Petrified and Ancient

The Petrified Forest, written by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves, based on the play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood, directed by Archie Mayo, starring Leslie Howard (Alan Squier), Bette Davis (Gabrielle Maple) and Humphrey Bogart (Duke Mantee) (1936): Odd little film of ideas based on a play of ideas that’s probably most notable for being Bogart’s first big break, as he reprises his Broadway role as gangster Duke Mantee. Bette Davis is almost unbearably cute, and Leslie Howard is almost unbearably smarmy, though Howard gets bonus points for forcing the filmmakers to cast Bogart as Mantee, and not Edward G. Robinson, whom they preferred.

All the action takes place in and around a diner in the Arizona desert. Dissipated English drifter Howard wanders in, falls in reciprocated love with waitress Davis, and gets taken hostage along with several others by Mantee and his men. The gangsters are waiting to rendezvous with a second group that includes Mantee’s lover. They’ve just pulled a big heist in Oklahoma, killing eight people in the process, and are trying to flee the country.

Written in the depths of the Great Depression, The Petrified Forest is somewhat of a piece with other left-leaning Warner Brothers agit-prop movies of the time. Social mores are questioned and discussed, and one African-American character even mocks what he sees as the Uncle-Tommish deference an African-American chauffeur shows to his white employers. The eponymous national landmark serves as a metaphor for the dying “old guard” of American thought, represented by pretty much everyone in the movie except Davis.

The whole thing’s enjoyable. though the dialogue often comes across as pompous, helped in this by Howard’s mannered performance as failed novelist Alan Squier. Bogart glowers menacingly and delivers lines with his signature Bogartian flair. Soon, he’d be a star, as would Davis. The set is fascinating because it looks so much like a stage set — the diner has two walls made up almost entirely of windows so action around the pumps can be seen from inside. Director Mayo doesn’t open up the action much, contributing to the feeling of stagey, ship-in-a-bottle theatrics. Lightly recommended.

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