Dig a hole: the Merrie side of Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall ignites the screen (and carpet) in Bacall to Arms and Slick Hare.
  • Lauren Bacall ignites the screen (and carpet) in Bacall to Arms and Slick Hare.

Lauren Bacall, who died this week at the age of 89, was one of the few movie stars to be twice immortalized in Warner Bros. “Merrie Melodies” cartoons, one of which bore her name in the title. Bob Clampett’s roiled rollick Bacall to Arms is a plotless series of some of the wildest, albeit most disjointed blackout gags ever created by the boys at Termite Terrace.

The title is a goof on Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms by way of the same author’s To Have and Have Not, Bacall’s debut feature. As if that layering wasn’t enough, it also functions as a burlesque on the common military term, “a call to arms.” Bonus points: the self-reflexive silliness is confined to a movie theatre with various Technicolor barnyard patrons enjoying a black-and-white rotoscoped “Bogey Gocart and Laurie Becool” splashed across the 60-foot screen. (Even the termites knew Lauren Bacall photographed better in black-and-white.)

Bacall to Arms (Edited Extract)

This would be Clampett’s second-to-last cartoon for the studio. He departed before the short was finished, leaving the clean-up duties to Arthur Davis, a talented cartoonist assigned the unenviable task of replacing the veteran animator and assuming control of the Clampett unit. It’s best described as a Frankenstein short, cobbled together with reused footage from She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter and relying on the clashing styles of various animators to keep things moving.

Lauren Bacall’s acting career began at age 17 with a walk-on part in a Broadway play. The seed began to blossom two years later when Nancy “Slim” Keith, wife of Howard Hawks — he would go on to direct both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep — took notice of Bacall while thumbing through the pages of Vogue. Hawks’s secretary misconstrued her boss’s desire to have Bacall tested as a “green light” and wired the budding actress a ticket to Hollywood. Hawks placed her under a seven-year personal contract at $100 a week, changing her name from Betty Joan Perske to the more marquee-friendly Lauren Bacall.

From her fashion sense to that famously husky voice, Keith cultivated Bacall’s smoldering presence, instilling in her a sophisticated sensuality second only to Ava Gardner, both of whom had torrid affairs with Frank Sinatra. (The main difference between the two was that Bacall could act.) Bacall was the embodiment of what came to be known as the “Hawksian woman”: fast-thinking, tough-talking, and when she kissed you, you stayed kissed. In her autobiography, Keith notes, “Howard had been working on this formula woman for years in his films. Rather, it was that, until he met me, the woman of his dreams was only in his head. And until Howard got to Betty Bacall, there hadn’t been an actress to make that dream come alive on screen.”

The cartoon was released after To Have and Have Not and before The Big Sleep. With one feature, the Hawkses had instilled in Bacall such instantly identifiable charisma and strength of character that parody was inevitable. Only one other example of a Warner Bros. cartoon in which a celebrity is caricatured on the basis of a single performance comes to mind and that’s the dice-teethed whisper of “Rosebud,” a nod to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, that closes Clampett’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.

For years I operated under the false assumption that Bacall gave voice to her animated facsimile. For an answer, I turned to animation historian Jerry Beck, a man who has probably settled more cartoon bar bets than all other animation fiends combined. (Jerry heads up the squash-and-stretch utopia, Cartoon Research.) “I used to think they just used the actual soundtrack,” responds Jerry by e-mail, “but I believe that’s Sara Berner (a radio actress who did many female voices for Warner cartoons) as Bacall. Actor Dave Barry is doing Bogart (except for the blackface ‘Rochester’ end line — that’s Mel Blanc).”

Slick Hare

Bacall would make another anthropomorphic appearance, again opposite cartoon Bogey, in Friz Freleng’s Slick Hare (1947). Set inside the celebrity-studded Mocrumbo nightclub, Bogart’s puts in an urgent request to Chef Fudd for a dish of fried wabbit for his “baby.” After a heated exchange involving coconut custard pies, his baby, a peroxided Bacall, is presented with a plate of fresh Bugs.

I was shocked when talking with friends to find that aside from her three collaborations with Bogart, none of them could name another Lauren Bacall picture. Surely they must have seen Vincente Minnelli’s madly stylized The Cobweb, or the one film I’ll beg to take to hell with me, Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor fever dream Written on the Wind.

Choosing Broadway over Hollywood, in the 20 year period between Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Bacall appeared in as many features as she did Warner Bros. cartoons. Even in Written on the Wind — a film she never much cared for — Bacall played fourth-fiddle to Rock Hudson and scenery chompers Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. Her towering presence and booming voice were frequently larger than the films that showcased them. That’s star quality, something one couldn’t help but notice in Lauren Bacall.

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When I think of Bacall, I think of her near zombie performance next to Edward G. in "Key Largo". Wildcat!

Rest in peace Betty Joan Perske.

"Bacall to Arms" was hilarious. Thanks for posting.

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