Even with a couple of prime star-era roles in the mix, my streak through the filmography of Humphrey Bogart has produced a lot less Humphrey Bogart than expected. While Bogart’s character Captain Queeg was the fulcrum of all the drama in The Caine Mutiny (1954), it wasn’t his story and he was offscreen more than on; and even with a starring role, it took nearly an hour for Bogart to show his face in Dark Passage (1947). The other three of the first five movies on this list have been from Bogart’s early career, before he was the headliner, and The Petrified Forest (1936) is the earliest of them all. The first two, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), were Jimmy Cagney vehicles with Bogart playing key antagonists, and while Bogart plays a similar outlaw type In Petrified Forest, it’s a much different type of picture overall from that familiar big city gangster milieu.
Bette Davis stars as Gabrielle, a young dreamer stuck in a nowheresville diner in the Arizona desert. When cultured European Alan (Leslie Howard drifts in), she sees in him the potential for an exciting future in a wider world. Alan, however, isn’t much interested in the future, and the issue becomes moot when an outlaw gang led by Bogart takes the diner hostage during a sandstorm.
Based on the play by Robert Emmet Sherwood (adapted by Charles Kenyon and Dark Passage director Delmer Daves), The Petrified Forest exudes staginess, from its confined cast and locations to the very particular style of its writing. It’s not far off from the kind of playwriting spoofed in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink: a highfalutin appropriation of the lower class as symbols for expressing the half-baked musings of a detached intellectual artiste. While not quite “the poetry of the common man,” The Petrified Forest has ideas — the withering of American promise (yes, that’s been a common dramatic theme for close to a century, if not longer), the impotence of Europe’s waning aristocrat class, the small self-serving nature of the world as designed by weak white men (yes, again, this is an old refrain) — which seem awkwardly explored through Sherwood’s chosen southwestern milieu, which must have seemed exotic coming from an urbane Vanity Fair writer hanging out in Manhattan at Dorothy Parker’s table at the Algonquin. What might have played well to other urbane New Yorkers on Broadway, however, feels suffocatingly small on film, and its ideas, which might have seemed provocative at the tail end of The Great Depression, were pretty much obliterated by World War II and America’s subsequent economic boom.
Davis is a luminous presence, and she plays her role with typical genuineness. Howard, recreating his role from the stage, is fine, but the ineffectual archetype to which he is assigned is hard to suffer. Bogart plays “Duke Mantee” with a constant scowl and a weird clinched physicality that seems to be holding back some kind of inevitable gastral event. Charley Grapewin is a classic old coot, providing some moments of intentional humor, but Dick Foran is wholly ridiculous as a mid-twenties jock who acts like a nine-year-old boy.
As an example of its type of hyper-artificial, ponderously philosophical self-pleasing post-Depression melodrama, The Petrified Forest is decent enough, with a cast that makes it more than tolerable. As a work of substance, it’s poorly conceived, ill-timed, and totally forgettable. Directed by Archie Mayo.