Wednesday, February 9, 2011

DVD Review: The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest (1936)

(Released: 2005 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer, an’ he’s hungry!” – and, with this line, a new screen icon was introduced: The great Humphrey Bogart!

Adapted from a successful Broadway play by Robert Sherwood, “The Petrified Forest” makes one heck of a wonderful and suspenseful film as well.

Bette Davis is “Gabrielle Maple” forlorn, frustrated waitress at a “Last Chance Café and Gas Station” in the middle of a desert nowhere. She dutifully toils for her father and grandfather – and fends off the advances of gas pump-jockey and former football star “Boze Hertzlinger” (Dick Foran). Dad is a would-be vigilante, and gramps was quite possibly the template for the “whopper-storytelling gregarious old man” character type.

One-by-one, visitors find their way to the café: Disaffected author and intellectual “Alan Squier” memorably played by Leslie Howard, the wealthy travelers Mr. and Mrs. Chisolm and their chauffeur, and the killer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart in his breakout role!) and his gang.

A fierce sandstorm hits, trapping all inside the little café, providing the tension that unfolds for the rest of the film. The romantic tensions for Davis, Howard, and Foran aside, the film plays not unlike Bogart’s later “Key Largo(See that review HERE!), except there Bogie was the hero. Howard and Bogart reprise their Broadway roles.

No further spoilers, but this is THE film that launched Humphrey Bogart’s career – and it is a great, melodramatic tension-packed drama.

Three unusual items of note:
The film begins with the Warner Bros. Shield catapulting to the forefront of the screen, just as it does at the start of Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. The subsequent “Bullets or Ballots” (starring Edward G, Robinson and Bogart) opens in similar fashion. This would indicate that Warner FILMS opened similarly to their cartoons – at least during this period of the 1930s.

Fans of the modern television series HEROES, will note that Young Bogart, as Duke Mantee, bears a remarkable resemblance to Zachary Quinto’s character of “SYLAR”, the series’ main villain. Quinto, who is also known for his reimagining of the character of SPOCK in the J.J. Abrams film version of STAR TREK, might be concerned that he may, one day, end up looking like “Captain Queeg” of “The Caine Mutiny”!

The actual “Petrified Forest” is not seen in the film, outside of an early stock shot.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


Can’t really find any “CONs” to list. So, let’s move on to…

The Film: Magnificent drama! Howard, Davis, and Bogart are outstanding!

The Cast:
Bette Davis as “Gabrielle Maple”.
Leslie Howard as “Alan Squier”.
Humphrey Bogart as “Duke Mantee”.
Dick Foran as “Boze Hertzlinger”.
Charley Grapewin as the great “Gramp Maple”.

Extra Features:

Theatrical Trailer for “The Petrified Forest”

By now, you all know how much I love theatrical trailers of this vintage! Especially when foot-high hyperbole like THIS explodes across the screen:





(…What they fail to say is that “Duke Mantee” probably supplied the “hits”!)
Oddly, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are seen initially in “negative (reverse) image”, reverting to normal image once their hype is displayed on the screen!

Commentary Track by Bogart biographer Eric Lax. Nobody does a Bogart commentary like Eric Lax. His work should be a REQUIRED feature for every Humphrey Bogart film. Lax supplies a wealth of information on the actors, the genesis of the film, studio politics, etc. A Lax-listening is always time well spent.

Warner Night at the Movies. Not so long ago, when Warner was the BEST DVD PRODUCER of them all, it offered the outstanding “Warner Night at the Movies” with select DVD packages. I couldn’t be more pleased, when I uncover one of these gems!

Warner expertly reconstructs the movie-going experience of the day as a viewing option for “The Petrified Forest”. The film may be viewed as part of the entire program, on its own, or the viewer may pick and choose among the included items. There is also an optional introduction to the program by film historian Leonard Maltin, offering welcome background and perspective to those (like me) who have never experienced such a grand entertainment experience. The program consists of:

· A theatrical trailer for the Edward G. Robinson /Humphrey Bogart film “Bullets or Ballots”.

· A Newsreel, reporting the abdication of the Duke of Windsor, and election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

· “Vitaphone Presents: Rhythmitis” (Runs 19:34), a musical comedy short – starring the ever-popular Hal LeRoy and Toby Wing. A doctor invents “tap-dancing pills” and a producer applies them to a Vaudeville show. Typical of this short’s sensibilities of humor is the following:

Our heroine reads a telegram:

Have great news for you (Stop).” She pauses.

Well, why don’t you go on?”

Oh, no… It said STOP!”

There’s also a big cheat-ending, but who cares! It’s all in 1930s fun!

· “The Coo-Coo Nut Grove”, a cartoon directed by I. (Friz) Freleng. This is the only COLOR element in the whole set, and is one of those “celebrity caricature” cartoons that Warner Bros. specialized in. The issue being that, while certain persons being satirized are “evergreen icons”, too many others have been lost to entertainment history. Those I could identify were W.C. Fields, Katherine Hepburn, Johnny Weismuller, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Mae West, Laurel and Hardy, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft.

Indeed, if any cartoon needed it’s own commentary track, it would be one of these. Oddly, some of the celebrity caricatures are depicted as “humans”, while others are depicted as “funny animals and birds”.

· The film itself. One hour and 22 minutes of gripping entertainment! What an experience a 1930s “night at the movies” must have been!

“The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert” (Runs 15:47).

An informative “Making Of” documentary, that rightly describes the film as “The turning point in Humphrey Bogart’s career”. Other informational highlights include:

· Bogart drew on real-life gangster John Dillinger as inspiration.

· Warner Bros. wanted Edward G. Robinson for the part of “Duke Mantee”, but Leslie Howard insisted on his Broadway co-star Humphrey Bogart, thus changing the course of Bogart’s career – and a good chunk of film history!

· Warner Bros. filmed an “alternate happy ending” for this film, which tested badly, and was not used. Though, in keeping with the production codes, Duke Mantee is brought to justice off camera.

Bogart biographer Eric Lax and film historian Dr. Drew Casper (both veterans of other commentaries and features) are among the participants.

Radio broadcast adaptation: January 07, 1940: An audio adaptation of “The Petrified Forest”, with Humphrey Bogart reprising his role.

“The Petrified Forest” as noted earlier, is the breakout film for the legendary Humphrey Bogart. (…Have we said that enough?) It is also a great film in its own right.

The DVD Extra Features are extraordinary, with “Warner Night at the Movies” really making the package an experience to remember!

It is recommended for fans of Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and enthusiasts of the period in general!


Ryan Wynns said...


I'd never heard of this movie. Being amongst the uninitiated, your review for me was a very effective, focused, fun lesson!

I wonder if this is the starting point of the "line of influence" running through all those TV show episodes and movies using the "various conflicts come to a head when a group of people are trapped somewhere together" construct.

Warner Night at the Movies sounds great! Of course, we'll never know first-hand what it was like to, in the 1930's, sit for hours in a "cinema" through the various fare between the features, but this looks like a well-considered representation/recreation! Just did some hasty Googling, and it looks like all of this content is from '36, though from varied points of that year (ranging from Jan. to Dec.) Odds are, this specific programming lineup never actually occurred in any theater...but, who knows! If you wrap your head around the fact that newsreels were not breaking reports but reflective in nature, and (I think) theaters replayed them for a good while (days? weeks? months?), it was a very different world than ours, with its Internet and 24-hour cable news.


Joe Torcivia said...


Great, considered comments, as always!

For all we know, this COULD be the start of the "various conflicts come to a head when a group of people are trapped somewhere together" construct—just as it COULD have been the start of the gregarious, whopper-telling old man character type.

The fascinating thing, as least for folks like us who reflexively made a “deeper study” of story, characters, themes, etc., is that we may NEVER KNOW!

And the further things like this recede into history and lost memories, the less we’ll know. That’s why I so value the Commentary Tracks – especially when done by knowledgeable people like Eric Lax. If I ever get around to reviewing “The Caine Mutiny” DVD, I will cite what is, to me, a bad Commentary Track – with errors that even *I* would notice.

Warner Night at the Movies is Amazing! Yes, if I neglected to mention it, all of the items are always from the same year as the film itself. This is true in every instance of Warner Night at the Movies. Again, we will never know if any of these items ACTUALLY PLAYED with the main film – but they seem representative of what COULD have. My guess – and it is strictly a guess – is that they probably mixed-and-matched component features, but all of them would have originated with the studio that supplied the main film.

These were probably welcome to the audiences of the time, as the films averaged only about one hour and twenty-something minutes. I’d say that’s why – back when they WERE on TV – they could fit so neatly in a two-hour block – or, with cuts, a 90 minute one.

Glad you enjoyed this. I have another, similar DVD package review already written, but may want to space it out in order to better vary the subject matter – and the notes for a third. So, there will be more of this stuff coming. Hope you’re there for it!