Due to the scowly presence of Humphrey Bogart in its second half, the 1936 film The Petrified Forest would later be considered one of the decade’s great gangster pictures, though in actuality it’s more a caged-in character study where the nation itself is what’s being studied. Based on the Robert E. Sherwood play, the film adaptation does little to open it up and keeps just about everything confined to the main room of a diner/gas station on the edge of nowhere in the Arizona desert. Eventually the diner will become the setting for a teeth-clenched, guns-a-blazing showdown, but for the good first half of the film, it’s just the boring prison where Gabby Maple (an effervescent Bette Davis) dreams away her days, serving travelers while reading poetry, painting, and dreaming of France. Her father and grandfather (Porter Hall and Charley Grapewin) serve as the crotchety soundtrack to Gabby’s musings, while the handyman, Boze (Dick Foran), tries to woo her away from books and art. Into this zone of tedium drops a hitchhiker, Alan Squier (Leslie Howard, reprising his stage role, as does Bogart), a winning coversationalist but clearly at the end of his tether. Gabby is quickly infatuated with the coy and utterly pretentious Squire, who tells stories laced in self-deprecating wit about his past as a failed writer and kept man. Meanwhile, her grandfather keeps bothering the customers with stories about the time Billy the Kid took a shot at him, and her dad is off running about the desert with his band of wannabe vigilantes, looking for the notorious gangster Duke Mantee, rumored to be heading their way. When Duke (Bogart) does finally show up, bringing a howling sandstorm and a passel of trigger-happy gunsels with him, it’s somewhat of a shame, as the film, like Gabby, had fallen so completely under Squire’s spell that second-act plot machinations seem almost unnecessary. Davis and the ever reliable Howard make an eminently watchable couple, the bright-eyed girl of promise and the fey but burned-out aesthete reading Francois Villon poems to each other in the middle of the desert. When Bogart does make his entrance, it’s a sterling performance as well, full of volatile rage but suffused with that sly mockery which later became his calling card—easy to see why this was his breakthrough role. The Petrified Forest seems to have bigger things on its mind, though, than romance and a hostage situation. From the sign in the diner that says, “tipping is un-American, keep your change,” to Gabby’s father’s tin soldier posturing and the grandfather’s endless romanticized Old West spiels to Squier’s long ruminations on being the last of a vanishing race, “the intellectuals,” much of what’s on display here evokes a society on the decline, propping itself up with patriotic guff, fairy tales, and violence.
- Warner Bros.
- 82 min
- Archie L. Mayo
- Delmer Davies, Charles Kenyon
- Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Genevieve Tobin, Dick Foran, Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Sawyer, Eddie Acuff, Charley Grapewin, Porter Hall
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: