Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Petrified Forest (1936)

THE PETRIFIED FOREST is a stagy yet interesting production of a 1935 play by Robert E. Sherwood. I watched it for the first time while reviewing the new Blu-ray set Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics, which was just released on May 21st.

The story is set in a shabby diner in the middle of the Arizona desert, where Gabby (Bette Davis) lives with her father (Porter Hall) and grandfather (Charley Grapewin).

Gabby loves poetry and painting and dreams of traveling to France to study and meet the mother she never knew. She's not interested in Boze (Dick Foran), the ex-football player who works as the gas station attendant in front of the diner, but her attention is immediately captured by Alan (Leslie Howard), a British hitchhiker who wanders into the diner.

Alan moves on after spending time chatting with Gabby, but he soon heads back to the diner after the car in which he's traveling is stolen by gangster Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart). When Mantee and his gang turn up at the diner, lives will be irrevocably changed -- or ended.

This film is a bit of a curiosity. As it's for the most part a one-room drama, the film's best aspect may be that it preserves Howard and Bogart's Broadway performances. (John Alexander, who plays the chauffeur of the car Mantee steals, was another holdover from the Broadway cast.) It's the next-best thing to actually having seen the theatrical production; at times one almost feels a sense of what it must have been like watching these two charismatic actors on stage.

The first half of the film is the best, with some lovely long uninterrupted passages between Alan and Gabby, where they react very naturally as they get to know one another; Gabby confides her dreams and Alan recounts his failures.

Davis is quite appealing as the young girl who dreams of life beyond the desert, and Howard plays Alan in a disarmingly off-kilter way which keeps the viewer wondering how he'll respond next. I especially liked the moment where Alan reminds Gabby that, in essence, the grass is always greener, and that there are painters in France who dream of getting to the Arizona desert!

Where the story goes off the rails for me is in the second half when Duke is holding a large group of people hostage in the diner. The philosophical conversations the characters have sound lovely -- Delmer Daves and Charles Kenyon wrote the screenplay based on the Sherwood play -- but it doesn't really make sense to me that people in such a high-stress environment, afraid for their lives, would be having these kinds of conversations.

I was still okay with it, though, until Alan came up with a rather...unorthodox...plan to allow Gabby to travel to France. That was a bridge too far for me.

That said, the film holds the attention from start to finish, and it's interesting watching a significant film from Bogart's career. Sol Polito's black and white photography is crystal clear on the remastered Blu-ray; it's a superb print, which adds a great deal to the overall viewing experience.

I especially enjoyed Genevieve Tobin and Paul Harvey as the wealthy couple whose car is stolen by Mantee. The cast also includes Joe Sawyer, Eddie Acuff, and Slim Thompson. Thompson is a member of Mantee's gang who happens to be black, and his interaction with Joseph, the black chauffeur, is one of the more interesting aspects for the modern-day audience.

The film was directed by Archie Mayo. It runs 82 minutes.

In addition to the new Blu-ray, THE PETRIFIED FOREST has previously had a standard DVD release as part of the Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. I and a TCM Greatest Gangsters Collection. It also had multiple releases on VHS.

Thanks to Warner Bros. for providing this set for review.


Blogger dfordoom said...

It's the movie that saved Bogart's career. Apparently Leslie Howard persuaded the studio to cast Bogart. Louise Brooks, in her wonderful book Lulu in Hollywood, argues that Howard was also responsible for changing Bogart's acting style and making it much less stagey, and was therefore instrumental in making Bogart a star.

5:37 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

The Shaw Festival, Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario Canada staged The Petrified Forest about a dozen years ago and to fine effect. The problems you have are not nearly so apparent in the fully developed play. Worth checking out if ever possible. Probably not happening. Only a subsidized theatre company can afford staging this kind of non-musical material these days.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you both for your feedback!

Was very interested in your impression of a stage production, Barrylane.

Best wishes,

11:11 AM  

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