“I had to come all this way to find a reason,” – Alan Squier (Leslie Howard)
I know, I know. I’m ashamed. Embarrassed. Disgusted with myself that I never saw this movie until last week. I am a failure at classic movies. I must do better! BUT, I found it this week and I can sincerely say The Petrified Forest has leapt to the top of my list of my all-time favorite movies. It’s a special movie and I love it.
I’ve never loved Bette Davis more. Honestly, I’ve never really loved Bette at all, which is probably one of the reasons this movie hasn’t been viewed by me until now. Again. Embarrassing! Pathetic! Bette Davis’s performance in The Petrified Forest has me rethinking my avoidance of her movies. She’s remarkable here as Gabrielle, (Gabby), Maple, the daughter of Jason Maple (Porter Hall), the owner of the diner where the entire movie takes place. I simply adore her. Gabby is a sweetheart with big dreams and fantasies about going to Paris to find herself. She is so consumed by these dreams that we catch her planning for Gramps (Charley Grapewin) to pass on so she and her father can sell the diner and get her the money she needs to finally go to France. Ok, so not exactly a sweetheart here. The point is she’s is desperate to leave the desert with no real way out.
Alan Squier (Howard) is an intellectual realist that carries the weight of the meaning of the movie on his shoulders. It’s in good hands. (Leslie Howard is just flat out perfect for this role). Alan has hitchhiked his way across the desert after a failed marriage and no career prospects…”looking for something.” He stops at the diner to eat, even though he has no money. He and Gabby immediately ignite sparks. His poetic language melts Gabby.
“What are you looking for?” Gabby asks.
“I don’t know. I suppose I was looking for something to believe in. Worth living for. Worth dying for, “Alan replies.
It doesn’t take long for Gabby to see him as an escape from the life she so desperately wants to put behind her. She’s never met anyone like him and somehow sees a future for the two of them, even though he hints that he’s ready to die. He’s the first person to ever listen to her dreams seriously.
“I know there’s something in you. I’m trying to figure out what it is,” Alan says.
“There’s something in me that wants something different (than the desert). Maybe it’s the French in my blood. You know, sometimes I feel like I was sparkling all over and I want to go out and do something absolutely crazy and marvelous. Then the American part of me speaks up and spoils everything. Then I go back to work and figure out my dull accounts,” Gabby replies.
She’s down, but hopeful, while Alan is depressed with every aspect of his life. It prevents him from mustering the energy to start a relationship with Gabby, though he’d like to. Instead, he heads out the door and back to his journey west. Gabby hitches a ride for him with the Chisolms (Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin), customers and the diner, and their chauffeur. She wanted to go with him, but she expected him to go without her. She knew she was tuck in the desert and Alan was just one more chance to change her life and get out of it. Like her other dreams, it wasn’t going to get a chance to work out. It’s clear that she’s used to disappointments like this.
We’re introduced to Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) not long after Alan and the Chisolms leave the diner. And I mean, yikes! Duke is a guy that’s mad as hell and clearly has some deep problems himself. Duke and his gang are accused of several murders and the law is after them. They’re dangerous and on the lam. Not good. When Duke’s car breaks down on the highway, he and his gang points their guns at the Chishom car when it passes them and forces them out of it so he and his gang can steal it. They quickly head in the direction of the diner. Alan realizes he needs to get back to warn everyone.
Mantee holds them all hostage until his mysterious Doris finds them and helps them escape. The movie starts to feel a lot like Key Largo here and that’s just fine with me. This is where the conversations about their places in life begin. Everyone is conversing with everyone else and it’s intriguing to witness where they think they all stand, and ultimately where that way of thinking has taken them in life.
As Mantee sits around and broods a lot, presumably because he hasn’t heard from Doris (whom we never see). Alan thinks out loud about every human condition evident in the room and beyond. A lot of human psychology is processed and the meaning of idealism is explored in depth. It made me think. It inspired me. It all comes together in a dramatic ending. One of two endings that were shot, but this is the ending Howard wanted, and even had written into his contract to make sure he got it.
The Petrified Forest is based on a Broadway play by Robert E. Sherwood. Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart both starred in the play in the same roles they play here. When it came time to cast the movie, Leslie Howard demanded Bogart be cast too. At that point, Bogie hadn’t made his break in movies yet, so this was a big deal to him. The studio gave Bogart the part at Howard’s request and it turned out to be his break-out role. He and wife Lauren Bacall thanked Leslie Howard later by naming their daughter Leslie after him.
I never spill spoilers and I won’t do it here either, even though I’m probably the last person in classic movie fandom to see this one. I really could go on and on about this movie, but I won’t. Discovering it was a happy surprise to me and it was pure joy to watch. I’m especially pleased to have found a role I like Bette Davis in. I always knew I was supposed to like her and admire her talent, but she just wasn’t an actress that drew me to movies like Myrna or Katharine. This movie has changed that and I will seek her movies out for more “new to me” classic films to watch.
“I had to come all this way to find a reason.”