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Sunday Viewing: The Petrified Forest, 1936

Sunday, May 22, 2011

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Before Jezebel and before Gone with the Wind, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis were young actors signed by Warner Brothers who were struggling to get the kinds of parts that they knew would best showcase their talents. Both Davis and Howard had starred in Robert Sherwood’s Broadway hit, The Petrified Forest about a group of people from vastly different backgrounds who are held captive in an Arizona diner by a ruthless gangster, Duke Mantee.

When Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the popular play, they immediately signed Davis to play the poet/waitress, Gabrielle and Howard as the dreaming philosopher, Alan Squire, who falls in love with Gabrielle. For the pivotal role of Duke, Warners wanted to cast Edward G. Robinson, a studio favorite and top-box-office performer. Davis and Howard were against the decision, stating that their former stage co-star Humphrey Bogart should play the role that he made famous on Broadway. Warner Brothers wasn’t keen on the idea. Who was this Bogart anyway? He had no record of film experience and he wasn’t terribly appealing.

Leslie Howard insisted that Bogart play Duke. He even threatened to walk off of the picture if Bogart wasn’t hired. Despite his reservations, Jack Warner relented and cast Bogart. Wasn’t he surprised when Bogart proved him wrong. This film introduced the world to Bogart and caused audiences to flock the theatres to see his understated performance which he based on real-life thug John Dillinger.

Bogart never forgot the fact that Leslie Howard was responsible for launching his film career. Later, Bogart and Lauren Bacall named their daughter Leslie in honor of Howard who had been killed in a plane crash during World War II.

The film is sublimely underplayed. Even Bette Davis gives a subtle performance which caused a reviewer from The New York Times to note, “Davis demonstrates that she does not have to be hysterical to give a grand portrayal."

While the film’s theatrical roots are still evident (the picture is somewhat set-bound, rarely venturing from the diner set), it is much more successful than most films adapted from stage plays. The claustrophobic nature of the filming works with the plot and is a fascinating container for some of the most electrifying performances of early 1930’s cinema.




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