KEY LARGO -- In 1947, movie director John Huston and scriptwriter Richard Brooks traveled to the Upper Keys town of Rock Harbor, where they persuaded the Caribbean Club’s owner to open the motel that always was shuttered during the slow, hot summers.
There, under the shade of coconut palms and between trips to the club’s not-so-secret gambling room, the duo reworked a play by Maxwell Anderson. The result: Key Largo, which would star Humphrey Bogart.
Bogie’s star appeal instantly put the fledgling Upper Keys community on the map — so much so that Rock Harbor leaders in 1952 officially changed the town’s post office name to Key Largo. Now, more than a half century since Bogart’s death in 1957, he’s still a big draw for the island town — even though the big screen legend never set foot in Key Largo and the movie was shot almost entirely at Warner Bros. Studios in Hollywood.
Bogie buffs from at least eight countries and 32 states are gathering in Key Largo for the inaugural Humphrey Bogart Film Festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday.
“It’s just a perfect place to hold the festival,” said festival host Stephen Bogart, the eldest child of Bogart and Lauren Bacall. “Key Largo is obviously one of my mother and father’s greatest movies.”
It’s fitting as well because Key Largo is home to the African Queen. Aboard the 30-foot riverboat, Bogart and Katherine Hepburn acted many scenes while on location in Africa for the 1951 movie of the same name. The boat has been around the world, but it is now permanently docked at the marina next to the Holiday Inn at mile marker 100 of the Overseas Highway.
Last year, Lance and Suzanne Holmquist spent $70,000 to restore the boat for its 100th birthday. The rope fender rail and operating steam boiler make it easy to envision gin-swigging Capt. Charlie Allnut (Bogart) pulling the African Queen through leech-infested waters of the Ulanga River with the encouragement of prim but gutsy missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn).
Stephen Bogart attended the boat’s centennial celebration, getting a cruise through Key Largo’s canals.
There, Bogart talked with Suzanne Holmquist and others about holding a film festival. “We decided, ‘Let’s pick a date and let’s do it,’ ” Bogart said.
While Bogie made 75 feature films during his nearly 30-year movie career, only 10 will be shown at the inaugural event: 1942 best picture winner Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, In a Lonely Place, High Sierra, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Dark Passage, The Big Sleep, The Petrified Forest, African Queen and Key Largo.
This festival also will screen 10 other movies dating to the 1940s that fit this year’s theme: film noir.
The non-Bogart films: Double Indemnity, Memento, Cape Fear, Brick, Drive, L.A. Confidential, Blood Simple, Chinatown, Body Heat and Sunset Boulevard.
With only one movie theatre in the Upper Keys, festival organizers got creative and will show films at eight venues — including John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Rare Bogart memorabilia also will be on view for free at the Holiday Inn. Among the items: the wedding ring Bogart gave Bacall, a century-old sailing stopwatch, original Time magazine paintings of Bogart, antique movie posters and original cartoon frames of Bogart and Bacall.
“And we have a really cool item, a check from Bogart to President Truman,” said Suzanne Holmquist.
Stephen Bogart said the $45 check, which Truman returned, was for a bet over the sex of Bogie’s first kid: “Truman bet I would be a boy and my father bet I would be a girl.”
Just eight years later, Bogie died of cancer of the esophagus at 57. But unlike most of his contemporaries, Bogart has remained “part of the pop culture conversation,” film critic Leonard Maltin said. “Perhaps because he also was known for his great romance with Lauren Bacall.”
Maltin says he has been a Bogie fan since he saw Casablanca as a teenager in the late ’60s. “There was a big Bogart revival, which seemed to tie into the counterculture movement of the era,” Maltin said. “He seemed the perfect anti-hero.”
Maltin says Casablanca remains his all-time favorite film.
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Bogart the No. 1 male movie star of all time. His big break came in 1936 in The Petrified Forest, of which the film festival will premiere the digitally remastered Blu Ray version.
Other special events include Miami-based documentary film director Billy Corben showing new parts of his Showtime television series Cocaine Cowboys.
And Jack Huston, who plays a war vet turned gangster on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, will accept the festival’s first award on behalf of his late grandfather, director Huston, who spoke at Bogart’s funeral.
“Huston was bit of a maverick in Hollywood, so he and Bogart shared that mindset,” Maltin said.
Sometime after Key Largo became a hit, the Caribbean Club erected a billboard that said: “THIS IS IT the Birthplace of the Warner Bros. Great Movie, Key Largo — Good Food * Hotel Rooms * Bar * Boats.” Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson said the part about the birthplace was true.
Over the years, many bar patrons and travel writers also heard stories from Caribbean Club owners and staff about the movie being filmed there. One enduring tale is that Warner Bros. brought airboats and set up scaffolding here. “So the airboats could make hurricane effects to blow the rubber-looking palm tree around,” said Kathy Whitehurst, who with her two siblings inherited the bar from their parents.
Added Robby Whitehurst, Kathy’s brother: “I’m sure what happened is the Hollywood people came to Key Largo and with no air conditioning and the mosquitoes and not much to do, they went back to Hollywood. Can you imagine what Lauren Bacall would have thought? It was more for gangsters than actors back then.”
While the stories are fun for tourists, they likely are not true, Wilkinson said. “I have not found a single spec of information verifiable that they did any shooting there. It would have been a big deal in 1948.”
But looking out at Blackwater Sound from the Caribbean Club, now a rugged bikers’ bar, it is easy to imagine a brewing hurricane that forces mobsters to hole up in a rundown motel, where they take WW II veteran Frank McCloud (Bogart) prisoner, along with his late war buddy’s widow (Bacall). Of course, Bogart saves the day.
“He was in Key Largo in Hollywood terms,” Maltin said. “A little movie magic.”