The sad passing of Lauren Bacall, aged 89, leads to various melancholy reflections, among them the fact that the previous Mrs. Bogart, Mayo Methot, seems now completely forgotten, remembered only as a footnote labeled “mean drunk.”
Peter Lorre, it was said, once drolly offered to demonstrate what a volatile couple Humphrey and his first spouse were, sidling past them and uttering only the words “General MacArthur.” Within a minute of this verbal depth charge being released, Methot was clawing her husband’s face open while he attempted to club his better half unconscious with a whiskey glass. But when not engaged in such charming interplay, Methot was a riveting screen personality whose appeal is more or less diametrically opposite to that of her successor.
Bacall was elegant, slender and beautiful, with a studied poise that allowed her to seem ageless when just a kid. Methot was a short and curvy woman who could convincingly play a worn-out, maternal tart at the age of 28. Her broad-planed face, wide eyes, daintily hooked nose and tight mouth evoked a drunken owl. Onscreen, she ran the gamut from quivering affront to sodden resignation—poise didn’t seem part of her repertoire.
By the time Methot hit the silver screen (in 1930’s Taxi Talks, with cabbie Spencer Tracy), she was already a Broadway star, notably introducing Vincent Youmans’ “More Than You Know” in Great Day, one of those endlessly reworked 1920s musicals whose plot summary goes Ring Lardner one better (“… a brother and sister … are about to be turned out of their ancestral Louisiana mansion. The girl goes to work in a Spanish casino and cabaret, where baseless insinuations are made against her virtue, and later a levee along the Mississippi bursts—the connection is not quite clear,” the New York Times mused). Pre-Code Hollywood showcased her in a series of hardboiled roles: chanteuses, molls, castoff wives, tabloid murderesses.
A peak performance is her Lil Blair in Columbia’s tangy Virtue (1932). While Carole Lombard’s Stanwyck-tough streetwalker, gone straight for love of foursquare Pat O’Brien, is the central figure, Mayo Methot steals the show as her tender, weary pal. She is first seen in her hotel room at Forty-Eighth and Eighth, offering money, shelter, and wise advice to Lombard’s Mae. Blowsy in her kimono, frowsting over gin and a record of “Frivolous Sal,” she is nonetheless beautiful as she contraltoes “Come here babe—you can’t kid this old-timer. You’re moving right in here with me.” The glance the two exchange in a mirror as Lil slips money into Mae’s purse, to a murmur of “Thanks, Lil,” places them in the pantheon of pre-Code sisterhood, along with Stanwyck and Blondell in Night Nurse.
Jack La Rue, two years older than Methot but convincingly much younger as her down-market toyboy Toots, weaves bonelessly around her snappish, determined little figure. Their interplay is gorgeous—director Buzzell couldn’t resist devoting precious time, out of the feature’s 65 minutes, to their mismatched gaits as they enter a diner, Lil trotting and matronly, Toots dragging his feet like a sullen adolescent. Later Lil offers Toots a light from her cigarette and suggests nothing so much as a mother bird feeding her nestling. A glimpse of Methot’s explosive temperament is provided by her jealous leap off the sofa when she realizes that Toots is chiseling.
The last shot before the typically hasty happy windup belongs to Lil, who has made a great sacrifice for Mae. Pat O’Brien murmurs, “Thanks, Lil,” and exits. The camera moves in on her determined, desolate face.
Louise Brooks, in her “Humphrey & Bogey” essay, theorized that “[e]ach of Humphrey’s wives was fittingly chosen to meet the trials of his career.… [H]e met Mayo and she set fire to him. Those passions—envy, hatred and violence—which were essential to the Bogey character, which had been simmering beneath his failure for so many years, she brought to a boil, and blew the lid off all his inhibitions forever…. With the release of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart had become big business. It was time for Lauren Bacall, who was primarily a business woman, to make her entrance. She, who was also to become his perfect screen partner, as seductive as Eve, as cool as the serpent.”
Bacall, typically flanked by a bottle and a column of cigarette smoke, looked like women are supposed to look after the witness has had a few drinks. Methot looked like the morning after. But she promised a more memorable night.
by Phoebe Green and David Cairns