Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Log 222: Great performance by an old favourite, Walter Brennan, in a film from 66 years ago

Today I came across one of those cameo performances from an old favourite that are one of the pleasures of old age. It was by the American actor Walter Brennan, who I remember from my younger days in such films as My Darling Clementine, Red River, Rio Bravo, and others, most of them Westerns.

Today I saw him playing opposite Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, a loose version of a Hemingway story, in which Brennan gave his famous impersonation of a broken down, amusing, absent-minded drunk, always better for the next drink.

Gurgling his way through life, helpless before anyone who wanted to take advantage of him, he was protected by the tough boat owner, Bogart, who was involved (reluctantly, of course) in a plot to get some partisans of the Free French into Martinique in 1944 or thereabouts. Brennan was a delight every moment he was on the screen, a mixture of innocence and cunning, a man whose loyalty, when won, was unshakeable, an old fellow more or less useless in a fight or struggle with an adversary, but one whom Bogart valued and looked after.

The film itself was a piece of typically delicious Hollywood rubbish. It was Bacall’s very first film, she was 19 and had adopted a persona as a sort of sultry femme fatale, but one with a wit and a good stock of one-liners. She delivered a number of lines that became famous in movie lore, such as “You know how to whistle, Steve? You put your lips together and blow…” Or on another occasion when she came into Bogart’s hotel room and asked for a light. Reluctantly he gave her one. Then she said, “Now, a cigarette?” (In other words, she really just came in to see him, something she couldn't admit straight out.)

It was like a rehash of Casablanca, with the same setting, a café in a sort of internationalized resort (Fort de France), and a cast of baddies who gave creditable impersonations of Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

I doubt that anyone at that time would have given a nickel on Bacall’s chances of having a long acting career, but she was still performing this year, 66 years later, what might be called a creditable effort of her own.

Brennan, by the way, in addition to being a fierce political conservative who supported George C Wallace and Barry Goldwater in presidential races, won more Academy Awards than any other actor, equal with Jack Nicholson. I loved every moment of his performance in this movie….

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