Humphrey Bogart was born on Christmas Day in 1899. It’s slightly ironic, since he made such a career for himself playing gangsters and his filmography is comprised of anti-Christmas classics. He was named the greatest male star of all time, which I don’t dispute. Although he’s generally a hallowed figure, I think it’s easy to take him for granted.
Today, I’m taking a look at one of his lesser known films. It’s one that probably wouldn’t screen at film festivals and retrospectives dedicated to this towering cultural icon.
The film is Battle Circus (1953), directed by Richard Brooks. The Korean War serves as backdrop to a romance between a surgeon and a nurse.
Humphrey Bogart and…June Allyson? An odd screen pairing if ever there was one! But their chemistry together is not only surprising but plausible.
By now, June Allyson was 36, and unable to play ingenues. Even though MGM fabricated her birth date, there was just no way she could credibly portray young girls anymore. In Battle Circus, she matured. Of course, you might feel mild bewilderment over her costar. Peppy June Allyson, perennial girl next door, opposite the gritty Humphrey Bogart? It’s difficult to picture. But they complement each other quite well.
Ruth McCara (Allyson) is an idealistic nurse newly arrived to an army field hospital in South Korea. She’s basically clueless about procedures and doesn’t endear herself to Major Jed Webbe (Bogart), the distinguished and alcoholic chief surgeon.
Maj. Webbe has a reputation around the camp as a ladykiller. There’s one nurse who’s been actively pursuing him, but Jed shrugs her off. Ruth is the one who catches his attention which catches her off guard.
Jed pursues Ruth intently, but she’s wary of his advances. Jed makes it very clear that he’s looking for a “no strings attached” relationship but she wants love and marriage. Their flirting is a lot of fun to watch, but it gets interrupted by the brutalities of war. It remains both a love and war story.
The love scenes between Bogie and June are actually believable, even though he was never a romantic type. He’s still gruff in Battle Circus, and that quality contrasts nicely with June Allyson’s wholesomeness. It’s a welcome change from all the sultry women who matched Bogart in terms of sexual desire and badassery. Ruth does attempt to be aggressive at one point, but Jed’s enthusiasm proves to be too much and she grows hesitant again. He’s like a wolf and she’s unprepared for it.
Jed and Ruth demonstrate individual skills that help to shape their perceptions of each other. Despite his womanizing and drinking, Jed is a brilliant surgeon. Ruth manages to diffuse a situation involving a distressed patient and a hand grenade. She’s calm, gentle, and assured, not the blundering woman who first arrived.
While Battle Circus is a relatively obscure Bogart film, it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, nor does his performance. Bogart conveys the desolation and self loathing of alcoholism and makes it a fresh portrayal. He’s so convincing as a careless womanizer who’s still capable of real tenderness and affection. Despite her size and cute appearance, June Allyson was a good match for Humphrey Bogart. She was never helpless or dainty in any of her films. She was a lot tougher than most people seem to realize, so being paired with Bogie isn’t such a shock after all.
Battle Circus is also a compelling film with no shortage of gorgeous visuals. It’s highly recommended for fans of the leads and great storytelling.
Fun little tidbit: Bogart once told June’s husband Dick Powell that the two of them just had to fall for the two babes with the most “croaking-est voices in Hollywood.” June was one and the other of course was Lauren Bacall!
The two stars on the film’s set. Although June socialized with Bogie and Betty Bacall, she admitted that he terrified her. They got along swimmingly though and it translates on film.
This post is for the Humphrey Bogart 117th birthday blogathon, hosted by Samantha at Musings of a Classic Film Addict and Diana at Sleepwalking in Hollywood. Click on the banner for more great posts on the exceptional actor!