In an electrifying production, we are introduced to the picturesque scenery of Key Largo, the fury of nature as a fierce hurricane is about to approach, and the major dispute between a set of gangsters. All this and more takes place in a dark and gloomy hotel where the cyclone that’s evolving outside is nothing compared to the storm that’s brewing inside.
John Huston’s Key Largo plays a pivotal part in motion picture history. Released in 1948, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in their fourth and final collaboration together, this enduring classic is a quintessential addition from the Film Noir repertoire.
Coined by French critic, Nino Frank, the term Film Noir means dark or black films that represent crime, murder and mysteries with stories that revolve around femme fatales, cynical characters, cold realists, detectives or doomed and anti-heroes. This certain genre was largely in existence during the 1940’s and 1950’s, when accustomed stars like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Lauren Bacall dominated the field.
Based on a 1939 Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, the renowned playwright, who succeeded in journalism, writing, and poetry among an array of other subjects, Key Largo proved to be one of those stage productions that displayed his virtuosity as a dramatist. The play showcased his extensive use of blank verse, which along with his skillful technique helped it’s profitable run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
With the success of the stage production, the films producer, Jerry Wald purchased the rights to the play, and implored, John Huston to adapt it into a motion picture. Huston agreed, and viewed it as a great starring vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to play off against Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor, but as time progressed, Huston’s patience exacerbated when the flaws and inadequacies in the play fuelled his anger, which resulted in him refusing Jerry Wald entry onto the set.
While John Huston was beginning to succumb to the difficulties that ensued during production, Lauren Bacall documented Key Largo as one of her happiest movie experiences. In the months prior to filming, Bacall’s career was struggling to follow the path of triumph and eminence that she had initially anticipated after the success of her first two vehicles with Humphrey Bogart. To help resurrect her floundering stature, Bacall was yearning to work with Bogart’s frequent director, John Huston, who was known for his masterful camera approach and inventiveness.
Lauren Bacall’s unyielding determination finally came to a head a few weeks later when John Huston announced that her and Bogart were assigned the central roles in his upcoming production, Key Largo. Bacall automatically agreed. She was looking forward to working with Bogart again. She was also enthused about starring alongside acting veteran, Lionel Barrymore, whom she had always admired for his sheer versatility and his colorful origins. A few weeks into filming, Lauren Bacall met Ethel Barrymore when she visited the set. Bacall who had idolized Ethel since her theatre-going days in New York was instantly captivated by her luminous presence and her affable personality. After their first encounter, the two became close friends, and Ethel Barrymore was now a frequent guest at Bogart and Bacall’s dinner parties.
For a film that was a hot commodity for Warner Brothers, it only took three weeks to rehearse and shoot. The expedite filming process was largely due to the sufficient cast and their cooperative team work. Everyone was compatible with one another. Humphrey Bogart who was certainly accustomed to working with Edward G. Robinson enjoyed their role reversal, and took great pleasure in portraying characters with duel personalities. Lionel Barrymore benefited from the cordial environment, and felt at ease working with such a friendly group of people who all possessed amiable qualities. In real life, Lionel Barrymore was terribly lonely. He had been suffering from arthritis and confined to a wheelchair for years. His legs unceasingly pained him, but even though he was always enduring discomfort, he never complained, being the pro that he was, he just continued on with his job. Lauren Bacall however, broke the monotony of the repetitive filming pattern by serving tea and cookies in her dressing room, a kind gesture that the entire cast and crew savored, especially Lionel Barrymore, who relished these gatherings, and always remained jovial when it came to regaling the group with theatrical stories.
“I adored him. He was wonderful – wonderful. He was one of those people who pretends he doesn’t need anyone and doesn’t care, but is so thoughtful, so kind. I use to serve tea in my dressing room every afternoon, and the whole cast would come in – Eddie Robinson, Bogey, Claire Trevor. Lionel had to sit outside the door in his wheelchair, but he looked forward to those tea parties, always came, really enjoyed himself. And when Bogey’s and my first son was born, he sent him a silver engraved porringer and cup, which I mean from Lionel Barrymore was something.”
( Lauren Bacall on Lionel Barrymore )
The film follows the story of Frank McCloud ( Humphrey Bogart ) a disillusioned war veteran, who travels to Key Largo to visit James Temple ( Lionel Barrymore ) the father of his friend, George Temple, who was killed in action while serving in the Italian campaign. On his arrival, he expectedly meets, Georges’s widowed wife, Nora ( Lauren Bacall ) who along with James helps run the Hotel Largo.
When it is announced that a hurricane is expected to badger Florida, Frank takes the advice of the Temple’s, and decides to spend the night at their hotel. Problems arise when he discovers that the hotel is being taken over by Johnny Rocco ( Edward G. Robinson ) and his gangster friends, who all hold them hostage until the storm passes.
Key Largo may not be the most memorable of the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall vehicles, but it sure does pack a punch. What the film lacks in sexual chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, it makes up in verbal dispute with Edward G. Robinson as the antagonist playing off against Bogart in a game of cat and mouse.
Neither Humphrey Bogart or Lauren Bacall have outstanding parts. While they are effective in their roles by delivering commendable performances, it is Edward G. Robinson who steals the screen and dominates most of the picture. Robinson who causes nothing but corruption all through out the storm will stop at nothing to retain his confidence. On the exterior, Johnny Rocco is a tough gangster on the run, who was supposedly exiled to Cuba before he was prohibited from the country, but on the inside, Johnny Rocco is a man whose fear begins to monopolize his entire existence. He will transmit impertinent dialogue, and he will threaten everyone who is metaphorically trapped within the confines of Hotel Largo during the hurricane, and he will most certainly display tenacious force, but in short, Johnny Rocco tries to inconspicuously cower under Frank McCloud, who is tough and resilient.
“You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it.”
( Humphrey Bogart as Frank McCloud )
Audiences at this time were use to Lauren Bacall playing sultry femme fatales, and Bogart’s love interest. Instead what we witness in Key Largo is something completely different. As Nora Temple, the widow of McCloud’s army friend, Bacall is an amiable strong woman, who is resolute and inhabits a rather defiant nature. Without actually highlighting the fact, we get the impression that Nora is wary and cautious about falling in love with someone who might try to steal George’s place in her heart, but as the night progresses, Nora begins to yield to Frank’s charms.
Lionel Barrymore is one of the main focal points of the production for me. His character as the wheelchair bound, James Temple is complaisant and very protective. He loves Nora like she is his own daughter, and he sees Frank McCloud as a great companion for Nora. But while he is usually convivial, he displays a fighty side, as he abandons his wheelchair for a short moment while he tries to wrestle with Johnny Rocco.
Claire Trevor, who was known for her hard-boiled characters that often possessed a callous nature attained an Academy Award for her portrayal of Johnny Rocco’s former lover, Gaye Dawn, the alcohol dependent ex lounge singer, who solely relies on the bottle to pull her through the daily hardships of life.
On it’s release, Key Largo was a monumental success. The film was lauded for it’s distinguished cast, and it’s use of portentous and sinister dialogue that is wrapped around it’s impressive cinematography.
The film has continued to evoke an interest in today’s popular culture. In 1981, Bertie Higgins critically acclaimed hit song, Key Largo about the passionate romance between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is heavily influenced by the film.
Key Largo is a worthy example of Film Noir. From the dreary hotel, where the atmosphere is foreboding, to the menacing gangsters, who all come alive during a ferocious hurricane, this is a perfect fit into the genre.
A high point of the film comes when Robinson’s alcoholic former moll, ex-nightclub singer “Gaye Dawn”, played by Claire Trevor, is forced by Rocco to sing a song a cappellabefore he will allow her to have a drink. Trevor was nervous about the scene, and assumed that she would be lip-syncing to someone else’s voice. She kept after director Huston, wanting to rehearse the song, but he put her off, saying “There’s plenty of time,” until one afternoon he told her that they would shoot the scene right then, without any rehearsal. She was given her starting note from a piano, and, in front of the rest of the cast and the crew, sang the song. It was this raw take that was used in the film.
Exterior shots of the hurricane were taken from stock footage used in Night Unto Night, a Ronald Reagan melodrama, also produced in 1948.
The boat used by Rocco’s gang to depart Key Largo, with Bogart’s character at the helm, is named the Santana, which was also the name of Bogart’s personal 55-foot (17 m) sailing yacht.
Humphrey Bogart: Born Humphrey DeForest Bogart on December 25th, 1899 in New York City. Died: January 14th, 1957, in Los Angeles, California. Aged 57.
Lauren Bacall: Born Betty Joan Perske on September 16th, 1924, in The Bronx, New York. Died: August 12th, 2014, in New York. Aged 89.
Edward G. Robinson: Born Emanuel Goldenberg on December 12th, 1893 in Bucharest, Romania. Died: January 26th, 1973 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Lionel Barrymore: Born Lionel Herbert Blythe on April 28th, 1878 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: November 15th, 1954 in Van Nuys, California. Aged 76.
Claire Trevor: Born Claire Wemlinger on March 8th, 1910 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: April 8th, 2000 in Newport Beach, California.