“You Know How to Whistle, Don’t You Steve?”: Remembering Lauren Bacall’s Greatest Scene

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 12 2014 10:17 PM

“You Know How to Whistle, Don’t You Steve?”: Remembering Lauren Bacall’s Greatest Scene

American actress Lauren Bacall, circa 1950.
American actress Lauren Bacall, circa 1950.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Lauren Bacall, the legendary actress whose husky voice was a staple of Hollywood’s golden age, passed away Tuesday. Her career was wide-ranging and nuanced, with iconic moments on both the screen and the stage.

Her defining performance, though, was her first one. Bacall made her bright-eyed debut in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, which paired her with an aging Humphrey Bogart. Bacall was 20 at the time, a middle-class girl from the Bronx doing part-time modeling; Bogart was 44 and at the peak of his career. Their connection was immediate, their chemistry electric.

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Never is that more apparent than in To Have and Have Not’s “whistle” scene, which has Bacall deliver one of the most famous lines in film history. The scene has Bogart’s Harry “Steve” Morgan, a fishing captain in Vichy France, consider smuggling members of the resistance on his boat; Bacall, playing Marie “Slim” Browning, tries to change his mind. What follows is perhaps the most virtuouso flirtation ever put on screen, a dazzling stretch of repartee wherein Bacall disarms Bogart with a series of zingers, kisses him because she was “wondering if I’d like it,” lures him with some casual bribery and banter, and leaves with a steely reminder: “You don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle.” Then: “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.”

Bacall leaves, and it feels like a tornado has slipped out of the room. It’s only after her exit that we realize what we’ve witnessed—a unique and titanic presence, an actress who subverted leading lady tropes with her silver-tongued sensuality and coiled energy. Bogart and Bacall were happily married until the former’s death in 1957, but their love—and Bacall’s genius as a performer—will be remembered for a long time to come.

Sharan Shetty is a writer for Brow Beat. You can follow him on Twitter

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