The Bette Davis Project: The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest (1936)Synopsis:

A vagabond, Alan Squier (Leslie Howard, Of Human Bondage), stops at a rundown diner in the Arizona desert where he forms a special bond with a waitress, Gabby Maple (Bette Davis). That same day, a wanted gangster, Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon), arrives at the diner and holds everyone hostage, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Reaction & Thoughts:

This adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s philosophical play takes gangster clichés and tenderly inverts them. The Petrified Forest, skillfully directed by Archie Mayo, is talky and stagey — anyone looking for a visually dazzling film needs to look elsewhere — but it makes its points without pushing them down your throat; Sherwood’s juxtaposition between realism and idealism seems more relevant today than ever before. The three leading actors are superb and they’re ably supported by a well-chosen and talented supporting cast.

The Petrified Forest is the film that earned Bogart a long-term contract with Warner Bros. Sherwood’s play had been a huge hit on Broadway. When Warners bought the rights to the show, they kept Howard, but the studio was determined to replace Bogart with Edward G. Robinson. Howard intervened and Bogart was casted in the role that revitalized his career in films.

Even today, it’s easy to see why Bogart received so much acclaim for the role of the vicious gangster. He’s simply electrifying. The legendary “tough guy” had to wait a bit longer for true stardom, but the film clearly put him on the path to success.

Howard and Davis are equally powerful in less showy roles. It was the second, and perhaps best, of the three films they made together, and although Howard and Davis were cool to each other in real life, they clearly had a strong screen chemistry. Howard underplays beautifully and Davis, who is deliberately cast-against-type, proved that she didn’t have to run on all cylinders to be effective — the understated work of Howard and Davis contrasts nicely with Bogie’s raw energy.

Apart from the main plot, the narrative offers some extra nuggets. Most interesting is the exchange of the two African-American characters (Slim Thompson and John Alexander) in the film. The back-and-forth between Thompson and Alexander is provocative to say the least. It’s a surprisingly gutsy way to nip at the heels of institutionalized racism. You don’t get to see this kind of thing in other films from Hollywood’s Golden Era. It’s just one of many elements that make this movie so watchable.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Petrified Forest belongs alongside the greatest gangster films of the ’30s. The cast also includes Charley Grapewin, Genevieve Tobin, Joe Sawyer, and Porter Hall (Double Indemnity). Remade in 1945 as Escape in the Desert. B&W, 82 minutes, Not Rated.

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3 responses to “The Bette Davis Project: The Petrified Forest (1936)

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