Petrified Forest, The (1936): Well-Acted Melodrama, Starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

Robert E. Sherwood’s popular play, The Petrified Forest, was made into a movie in 1936 by Warner’s reliable helmer Archie Mayo, based on a crafty, occasionally witty screenplay by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves (who later became a director).

Leslie Howard plays Alan Squier, a British poet-intellectual, who wanders into the Arizona desert service station-restaurant-café owned by Jason Maple (Porter Hall).  Alan is held in suspicion by the owner, and other regular customers.  But he immediately attracts the attention of Gabriele (Bette Davis), Jason’s sensitive, starry-eyed daughter, who dreams of moving to France, and never wishing to get married because “I want to be free.”

Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran), Gabrielle’s gas-jockey boyfriend, grows jealous of Alan, but the poor Brit has no intention to settle down.  Indeed, he talks the wealthy tourists, the Chisholm (Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin), to give him a ride out of the desperate place and start a new life somewhere–anywhere.  But it’s not in his cards.

Later that same day, Alan, Gabrielle, Jason, Boze, and the Chisholm are held hostages at a gunpoint by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart), a notorious killer who had escaped prison, and his gang.

Alan seems indifferent to the danger, toasting Duke as “the last great apostle of rugged individualism.” Sensing an opportunity to give his life meaning, Alan takes Duke aside, begging the outlaw to kill him so that Gabrielle can travel to Paris on the money provided by Alan’s insurance policy.

But Duke announces that he intends to the Chisholms as a shield in order to make his escape. When Alan tries to stop him, he gets shot down.  “So long, pal,” growls Duke fatalistically, moments before finding his own death, “I’ll be seein’ ya soon.”

Alan dies in Gabrielle’s arms, knowing that she will be able to escape her shabby existence.

On Broadway, Sherwood’s play The Petrified Forest co-starred Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart in his first major theatrical role.  Sherwood based the Duke Mantee character on John Dillinger, the notorious criminal and “Public Enemy #1, who in 1934 was gunned down. Bogart won the stage role because of physical resemblance to Dillinger, and he studied footage of the gangster for his portrayal.

Initially, Warner intended to cast Edward G. Robinson in Duke’s role, but Howard threatened to drop out if the role is not assigned to Bogart.

The film version did not catapult Bogart to major stardom but served as a turning point, a break, in his otherwise slow-moving screen career.  Years later, Bogart was able to express his gratitude to Howard by naming his daughter (with wife-actress Lauren Bacall) Leslie Bogart. One year after “The Petrified Forest,” Bogart and Leslie Howard co-starred in “The Stand-In.”

As a movie, “The Petrified Forest” betrays its theatrical origins (it’s still a play), though Sherwood’s more philosophical themes (role of poetry in everyday life, rugged individualism, immortality and artists dying before their time) have been slackened in the screen version.

But the movie served as a good acting vehicle for the three leads: Howard, Davis, and especially Bogart, in a breakthrough performance.  All three would achieve greater heights of skill and popularity in future Hollywood movies.

Recycling: Radio

There have been various radio versions. The play was performed on CBS’s Lux Radio Theater in 1937, with Herbert Marshall, Margaret Sullavan, and Donald Meek; and again on the same channel in 1945, with Ronald Coleman, Susan Hayward, and Lawrence Tierney.  Another radio version with Joan Bennett, Tyrone Power, and Bogart aired on The Screen Guild Theater in 1940.


TV Revival: Bogart, Bacall, Fonda

Bogart made his first and only TV appearance, playing Duke Mantee in a revival of “The Petrified Forest,” recreating a role he had played opposite Bette David in Warner’s 1936 version.  The telecast, which took place on May 30, 1955, got a lot of publicity due to the casting.  Lauren Bacall, Bogart’s wife, played the Davis’ part, and Henry Fonda the Leslie Howard role.

Leslie Howard as Alan Squier
Bette Davis as Gabrielle Maple
Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee
Genevieve Tobin as Mrs. Chisholm
Dick Foran as Boze Hertzlinger
Joseph Sawyer as Jackie
Porter Hall as Jason Maple
Charley Grapewin as Gramp Maple
Paul Harvey as Mr. Chisholm
Adrian Morris as Ruby
Slim Thompson as Slim


Warner Bros.

Directed by Archie Mayo
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves, based on Robert E. Sherwood’s 1935 play.

Music by Bernhard Kaun
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Edited by: Owen Marks
Release date February 6, 1936
Running time: 82 minutes