The Petrified Forest (1936)

Directed by Archie Mayo
Cinematography Sol Polito

The Petrified Forest is a 1936 American film, directed by Archie Mayo starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart. A precursor of film noir, it was adapted from Robert E. Sherwood‘s stage play of the same name. The screenplay was written by Delmer Daves and Charles Kenyon, and adaptations were later performed on radio and television as well.

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American Classic…

20 April 1999 | by SamLowry-2 (Port Orchard, WA, USA) – See all my reviews

This movie needs better spokespeople! So here goes: take Bogart, Howard, Davis. Classic story with modern undertones. Stage play that works on screen. Clever dialog. Bittersweet longing for a better place. Missed chances for love. Violent gangsters. Quaint desert cafes. Mix in blender: out comes a classic from 1936 which still tastes good today.

Don’t miss it. You can’t talk about American cinema until you’ve seen this one, too.

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The Dreams of the Discontented

Author: gmatcallahan from United States
15 August 2004

“The Petrified Forest” (Archie Mayo, 1936) is most fascinating for its eager willingness to voice criticisms of wealth, power, authority, and inequality in America. Perhaps its acute social commentary should be unsurprising considering that Warner Brothers released the romantic crime drama during the depths of the Great Depression, but it is freshly relevant just the same, striking a note that would not be witnessed in the films of the forties and fifties. In speaking to the exploitation of workers, the snobbery of corporatism, the repression of women, blacks, artists, and literary poets, the reign of gangland crime, the American government’s complicit abuse of power, and the loss of individuality in an increasingly meek age, “The Petrified Forest” manages an equal-opportunity iconoclasm that belies any party affiliations. Simply put, the film is unafraid to criticize America, and it’s that sense of freedom that makes it particularly delightful. Best of all, “The Petrified Forest” voices its dissent through colorful witticisms and engaging banter, never taking itself too seriously or losing its sense of humor.

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“The Petrified Forest” is also particularly notable for marking Humphrey Bogart’s first major screen role as the nominal villain and escaped gangster Duke Mantee. The unshaven, pompadour-sporting Bogart is leering and menacing, brooding and growling and glowering, projecting the lonely, hard-bitten cynicism that would soon become his trademark. At the same time, however, he also emerges as a sympathetic and noble figure, one who transcends his criminal trappings through a fierce sense of integrity and individuality. Not only did these hard-boiled character traits become the template for the Bogart persona, but they also serve as a source of magnetism within the film’s social milieu. Aside from the corporate oilman (Mr. Chisholm, played by Paul Harvey), Duke Mantee’s hostages in a desert diner come to admire and salute his rugged individualism and defiance of the status quo, even as he endangers their lives.

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They yearn for the empowering resistance that he embodies and the gritty social rebelliousness that he wears on his prickly face, and when the film, before its final shootout, labels the confrontation as “Duke Mantee vs. the American government,” it’s clear that the sympathies of its principal characters reside with the Duke.

“The Petrified Forest” is also noteworthy for the dynamic contrast between its two black characters. One of them (Joseph, played by John Alexander) is virtually the embodiment of the pre-sixties Hollywood stereotype, a meek, shuffling, subservient chauffeur who always looks to his wealthy boss for paternalistic approval before opening his mouth. The other (Slim, played by Slim Thompson) is one of Duke Mantee’s gangster associates, and he’s clearly a liberated, autonomous, independent soul who offers his opinions on his own accord while mocking his “colored brother” for his subservience.

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He’s almost a figure out of 1966 rather than 1936, and the difference between these two black men highlights the social conflict that the film heeds. On one side is the ruggedly individualistic and socially defiant Duke Mantee and a black man who marches to his own beat; on the other is a fat cat corporate tycoon and his docile and emasculated black servant, who, in turn, represent the American status quo. And so while Mantee and his gangsters are nominally the villains of “The Petrified Forest,” at heart they constitute the film’s heroes and rousing saviors. They are the men who obliquely brighten the hopeless despair and repressed frustrations of a trapped waitress who is secretly a talented painter (Gabby Maple, played by Bette Davis) and a fatalistically passionate French drifter-poet who is hitching his way to the Pacific Ocean (Alan Squier, played by Leslie Howard). They also seem to enliven several of the other repressed characters, from the restless wife of the cowardly tycoon (Mrs. Edith Chisholm, played by Genevieve Tobin), to an ex-college football player struggling to release his pent-up energies (Nick, played by Eddie Acuff), to an old man who longs for Billy the Kid, Mark Twain, and the legendary individualists of a bygone era (Gramp Maple, played by Charley Grapewin).

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To be sure, the film doesn’t explicitly paint Duke Mantee and his fellow gangsters as heroic saviors, but it’s clear where the film’s sympathies lie.

Ultimately “The Petrified Forest” is about an umbrella of misfits and their discontent with the repressive and exploitative American establishment, and it’s that pulse of iconoclasm that keeps it audacious and provocative after all these decades.

Genevieve Tobin (Mrs. Chisholm) and Paul Harvey (Mr. Chisholm).

Genevieve Tobin (Mrs. Chisholm) and Paul Harvey (Mr. Chisholm).

An amazingly relevant piece of cinema…

8/10
Author: keihan (keihan@usit.net)
1 June 2000

The best context to look at “The Petrified Forest” is through the context of the first great disaster of the 20th Century: World War I (or, as it was known then, “The Great War”). I had just finished reading a long, thorough history of World War I when I saw this one and even though this is some twenty years after that awful catastrophe (all wars usually are, but this one especially), one can still feel it’s aftershocks rolling through that desolate landscape. Maybe that’s why Leslie Howard’s character, Alan Squier, wound up wandering through there, as it probably reminded him of more than a few days and nights in No Man’s Land (a term invented by the Great War to describe the space between enemy lines). A lot of non-American WWI veterans came out of it really messed up. The whole foundation of the 19th century’s ideals had been laid to waste by this new and brutal world that WWI brought about. So it’s not very suprising to me that Squier feels “obsolete”, as he puts it; the role he had hoped to take with his world doesn’t even exist. The best he can do is give Gabrielle Maple the chance he can never have.

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Duke Mantee (played by Bogie in a superb, breakthrough performance) is also a relic, but from a different period, that of the Roaring Twenties. Not for nothing were such outlaws as John Dillenger and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow glamourized during this period; one could possibly point to our current fascination with serial killers as this phenomenon’s modern equivalent. But by 1936, the period of the romantic outlaw was drawing to a close if it wasn’t already over (a point made five years later in “High Sierra”). Mantee is totally without hope of escape or even a reprieve. He sees his fate as clear as day and doesn’t kid himself about his chances of eluding it forever. That, more than anything, would explain his rapproachment with Squier and perhaps his reluctance to shoot him until Squier gives him no choice. Mantee may know his own fate well enough, but he has no wish to inflict that fate on someone in the same position.

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Granted, there’s a lot more layers and angles going on in “The Petrified Forest” than what I’ve just mentioned here, but this was the one that grabbed the most. Because human nature doesn’t change that much, perhaps that’s why this brilliant stage piece still holds my respect.

Bogart’s Breakthrough Film!

7/10
Author: (bsmith5552@rogers.com) from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
9 February 2005

“The Petrified Forest” is widely regarded as Humphrey Bogart’s breakthrough film, which indeed it was. Bogey had made several forgettable films between 1930-34 before returning discouraged to the New York stage. There, he acquired the role of Duke Mantee in the stage version of “The Petrified Forest” in which Leslie Howard was the star.

When Warner Bros. bought the film rights they wanted Howard but also wanted Edward G. Robinson for the Mantee role. Howard interceded on Bogart’s behalf saying that if Bogey wasn’t cast as Mantee that he wouldn’t do the film either. Bogey never forgot this favor and years later named his daughter Leslie after Howard.

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The story takes place in a dusty road side cafe/gas station in the middle of a desert. The film is essentially about a bunch of life’s losers with no real future except for the young waitress Gabrielle Maples (Bette Davis) who dreams of leaving the dusty desert for the bright lights of Paris.

A wandering intellectual/writer Alan Squier (Howard) comes to the cafe broke and hungry. He strikes up a friendship with Gabrielle who admires his cultured manner and love of poetry much to the chagrin of would be boyfriend Boze Hertzinger (Dick Foran) a has been football player who now pumps gas. Inside the cafe we meet Gabrielle’s father Jason (Porter Hall) who fancies himself as a war hero and Gramp Maples (Charlie Grapewin) a senile old timer who likes to tell stories of his encounter with Billy the Kid.

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Into this peaceful setting comes gangster Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his three pals Jackie (Joe Sawyer), Ruby (Adrian Morris) and Slim (Slim Thompson). The gang is on the lam from the law. Mantee holds all of the people in the cafe hostage including travelers the Chisolms (Paul Harvey, Genevieve Tobin) and their chauffeur Joseph (John Alexander). The rest of the film deals with the conflicts between the various characters and the growing love story between Alan and Gabrielle.

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Bogey reportedly patterned his Mantee after real life gangster John Dillinger right down to his speech and movements. In fact if you look at photographs of Dillinger, you can see the resemblance. This might explain Bogey’s CP3O (the android from “Star Wars”) like posture. Notice how he holds his arms and his walk.

The two black actors (Thompson and Alexander) were also in the New York stage production. Dick Foran was appearing as a singing cowboy in a series of “B” westerns for Warners and welcomed this chance at a straight role in a major film.

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Although Bogart definitely dominated the film, one can’t help but admire the performance of Leslie Howard as Squier. Bette Davis just emerging as a major star has little to do but stare wide-eyed at Howard.

After this film, Warners signed Bogart to a contract. He would play mostly gangster roles in Cagney and Robinson films with the odd lead in a “B” picture such as “Black Legion” (1937) until 1941 when he became a major star after appearing in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon”.

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Race and Gender Issues Tackled in a Gangster Film

Author: Ralph Michael Stein (riglltesobxs@mailinator.com) from New York, N.Y.
23 December 2001

I may have seen this film many, many years ago but I have no such recollection. I rented it last night and was amazed at the issues handled by a fine cast in a pre-World War II gangster film. A black chauffeur for a rich couple is not typically stereotyped but has a say as to how he does his job. A second black character is an equal member of the gang of fleeing desperadoes with no reference to his race and he engages in conduct no different than his cronies. A quick interchange between the two black characters is fascinating. The Rich Wife spills out her anger and frustration about a loveless marriage in terms as realistic for many today as it was when the film was made.

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The love story is dramatic; it is also unreal. Leslie Howard, who was to die in World War II when the plane on which he was a passenger was shot down by the Luftwaffe (there’s a strange story about THAT interception), relates his failed marital history with a genteel but real frankness not usually found in pre-war cinema.

Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart shine in their roles. Bogart was starting off on his long career as a bad guy and does his promise come across. Davis is appealing with a naivete absent from most of her later films.

This is definitely a film with an agenda. Comments on patriotism seem suspended between caricature and seriousness. A sign, “Tipping Isn’t American-Keep Your Change,” hangs prominently in the desert cafe. Tipping isn’t American? During the Depression? Methinks not.

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One of the best films from a long-ago Hollywood that had its too often underappreciated cohort of serious thinkers.

“Petrified Forest” is both a fine film and a reminder of a Hollywood that occasionally showed its ability to address sensitive issues when even discussion of some of them was largely infra dig for most cinema moguls and their claques.

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