The American female narratives in WWII through Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart – Tony

In this week, I plunged from the 30s into the tumultuous 40s characterized by the social changes brought by WWII. In my first blog about Casablanca, I analyzed the American GI’s version of the war and their encounter with European femmes fatales. This time, I decided to take one step further and examine how To Have and To Have Not with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart reflected the changing gender dynamic between American males on the frontline and females on the home front.

It’s often noted that the departure of dominant American males to the battlefield as well as the employment of American females awakened the American women’s awareness of gender equality and independence. This process, however, was much more complicated and devious than this simple description. As the war advanced, the marriage and mirth rate increased along with the employment rate of women, which suggested a co-existence between the traditional role of American housewives and their new-found identities in factories and offices (Hartmann).

A sociology study conducted shortly after WWII in the form of interviews provides a glimpse into the conflicting gender identity that American females felt after the war. The interviewees, many of whom were American housewives, were asked to describe their perceptions about a number of movie stars, including Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Their responses reflected both a growing urge for their values and independence to be socially recognized and a general desire to stay within the traditional gender standard. On one hand, they were encouraged by Bacall ’s daring expression of her sexual appeal and gained confidence in asserting values in the society. To them, men like Humphrey Bogart were naturally good, but they needed women to “bring out the good in them” (Elkin 103). On the other hand, they also accepted males to be the problem solvers and felt threatened by Bacall’s sexual appeal (Elkin 106).

The film To Have and To Have Not embodies this conflicting identity for women and showcases the changing gender dynamic through WWII. Like in Casablanca, Bogart plays his classic role of a stoic and staunch American hero, or more specifically Captain Morgan, in French Martinique. “He doesn’t worry much about things. He is sure of himself” (Elkin 102). With a story essentially similar to other WWII films, To Have and To Have Not features Captain Morgan’s struggle against the Nazis, making him the American hero who saved the good guys and girls as well as defeated the villains. This narrative, in accordance with the study mentioned above, revealed that the society was still largely dominated by the masculine narrative of the war. Men were still the ultimate problem solvers to whom others had to resort.

Nevertheless, this male dominance is, to some extent, weakened by Marie (Bacall) in this film. As the report mentioned above, women at that time started believing that their support was essential in awakening the good nature within the men, which was actually translated into the film. Captain Morgan, at the beginning of the film, was without a doubt a man good by nature, who treated his drunk crew fairly with care, yet he refused to help the Free France resistors. In fact, he nonchalantly turned away five partisans who came to him for help, which caused three of them to be killed by the police. After a series of developments, however, Marie and Morgan fell into a financial predicament. In order to help Marie, Morgan decided to help the Free France resistors for the payment they provided. As the plot unfolded, however, the audience gradually witnessed Morgan’s change and his ultimate participation with the resistance. This transformation could not have happened without Marie.

Another important facet of this film was its feminist element and Bacall’s daring expression of her sexual appeal, which empowered the women in the 40s a sense of confidence in their sexuality. The film was pervaded by statements and sarcasm against the attitude with which American males, especially the GIs, treated their wives:

Marie: “You don’t give a whoove about what I do. But when I do it, you get sore” (Hawks, To Have and To Have Not).

This line was a powerful statement that exemplified the female perspective that their contribution both to their families and to the country was ignored and not recognized by their husbands and the society. Moreover, their employment and newly gained independence made their husbands “sore,” who now felt their dominance threatened as they returned home.

Bacall’s performance took this emancipation of women one step further by actively showing her sexual appeals. As Marlene Dietrich did, Marie (Bacall) approached Morgan actively, sat on his lap and suddenly kissed him on his lips. Her comment on this action was:

“This is brand new to me. I like it” (Hawks, To Have and To Have Not).

And don’t forget her most famous and sexually explicit line:

“Maybe just a whistle.”
“You just put your lips together and blow” (Hawks, To Have and To Have Not).

Almost for the first time in the history of Hollywood, Dietrich’s sexual independence was shown in an American-born actress. In fact, Bacall herself later was hailed by some as the “home-grown Marlene Dietrich of America” (Weinberg). Her husky voice and emotionless speech also reminded the audience of Dietrich’s androgynous performance a decade ago. Yet this time, this sexual independence and slight bit of androgyny spoke to the wider American audience, who now saw this character performed by a native American actress. American females now felt attracted to this image of a sexually independent and somewhat adventurous woman. Unsurprisingly, they liked it.

Unlike Dietrich, however, Bacall’s performance corroborated the view that many American women still sought the recognition and admiration of men. In her performance, Dietrich ultimately dismissed the tradition and disregarded the slurs from others altogether. Marie, on the contrary, constantly tried to persuade Morgon to believe in her “purity” when Morgon accused her of being a prostitute:

“One look, you’ve made up your mind, what you wanna think about me” (Hawks, To Have and To Have Not).

Despite her open sexual expression, Bacall still tried to appease Morgan nonetheless. Her action represented a general sentiment in the post-war American female population, who “wished to be admired by men, but at the same time, feel that men are in a position to harm them” (Elkin, 105). What they pursued, to an extent, was not the androgyny of Dietrich but to prove themselves as equally capable as men were. This parallelism can be found in both the film and the reality. Marie, different from Elsa in Casablanca, took a very active role in Morgan’s struggle against the Nazis. Instead of the European femme fatale to be saved, she presented herself as the “tough, quick-witted American woman who could fight the good fight along side the man” (Dargis).

In fact, they wished to get rid of the femme fatale image that, according to Barbara Hales, had its root in post-war trauma of males and had a hint of evil and criminality to it (Hales 225-232). One interesting scene in this film was the silent but nonetheless intense antagonism between Marie and the wife of a French partisan, another European woman on the way to become Morgan’s femme fatale. In this scene, Morgan was teasing with her, when suddenly Marie came in, saying:

“I hate to break this up, but I’ve brought some breakfast” (Hawks, To Have and To Have Not).

This antagonism eventually resulted in the victory for the American women. This line, in fact, strikes home another trend of the gender dynamic in post-war America. The romantic relationship between the American GIs and their European femmes fatales, as it indicated, was interrupted by the practical matters and family life with the American women when the men returned home. Elkin notes that the “dangerous” sexual appeals that many American films featured in the 40s were mitigated by demonstrations of moral responsibility on these characters. To some extent, this meant a return to the subservient status that women had in the pre-war era. In the film, Marie did an awkward action that did not fit her characterization for the rest of the story. After Morgan finished treating the French resistor, Marie stepped into his room, her eyes tender and soft:

“I’m gonna fix you a nice bath so that you might sleep better” (Hawks, To Have and To Have Not).

This awkward line, in addition to revealing the poor writing skill of the playwright, corroborated Elkin’s statement. For men, this responsibility essentially carries the meaning of having the women returning to the family and handing back their jobs. The last scene of the film consummated his fantasy, when Marie and Morgan walked side by side out of the hotel and back to America.

In large, this film was still conforming to the general patriarchal norms that America had abided by for a long time. Yet it is also unfair to deny that certain gender non-conforming elements in America have indeed taken its root during WWII. American females were now beginning to develop awareness of their own sexuality and independence. They began appreciating their values in the society and, more importantly, outside of the house, together with the men. Even though Marie returned home and the society began adoring those “pneumatic blondes” again, this period became the starting point of the post-war feminist movement and struggle against the pre-war patriarchal social order (Dorgis)

Works Cited

Dargis, Manohla. “Lauren Bacalls Debut in To Have and Have Not.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2014,

Elkin, Frederick. “Popular Hero Symbols and Audience Gratifications.” The Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 29, no. 3, 1955, pp. 97–107. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Hales, Barbara. “Projecting Trauma: The Femme Fatale in Weimar and Hollywood Film Noir.” Women in German Yearbook, vol. 23, 2007, pp. 224–243. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Hartmann, Susan M. “Women, war, and the limits of change.” National Forum, vol. 75, no. 4, 1995, p. 15. Proquest,

Hawks, Howard, director. To Have and To Have Not. Amazon, Warner Bros., 1944,

Weinberg, Herman G. “Magic and Myth.” Hollywood Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 4, 1947, pp. 434–436. JSTOR, JSTOR,


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1 thought on “The American female narratives in WWII through Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart – Tony

  1. aliviathompson

    This was such an in-depth, thought provoking post; I really enjoyed reading it. I have always been curious about the details of post-war femininity; it’s so interesting how women initially began to realize their independence and self-worth in the absence of their husbands. I like you how you analyzed the phases of this shift, from freedom without the husband, to the intimidation the man feels when he returns to a sexually/socially empowered wife, to the woman having no choice but to return back to the norms of being a housewife. I would love to know your take on other major events in history that allowed women to begin to question the patriarchal society in which they lived.
    Nice work!!


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