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The Warner Mob
With the Depression pushing the studio toward bankruptcy, Warner Brothers had to resort to crime—and crime paid so well that the company was able to recruit the toughest guys that ever shot up a sound stage.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
In each of these films the role offered Raft was filled by the studio’s jack-of-all-villainy, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart, whose genteel background had suited him to his initial roles as the romantic juvenile of Broadway, had come to Warner’s in 1932 after doing small parts at Columbia and Fox. In his first Warner film he was tenth in the billing; in his second he was little more than a walk-on. Discouraged, he returned to Broadway, where, over the objections of the playwright Robert Sherwood, he was given the role of Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. Undoubtedly Sherwood thought that a short, slight man with a lisp was ill-suited to play the brutish killer, but Bogart’s performance convinced both Sherwood and the play’s star, Leslie Howard. When Warner bought the screen rights, he wanted Howard to repeat his role of the disillusioned intellectual but preferred Edward G. Robinson for the Duke. Howard, however, refused to sign unless Bogart came along, and Warner finally agreed.
Thus began Bogart’s career as a Warner tough guy. From 1936 to 1941 he played a variety of antisocial types: a racketeer killer in Bullets or Ballots, a gangster fight manager in Kid Galahad, and a jewel thief in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. His nemesis in all these films was Edward G. Robinson, now graduated to good-guy roles, who consistently eliminated Bogart ten minutes before the final fade-out.
Bogart also played the heavy in a number of Cagney films—Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and The Oklahoma Kid. This last was a western with Cagney and Bogart as out of place as a couple of Checker cabs in the middle of Monument Valley. Bogart seemed doomed to a career of early deaths until Raft’s intransigence spared him.
The role of “Mad Dog” Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941) had been turned down not only by Raft but also by Paul Muni, Cagney, and Robinson. But for Bogart, who had recently completed Virginia City with Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott (two actors whom he detested), to costar with Ida Lupino in a gangster yarn was a plum. His only starring roles up to that point had been in grade-B quickies like The Return of Doctor X, in which he played a mad scientist who survived on the blood of young girls. High Sierra was clearly a step up.
Directed by Raoul Walsh and written by W. R. Burnett and the young John Huston, High Sierra provided Bogart with his first three-dimensional role. The warmth and compassion of this gangster on the run became an integral part of his screen mystique. Henceforth he would always play the loner who rebelled against the existing order but adhered to a private sense of honor and loyalty.
Bogart was now Warner’s top star and, after Casablanca (1943), the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Now it was he to whom the good roles were offered first (Raft had tried in vain for the role of Rick in Casablanca), and it was Bogart who did the bumping off in the last reel, an about-face he would perform on Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948). Robinson would soon be bumped in another way—the same zealots who had effectively ended the film career of John Garfield would set their traps for him, and although he continued to appear in minor roles, he and Bogart never acted together again.
By this time the Warner Mob had broken up. Although such films as Key Largo and Cagney’s White Heat were still being made at the end of the decade, the Warner Mob was knocked down to size when bigger gangsters made domestic hoodlums seem trivial to American audiences. After Pearl Harbor, Jack Warner called the mobsters to active duty to fight the Axis on film. Except for USO tours, it was the only action any of them ever saw: they were all too old for the armed forces. During the war they outfoxed the Nazis and eliminated the Japs with the same bravado they had shown toward rival bootleggers, gang leaders, and prison blockheads. And after the war it was a different world.