Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Director: Archie Mayo                                     Writer: Charles Kenyon & Delmer Daves
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                             Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Porter Hall

Humphrey Bogart had been to Hollywood before 1936 to play some bit parts in several films, but it wasn’t until his good fortune to be in a hit play with Leslie Howard that he came out to California for good. His performance in the filmed version of The Petrified Forest secured him a contract with Warner Brother, but it would still be another five years before he made a name for himself in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon and achieved stardom. It’s a very talkative film that shows its beginnings as a play, especially in the first third when Leslie Howard is waxing philosophical about life and his past. He is an Englishman who has been hitchhiking across the United States. In Arizona he stops at a small gas station diner and meets Bette Davis, all doe-eyed and naïve. She’s stuck in the desert working for her father and grandfather, and being pursued by a dim-witted gas jockey whose only glory had been on the college football field.

The first third of the film is rather dull, and it’s not until Humphrey Bogart arrives that things really improve. Still, there’s an awful lot of talking. Bogart and his gang have carjacked a rich couple who were giving Howard a lift and take the car back to the gas station. Howard immediately sets out on foot for the station. When he arrives Bogart places everyone at tables and sits on a raised part of the restaurant as overlord. It soon appears that that Howard, who professes to want to die, is actually attempting to psychologically influence Bogart. The reality, however, is actually much more unpredictable and therefore satisfying. The characterizations are a bit thin, even for the thirties, but the film was a critical success and allowed Bogart to sign a long-term contract with Warners that eventually made him a star.

The real star of the film is Leslie Howard, and its great to seem in a more forceful role than I’ve seen him up util now. Bette Davis is good, as far as that goes, but it’s a fairly generic role and one that could have been played by any number of young stars at Warner Brothers. One wishes that Bogart could have played this role a decade later, bringing to it the character that he would eventually develop into. Ironically, the film he was in later that most resembles this picture is Key Largo, but Bogart plays the Howard role in that one. Archie Mayo, a second-tier director, was probably not the best choice for the project. He lacked the ability to elevate the film into anything more than a staged play, and the one-room set along with predictable setups reinforces the idea. At one point he has the bison horns mounted on the wall behind Bogart appear to stick out of his head, like the horns of the devil. It’s pretty blunt symbolism, especially with the fairly one-dimensional performance of Bogart.

Still, there’s something energetic about the production, and Leslie Howard’s ebullience carries the day. Warner Brothers’ stalwart Sol Polito is behind the camera, and the early sound composer Bernhard Kaun provides the music for the opening credits. There are also some very good supporting players in the picture. Charley Grapewin does a nice turn as the grandfather, and the distinctive Porter Hall plays Davis’s father. The other great performance in the film, one that actually merits its placement in the credits, is Genevieve Tobin. She’s the wife in the wealthy couple who has their car stolen. She is radiant onscreen and has a nice, impassioned speech she gives to Davis. In the end, The Petrified Forest is a classic Depression-era film, and delivers some solid performances that manage to rise above the lackluster direction, an interesting early Bogart and Davis pairing with a great performance by Leslie Howard.

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