Key Largo is, essentially, the same plot as The Petrified Forest, the 1936 film and Bogart’s debut in the movies, that we started this series with back in June. In both, a visiting man meets and falls for a girl at the place (a diner in Petrified Forest, a hotel in Key Largo) that her father runs. A gangster shows up, to threaten them and everyone else there. Both movies were mostly filmed in the studio, befitting their origin as plays. The director, John Huston, was unable to persuade Warner Brothers to make Key Largo on location.
In Petrified Forest the girl is Bette Davis and in Key Largo the girl is Lauren Bacall. The visitor is Leslie Howard in Petrified Forest and Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo. The father is Porter Hall in Petrified Forest and Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo. And the gangster is Humphrey Bogart in Petrified Forest and Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo.
Key Largo was made from December 1947 to March 1948, then released the following July. Bogart had gone to Washington in October 1947 with a group called the Committee for the Fifth Amendment, which was protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee’s accusations that a group of screenwriters, later known as the Hollywood Ten, were Communists. By December 1947 Bogart was apologizing for his trip in the press, saying he had been duped. Huston, who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Brooks, had to fight with the studio to be able to include a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt in the script. That was how far things had gone at that time. It was even rumored in Hollywood that the FBI was about to take over the casting of films.
Things to look for in this movie – Bogart’s biographers Anne Sperber and Eric Lax wrote that “the underlying tension of the film stems essentially from the antagonism of the Bogart and Robinson characters.” Claire Trevor fought to get the part of Gaye Dawn, the gangster’s ex-girlfriend. Huston purposely filmed her key scene, where she sings “Moanin’ Low” for Robinson, out of schedule. She was unprepared for the scene, and had only enough warning to get into costume. Claire Trevor won an Oscar for best supporting actress primarily for that scene. Lionel Barrymore, who acted in films for years despite crippling arthritis, became the center of life on the set as the actors rehearsed and shot this film. The other actors had affection for him, and liked to listen to his stories about his acting family – his sister Ethel and his late brother John.
Karl Freund, the former German expressionist cinematographer, whose credits go back to Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and The Mummy (1932), which he directed, contributed his photographic talents to this picture, and you will see his work tonight. This movie has music by Max Steiner, the composer whose scores contributed to the effect of many Warner Brothers movies. His music in this picture is as memorable as any of the greatest of his film scores, such as Jezebel (1938), The Letter (1940), Now, Voyager (1943) or The Big Sleep (1946).
Key Largo is really an exceptional film experience, overall. A skilled ensemble cast, the conflict between Bogart and Robinson, the love between Bogart and Bacall, Claire Trevor’s troubling but brilliant performance, a thrilling climax, Steiner’s heroic music, and Freund’s beautiful camerawork all make this a movie to remember. I hope you enjoy watching it tonight.