Robert Osborne on Lauren Bacall
But, ahhh, there was positive: the fact that audiences at home, eager to get their minds off the bleak news from the war zones, were packing into movie houses in record numbers, and besides watching old favorites in new movies they were being introduced to a huge batch of newcomers they'd never seen in a film before. Gregory Peck, Jane Powell and Danny Kaye were brand new, each one the star of his or her debut film that year. Angela Lansbury, too, made her first film that year and came away with an Academy Award® nomination for it. Several other new faces who'd briefly spent time in the supporting ranks made films in 1944, which zoomed them to genuine star status (June Allyson, Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Robert Walker, John Hodiak, Guy Madison, for starters.)
One, however, stood out from the crowd: a lanky, 5-foot eight-and-a half-inch tall, 19-year-old fascinator from New York with cat-like eyes and a low, distinctive, sultry voice. Born Betty Joan Perske, she was billed on marquees as Lauren Bacall, and was known by her chums, at least for a dozen pivotal years (1945-57), as Betty Bogart, and thereafter as Betty Bacall. She became the most celebrated, talked-about star discovery of that year, her face looming from every magazine cover.
She is our TCM Star of the Month for September, during which time we'll be bringing you a wide mix of her movies every Wednesday in primetime, including two documentaries (one from 1988, another from 1996) and two showings of the "Private Screenings" interview she and I did in 2005. You'll be able to see her in all four of the films she made with Bogart (two filmed before they were married, two filmed while they were Mr. and Mrs.), also movies she made with John Wayne, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Wagner, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Richard Widmark, Betty Grable, Doris Day and a Bacall film we'll be showing for the first time on TCM: a four-handkerchief tearjerker she made in 1957 with Robert Stack, The Gift of Love (released 1958).
Admittedly not a shrinking violet, Ms. Bacall is often painted as being just as volcanic, unpredictable and treacherous as was 1944, the year in which she made her celebrated film debut. Maybe so. (We all have our bad days.)
However, there are three other words better suited to the Betty Bacall I know: honest, truthful, mesmerizing. And, with her, one thing is a definite: neither life nor TCM is ever dull when she's around.
by Robert Osborne