Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Petrified Forest

The movie poster might point out Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, but the only reason I had even heard of The Petrified Forest was thanks to a coffee table book on Humphrey Bogart.  This was Bogart's big break, even if it was a supporting role, and one that nearly never happened.  According to legend, when Warner Bros. bought the screen rights to the play of the same name, they had hoped to pair Leslie Howard (who starred in the play, along with Bogart) with another famous actor, like Edward G. Robinson.  That wouldn't have been bad, either, but Howard refused to make the movie without Bogart.  Forever grateful, Bogart would later name his only daughter Leslie Howard Bogart.  Okay, so the back story to The Petrified Forest is pretty fantastic.  What about the actual movie?

The Petrified Forest takes place in and around a lonesome diner in Middle of Nowhere, Arizona.  The diner is owned and run by the Maple family; Jason (Porter Hall) is the grouchy and mildly incompetent owner, Gabrielle (Bette Davis) is his hard-working but increasingly depressed daughter, and Gramps (Charley Grapewin) seems to be on a mission to talk the ear off anyone who happens by the diner.  It's a dreary existence, made even more torturous by Gaby's dreams of becoming an artist in France and the impossibility of that ever happening.  One day, Alan (Leslie Howard) wanders in and adds a healthy dose of British charm to the lonely place.  Alan, an alcoholic drifter, was once an aspiring writer and had traveled throughout Europe, looking for inspiration.  When that didn't work, he went about looking for a reason to live or die and found the diner in his travels.  Given the fact that Alan is an artist, British, well-traveled, and charming, you can probably guess the reaction he got from Gabrielle.
Cue giggles and batted eyelashes
Alan knows that he's no good, so he surprisingly does not pursue Gabrielle any further, and instead accepts some charity from her and continues his drifting.  That would be that if the car Alan hitched a ride in was not hijacked by the infamous John Dillinger analogue Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart); Mantee and his gang are wanted gangsters with the law on their trail, hoping to get to a predetermined meeting place to join up with the rest of their crew.  As luck would have it, that meeting place happens to be Gabrielle's diner.  That means that everyone in the diner is the hostage of a desperate criminal.  While most people would terrified in this situation, Alan's brain works in a very different way...

The acting in The Petrified Forest is pretty good, although it is limited by the source material.  Leslie Howard --- who I don't recall seeing before --- played every note of this performance perfectly.  He handles the flowery language of the script naturally, and manages to balance hopeless depression and hopeless romanticism effortlessly.  Is it just me, or do Howard and Peter O'Toole have some noticeable similarities in their acting styles?  Bette Davis was also good as an innocent girl; I had never seen her play such a pure character before, but she had no difficulty here.  Her character's accent and vocal cadence don't make much sense, given her surroundings, but that's a minor gripe.  Humphrey Bogart is also very good as Mantee.  It's not his acting that wowed me here, though --- it's his voice.  I've always liked Bogart's growl, but it felt less polished, more raw and dangerous in this role.
Also impressive: the hate in his eyes
The rest of the supporting cast was fine.  The other gangsters didn't really pop out at me.  I was amused that Charlie Grapewin clearly took "Frontier Prospector Gibberish" as his main inspiration.  Porter Hall did what he does so well; he played a unlikable authority figure.  I wasn't too impressed by Dick Foran as Boze; he wasn't bad, but his acting was simply typical of this time period.  In other words, it was a little hammy.  I was, however, surprised by Genevieve Tobin's monologue toward the end of the film; her character was pretty dull up until that point, but I was genuinely impressed by her speech.

Archie Mayo's direction was only okay, though.  The Petrified Forest is based on a play, and the film definitely reflects that.  Most of the action takes place off-camera and a large percentage of the movie takes place while the main characters sit at tables in the diner. 
Above: scenes 3-27
Mayo handled the actors in the film just fine --- not a huge task, since Howard and Bogart had been in the stage production --- but showed no inclination to differentiate the film and the play.  I always find that frustrating with play adaptations.  As it stands, this movie can be a little slow at times.  It is fifteen minutes before we heard Leslie Howard speak, and forty before we see Bogart or any conflict.  That leisurely pace isn't as bad as it sounds; the characters are given the time to breathe and introduce themselves.
...and smoke pipes, and critique art, and...

I enjoyed The Petrified Forest, but it definitely shows its age.  This film was released in 1936.  It is expected for actors now to mold themselves to fit a role, but it was far less common in those days.  As a result, some of the actors come off as too well-spoken or educated for their alleged station in life here.  Howard's character has an excuse, but Davis and Foran do not, although Foran tries to play it down a little.  There are also little things in the film that stand out sharply now.  For example, something that used to be common --- like a drifter wearing a suit, tie and fedora --- is highly unusual now, especially for someone hiking through the American Southwest.  And while the film isn't exactly racist, it does play the social difference between a black chauffeur and a black criminal for laughs.
In their defense, it is kind of funny

Despite all that, there is a timeless quality about this movie.  A good part of that stems from the story; Alan's character makes a choice that is one of the more unique ones I've seen on film.  SPOILER ALERT: Alan asks Mantee to kill him, so his life insurance money can fund Gabrielle's dreams.  Most older Hollywood films have had their best bits recycled over and over again, but I don't think I've seen any other character make the same choice since (at least, not with good intentions).  That unusual twist alone makes The Petrified Forest worth watching.  When you pair it with some of the best idealistic romantic monologuing ever captured on film (courtesy of Leslie Howard), you have a pretty great movie.  My personal favorite line was, "Every woman is worth everything you've got to give."  Man, that's good stuff. 
"Everything?  Even bullets?"
It's not perfect and I don't know if it's truly a classic, but I enjoyed The Petrified Forest.  It has some proto-noir elements and one of the more interesting romances of the period.  Definitely worth a watch.

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