Sunday, April 04, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest finds Bette Davis reunited with her Of Human Bondage co-star Leslie Howard, only this time the star-making performance comes from Humphrey Bogart, who plays volatile gangster Duke Mantee in a reprisal of his Broadway role. Davis and Howard are the ostensible leads here (Bogart doesn't show up until more than halfway through the film), but the movie is a true ensemble piece, and Howard does most of the heavy lifting in the romance between his hobo intellectual and Davis' daydreaming waitress. Davis is great at playing world-weary and cynical, but here she's fresh-faced and optimistic as Gabrielle Maple, who works at an Arizona roadside diner owned by her father and dreams of going to France to become an artist.

Howard's failed novelist wanders into the diner and sweeps her off her feet, but it's the arrival of gangster Mantee that really sets the story in motion. This movie is the template for the disparate-characters-trapped-in-a-remote-location genre, with Mantee holding the diner's employees and patrons hostage while he waits for his associates to show up. Forest betrays its stage origins by relying largely on one location (the diner), and being filled with long talky stretches. But the actors carry those potentially dry segments, and even though Davis is playing naive and innocent, she and Howard have solid romantic chemistry (more so than in Of Human Bondage). Howard gives a spirited performance as a man more enamored of his own "artistic" status than possessed of any actual artistic ability, and the ending is suitably tragic while still punishing the lawbreakers.

The movie also has one of the more nuanced African-American characters I've seen in an old Hollywood film like this, with Slim Thompson (also reprising his Broadway role) as a member of Mantee's gang who's on equal footing with the white gangsters. He even mocks the black chauffeur working for a wealthy diner patron, the more typical part you'd expect to see from a black man during this era. That wealthy patron's wife, played smartly by Genevieve Tobin, also expresses rather progressive attitudes, lamenting her boring marriage and encouraging Davis' Gabrielle (who at one point says she never wants to get married) to explore all her ambitions before settling down. Davis may be toned down here, but that inner fire still comes through.

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