HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU
Isn’t it incredible how the passage of time is like a burst of gunfire that punches holes in the brain—wiping out some parts yet leaving others intact? When I sat down recently to read “Bogart ’48” for the first time since its publication by Dell Press in 1980, I felt as if I was examining a book totally alien to me. I didn’t actually create this, did I? I asked myself after absorbing the first few chapters. I knew it had been my original idea in late 1976, but I had almost no memory of the writing process that followed over the next two years. How had I approached the project with my co-writer, the late mystery writer-surrealism painter Kenn Davis?
Flowing descriptions of so many things in the year 1948—clothing, cars, lush mansions, hotels, movie studios, famous actors and actresses, and a seemingly endless line-up of fictional characters. It all overwhelmed me. Some locations were real, I noted, others were fictional. Suddenly I was reminded of one fact: Kenn and I had visited some of those real locations, taking extensive notes as we traveled from site to site. And then there was the dialogue, which seemed to flow so effortlessly back and forth between the real and the fictional. And it was all set in a year when I had only been eight years old. Yeah, a lot of research had gone into this . . . yet the actual writing experience, which spanned two and a half years, from 1977 through the early months of 1979, remained muddled and lost in the “bullet-riddled” landscape of my mind. And there was no Kenn Davis to turn to for help: Kenn, at 77, had died in January 2010 of a bad heart, after years of ill health and occasional operations.
But some things I have been able to pull out of the darkening depths—and I want to share them with you now.
“Bogart ’48” evolved out of a friendship I had established in 1965 with Kenn. We were both employed by the San Francisco Chronicle. Kenn had studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and had exhibited his first surreal and abstract artwork at 25. A veteran of the Korean War, he had settled at the Chronicle, shortly after I arrived there as a young up-and-coming entertainment writer, to become a photo retoucher and pen-and-ink artist. As I covered movies and television, specializing in one-on-one interviews with such celebrities as Lucille Ball, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Donald O’Connor, George Burns, Clint Eastwood and an estimated 800 others, we worked only yards away from each other, Kenn hunched over a drawing board, me ensconced behind a manual typewriter (later an electric typewriter, eventually a computer) from which flowed copy for the paper’s Sunday Datebook, an entertainment section printed on pink paper (and hence called “The Pinkie”).
We both lived in Pacifica, on the coastline of California just 20 miles south of San Francisco, and twice a week commuted by car together. During our conversations we discovered a mutual love for genre movies, comic books, science-fiction, and media in general. We shared an undying enthusiasm for film noir and mysteries.
Eventually, in 1970, we became collaborators to write a screenplay, “Dark Side of the Hunt,” a thriller set in San Francisco that depicted a black private detective we called Carver Bascombe. We had found a local stage actor who fit the role (John Cochran) and so we submitted the script to Francis Ford Coppola’s American-Zoetrope, which was then located on Folsom Street, just a couple of blocks from the Chronicle. It was our dream to co-produce the film, me as director, Kenn as cinematographer, his first love when it came to the movies. With Cochran as our up-and-coming star of tomorrow. To be shot in 35mm on San Francisco locations. I should add, we were a little crazed as things would turn out.
Coppola was out of town making “The Godfather” and we were told by the temporary producer in charge (I’ll leave his name out to save him any embarrassment) that we had a deal for a private-eye movie! With Francis’ blessings! We rushed out and shot some sample scenes in 35 mm, and even used Francis’ own flatbed editing table to cut the footage together. But then when we tried to call the producer to show him the footage, he never responded. So, when we read in Herb Caen’s daily Chronicle gossip column that Coppola had returned to San Francisco for a short stay before leaving to shoot additional “Godfather” footage on the island of Sicily, we decided to walk over to American-Zoetrope one afternoon and see what was going on.
The receptionist instantly remembered us from our previous visits and pointed behind her. There was Francis, standing in front of his office. He immediately told us he wanted to have nothing to do with our project. The guy temporarily in charge had lied to us! He had never been given authority to buy scripts! And then Francis informed us, with tears pouring from both eyes, that he had just fired the jerk! It was a dramatic, heart-breaking moment, but Kenn and I returned to our jobs and our dreams for the future, determined to carry on—somehow.
American-International wanted to buy our screenplay a few months later—but we turned it down, having made a verbal promise to Cochran that we would make the film together. It was one of the dumbest things we ever did. And “Dark Side of the Hunt” would never be a movie.
But we refused to let go of our dream and we carried on by raising money for, and producing, a feature film. “Nightmare in Blood” would become a vampire thriller set at a sci-fi/horror convention in San Francisco. Major portions were actually filmed at the Fox Theater in downtown Oakland. Much of “Nightmare” was satirical and included a character named Dr. Unworth, patterned after the comic-book hating Dr. Fredric Wertham, now recognized as the infamous author of “Seduction of the Innocent,” a treatise that concluded that comic books were the cause of juvenile delinquency in America.
Our movie also had a comic-book store owner named Gary Arlington (patterned loosely after the real-life Gary Arlington, who had been the first entrepreneur to open a comic-book store in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and who spearheaded the Underground Comix movement in 1969). We also created a mystery writer named Professor Seabrook, played by a distinguished local actor, Dan Caldwell. And our old pal John Cochran ended up playing a variation on his private-eye character. Then there was an young up-and-coming actress, Barrie Youngfellow, whom we picked to portray a fashion designer heroine. (Barrie went on to star in the TV sitcom “It’s a Living” for eight seasons).
Our star was Jerry Walter, a Bay Area-based actor who had bit parts in movies and TV shows shot in and around San Francisco. (His major claim to fame: He had played Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, on the once-popular radio series of the 1940s.) Jerry was excellent as Malakai, a Hollywood character actor who specializes in vampire roles (and who is, incidentally, a real vampire.) Working as his henchmen: “public relations” men played by Ray K. Goman (a long-time San Francisco stand-up comedian from a vaudeville family) and movie villain Hy Pyke, who brought his sneering presence up from Hollywood.
It took several years of financial and “artistic” struggle for Kenn and I to finish the film and sell it to a distributor. It was released to theaters all across the country in 1978 and played for the next three years, from first run down to tenth run. Historically, it was the last movie to be made in the Technicolor wide-screen process known as Techniscope. In 1985 it came out in a lousy pan-and-scan VHS format. (And was sold under the table in England with the title “Horror Convention.”) Finally, in 2004 Kenn and I were able to get a superior wide-screen release in DVD format released through Image Entertainment.)
While Kenn and I struggled to sell “Nightmare” to a distributor, I wrote solo and came up with a war fantasy I called “Napalm Sunday,” which was purchased “over the transom” by Avon Books and retitled “World War III” when it was published in 1976. Avon then asked me to write a novelization of the screenplay “Viva Knievel!” which came out in print in 1977. It was a terrible movie, and I can only assume my novelization wasn’t much better. (I tried to get Knievel to talk to me for some exclusive material, but he hated the project so much that he turned me down.)
It was around this time that Kenn and I rewrote the screenplay “Dark Side of the Hunt” into novel form, shortening the title to “The Dark Side.” Because of Avon’s success with “World War III,” we were able to sell “Dark Side” to Avon, which published the book in the fall of 1977. (It was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award, though it did not win.)
Both of us were fans of crime movies, and Bogart films were a topic we often discussed. In late 1976 I came up with the idea of a novel in which Bogie would be the main player. The characters would be an oddball mixture of those he associated and worked with in real life and fictional ones to accommodate a plot involving the murder of a friend of Bogart’s, with events climaxing on the night of the Academy Awards in 1948. I didn’t have all the plot details or the characters worked out in my mind, but I knew I wanted it to reflect as realistically as possible the Hollywood of the 1940s. At least as I thought I knew and understood it. And I wanted the characters to be real to the time and the milieu. Especially Bogart.
Kenn came alive with joy when I told him my plan. The first step, I suggested, was that we work up a sales pitch—what I called my “Madison Avenue approach”—and send it to a literary agent I had established in Hollywood. It was a simple pitch—six pages—that outlined the basic concept. The agent received the pitch and liked it, and decided to show it to an editor from Dell who just happened to be having dinner at his home one night.
Word came back quickly that Dell liked the concept, and if we could submit a detailed story outline that was approved, a contract would be awaiting us. So, for the next few months, Kenn and I labored on the plot scene by scene. In staying true to the time period, we decided to confine the action to just five days in Bogart’s life. He would be finishing up “Key Largo” at Warner Bros. and living in Benedict Canyon with his wife Lauren Bacall (although we decided to have her out of town visiting family). Nightly he would visit Romanoff’s Restaurant, which his good friend Peter Lorre also frequented. Given that Lorre had once known Sigmund Freud, we decided he would be the one who would analyze the characters and come up with some of the possible solutions for the murder and other crimes he and Bogart were investigating. For a romantic subplot, we came up with the idea of having Bogart’s ex-wife, alcoholic Mayo Methot, turn up unexpectedly, trying to seduce him back into her maniacal clutches.
The main plot would center around a minor character actor, a good friend of Bogie’s, who is shot to death while making a low-budget Sam Katzman-produced Western at Vasquez Rocks outside L.A. Bogart and Lorre swing into action to find the killer. All trails eventually lead to Shrine Auditorium, where the 1948 Oscars were actually presented. We also decided to work in the political chaos of the era caused by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
With our two main characters based on real humans, we knew we had to sprinkle in many of those whom Bogart knew personally, or met in passing.
Here is a list of those we came up with, in the order of their appearances:
D. W. Griffith (silent-era director)
Sam Katzman (low budget feature/serial producer)
Lew Landers (B-movie director)
Hedda Hopper (gossip columnist)
Harry Cohn (Columbia Studio mogul)
Karl Freund (cinematographer)
Edward G. Robinson (tough guy actor)
John Huston (director)
Art Luecker (Huston’s assistant director)
Lee Wilson (gaffer)
Jack L. Warner (Warner Bros. mogul)
John Wayne (leading man)
Vera Hruba Ralston (leading lady at Republic)
Joe Kane (director at Republic)
Adolphe Menjou (character actor)
Michael Romanoff (colorful restaurateur)
Peter Lorre (character actor)
Mary Philips Bogart (Bogie’s second wife, Broadway ingenue)
Spencer Tracy (leading man)
Robert Sherwood (playwright)
Leslie Howard (British movie star)
Arthur Hopkins (Broadway producer)
Mayo Methot (Bogie’s third wife/Hollywood actress)
Lauren (Betty) Bacall: (Bogart’s fourth wife/Hollywood actress)
Max Steiner (motion picture composer)
Chuck Jones (Warner Bros. animator)
Michael Curtiz (director)
Susan Hayward (film actress)
Norma Jean Baker aka Marilyn Monroe (movie ingenue/soon to be a star)
Arthur Fitzgerald (an anomaly—not a real-life character but a combination of actor Barry Fitzgerald and his brother Arthur Shields)
Jimmy Fidler (radio commentator on Hollywood)
Louella O. Parsons (Hollywood gossip columnist)
Ray Teal (character actor)
Thomas Gomez (character actor)
Marc Lawrence (character actor)
William O. Wellman (director)
John Hodiak (Hollywood actor)
Van Heflin (film actor)
Raymond Chandler (mystery author)
Cissy Chandler (Raymond Chandler’s wife)
Jean Hersholt (character actor; Academy president)
Errol Flynn (leading man)
Agnes Moorehead (character actress)
The outline was immediately accepted by Dell and in mid-1977 we started writing. We decided that since there were so many real places we needed information about, it would be wise to make a trip to Los Angeles. This we did in early 1977, gaining permission to drive around the Warner Bros. studio back lot. We paid a visit to the cartoonists’ building, and made notes on where props were stored as we drove the streets. I jotted down the names of streets and alleys. We also went to Shrine Auditorium, where we spent most of a day examining the main auditorium and then surveying the tunnels on the lower level, which actually gave us the idea of writing new scenes in which Bogart pursues a mysterious figure through the hallways and furnace rooms.
During that trip we also visited the Knickerbocker Hotel, because we knew this was where the silent-era director D. W. Griffith had lived in 1948. Down in the basement, we discovered a door plaque with Griffith’s name on it, and the room number, details we used in the final draft. We also made a trip to Glendale to visit Forest Lawn Memorial Park, making careful notes about where important bodies were buried. We also drove through Benedict Canyon, locating where Bogart had lived at the time of our story. We took copious notes, as they say in the reporting business.
When it came to fictional characters, I came up with the idea of using the names of characters Bogart had played in his movies. Here is a list of the characters’ names and the films we lifted them from:
Dr. Xavier Quesne: “The Return of Dr. X”
Jimmy Leonard: “Love Affair”
Sherry Scott: “Two Against the World”
Arnold Grasselli: “It All Came True”
Valentine Corliss: “The Bad Sister”
Bugs Fenner: “Bullets or Ballots”
“Turkey” Morgan: “Kid Galahad”
Quinn Tayne (originally Doug Quintaine): “Stand-In”
(Kitty) Steele after Dixon Steele: “In a Lonely Place”
Matt (changed to Dalt) Brennan: “Chain Lightning”
Geoffrey Carroll: “The Two Mrs. Carrolls”
Paul Fabrini: “They Drive By Night”
Linus Larrabbe: “Sabrina”
Whit (altered from Whip) McCord: “The Oklahoma Kid”
Josephine Rossi (originally Joe Rossi): “Action in the North Atlantic”
Hap Stuart: “China Clipper”
Phillips (of the bomb squad): “The Great O’Malley”
By the fall of that year, we had a first draft. A fat first draft. So fat, the editors at Dell all agreed—the book needed trimming. An overabundance of detail, slow-moving scenes. The Big Sleep! had overtaken us. Tighten things up! Get the story moving faster! This is where Kenn Davis took command, chastising me for long bursts of text that I started slicing to bits with my literary machete. Kenn did the same. Eventually we got it down to reasonable length. But it had taken us through 1978.
Now Dell needed to program the accepted manuscript into its line-up. That meant the book would not see publication until February 1980.
By then a drastic change had occurred in my life. In January 1979 I had entered the world of television hosting, and was producing and starring in a weekly show called “Creature Features” at KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland’s Jack London Square.
The previous host, Bob Wilkins, had introduced the show in the spring of 1971 and had turned it into one of the most popular series in the San Francisco-Bay Area, drawing high ratings on a weekly basis. As a frequent guest on his show, Bob and I had become good friends and it had been his suggestion that I replace him, given what I knew about science-fiction and horror movies. Although I argued with him that I had no experience hosting a show, he insisted—and I landed the role after cutting an audition tape.
Each Saturday night, for the next six years, I would introduce a horror or sci-fi movie and then present special guests throughout the program. My guest line-up included such well- known genre icons as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Lee, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Roger Corman, mystery writer Richard Lupoff and countless others.
The pressure of doing this weekly show was so great that I was no longer able to collaborate with Kenn Davis, and our working together came to an end. With my permission and my blessing, Kenn went on to write more Carver Bascombe novels over the next decade: “The Forza Trap” (Avon 1979), “Dead to Rights” (Avon 1981), “Words Can Kill” (Fawcett 1984), “Melting Point” (Fawcett 1986), “Nijinsky Is Dead” (Fawcett 1987), “As October Dies” (Fawcett 1987), “Acts of Homicide” (Fawcett 1989) and “Blood of Poets” (1990).
“Creature Features” ended for me in 1984. Cable television was taking over the market and the syndicated package was quickly dying out. By then I had started my own publishing company, Creatures at Large, to bring out the first volume in my “Creature Features Movie Guide Series.” This was followed in 1987 by “Lost in Time and Space With Lefty Feep,” a collection of comedy-fantasy short stories by Robert Bloch, first published in Fantastic Adventures pulp magazines, but unread since the 1940s. A book I am still very proud that I published, given that Bloch remains a legendary icon because of “Psycho,” the book Alfred Hitchcock based his 1960 movie on. (Bob and I had planned two more collections of Lefty Feep stories, but he died of cancer in 1994.)
And that was followed by the third (1988) and fourth (1994) editions in my “Creature Features” series. Between those massive projects, in 1989, I squeezed in “Them Ornery Mitchum Boys,” the autobiography of John Mitchum, brother of Robert Mitchum, which I spent a full year editing and bringing hundreds of photographs together for.
For each book, I turned to Kenn for cover design and interior sketches. For the movie-review books Kenn would do a sketch for each letter of the alphabet. It was wonderful stuff but we did not unite to write any more books or movies.
Kenn finally gave up the Carver Bascombe series and attempted to write “more important” books. But he was never able to sell any of them. I encouraged him to return to Bascombe—a character he knew all too well—but he felt there was too little money and too few sales. And he wanted to prove he could elevate himself to a higher level within the mystery novel genre.
Ours had been a good collaboration, and I wish it had lasted longer. And that we had written more books in the style of “Bogart ’48.” But once life had led us down certain pathways, there was no going back.
Bogart lives on like no other Hollywood actor. He is still admired by new generations when they discover him as Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny” or as Fred C. Dobbs in “Treasure of Sierra Madre” or tank sergeant Joe Gunn in “Sahara.”Bogart remains an archetypal figure who has yet to be replaced and who was destined not to be filed away in old film vaults and forgotten.
Even his personal attitudes reflected things to come. “I’ve survived in a very tough, very competitive business,” he once said. “I keep working, people keep coming to see me. I’m a Scaramouche, getting everyone else in trouble. I like sticking swords in balloons. In Hollywood there are too many overinflated phony, self-important balloons.”
I guess BOGART ’48 was our way of keeping the character of Bogart alive.
And I hope he lives on in these pages as a memorable character. Fictional or otherwise.
Whatever the case . . . I have one last toast. And I know Kenn Davis would approve.
Here’s looking at you, Bogie.