The Petrified Forest (1936)

Leslie Howard, the soothing actor, and the enigmatic Bette Davies were the top-billed actors in this Robert E Sherman’s adapted play, and my question was – Where was Bogie?

Humphrey Bogart’s name appeared much later. There was talent, no doubt, and before this role, there were ten other productions he was part of, though none of those roles stood out. He was present – playing second fiddle or a character role, and I bet the top billing status was a long way ahead.

I belong to a generation who have seen many Humphrey Bogart movies in which he has been the main draw. The descending order of his filmography I have gone about watching made me realise how far I was getting away from his stardom. He was at the peak when I watched him first, and now after a lot of movies, I have seen merely a reflection of his future status or under the shadows of other stars, namely James Cagney.

And when I watched ‘The Petrified Forest,’ I somewhat knew this was where it all began for him. Since then, he has grown as an actor, slowly moving away from being the gangster to being a hero and a star of whom there is a rich legacy.

The movie itself is a journey – a conversation between individuals about their pasts, experiences, dreams, and shortcomings.

Set in the backdrop of a region where the scientific process of ‘permineralisation’ is evident. Trees are mostly found in fossils – petrified wood highlighting the years of reaction turning the wood into stone-like structures. This is ‘The Petrified Forest’ in Arizona, and the story begins and ends at the little service station called ‘Petrified Forest Bar-B-Q’ on the edge of nowhere.

A battered intellectual nomad, formerly a writer, is shown walking on the dusty roads of Arizona. From his looks, it seemed his best days were past him – Alan Squier, played by Leslie Howard, strolled through the roads on a mission to explore and find a purpose for his well-equipped brains.

He recognises the triumph of his thumb and its sideways motion with which he travelled lengths and breadths of America. He was hungry, impoverished and among his possessions were a rucksack with his passport, insurance papers, and a map.

By the time he had got himself to the embarrassing situation of having no money, the movie was half-way through. By this time, he had an admirer – no, a lover, Gabrielle Maple, played by Bette Davies, which left her blue-collared employee and former football (American) player Boze in distaste and jealous of Alan.

Gabrielle is the daughter of the diner owner Jason Maple and of Gramp Maple, who was not shy in telling the customers about being missed by ‘Billy the Kid’ once. Gabrielle was born to a French mother who currently lived in Bourges, France, after getting bored of her life in Arizona. Gabrielle assists her father and dreams of being an artist in France, someday!

Words have their magic and the power of attraction towards human beings. When these words always flow in any conversation, one can fall in love hopelessly.

Alan was eloquent in what he thought about life and the poetry collection of François Villon, a 15th-century French poet to which Gabrielle was hooked. He requests her to narrate some of the lines –

Such good I wish you! Yea, and heartily
I am fired with hope of true love’s meed to get;
Knowing love writes it in his book; for why,
This is the end for which we twain are met.

An awkward silence followed by more lines –

Seeing reason wills not that I cast love by
Nor here with reason shall I chide or fret
Nor cease to serve, but serve more constantly;
This is the end for which we twain are met.

While she showed him her artworks and the paintings, he talked about his experience, past life, strange marriage to a wealthy woman, writer’s block while living in Riviera, and the separation.

On the other hand, his words cast a spell on her to the extent that she was ready to run away with him taking all her cash; he declined and refused and decided to part ways.

He was on his way on a car with a wealthy couple only to be stopped mid-way by Duke Mantee and his men, who took the vehicle and spared their lives. A few moments later, Alan was back at the diner. Why?

The next half of the movie is about Humphrey Bogart – his guile, rugged looks, and the manner he was introduced made him the terrifying character the movie audience had seen at that time. He engages in a conversation with the rest of the crew at the service station.

After a series of thought-provoking conversations between Alan and Duke – the movie concludes with Alan Squier having found his purpose. He knew his life was of no worth, and his death could buy Gabrielle the tallest cathedrals, and golden vineyards, and dancing in the streets. He dies through a prior arrangement with Duke for killing him, thereby leaving her the insurance money. Alan was in search of a purpose – to live and to die for.

He knew he was in love with Gabrielle, someone worth living for and worth dying for.

Like I mentioned before, the movie took Humphrey Bogart to the next level, and this was possible because of Leslie Howard’s insistence of Bogart playing the part of Duke Mantee in place of Edward G Robinson.

It has a happy negotiation, which gave Bogie his first break in Hollywood. It was a mere coincidence that the real-life criminal ‘John Dillinger, on whose life is the character Duke Mantee is inspired from, resembled Bogart.

When Bogart’s daughter Lauren Bacall was born in 1952, he expressed his friendship and gratitude by naming her, Leslie Howard Bogart.

Howard refused to appear in ‘The Petrified Forest’ unless the studio (Warner Bros) signed Bogart to play Duke Mantee.

Sign they did and the rest is history!

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