Today’s movie is The Petrified Forest (1936), and it’s a strange one. It is often listed as a Film Noir, but it seems more like a mental break-down set in the midst of a murder spree. It is widely considered to be a precursor to Film Noir or in the latest parlance, noir stained. The basic story is that a lonely young waitress, a foreign drifter, and a few others are held hostages by a homicidal bank robber at a desert diner.
With that being said, this Archie Mayo directed crime drama is well worth the time spent watching it. I liked it but can’t really tell you why. Perhaps it just that Humphrey Bogart is so good as gangster Duke Mantee who is channeling John Dillinger.
iMDB.com rated this movie at 7.6 and 100% fresh on the Tomatometer. So, not too shabby. There are a couple of cultural subplots that I will mention in the story. Quite a few of the actors, we have talked about before, so let’s go.
Bette Davis played the role of a young waitress and dreamer Gabrielle “Gabby” Maple. I could quite figure how someone raised in the desert would have that accent. Davis was covered in Episode 101 – The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
Porter Hall played Jason Maple, the father of Gabby. Hall was first covered in Episode 89 – Ace in the Hole (1951).
Dick Foran has a small role as Boze Hertzlinger, a self-absorbed ex-jock. Foran was covered in Episode 127 – The Mummy’s Hand (1940).
Leslie Howard played traveler Alan Squier. That mile-mouthed Ashley Wilkes. How could he trifle with Scarlet’s heart like that? Howard was born in England in 1893. Howard attended Dulwich College. I could make a joke, but I don’t want the witches to get mad at me. He started working as a bank clerk until World War I broke out. He enlisted but was released in 1917, being diagnosed as having shell-shock. iMDB states that acting was recommended as therapy, but he had already appeared in a short movie in 1914. Anyway, he became a very popular stage actor. His first movie with sound was Outward Bound (1930). He played the stereotypical Englishman in Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931) and Smilin’ Through (1932). This type kind of stuck with him. Probably his second most famous movie was The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).
Howard worked on the stage production of “The Petrified Forest” with a relatively unknown actor, Humphrey Bogart playing the role of Duke Mantee. Studio Head Jack Warner wanted Edward G. Robinson to play this role, but Howard used his influence and got Bogart the role that would make him a star. Robinson would have to wait until Key Largo (1948) to play an essential Duke Mantee role but with Bogart as the hero this time.
Howard’s most famous role was as Ashley Wilkes, a southern fool who believe they could maintain their life of leisure at the cost of others enslavement, in Gone with the Wind (1939). See in Hollywood, they will always cast an Englishman to play a southern.
When World War II broke out, Howard did everything he could to support the war effort. This included film, talks, radio, and articles. In 1943, he was flying from Spain to England in a civilian aircraft when Nazi fighters shot him down. Damn Nazis!
In 50 years, Howard performed in six films that were nominated for Best Picture. Gone with the Wind (1939) was the only one to win.
Genevieve Tobin had a small part as Mrs. Chisholm. Tobin was born in 1899 in New York City. Her family was in show business, and she started acting very early and was in a short, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1910). She worked on Broadway in her 20s. She began working in comedies and did well through the early 1940s. Her films include A Lady Surrenders (1930), Free Love (1930), One Hour with You (1932), Goodbye Again (1933), Kiss and Make Up (1934), The Goose and the Gander (1935), and her last film No Time for Comedy (1940). Then she left film for a private life. She died in 1995.
Joe Sawyer played gangster Jackie. Sawyer was born in 1906 in Canada. When he became interested in a film career, he moved to California and began studying at the Pasadena Playhouse. He had the tough guy looks, and these were the roles he was most often given.
On the advice of his teacher, he traveled to New York and worked on Broadway. A lucky marriage got him into films. Sawyer’s film debut was in 1931. In over four decades, he was in hundreds of movies including College Humor (1933), College Rhythm (1934), The Westerner (1934), The Informer (1935), Pride of the Marines (1936), Black Legion (1937), The Petrified Forest (1936), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Sergeant York (1941), Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943), Gilda (1946), It Came from Outer Space (1953), North to Alaska (1960) and How the West Was Won (1962). Sawyer was talked into taking this last role by his buddy John Wayne. Sawyer died in 1982.
Charley Grapewin played crazy Grampa Maple. We have covered a lot of coots, but this role was a coot’s coot. Grapewin was born in 1869 in Ohio. He began performing in the circus at a young age. He started doing stock acting sometime around 1900 but did become a regular film actor until the age of 60. He specialized in playing old coots. He was in over 100 films, but his best known are The Petrified Forest (1936), The Good Earth (1937), his best-known role as Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Grandpa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and Tobacco Road (1941). He died in 1956.
The movie begins with a man walking along a desert road. A car casually passes him by as he signals for a ride. This is the kind of place where you could easily die if you don’t have enough water along. The walker is spry and well dressed. A second car passes with no help.
A car with an overheated radiator pulls into the Petrified Forest Bar-B-Q, located in Black Mesa Arizona, near the Petrified Forest, a combination gas station, restaurant, and housing compound. It slightly resembles the restaurant/gas station in Ace in the Hole (1951). When the driver asks for water, he is told he can get it himself by a slightly hostile Jason Maple (Porter Hall). He then reminds them that they should get gas, he has to holler for his hand, the football-obsessed Boze (Dick Foran).
Inside two men are arguing about the state of the country. Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin) joins their conversation and talks about how tough you had to be in the old days to live here. He even says Billy the Kid shot at him when the kid was drunk. Gramp says the first message sent over the first wire was “God save the Republic.” The man says the message needs to be sent again because the republic is in trouble. Note – this is during the height of the Great Depression. Jason gets indignant with the men criticizing America.
After the men leave, Gramp and his son Jason get into a rile about Jason driving a truck during the Great War. Jason feels sorry for himself having such a small business in the desert. Janson’s daughter, Gabby (Bette Davis) comes in from the back and tells them that the homicidal killer Duke Mantee is heading their way. Crazy old Gramp routs for Mantee. Jason says he has to leave to get ready for the Black Horse Vigilante meeting. The mailman confirms that the Mantee is heading in their direction.
When Gabby goes outside to read, Boze loses interest in his football. He kisses her and is much more aggressive than is considered proper nowadays. She is clearly not interested, and he won’t let up. Her voice is clearly accented wrong for this desert location. He grabs her again and kisses her again. She pulls away just as the walking stranger arrives. He is English hobo Alan Squier (Leslie Howard). Alan asks to order food. Boze won’t let up as Gabby goes inside.
Gabby is thunderstruck by Alan. His greatest qualification, he’s not from Black Mesa. Alan is only vaguely interested in making it to the Pacific Ocean, but when he sees that Gabby is reading French poetry, he is more interested in her. Alan is accosted by Jason and Gramp. Jason leaves in his World War I uniform, and Gabby has to keep Gramp out of the whiskey. Gramp is super excited about Duke Mantee coming, and Jason says his militia group can handle him. There are bottles of Apache Beer on the table. Gabby dolls up and sends Gramp away to get his supper. Gabby reveals that her mother is French but left Black Mesa to return to France. Gabby is waiting for Gramp’s to die so she and her father can sell the place and she can go to France. Alan tells that he is a bit of gigolo, but the true writer never came out.
Alan and Gabby go to the roof and look at her painting. Alan thinks she has a unique style. Boze is not too happy. Alan says he is an intellectual and that class has created the chaos in the world by trying to tame nature. Gabby also tells Alan that Gramp’s has $22,000 that she will inherit. She invites Alan to stay and work and eventually go to France with her. Alan gets ready to leave but asks for a kiss, but they are stopped short by Boze. Alan doesn’t have money to pay, and Gabby give him a silver dollar.
At this time, a rich couple, Mrs. Chisholm (Genevieve Tobin), Mr. Chisholm (Paul Harvey), and their African-American chauffer Joseph (John Alexander) arrive for gas. Gabby asks if Alan can have a ride to the west. Joseph pats Alan down for weapons. In the car, the radio gives a flash with the tag number of Duke Mantee. Up the road, the getaway car described on the radio is broken down, with Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart), African-American gangster Slim (Slim Thompson), convenient, gangster Jackie (Joe Sawyer), and gangster Ruby (Adrian Morris), waiting for a break. The Chisum car is hijacked, and the gang leaves the four people behind as they head back towards the gas station. Mr. Chisum says the man is Duke Mantee before he and Joseph try to fix the getaway car. Alan begins walking towards the gas station and Gabby.
Boze is putting the moves on Gabby again, but she is crying because Alan has left. Duke and his gang show up and take Gabby, Boze, Gramp, and the cook hostage. Bogart is amazing as he snarls at the world. When Alan gets to the gas station, he is held hostage too. Duke walks with his hands held at the waist like he had spent a lot of time handcuffed. The gang has guns, but Boze still talks smack. Gramp is excited to be in the company of Duke. There is an Indian buffalo headdress on the wall. The director keeps lining up Mantee, so it looks like he has horns. Alan talks about the end of his life. Jackie gets ready to kill Boze. They hear on the radio that there is another crew in a different car. Alan tells Duke that there is no place in the world for men like them and they have to be swept away. Gabby confesses that she loves Alan.
Alan asks Gramp to give his money to Gabby so she can live life. He tells Gramp he should die, but Duke takes up for the old man. Mr. Chisum and Joseph can’t get the car started. When they walk to gas station, they become hostages as well. Boze gets the jump on Duke and grabs a rifle. Duke shoots Boze in his hand. Slim says “hi, colored brother” to Joseph who says “good evening.”
Alan gets his life insurance papers out of his backpack. Gabby is in the other room. Mr. Chisum tries to buy his way out, but Duke takes the whole wad. Chisum says he hopes the government will take care of them. Alan has signed the insurance over to Gabby, and he wants Duke to kill him. Mrs. Chisum understands Alan and admires his love for Gabby. Duke agrees to kill Alan. He asks everyone not to let Gabby know. Slim asks Joseph to have a drink, but Joseph asks Mr. Chisum if it okay. Slim is sickened by Joseph.
Alan compares his love for Gabby with Duke’s love for the woman in the other car. Alan confirms to Duke that he wants to be shot. Gabby comes back in the room and starts talking about selling the place after they get the publicity. Mrs. Chisum talks about her frustration with life and how Gabby should take care of herself. Mrs. Chisum asks to go along with Duke. He says no.
Alan tells Gabby that he loves her and she is his first love. Alan says that he is giving Gabby to the opportunity to grow her talent. He then stands to be shot by Duke, but Ruby taps on the door and signals that 3 people are coming. It’s Jason and his little band of militia. The militia commander says that Duke’s girlfriend and the other car has been caught. They also say the woman in the car told where he was going. Duke finally decides it’s time to leave. Alan asks again to be killed. A cop car pulls up, and Ruby starts shooting. Ruby is sent to the back. The cops have Thompson Machineguns. Jackie is sent to the back door. He is killed before he gets a shot off. Duke thinks the back is covered.
Alan talks crazy during the gunfight. Finally, Gabby and Alan get to kiss. Slim finds out that Jackie is dead. Duke takes the Chisum’s, Joseph, and the two militia as human shields. When Alan sees Duke is not going to shoot him, he blocks the door. Finally, Duke shoots him. Alan dies in Gabby’s arms. Gramp tells Gabby about the life insurance. Gabby says they will bury him in the Petrified Forest. Jason gets on the phone and finds out that Duke has been stopped. Gabby reads us out with poetry.
This movie is a little nutso, and it is hard to conceive of someone laying down their life so easily for someone that they just met. There a few comments I want to make and to highlight a couple of points about the movie. I was shocked to see two African-American characters in a movie of this time period. I think the following review, titled – The Dreams of the Discontented, from 2004 by gmatcallahan15, does well hitting the subplots (edited for length, follow the footnote for complete review).
…the dynamic contrast between its two black characters. Joseph 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. Slim is clearly a liberated, autonomous, independent soul who offers his opinions on his own accord while mocking his “colored brother” for his subservience. He’s almost a figure out of 1966 rather than 1936…
I can’t help but think that tin soldiers of the Black Horse militia represent a feckless American, not ready for World War II. Having won World War I, many people believed that war was over, and they returned to America with a feeling of promise. But what they were met with was a world thrown into chaos by investors and bankers. The world was not of their making, but they paid the price.
gmatcallahan15 sums it up well with:
…eager willingness to voice criticisms of wealth, power, authority, and inequality in America. 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…
Alan wanted to be buried in the petrified forest makes me think that the forest is a metaphor for America at the time, which seemed past its purpose.
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