—Bogart’s Better Than I’d Been Led to Believe—
Honorary Radio Bogie Fix:
It’s Shakespeare’s story of an uneasy king who’s forced to contend with borderland disputes, a ne’er-do-well son, and the revolt of some hotheaded rebels – all of which culminates in a bloody battle wherein the king’s army desperately needs to strike down an insurrection before it gets out of hand.
What I Thought
Let me just get a couple things out of the way.
I was an English major at a large state university that is not known for having an esteemed English program. I had a literature emphasis and therefore had to read every written word by Shakespeare at one point or another. I had to watch a lot of it onstage. I even had to memorize some.
That being said, I’m not a big fan.
After those 4 ½ years of undergrad, I immediately pulled the drain plug in my brain and happily let all of that Shakespearean knowledge and experience pour out, never to look back. Oh, I remember plots. I remember a few characters. I even grew to love several parts of Hamlet.
But I’ve never considered revisiting the bard. Until now.
Bogart did Shakespeare? I thought that I’d tracked down most of Bogart’s available radio appearances – mainly film recreations, a few comedic appearances, and the Bold Adventure series with Bacall. Then I jumped onto Spotify and discovered the William Shakespeare – Vintage Collection.
So apparently in the late 30’s, the National Broadcasting Company and the Columbia Broadcasting System were competing with one another for a higher class of listeners with dueling radio series starring prestige actors in the greatest works of Shakespeare. Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, John Barrymore, Helen Menken, Tallulah Bankhead and many others jumped at the chance to perform some of history’s most treasured stories. Bogart was eager for his chance as well.
To be clear – reading Shakespeare always paled in comparison to actually seeing it performed onstage for me. I always had a hard time keeping his typically large large cast of characters straight as I tried to follow his pre-Seinfeld multi-story arcs that wound up and down and all around until they generally met up at the end. Seeing actors actually embody the roles helped me keep things clearer so that I could spend more time wrestling with the language.
A radio production, though? Well, I think it falls somewhere in between the printed page and the stage for me. Easier to grasp than words in musty old book – not as fun to follow along with without any visual aids.
When numerous male actors are putting on affected British accents and wallowing in the joys of their own diction, I still have a little trouble distinguishing who is who. It does help, however, that Henry IV’s nearly three hour running time was shortened to just an hour here, and for anyone who likes classic film, appreciates Old Time Radio productions, or can at least tolerate Shakespeare, it’s a fun little side alley from Hollywood’s classic era to veer into for a bit.
I was actually shocked by how much I enjoyed Bogart’s part of Hotspur, the hotheaded rebel who’s causing trouble for Henry IV. The great Bogart biography written by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax (a minor deity in Bogart history and lore) makes it sound like Hollywood’s greatest leading man made a fool of himself in the show – sounding more like a Brooklyn tough guy who can’t speak the Elizabethan language than a stage actor.
I couldn’t disagree more.
The lisp is hardly noticeable. Bogart’s diction is wonderful. And best of all, he’s one of the few actors in the whole production who’s voice makes his character easily recognizable and almost fully understandable.
Perhaps not for the casual Old Time Radio fan, this one’s definitely worth a listen for any big Bogart fans that want to have their minds blown just a little bit.
The Bogart Factor
Playing Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, Bogart gets a chance to do something that had almost exclusively eluded him until this moment in his career! He speaks lines during a death scene!
Prince Hal and Hotspur duel, Hotspur is on the losing end, and Bogart actually gets to lament his death!
“But that earthy and cold hand of death lies on my tongue – no, Percy, though art dust, and food for…” (death gasp)
The part isn’t huge, but he does play heavily into the beginning and the end of the two part CBS radio episode.
The Rest of the Cast
Walter Huston plays the titular Henry IV. Almost as much fun as hearing Bogart do Shakespeare, Huston is overshadowed by the larger role of Harry (Hal), the Prince of Wales played by Brian Ahearn. But to me, Walter Connolly’s Falstaff will probably make the production worth it for any Shakespeare diehards.
The Bottom Line
It’s freaking BOGART doing SHAKESPEARE! Give it a listen just to say that you did! Who knows? It might tempt you to hear Edward G. Robinson’s version of The Taming of the Shrew.