One of the variants on the GRAND HOTEL theme halfway between the pleasant comings and goings at that hostelry and the screaming disasters of, say, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. This screen version of Robert E. Sherwood's smash play is handled with great care by director Archie Mayo and a
sterling cast. This was the film that catapulted Humphrey Bogart to fame, but without Leslie Howard's insistence on Bogart for the part of Duke Mantee, Bogart might never have gotten his big movie break.
This film is really about the confrontation between intellectualism and brute force. Howard, an idealistic writer and world traveler who has grown weary of life's cruelties, finds himself penniless and hitchhiking through the Arizona desert. As he passes the renowned Petrified Forest, it occurs to
him that he is like it, an ossified relic of the past. Stopping at a dilapidated service station restaurant run by grumpy Porter Hall, Howard meets and falls in love with poet Bette Davis, Hall's daughter. She dreams of studying in Paris. Dick Foran, a college halfback who pumps gas for Hall, is
in love with Davis, and therefore jealous of Howard; but Howard assures him that he has little to worry about. When a rich couple, Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin, arrive at the station, Davis persuades them to take Howard along with them to California. After Howard departs, Hall, Davis, Foran,
and Charley Grapewin, Hall's ancient father, hear on the radio that the ruthless gangster Duke Mantee and his henchmen, on the run after committing murders in Oklahoma, are headed into Arizona. On the road, Mantee (Bogart) and his gang are stalled by a broken down car. When Harvey's car comes
along, they order the occupants out and drive off with the rich man's auto. Bogart then storms into Hall's service station cafe and holds everyone prisoner, waiting to join up with another carload of henchmen and his gun moll. When Howard, Harvey, Tobin, and their chauffeur, John Alexander, return
to the cafe, Bogart holds them hostage as well. Howard challenges Bogart with words Bogart doesn't understand, calling the gangster "the last great apostle of rugged individualism." Howard makes a quiet pact with Bogart, requesting that Bogart shoot him before leaving.
Howard was born for the role of the fatalistic lover and lapsed idealist of THE PETRIFIED FOREST. He had played it to the hilt on Broadway, as did Bogart with the Mantee role in the 1935 stage play. But when it came to casting the film, Jack Warner wanted no part of Bogart, who had appeared in
small roles in B films some years earlier. He selected Edward G. Robinson to play Duke Mantee. When Howard heard this, he went to Warner, telling him that if Bogart did not get the role of gangster, he (Howard) would drop out of the picture. Warner needed Howard, so he cast Bogart, who went on to
become one of the studio's greatest stars. Bogart's gangster was clearly based on Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger (as was Sherwood's original character). Coincidentally, Bogart closely resembled Dillinger, and after studying films of the gangster to perfect his mannerisms, he was a sensation.
Yet the Duke Mantee role was also a curse, typecasting Bogart for years to come in the ruthless gangster mold, until 1941 when he appeared as a sympathetic gangster in HIGH SIERRA and, in the same year, as Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON. Davis, too, is outstanding as the culture-hungry girl who
yearns to escape the desert and the ominous Petrified Forest. This success of this film would soon land her meatier roles. The film was remade as ESCAPE IN THE DESERT. In 1955, Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Henry Fonda would reenact the original play in an excellent television production.
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