Sometimes, the story surrounding a film becomes bigger than the film itself. Such is the case with To Have and Have Not, the first onscreen meeting of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Do we project a special meaning onto their first celluloid meet, the look she gives him as she lights that cigarette, or is it really there? Of course, it’s not only the couple’s first pairing – it’s actually Bacall’s first role, although her composed, self-assured persona doesn’t display any first-job nerves. Director Howard Hawks saw something special in the 19-year-old model and coaxed out a convincing debut, one that proved that overnight success doesn’t have to be a myth.
Hollywood legend has it that it was Hawks’ wife Slim Keith who introduced her husband to the young model, whose credits included the Harper’s Bazaar cover. The director saw her potential, and several months of acting classes and vocal coaching ensued before she was cast in the lead role in Hawks’ adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘worst’ novel. The director employed screenwriters Jules Furthman and and William Faulkner to overhaual Hemingway’s text, overlooking much of the original novel in favour of focusing on one character, fishing boat captain Harry Morgan (Bogart). The final storyline is a paint-by-numbers affair that has more in common with Casablanca than Hemingway, but it’s filled with sharp, snappy dialogue and memorable characters – Harry Morgan and Marie ‘Slim’ Browning (Bacall) of course, but also Eddie (Walter Brennan) and Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael).
Critics at the time weren’t unanimous in their Bacall approval. Herman G. Weinberg at Sight & Sound described Bacall as a ‘dour-faced vixen, whom the critical boys have confused with Dietrich… a more embarrassing portrayal of a femme fatale I have ever seen’. Bosley Crowther at The New York Times was hardly complimentary, describing the actress as ‘softly reedy along the lines of Veronica Lake, she acts in the quiet way of catnip’. Yet the inevitable comparisons to other film greats sell Bacall’s talents short. Her role in To Have and Have Not goes beyond femme fatale or ingénue – although her sultry looks, blonde waves and chin down-eyes up stance mean that aspect is impossible to ignore. Bogie, fresh off the success of Casablanca, might be the male lead, but Bacall isn’t the typical female. At the film’s conclusion, she redeems the jaded protagonist, but the viewer isn’t entirely sure that the conventional version of domestic bliss awaits – her character has too much sass for that.
To Have and Have Not‘s most famous scene – that’s the one that includes Bacall’s sultry line “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow” – was apparently constructed by Hawks himself, who created it as a screen test for Bacall, not intending it would be used in the final film. Consciously or not, the scene introduces an interesting male/female dynamic, as Bacall initiates and leads the action.
For most of the scene Slim is standing – a position of power that marks her out. The exception is when she sits on Harry’s lap and kisses him. Yet even that action allows her to remain in control – she dictates pace and length, playing on his apparent unwillingness to engage. Her openly sexual invitation (although not too open, Hawks had to get this past the censors) marks her out as a woman who asks for – and gets – what she wants. In this scene at least, she takes the male lead, and is open about her sexual wants. Of course, women had expressed desire on screen before (most notably some of the most licentious pre-codes), but Slim Browning set a new standard, one that marked her out as independent, liberated and unapologetic.
Male traits only work so far though. Femme fatales have an accepted part to play, and Hawks doesn’t mess with the natural order of things too much. Slim is deliberately sexy, already half-undressed, wearing a loosely tied robe she’s part initiator, part submissive. As Andrew O’Hehir observes, there’s something a little ‘queer’ about the gender dynamics in this scene. Both Bacall and Bogart were obviously confident playing against typical or accepted gender standards, although it’s difficult to ascertain if that’s because their off-screen romance captured public imagination, or if their on-screen chemistry provoked it.
Although Hawks favoured strong female characters he always resisted the feminist label, instead maintaining that real characters worked better on screen, regardless of their gender. But in To Have and Have Not, the ‘Slim’ nickname is telling – it was borrowed from the director’s wife who exemplified his ideal woman. Indeed in her 1990 autobiography Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life, she claimed that there were just two versions of the Hawksian woman – herself and Lauren Bacall:
‘… I’m not saying that I was the inspiration for the Hawks woman – Howard had been working on this formula woman for years in his films. Rather, it was that, until he met me, the woman of his dreams was only in his head. And until Howard got to Betty Bacall, there hadn’t been an actress to make that dream come alive on screen…’
If Bacall was the woman that had only existed in Hawks’ head, it’s only natural that he’d create an on-screen character to match his ideal. Perhaps that’s why of all Hawks’ women – and there are many, from the fast-talking Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday to the liberated Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) in Ball of Fire – Slim Browning is one of the most interesting. This is a character that can – and does – infiltrate a man’s world (even the nickname Slim reduces her most obvious feminine qualities) whilst retaining her most ‘female’ characteristics. In her lifetime, it’s likely that Bacall tired of hearing her most famous line of dialogue repeated back to her, but it’s hard to avoid when it sums up both her character and its relevance so neatly.