Silver Screen Standards: The Petrified Forest (1936)
Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of the film.
If I were younger or in a more sanguine mood, I might find The Petrified Forest (1936) very romantic, but middle age and the perpetual crisis that we call 2020 overhung my recent revisitation of this classic Warner Bros. drama from director Archie Mayo. Instead of identifying with Bette Davis in bobby socks, I found myself feeling the full impact of Leslie Howard’s brilliant performance as the depressed, world-weary traveler, a man for whom the titular desert is a liminal space between life and death, a place where destiny wears Humphrey Bogart’s haunted face. I had to wonder if this was how adult viewers felt when watching the picture on its original release in the throes of the Great Depression, especially in places like the desolate wayside where the events of the story unfold. For all its talk of poetry and Paris, the romance in The Petrified Forest feels more like a dose of sugar-coating a bitter pill, and the aftertaste of that bitterness lingers long after the sweetness fades away. It’s a brilliant, moving meditation on the ways in which people recognize the point of no return and reflect on the journey that brought them, but cheerful it certainly isn’t.
Howard headlines this adaptation of the 1935 Broadway play in which he and Bogart also starred. He plays a washed-up wanderer, Alan Squier, who once had aspirations of being a writer but is now drifting across the US with vague ideas of drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean when the journey ends. He meets young Gabrielle, played by Davis, at a remote gas station on the edge of the Petrified Forest, and becomes fascinated by her youthful dreams of being an artist and running away to France. Fate adds a twist to their meeting when Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his gang take the gas station occupants hostage while police scour the border country for the murderous criminals. Alan sees a spark in Gabrielle that reminds him of his younger self, but he also recognizes a darker kindred spirit in Duke, who shares his exhaustion with the emptiness of a grinding, bootless existence.
The cast is packed with favorites, with Davis and Bogart both on the rise and supporting players like Porter Hall, Dick Foran, and Charley Grapewin all doing solid work, but the picture belongs to Howard, who had clearly developed a deep understanding of his character during the Broadway run. We are meant to like Alan very much, just as Gabby does, but we’re also meant to understand that he’s at the end of the line, that there are only different kinds of deaths available to him, not an eleventh-hour reprieve. It’s hard to imagine why Warner thought a happy ending would be a better way to close the film, but they actually shot one in case audiences found the original too depressing. Howard, however, is telegraphing Alan’s desire to die so strongly that denying him that ending would have been cruel as well as jarring. Doom is written on his brow, albeit in an elegant hand. On Mantee’s brow the writing is cruder but just as plain; he, too, knows that he’s at the end of the line, and for a killer, he seems strangely unwilling to shed more blood, even when Alan asks it as a favor.
Like Alan Duke, Squier harbors some surprisingly romantic, even old-fashioned, notions, not just about women but about the respect due to an old man, even one as annoying as Gabby’s grandfather. Perhaps the names of the two men, Duke and Squier, are meant to connect them as adherents to an outdated code, remnants of a more romantic age that had room for poets and outlaws alike. Alan says he is “destined to become… an interesting fossil for future study,” and the same holds true for Duke, whom the film’s dialogue repeatedly ties to the legendary Billy the Kid. Gabby’s grandfather boasts about being shot at by Billy, and to Alan Duke represents the opportunity to die with a measure of glory that has eluded him in life. As Alan tells Duke, “It’ll inspire people to say of me, ‘There was an artist who died before his time.’” Alan’s life insurance policy can buy Gabrielle a chance at happiness in faraway France, and he relishes the idea that she will mourn him, but he knows too well that there’s no happily ever after in store for himself, just as Duke knows that either a bullet or an executioner will bring his own end.
In case we’re tempted to imagine a romantic escape for Alan and Gabby, the story presents us with omnipresent examples of the disappointment of such relationships, which is plain to the older characters but not really understood by Gabrielle. Gabby’s mother couldn’t stand the desert and returned to her native France years ago, leaving her only child behind with a family of dull, unimaginative men. Alan’s wealthy ex-wife picked him up as a pet project and then threw him away for a new one, while Duke waits in the gas station for a lover who gets caught by the cops and reportedly rats him out.
We get a different view of the same kind of misery from Mrs. Chisholm (Genevieve Tobin), the respectable society wife who endures an empty, hopeless existence with another dull, unimaginative man. She’s desperate enough to ask Duke to take her with him when he leaves, a request that betrays a suicidal yearning as strong as Alan’s if less examined by the film. These relationships offer little hope for Gabby and Alan as a couple, and they don’t inspire us to root for football jock Boze (Dick Foran), either. Alan might disappoint Gabrielle, but Boze would be the death of her soul. Escape to France is her only hope. She’s got to get out while she’s young and live for herself, not for anyone else, including Alan. She gets that chance thanks to Alan, Duke, and a bullet in the chest. It’s a dark kind of romance, but that’s the only comfort the film has to offer.
Many classic movie fans will already know that Howard, who fought to bring Bogart over for the film adaptation of the play, thus launched Bogart’s second and more successful effort to break into Hollywood. Bogart would go on playing gangsters and heavies for several years before real stardom came, but he named his daughter Leslie Howard Bogart in memory of his loyal friend, who died in 1943 when his plane was shot down by the Nazis.
For more drama with Howard and Bette Davis, see Of Human Bondage (1934), but if you want them in a lighter mood try the delightful comedy, It’s Love I’m After (1937). Davis and Bogart also star together in Marked Woman (1937) and Kid Galahad (1937), and Bogart has a memorable if secondary, role in Dark Victory (1939). If depressing tales like this one suit your current mood, go for an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, which Alan mentions (the 1935 version with Ronald Colman is a good choice), or jump into a more modern version of the same atmosphere with Leaving Las Vegas (1995).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.