Recently some Twitter friends and I were recalling a few of our favorite old Bugs Bunny cartoons from the ’40’s and ’50’s, the kind they used to show on Saturday morning television but which, sadly, most kids today do not know. For example there was the one where Bugs stood in for his colleague the Easter Bunny, with the bratty kid loudly and incessantly demanding, “I wanna Easter Egg, I wanna Easter Egg!” Another classic involved Bugs playing the fiddle and calling a hoedown for two barefoot and clueless backwoods brothers intent on shooting him, with the pair ending up going off a cliff, as Bugs’ opponents often did.
And then there was the one that introduced a very young Billy Boy to the mystique of Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday at the age of 89.
In “Slick Hare”, a cartoon short from 1947, Humphrey Bogart comes to a supper club in Los Angeles run by Elmer Fudd, and insists on being served rabbit, “or else.” Hilarity ensures, with Bugs Bunny dashing about the restaurant avoiding capture, along the way running into a number of recognizable Hollywood stars of the era, and at one point even doing a superb Carmen Miranda impression. At the end, when Elmer admits that the rabbit cannot be caught, Bogie relents and says, “Baby will just have to have a ham sandwich instead.” Realizing that Lauren Bacall – a.k.a. “Baby”, Bogart’s nickname for her – was the one asking for rabbit, Bugs immediately changes his mind and offers himself up to her on a platter.
When I first saw this cartoon I must have been about 5 or 6 years old. I had no idea who “Baby” was, only that she must have been a very beautiful woman indeed, to make Bugs act the way he did. As I grew older and saw films like “To Have and Have Not”, “The Big Sleep”, and “Key Largo”, I came to understand why not only the rabbit from Brooklyn could fall head over heels for the girl from The Bronx, but so could a future President of the United States from Missouri.
There are a few famous 1945 photographs of Harry Truman playing the piano at The National Press Club here in Washington, D.C., with Lauren Bacall perched atop the piano. It was both a publicity stunt for the new star, and something to bring Truman more into the national and international public eye, shortly after having becoming Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth Vice President. In the pictures, Bacall’s long legs are draped seductively over the side of the piano, with Truman smiling and looking somewhat nervous. Understandably, when the photos came out Bess Truman was furious, but two months later FDR was dead, and the Trumans had other matters to concern them; meanwhile, men still went on falling for Lauren Bacall, wartime or not.
Because indeed, who could not fall for her? The former model with the sharp wit created a kind of archetypal relationship with Bogart, which even today my friends talk about, longingly. Beyond the obvious physical attraction going on, there was a snappy, clever back-and-forth between the two of them that many of us, I daresay myself included, would love to have in our own relationships. It might not always be sweetness and light, but my goodness it would be great fun.
Despite her long career in Hollywood, compared to many of her contemporaries Bacall did not make as many films as she might have done. She was picky about the roles she took, and made it a point to try to raise her children as best she could. She also viewed the theatre as the natural home for the serious actor, and succeeded as much on the boards as she did on the silver screen. As a result, there is not a huge back catalogue of Lauren Bacall films for you to study, and truthfully most of her best roles were shot many decades ago.
Yet I think that rather than any single performance, Lauren Bacall’s legacy is the epitome of a kind of sexuality which differed significantly from the “bombshell” variety, which so often leaves little to the imagination. If one may use such a phrase in connection with a great performer, Lauren Bacall was the definition of “smoking hot”. From the first time she slinks onscreen in “To Have and Have Not”, asks, “Anybody got a match?”, and lights a cigarette, if you were a thinking man, or even just a man with a pulse, she had you hooked.
Lauren Bacall was beautiful, she was sassy, and she had a voice like a purring lioness – a generation later she would have made a great Catwoman – but she was also smart. She was a woman who was not going to let you get away with anything, just because you happened to be a man and she happened to be at a loose end at the moment. She expected you not to take her or yourself for granted, but to be the best part of yourself, knowing when to be a man and take charge, and when to hold back and give her some room.
With Bacall’s passing, there are very few actresses left from the old studio system days: Olivia de Haviland, Maureen O’Hara, and a few others are still with us, but they have not acted in years. Bacall however, was working almost up until the end, her husky voice still possessing the ability to set men’s hearts a-flutter. She was probably the last of the great, smoldering film seductresses from the era of our grandparents to leave us.
So henceforth it will be our duty, gentlemen, to not only show the kids things like Bugs Bunny cartoons, since no one else will, but also to explain to them that they’ll find out who “Baby” was…when they’re a little bit older.