“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. These are the works which stand the test of time. Genre doesn’t matter to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy has a place, along with high-toned drama. Quality animation rubs shoulders with science fiction and over there you can find show-stopping musicals chatting with bloody horror. The Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception. These rare birds are the “Ten Percent.”
Nowadays, aspiring filmmakers have multiple avenues to reach the golden ticket of wide distribution. It’s still not easy, but between contests, film schools, the lowered cost of equipment, and the proliferation of film festivals, it’s possible for a new filmmaker to break through the static. Further, we have all heard fairy-tale-like stories of films made on a shoestring which, through imaginative marketing, have catapulted their stars and creators into the stratosphere. It was not always so. For decades, Hollywood had a stranglehold on what films were made, who became a star in those films, and how those films were seen. It was possible, albeit highly unlikely, for an unknown to skyrocket to fame. Staying there was another story entirely.
Betty Joan Perske was a striking girl who was modeling in New York while also taking acting lessons. Nancy Hawks, the wife of Hollywood director Howard Hawks, saw Betty’s picture on the cover of the March 1943 issue of Harper’s Bazaar and brought her to the attention of her husband, who was in the early stages of a film version of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Hawks agreed with his wife that Betty was worth investing in. She came to Hollywood and the Hawks molded her into the elegant, husky-voiced Lauren Bacall. To Have and Have Not would be her first screen role. She was 19 and cast opposite the accomplished Humphrey Bogart. Supremely nervous, she pressed her chin downward to keep her head from quivering and tilted her eyes up to face the camera. The effect (simply called “The Look”) became her trademark and caused the teenage Bacall to simultaneously appear confident and vulnerable. Both Bacall and To Have and Have Not are part of the Ten Percent.
To Have and Have Not (1944) is one of the most unlikely of classics. Howard Hawks had bet Hemingway that he could make a good film out of Hemingway’s worst novel, which Hawks deemed to be To Have and Have Not. Hawks deleted most of the original plot and won his bet. The screenplay was written by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner (yes, that William Faulkner), although much of the dialogue was actually improvised by the cast. This makes To Have and Have Not unique – the film is based on a novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author with a screenplay co-written by another Nobel Prize-winning author. By the way, the most famous scene – the “just whistle” scene – was written by Hawks himself as part of Bacall’s screen test. The scene was so strong that Warner Bros. insisted the scene be included in the final film.
Real life crept into the film in some unusual ways. Bacall’s character (“Marie”) refers to Bogart’s character (“Harry”) as “Steve” which was Nancy Hawks’ nickname for her husband. That seems fair considering that Harry/Steve calls Marie “Slim” throughout the film, which was Howard Hawks’ nickname for his wife Nancy. More famously, To Have and Have Not is the film that first caused the orbits of Bogart and Bacall to cross. They fell in love fast and hard and their romance is remembered as one of Hollywood’s great love stories, despite the vast age difference between the two. In a touching tribute to the film that first brought them together, Lauren Bacall slipped a whistle into Bogart’s coffin at his funeral.
To Have and Have Not launched Bacall’s career and she would work throughout her long life. In addition to three more films with Bogart, she starred in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, which is perhaps the high point of 1950s melodrama. She conquered Broadway, winning the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Applause. She worked in television, appearing on Dr. Kildare and The Rockford Files. For younger viewers, her husky voice as the Witch of the Waste was a standout in the English language version of Hayao Miyazaki’s incredible animated film Howl’s Moving Castle.
Bacall was known for her honesty which bordered on bluntness, even to those closest to her. She once said that a granddaughter “dragged” her to see Twilight, promising Bacall it was the “best vampire film ever.” Following the viewing, Bacall said she wanted to “smack her across her head with my shoe” and then, in the patient, loving way of all grandparents, she gave the girl a copy of Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu.
Bacall died on August 12, 2014 following a stroke. Acknowledging her tremendous contributions to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Turner Classic Movies will be broadcasting a 24-hour marathon of Bacall movies leading up to what would have been her 90th birthday (and yes, the marathon includes To Have and Have Not). Click here for the full listing of films and make plans to spend some time on September 15 – 16 with a wonderful dame.
After all, she’s part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.