I’d never heard of it before, but it was good!

davis-petrified-forestThe Petrified Forest (1936) is the first movie I’ve seen wherein Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart take the screen together. Let me tell you…it was sweet. This is actually the third film in which they’d both appeared, but neither of the others featured them in starring roles as they have here. Davis is a waitress at her father’s diner in the Arizona desert, where you can also find the last gas station for miles. Just as she’s feeling a bit beguiled by a soulful drifter (Leslie Howard), reports are coming in that notorious gangster Duke Mantee and his men are on the run in the area. Duke would be Bogie—until Casablanca came along, he was much more likely to play the bad guy than the in-love guy.

As you can imagine, the new lovers, along with a few other random characters, have a run-in with the gangsters, who take them all hostage in the diner. Now comes the chance for everyone to talk about what they wanted out of life. Gangsters or no, above all this is a conversation film, quite obviously based on a play. Much of the dialogue is wonderful in that just-barely-over-the-top way: “Let there be killing. All this evening I’ve had a feeling of destiny closing in,” says the drifter. Ooh! Tension builds until we get our inevitable shootout. It’s all well done and very entertaining. And only 83 minutes long! They used to pack so much into such short running times in these old movies. So fantastic.

A month after this film was released, Bette Davis won her first Oscar, for a film called Dangerous. In the tradition of the Oscars, this was viewed somewhat as a consolation prize for her not having won the year previous for Of Human Bondage. Maybe that was true, but maybe not, because the more Bette Davis movies I see the more I feel like they could have just tossed her an Oscar at any time and no one could have argued. The woman just had that something, you know? There’s an energy that comes from her characters that make them feel like whole, real people. She just really, really knew what she was doing when it came to this acting thing. Her portrayal of her character here, who reads books that her long-gone mother sends her from France, but doesn’t know how to pronounce any of the authors’ names, perfectly blends being naively charming and showing obvious intelligence beyond the level she’s had the opportunity to reach. And even though this is the dramatic, big acting style of the 1930s—and Bette Davis could do dramatic and big better than anyone—there is a subtlety at work. It’s marvelous.

howard-davis-bogartSide note fun facts: this movie was Humphrey Bogart’s big break, and the story behind it is pretty great: the film’s third star, the very famous at the time but now somewhat forgotten Howard (who was also ol’ club-foot in Of Human Bondage…new respect for him after this film), insisted that Bogart be able to reprise his role, as he’d played in the stage version with Howard. The studio wanted quintessential gangster Edward G. Robinson, but they wanted Leslie Howard more, so they went with his wishes. The film’s success helped Bogart build his career, and eventually he named his first child–a daughter with Lauren Bacall—Leslie, in honor of Leslie Howard. Additionally, in 1948 Bacall and Bogart made the great film Key Largo, which thematically is very similar to The Petrified Forest, with people in a remote location being taken hostage by gangsters and a budding love story between two people who’ve only just met. This time, though, Bogart was the good guy, and the bad guy was—you guessed it—Edward G. Robinson.

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