Thursday 20 June 2013

Too Hard, Too Fast: The True Legacy of Mayo Methot

Her legacy today – although minimal and only to dedicated film buffs – is as the former “Mrs Bogart”. The one that caused, prolonged and hindered the famous affair between then husband Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and probably contributed to making it the romantics dream love story that it is today. Mayo Methot was in her own right a talented and powerful stage and screen actress. Although typecast early in her career, she found success and acclaim within the over 30 films she made during her short life. Bacall in her 1978 autobiography ‘By Myself’ described her in no flattering terms as a drunk, erratic, unstable, selfish and “in her paranoia”. However, these were the words of the youthful and besotted other women on her beloved’s wife. Bogart himself defined his former wife in terms both positive and negative, he would at once seem to be both praising and degrading Methot. At one point during their marriage he commented, “I like a jealous wife…I wouldn’t give you two cents for a dame without a temper.” But among these bitter and emotion-filled words was others from the community that supported her through the highs and lows of her career. She was noted as being vulnerable, passionate, full of talent and bouncing with energy for life and the future. Perhaps, like most people in the film community, Methot was a mixed and complicated bag of traits and temperaments – a naïve, innocent child who opened the Pandora’s Box of alcoholism, jealously, exhaustion and rage. Not just the former Mrs Bogart of the Bogie and Bacall love story.        

Methot was born on March 3rd 1904 in Portland, Oregon to a comfortable, middle class existence. Her parents a sea captain and a journalist instilled in their daughter a sense of independence and determination from a young age. Her mother, Beryl, intent on having her daughter succeed at something more than just housekeeping and motherhood was the first person to introduce the young Mayo to acting. She guided her daughter into beginning her early career in small productions around the Portland area. As Methot’s profile grew appearing in more substantial roles as the lead in “The Littlest Rebel” – later captured on screen by Shirley Temple – and even gender-bending, playing a boy in a production dedicated to the Greek poet, Sappho. By eight-years old the pint-sized actress now dubbed by the media “The Portland Rosebud”, was given one of her first big breaks. She was cast as the official mascot for the city of Portland and was given the tremendous honour of presenting roses to President Woodrow Wilson and other government officials at the White House. In an interview young Methot commented, “The president is awfully nice… He has a lovely room with pictures on the walls of other presidents.” She continued quite patriotic towards her birth city that she, “lik[ed] it better than any city or town or state I have seen yet.”
Mayo Methot 1913

It would be ten years later that Methot would leave her cherished city with hopes of stardom bound for New York. Although she had a brief job as an extra in Lionel Barrymore silent vehicle, ‘Unseeing Eyes’ (1923), she returned almost instantaneously to her favourite medium, the stage. In the same year as her film debut, the struggling yet experienced and established actor, Methot, was spotted by popular Broadway impresario, George M. Cohan. Struck by her energy, beauty and spirit, he cast her in his play, ‘The Song and Dance Man,’ which Cohan both directed, produced and starred in. The production was a hit with audiences but fell flat with critics who, although found the story overused and tired, reported that Methot was “fresh and effective”. The combination of Cohen and Methot provided even more effective than her first performance, with the duo pairing up in around 10 more productions during the late 1920’s. Methot, never truly considered a traditional beauty by film studios and movie-goers, was labelled a “little blond beauty” with a “sweet voice” and “naïve…dramatic skill” during her blossoming stage career.  Many critics judged her to be not only beautiful but intelligent and an accomplished and emotive actress.    

It was in 1930 that she was brought to Hollywood and taught the delicate art of film acting as well as personal promotion and the mores of gods of the film industry, namely, studio bosses. She signed a contract with Warner Brothers who began their naïve “Portland Rosebud” in ‘Taxi Talks’ (1930) a 14 minute Vitaphone short featuring, alongside Methot, also on his debut, a young Spencer Tracy. He entre into Hollywood also brought another change to Methot’s life. After her short marriage to cameraman Jack La Mond dissolved in 1927, she began a relationship – and later, in 1930, married – co-owner of the legendary Hollywood restaurant Cock n’ Bull and wealthy businessman, Percy Morgan Jr. In this pairing, Methot, became a version of what she had always dreamed, a housewife. But to blacken the romance was the stresses of Methot’s blossoming film career and her burgeoning reliance on alcohol spurred by constantly spending time at her husband’s popular meeting place.     

Her first feature film came a year later in gangster film ‘Corsair’ (1931) taken from a novel by Walton Green starring Chester Morris and Thelma Todd. Directed by Roland West, critics gave its average reviews mostly centring on Morris’s performance in his first starring role and Todd’s outstanding blond beauty. In her next film, Methot was cast in a role attributed to beginning Methot’s “typecasting” which would plague her for the rest of her career. In, ‘Night Club Lady’ (1932) alongside film sophisticate Adolphe Menjou she plays a hardened night club singer whose love of men, liquor and the fast-paced party life, entangle her in the underside of organised crime. Similar to most of her subsequent roles, Methot, is both a reprobate figure and a vulnerable one when she is murdered and Menjou is enlisted to solve the mystery of her death.
Methot and Menjou in 'Night Club Lady' (1932)
Methot appeared in over ten comparable supporting roles until the dawn of mid 1934 brought strict censorship and controls over language, occupations, subjects and behaviour caused a blow to Methot’s career as well as many others of that period, such as, Mae West and Dorothy Mackaill. Her onscreen sin – drinking, partying and dubious professions – had to be curtailed.

By the mid 1930’s she was not a bone fide star but had appeared together with a number of screen legends, for example, Carole Lombard, the Barrymore brothers, James Cagney and Mary Astor. She appeared in four more “post-code” productions, including the popular ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’ (1936), when she was cast in the fateful film, ‘The Marked Women’ (1937). It was to be the first film to feature Methot and Bogart together and was probably the catalyst for their relationship and marriage. Also starring a feisty and dominating Bette Davis, the film revolves around a bar or “clip joint” which is the location for many shady dealings including illegal gambling, blackmail and murder. When Bogart’s character is sent to investigate the death of a young man, he finds the hostesses coerced into covering up a series of crimes perpetrated by their boss, a notorious gangster.

Methot and Bette Davis in 'The Marked Women' (1937) 

It was a year after the release of the film that Methot and Bogart were married. Although it was a surprise, both had similar up-bringings and appeared to want similar futures. They both had a passion for acting, the sea, drinking and desired a stable lifestyle. They settled down to a fairly steady home-life with Methot the “retired housewife” looking after their dogs and Bogart’s boat – a tribute to his wife, named, “Sluggy”. The marriage even proved beneficial to Bogart’s career, with actress Louise Brooks commenting, “except for Leslie Howard, no one contributed so much to Humphrey's success as his third wife, Mayo Methot." She continued, "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, blowing the lid off all his inhibitions for ever." Although positive in his professional life these qualities slowly withered away the affection and foundation that began the relationship. Their public image as the “Battling Bogart’s” made the problems between the couple even worse as they were broadcasted and known to everyone in Hollywood. The arguments, the drinking, the constant suspicion and jealously and even the concealed incident when Methot apparently stabbed Bogart in the shoulder plagued the fragile marriage.    

Methot and Bogart - the happier times
As Methot’s career faltered, Bogart’s prospered being cast in leading roles in more and more prestigious properties. It was more than her personal life that made acting roles untenable, Methot’s appearance - although never classically beautiful she was considered pretty and attractive in her younger days – had begun to become ruddy, sunken and aging as she crept towards 30. Some directors even considered her un-photographable at the end of her career. Rock bottom in the marriage occurred during the mid-war years when Bogart and Methot, visiting long-time friend director John Huston in Italy, began another night of conversation and heavy drinking. Methot, nostalgic of her earlier glory days on the stage, performed a song for the pair. Drunk, bitter and depressed the performance was incoherent, unbearable and to her husband utterly embarrassing. Another example of the public nature of the relationship, the incident was reportedly used as inspiration for a scene – featuring actress Claire Trevor in place of Methot – in Huston and Bogart’s film, ‘Key Largo’ (1948).          

By 1945, although neither Bogart nor Methot would have predicted it at the night of her painful private performance, their marriage would be over. Bogart would move on to the beautiful and intelligent Bacall - their legendary Hollywood love story - and Methot would return to her alcohol, solitude and bitter reminiscences. She made only seven films after her marriage to Bogart, mostly small B-class movies in even smaller, unrated roles. On June 9th 1951, alone in a motel in Multnomah, Oregon, Methot died aged only 47 from complications from cancer. She laid undiscovered for several days. On hearing the news Bogart reportedly said, "Too bad. Such a waste. She had real talent, she had just thrown her life away." There was also reports that roses were sent to her grave in Portland every week until the death of Bogart six years later. Methot was neither an entirely a tragic figure nor a Hollywood success story. She lived a fast-paced life, full of success and failure, full of ups and downs and paid for it in the end.   


  1. Mayo also introduced a well-known standard...


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