Tonight: Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, with Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor in John Huston’s five-star drama Key Largo.
The casting couldn’t have been better, the script more appropriate, or the direction more compelling in this nostalgic tribute to the Warner Bros. gangster films of an earlier era.
Bogart plays a disillusioned World War II veteran who travels to Key Largo, Florida, to visit a run-down hotel operated by Barrymore and Bacall, the widow of Bogart’s best friend.
Enter Robinson, playing a latter-day version of the Al Capone style gangster that made him famous in Little Caeser and subsequent roles in the 1930s.
Along with Robinson and his gangster pals is his drunken doxy of a girlfriend, played by Trevor, in an Oscar-winning performance.
And then the fun begins!
Key Largo is an updated version of a 1939 play written by Maxwell Anderson. It ran 105 performances on Broadway with Paul Muni in the Bogart role, as a fatalistic, ex-member of the Loyalist Army recently returned from the Spanish Civil War.
Warner Bros. paid $35,000 for the screen rights to the play in July 1947. The screenplay was written by Richard Brooks, in collaboration with Huston, who would play a significant role in Richard’s transition from screenwriter to director.
Huston had made that same transition—from writer to director—with The Maltese Falcon in 1941. (The film that made Bogie a star.)
Upon his return from the service after World War II, Huston made two films the same year—both with Bogart—that reestablished his credentials as a major Hollywood director: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, followed by Key Largo.
Huston won the Oscar for Best Director for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Bogie wouldn’t be nominated for either picture. That year, the Academy was nominating actors such as Dan Dailey for When My Baby Smiles At Me and Clifton Webb for Sitting Pretty instead.
Tonight’s film has historic connections. Bogart had faced Robinson in countless Warner Bros. confrontations in gangster films in the 1930s. Robinson was the star and Bogie inevitably lost those gun battles. Now Bogie was the star and the outcome would be different.
The hero dies in the play, but not in the film. The film’s ending came from the book version of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which was not used in the film version of that Bogart-Bacall classic.
Key Largo was Huston’s last film for Warner Bros., and the last of four films that Bogart made with Bacall.
Although Bogart was now the major star, he treated Robinson with deference and respect. “On the set, he gave it all to me,” recalled Robinson. “Second billing or no, I got the star treatment because he (Bogart) insisted on it. When asked to come on the set, he would ask, ‘Is Mr. Robinson ready?’”
Robinson was tired of playing gangsters, but he gave the performance of a lifetime in this one. He was perfectly cast for the role, and no one doubted that he was recapturing the latter-day persona of the infamous Al Capone, who had actually retired to Florida and died there from an advanced case of syphilis.
Brooks later stated that, in his research, he also incorporated into the Rocco character the background of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who had been deported and had gone to Cuba, from where he hoped to sneak back into the United States.
Trevor, admired by all, played a character who, according to Huston, was based on a real-life mistress of Luciano’s—Gay Orlova—an American showgirl who the director met in London in the early 1930s. Trevor had also played Bogart’s syphilitic girlfriend in Dead End in 1937, which earned her another Oscar nomination.
Bacall met Bogart on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944. It was something that Peter Lorre said that persuaded Bogart to marry Bacall, despite the disparity in their ages. “Isn’t it better to have five years of happiness than none at all,” Lorre said.
Bogart and Bacall lived right across the street from the Mansion—on Mapleton—until his death in 1957. Richard Brooks lived there, too—in the 1970s—and became one of my best friends. He left me his film collection when he died, including a print of tonight’s film.
Key Largo went into production in December 1947 and wrapped in mid-March 1948. The 48-day production lasted 72 days and went 50 percent over budget.
The picture opened at the Strand in New York City on July 16, 1948, with Count Basie and Billie Holiday performing live on stage. What a show that must have been!
Key Largo was a critical and commercial blockbuster. Grossing $3.5 million, it was Warner Bros. biggest hit of the year.
So now—from 1948—Key Largo.