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The year 1939 is remembered as a high watermark for Hollywood, with the release of such classics (even if they were not so regarded at the time) as Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, John Ford's Stagecoach, William Wyler's Wuthering Heights, George Stevens' Gunga Din, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka, among others. For actor Humphrey Bogart, however, it was just another twelve months of business as usual. In his pre-Casablanca (1942) hungry years, Bogart was slaving away in the B-unit at Warner Brothers, playing heavies for the most part and most of them knockoffs of his Duke Mantee character from The Petrified Forest (1936). Bogart would turn 40 in December of 1939; diminutive in stature (at 5'8" he towered over James Cagney and George Raft but was half an inch shorter than future wife Lauren Bacall) and rapidly balding (he later relied on toupees), Bogart saw no way out of his casting rut but dutifully reported for one unpromising assignment after another. While Dark Victory gave him the opportunity to play against type as an Irish horse trainer in love with dying heiress Bette Davis, The Oklahoma Kid, You Can't Get Away with Murder, and The Roaring Twenties found him in generic villain mode. The Return of Dr. X had the novelty of being a horror film (with Bogart playing a mad scientist brought back from the dead) but King of the Underworld has the most interesting pre-production history...far more compelling than what wound up onscreen.
King of the Underworld began as a vehicle for now-forgotten but once-popular leading lady Kay Francis. A bona fide star for both Paramount and Warners in the early-to-mid thirties, the Oklahoma-born actress gradually lost favor with the ascendancy of Bette Davis but held on to her $200,000 annual salary much to the chagrin of money-minded studio boss Jack Warner. Convinced Francis would bail on her long-term contract rather than appear in a lurid crime film, Warner green-lighted a distaff remake of Dr. Socrates (1935), with Francis cast in the Paul Muni role of an underworld physician slowly drawn into a life of crime. To Warner's displeasure, Francis accepted the role, declaring that for her asking price she'd mop the soundstages. (The studio vexed the actress in other ways, including making her help out with the screen tests of up-and-coming actors.) While shooting the film, then called Unlawful, for two weeks in the summer of 1938, Francis got along well with the second-billed Bogart (cast as a gangster with a Napoleon complex and a fatal reach-grasp disarticulation). The pair had friends in common (among them, writer Louis Bromfield) and even joined forces to help out with the script, which was unfinished at the start of principal photography. (By all accounts, in-house director Lewis Seiler rarely consulted the shooting script even up to the night before blocking a scene.) While shooting a trailer for the film, Bogart indulged in a little payback for the Warners elite, appending the teaser line "I'm King of the Underworld and nobody is better than I am..." with the ad libbed capper "... and that goes for you, too, Jack Warner!"
When Unlawful was released in January of 1939, Kay Francis learned that Warners had one final indignity in store for her...they'd given Humphrey Bogart star billing above the new King of the Underworld title and relegated her to second-billed status (in a decidedly smaller title card font). Whatever her private feelings, Francis swallowed her pride at this latest slap in the face and soldiered on, perhaps comforted by the fact that she earned nearly ten times Bogart's salary. For his part, Bogart was not happy to be used as a pawn in a ploy to humiliate Francis in front of the public that once loved her; the fact that the gesture had afforded him his first star billing only rubbed salt into the wound.
Bogart toughed out another miserable year at Warners but there was light at the end of the tunnel. When George Raft turned down the role of Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1941), Bogart filled the slot (as he often did when Raft rejected a script) and was pointed toward the star vehicles that would make his career. Within three years, Bogart had both The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) under his belt and was one of Warner Brothers' most in-demand and highest paid stars. In 1944, he was nominated for an Academy Award® for "Best Lead Actor" for Casablanca, an honor that would at last be his (for The African Queen, 1951) five years before his untimely death from throat cancer in January of 1957.
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: George Bricker, Vincent Sherman; W.R. Burnett (story "Dr. Socrates")
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Charles Novi
Music: Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frank Dewar
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Joe Gurney), Kay Francis (Dr. Carole Nelson), James Stephenson (Bill Stevens), John Eldredge (Dr. Niles Nelson), Jessie Busley (Aunt Josephine), Arthur Aylesworth (Dr. Sanders), Raymond Brown (sheriff), Harland Tucker (Mr. Ames), Ralph Remley (Mr. Robert), Charley Foy (Slick), Murray Alper (Eddie), Joe Devlin (Porky).
BW-67m. Closed captioning.
by Richard Harland Smith
Kay Francis, A Passionate Life and Career by Lynn Kear and John Rossman
Bogart by A, M. Sperber and Eric Lax
Bogie: The Films of Humphrey Bogart by Cliff McCarty
The Warner Brothers Story by Clive Hirschhorn
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz