movies looked like less than a decade later. A wanton woman leaves her home and husband, abandons her child, takes up with a cad and suffers the consequences, only redeemed by her incredibly theatrical demise (she throws herself out of a window, having written a message to the cops about where her son was being kept prisoner by bad guys in lipstick on her nightgown oh my God). It was great.

Ah. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll think about it and try to come up with something more interesting to say, but I note there are 15 other Bogart titles on FilmStruck. And then there are those movies I recorded from TCM years ago, sitting in a pile of DVDs. I may delve deep. I may have to (sorry) play it again.

Chuck Sigars1 Comment