Today, The Petrified Forest is best known as the starmaking role of Humphrey Bogart's film career. Formerly an unheralded supporting actor in 'B' films, his role as gangster Duke Mantee caused a sensation. Bogart quickly became the bad guy of choice in Hollywood crime dramas, such as Dead End (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).
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Bogart owed his big break to first billed Leslie Howard. Howard and Bogart had both been in Robert E. Sherwood's Broadway play, from which the film was based. Howard learned that Warner Bros. planned to cast Edward G. Robinson as Mantee, and threatened to leave the production unless Bogart was given the role. Howard got his way, and Bogart was so grateful that he later named his only daughter Leslie, in tribute.
The character of Duke Mantee was taken from real life gangster John Dillinger, whose notorious and highly publicized crime spree came to an end in 1934, a few years before. In preparation for the role, Bogart studied films of Dillinger, and was made up to physically resemble him.
But Bogart was only fifth billed in the film, and his role, while sensational, was a supporting one. Howard is the real star, an intellectual, ineffectual, penniless drifter who happens upon a diner in the Arizona desert. There, young Gabrielle (Bette Davis) works as a waitress, and dreams of becoming a painter in France. She is the daughter of Jason Maple (Porter Hall), a self-important man who owns the restaurant.
Gabrielle's grandfather is played by Charley Grapewin, who serves as the prototype for subsequent comic relief old timers such as Walter Brennan and Gabby Hayes. Grapewin's attempts to sneak drinks and impress others with his imagined past exploits ("Billy the Kid once took a shot at me") help lighten the film.
Davis is romanced by burly, stupid, persistent Boze (Dick Foran). But her heart is stolen by Howard. They all become hostages of Duke Mantee, who uses the restaurant as his hold-out. Also held prisoner are two upper class foils, banker Chisholm (Paul Harvey) and his unhappy trophy wife (Genevieve Tobin).
One of the rarely mentioned surprises of The Petrified Forest is the character of Slim (Slim Thompson), a black member of Mantee's gang. In a short speech that is very unusual for a mainstream film from the 1930s, Slim mocks Joseph, the Chisholm's black chauffeur, for his deference to his employer.
The stage origins of The Petrified Forest are obvious. The film is talky. Action scenes are absent that should be present, such as Mantee's confrontations with the police. Howard's character is also a bit precious, as the brilliant drifter who for no apparent reason is hitchhiking across the United States. He just happens to own a life insurance policy for $5,000. (This is the equivalent of about $100,000 today.) How has he been paying the premiums?
Davis won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1936, for the film Dangerous (1935). Davis had played a waitress to Howard in Of Human Bondage (1934). They would team up once again for It's Love I'm After (1937).
The Petrified Forest was later remade as Escape in the Desert (1945). Bogart, his wife Lauren Bacall, and Henry Fonda would star in a 1955 television production of "The Petrified Forest", not long before his death in January 1957. (69/100)