Sunday, June 3, 2012

Petrified Forest, The (1936)

Warner Bros.
Director: Archie Mayo
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, two wonderful actors of the mid 1930s and fellow co-stars for Of Human Bondage are reunited in film about love, passion for life, and death entitled The Petrified Forest. A story about two people simply passing each other in life, both of whom are lost souls searching for something better, are put in an unpredictable circumstance and discover what their destinies are. From this cast rises a new actor to the big screen, but unlike the actors of the past seems to carry with him a skill to add emotional demons that haunt his eyes to the very being of the character he is playing. Here his is a no name, but Humphrey Bogart would be given his first major chance in the movies, and makes the most of it as the ruthless mobster that holds up a small diner, including our unlikely couple, allowing for a relationship to come to fruition in a tragic love story.

The Petrified Forest a drama of wandering man that finds his purpose in life while traveling through the most unlikely of places, the Arizona desert, where he meets an intriguing young local lady how seeks greater things in the world, until they are held up together by an infamous mobster in her diner. Leslie Howard plays Alan Squier, a failed English writer on a soul journey of sorts as a hitchhikes through desert of Arizona. Here he meets Gabriella (Bette Davis), a local girl that helps her father run a gas station/ diner on the furthest edge of civilization. In their quick meeting she learns of his creative past, while he learns of her aspirations as an artist, but due to family and lack of funds is held down.

Both characters are intrigued with each other, and when notorious killer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) holds up the diner with our couple inside, we discover just how much these two mean to each other. Alan wants to help Gabriella, but knows that he would only further hold her back, breaking her heart in rejection. In a moment of deep seeded emotion Alan writes Gabriella’s name on his life insurance policy and asks for Mantee to shoot him when he leaves, leaving her a last will and testament that she take the $5000 policy payout and go peruse her dream in Europe as an artist, as she dreamed. When it looks like all will survive the ordeal, both Alan and Mantee die in a struggle, leaving Gabriella to discover what was left for her in the wake of her love’s death. This act of chivalry leaves Gabriella with a sense of purpose in service to the great sacrifice on behalf of Alan, who knew he was worth less in life, a poor wanderer, than he was in death, leaving her a dream and means to pursue it.

This is one of the simply good films that come up and surprise you when you see it. The Petrified Forest is a story that takes place, for the most part, in one location, rarely leaving the diner, where Alan and Gabriella meet and converse, live through Mantee’s actions, and ultimately Alan’s death. The film is dialogue driven, a clear giveaway it was based on a stage play, but hardly matters as it pulls you in as you watch this relationship blossom over the actions of a short day. Both characters start out down and lost in a big empty world, as shown but the barren setting of the Arizona desert, but by the end both find purpose in the world, even through tragedy. It is a touching love story, mixed with clever humor, and even a villain of sorts that pulls you into the his own story as a troubled man with a haunted mind played very well by a young Bogart. It is a fine story with fine cinematic qualities, a movie which gives you more than you expect.

The title The Petrified Forest has little to do with the actual story. It is used as a allegory of Alan’s life as a man searching for purpose and a lasting impact in the world instead of being just a simple fossil lost in the wilderness, like the fossilized piece of wood shown to Alan from the nearby petrified forest by Gabriella.
Davis and Howard on set in the "desert"

Directed by Archie Mayo, this picture shares his stylistic qualities that made him an intriguing filmmaker, despite his smaller number of credits. Already set in a fascinating setting, the desert in the wake of a coming sandstorm, Mayo finds a way to keep you interested in the small confines of a roadside diner/gas station. He keeps his actors rough, unshaven and sweating, giving a real world quality in their characteristics that make them all appealing, promise and flaws included. His angles and depth, including shooting scenes with various characters watching in the background out of focus, creates a near panting with his beautiful compositions. His framing and editing make for a high quality motion picture.

The film was based around star Leslie Howard, original leading man of the stage play, and big name on screen as well as for his stage work. Bette Davis was the interesting actress that rose up as his co-star in Of Human Bondage in a role so unflattering, and played so well, she would make a quick name for herself. Bogart was the original actor from the stage play as well, playing the bothered killer, Mantee. A failed screen actor of the recent past, Bogart had to find his work on stage to get by in his art. When the film was picked up for production producers wanted to put a bigger name in the role, most notably Edward G. Robinson being pursued by the studio. Leslie Howard protested that the role had to go to Bogart and no one else with the producers relenting to the star’s demands. Bogart’s performance was a study of the characteristics he found in the late John Dillinger, a famous mobster of the early 1930s, once public enemy #1 for the FBI, including the copying of his mannerisms and even his walk. His performance is makes for such a haunted character that he would quickly be noticed, thus starting the successful career for the actor in Hollywood. Bogart was forever be indebted to Howard for the start, never forgetting the man that got him the chance, even naming his daughter after him.
Davis, Howard, and Bogart

This beautiful tragedy story is one of those stunning tales of motion picture history. It is not necessarily known for greatness as it is for Bogart’s beginning in stardom. Beyond that all the actors perform very well in the picture, and though with little of a plot you are taken to the very edge of your seat as you watch the people learn more of each other and themselves. It is a story of sacrifice, but its greatest sacrifice is that The Petrified Forest would be swallowed up by the greater films in the star’s careers, as this motion picture is a fine piece of cinema, but not as noted as Bogart’s great picture Casablanca. It makes for a great film buried with an age of great films. In my opinion it may be overlooked, but I little care for that subject, allowing me to discover the hidden gems of motions pictures past I have known little about makes watching all the more rewarding.

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