“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Let’s cut to the chase: this line is the only thing most people under 80 will remember about Lauren Bacall’s filmography. But somehow that isn’t bothersome. Even if she hadn’t married Humphrey Bogart–her first leading man in her first Hollywood movie–and gone on to become to Hepburn to his Tracy (in more ways, sadly, than one), Lauren Bacall–who passed away yesterday at the age of 89–would have ruled the highlight reels of Old Hollywood for all time with that one line. The image of a green, low-voiced nineteen year-old putting the verbal moves on the man who’d by then forged a screen identity of sarcastic stoicism isn’t one that’s easily forgotten. The innuendo doesn’t even scratch the surface of subtlety, and that’s what’s great about it. Bacall was a straight shooter.
What little I know about Lauren Bacall–outside of her marriage to Bogie and her roles alongside him–amounts to this: She was nineteen when she fell in love with the married 44-year-old, which makes the relationship seem a lot less innocent than it looks through the kinetoscope of history. She was the youngest person to join the cast of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and as such the scope of her life is almost incomprehensible. It’s been over half a century since Bogie’s death in 1957. Bacall was still a young woman then, even if history makes it hard to grasp that fact. She lived the bulk of her life without the man with whom she was most identified. Indeed, given how young she was when her career took off, Bacall outlived most of her Golden Age colleagues by nearly two decades. Her association with the forties made her old before her time; whatever she did, she would always be trapped in those black-and-white noir films.
With Bacall’s death, one of our last living connections with that Golden Age is severed. It belongs almost entirely to history now, which sounds a lot less monumental than it feels. The 20th century is the first in human history that we have a living, moving document of. It’s the first century in which we captured life as it’s actually lived: fluid, graceful, in motion. The movies of Bacall’s day show the increasing quality of film itself; less graininess, less choppy editing, more focus and clarity. Bacall was of the first generation of humans that can never truly die because they look so crisp, so alive on film.
Humphrey Bogart died thirty years before I was born, but he didn’t seem dead when I started watching his movies in high school, and he doesn’t seem dead now. He’ll be whistling for the rest of time. And Lauren Bacall will be right there, showing him how.