It was 1944. It was wartime.
The patriotism was so thick you could cut it with a knife. A rotund-and darn proud of it- Kate Smith was belting out “God Bless America” causing a lump to form in all our throats while a skinny kid from Jersey named Frank Sinatra was causing mass hysteria with millions from the bobby sox set including a teenager from Brooklyn named Betty, my future mother.
1944 was also the year that another Betty, this one from the Bronx, made her sizzling screen debut with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.
Along with millions of other movie goers who watched the dazzling new comer set the screen on fire with her sultry looks and voice, my 18-year-old mother Betty was star struck with a 19-year-old Lauren Bacall.
To Have and Have Not
In 1944 To Have and Have Not was more than the title of a movie- it was a way of life.
Due to wartime shortages and rationing, Americans learned to make do or do without. We had said so long to new cars, T bone steaks and shiny toasters, that along with nylon stockings and bobby pins, had marched off to war.
But there were shortage of another kind too.
Sometimes my mother Betty couldn’t help wondering if they weren’t rationing love as well.
In the fall of 1944 Betty was a college freshman who had more on her mind than musty old history dates; it was dates of another sort that troubled her.
Due to the war she and the other co-eds found themselves in the midst of a genuine man shortage, lamenting that “they’re either too young or too old.” The absence of an entire generation of men between the ages of 17 and 30 left a lonely void.
To fill those lonely weekends she and her gang of girls played bridge, held hen parties and most of all went to the movies.
Luckily, movies were one of the few pleasures that hadn’t been rationed.
The year offered a treasure trove of movies from a self-absorbed Bette Davis in Mr Skeffington to Claudette Colbert as a war widow in Since You Went Away.
But it was Lauren Bacall’s sultry style in To Have and Have Not that left a lasting impression on my romance deprived mother.
Sitting in the darkened movie theater these lovelorn young ladies could live vicariously through the lush, celluloid fantasies. And kiss for kiss, no one offered more sizzle than Bogey and Bacall.
Sure, Hoagy Carmichael’s music was swell, and Bogie’s prose as spare as Hemingway’s, but it was Betty Bacall who blew everyone away.
With her wry, sexual innuendos this newcomer, a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx, could look as if she might be mentally undressing each man with her glance.
Readers familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel had to look hard to find much resemblance between the novel and the Warner Brothers movie of it.
A lot of the plot was scrapped to allow their romance to take center stage and my Mom sure wasn’t complaining.
As Bacall falls into Bogie’s lap and plants a kiss on his unsuspecting lips, she pulls away. “What did you do that for?” he asks. “Been wondering whether I’d like it.” she replies.
The audience liked it…and how! Who was this incendiary new star who lit up the black and white screen?
New Movie Find
A few weeks later when this former model made the cover of Life Magazine, Betty dug into the issue. Flipping furiously through the wartime ads, she all but ignored the articles on Dewey, the war and the Negro vote, till she got to the 4 page spread on this new movie find.
“Lauren (born Betty) Bacall plays her first role opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and have Not. This new movie find,” Life explained, “is 5’ 61/2” tall, weighs 119 pounds, has blue-green eyes. Her naturally blonde hair is streaked from hours of sitting in the sun. Off the screen she is gangly and awkward. Lauren is unmarried.”
“Midway through the first reel of To Have and Have Not a new movie, the sulky looking girl shown above and on the cover saunters with catlike grace into camera range and in an insolent sultry voice says ‘Anybody got a match?’ that moment marks the impressive screen debut of 19-year-old Lauren (Betty) Bacall.”
“After a year at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, NY born Betty Bacall adopted a unique approach to the problem of landing a stage job. She would walk up to a producer on the street and say ‘I’m Betty Bacall. I’d really be an asset to your production.’ This candor brought her a few minor roles, no fame.
Cover Girl Discovered
“Then she began to do fashion modeling for Harper’s Bazaar,” my mother read with great interest. “In March 1943 Mrs. Howard Hawks wife of Warner Brothers producer director saw Lauren on a Bazaar cover and had her husband write the girl for information. Instead of writing, Lauren went out to Hollywood.”
“For 8 months Hawk worked with her, developed her husky voice by having her go out in the hills 5 hours a day and shout lines at the top of her lungs. Last January he cast her opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.”
“Refusing to let Hollywood remake her appearance Lauren Bacall says ‘Mouth stays big, hair stays streaked and ugly teeth stay jagged- but that’s me.’”
Mad About Bacall
“In Beverly Hills,” she continued reading, “Miss Bacall shares an apartment with her mother. Her favorite expression is ‘mad’. She does ‘mad’ scenes. Smokes like ‘mad’ and will go ‘mad’ if the cigarette shortage doesn’t soon let up.”
“The biggest surprise of the movie,” Life proclaimed “ is Lauren Bacall.”
“Her best line comes when she sees Bogart carrying a pretty girl who has fainted. Her comment, ‘What are you trying to do, guess her weight?‘ will stay with the viewer.”
Life would blow it on this one.
Even 70 years later the movie’s best remembered line is one that is still often quoted. As she leaves the room, she delivers an exit speech for the ages.
“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and …blow.”
Immediately following the Life article, Betty noticed a curious ad for Louis Philippe lipstick. The ad posed a beauty challenge asking the reader if their lips were worthy of being immortalized in the famous Kiss Room in Hollywood.
“Are your lips so appealing that you’d be invited to leave their impression on the ceiling or walls of the Kiss Room- that fashionable rendezvous which boasts of the lip imprints of many of the most fascinating Hollywood actresses and social celebrities.”
Betty had no doubt Betty Bacall’s smoldering lips would leave quite the impression.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.