Humphrey Bogart appeared in some 75 movies during his legendary career from 1930 to 1957. He is, in my own opinion, the greatest actor in motion picture history. His performances in Casablanca, Beat the Devil, The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and dozens of others are brilliant, unique, and unsurpassed. My favorite Bogart film is definitely Key Largo (1948).
Today, I think only the great Jack Nicholson and maybe Robert De Niro can ever approach Bogart’s greatness as a film actor. One of the many things that made Bogart so great was his incredible ability to play both a very ethical, upright, honest “good guy” and a craven, unethical, immoral “bad guy.”
Probably the single most asked question regarding Humphrey Bogart is “Why did he talk that way?” Bogart had a trademark lisping way of speaking, caused by a scarred-up area of his mouth.
The stories of just how Bogart got his trademark lisp number about a half-dozen. The first is that he got the lip scars from a beating his father, the very strict Belmont Bogart, gave him as a child. Supposedly this walloping occurred when he was a young boy. “Because his dad beat him” is the explanation Darwin Porter uses in his excellent biography The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart.
Later, Bogart told his friend David Niven that his lip scars were caused by “a childhood accident.” Was Bogart trying to cover up for his father when he gave this obtuse explanation? Another version of the lisp cause is that Bogart caught a large wooden splinter in his lip at the age of 12.
The most frequently told (and most accepted) story of Bogart’s lisp and scars is that the injuries came in his days in the Navy. This exact story is the one Humphrey told to his friend Nathaniel Benchley. As a young man in 1918, Bogart enlisted in the Navy. He always had a deep love of the sea.
The story goes that Humphrey was escorting a prisoner to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Kittery, Maine, by train. While switching trains in Boston, the prisoner smashed Bogart across the mouth with his shackles. The doctor, in sewing up Bogart’s mouth injuries, did a shabby job and scars were the result. “Goddamn doctor,” Bogart would later say, “Instead of stitching it up, he screwed it up.”
An alternate, but similar story about the scars could have come directly from a Humphrey Bogart film. In this version, Bogart was escorting his prisoner and the prisoner asked for a cigarette. While Bogart reached for the requested smoke, the prisoner smashed him across the face with his handcuffs. A third similar variation is that Bogart was actually uncuffing the prisoner's manacles, and the prisoner swatted Bogart across the mouth with his cuffed hand. It would seem that some blend or mixture of these three tales is the actual genesis of Bogart's lisp and scars.
Still another story of Bogart’s mouth scars derives from his years in the Navy. In the story, Bogart’s mouth was scarred during the shelling of his ship, the USS Leviathan, and he was cut by a piece of shrapnel. But strangely, his post-service physical makes no mention of the lip scar, although it mentions many smaller scars.
Louise Brooks, the actress, who Bogart met in 1924, claims that when she met him, “He had some scar tissue on his lip, which his father might have repaired before he went into films” (in 1930). Oddly, Louise added, “His lip would give him no speech impediment, either before or after it was mended.”
Although the scarred lip may have given Bogart less than the full characteristic lisp we all known it undoubtedly played a part in his unique speech patterns. But Bogart many have exaggerated his lisp for effect.
Over the years, Bogie did, indeed, practice various forms of lip gymnastics, accompanied by nasal tones, snarls, lisps, and slurs. His painful wince and menacing, fiendish grin are unsurpassed in movie history.
But Bogart’s brilliance as an actor took a lot more than the trademark lisp. He was definitely a superb, compelling actor. But one wonders is he would have been quite as immortal if he had a normal, smooth speech pattern.
I guess it’s kind of like imagining “What if Marilyn Monroe had bee a brunette instead of a blond?” or “What if James Dean had gotten his first film role as a middle-aged man instead of a 23-year-old?” Because of each of these people’s immense talent, they would probably have created some kind of an effect, some kind of stir, regardless of the situation. But somehow, with the truly greats, every factor seems to come together and fit like a perfect puzzle.