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Humphrey Bogart's first major screen role - which brought him to prominence both in the movie industry and in the public eye - was one which he had had the opportunity to hone over many months on the stage: gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). Ironically, he almost didn't get the part. Though Robert Sherwood's play about a disparate group of people held hostage in an Arizona roadside diner had been a smash hit on Broadway, Jack Warner originally signed only two of the stars to reprise their stage roles: Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. For Duke Mantee, Warner wanted contract star Edward G. Robinson.
But Leslie Howard believed that no one else could underplay the role of Mantee to such chilling effect as Bogart. He was so impressed with Bogart's stage performance, in fact, that he promised him he would use his influence to help him win the movie role. Howard kept his word, threatening to drop out of the picture unless Warner signed the actor. The rest is history. Warner gave in, Bogart got the part, and his performance was so electric that Warner signed him to a long-term contract. Bogart never forgot Howard's generosity: years later, he and Lauren Bacall named their daughter Leslie after him. (Howard had died in a plane crash during WWII.)
Sherwood based the character Duke Mantee on public enemy #1 at the time, John Dillinger. Bogart happened to closely resemble the gangster, and he studied film footage of Dillinger to perfect his mannerisms. Fascinated audiences flocked to both the play and the movie to see this version of the infamous gangster.
Filmed entirely on a Warner Bros. soundstage, The Petrified Forest definitely retains a stage-bound feel. The camera rarely leaves the interior of the diner, and the movie is driven by such evocative but stagy dialogue as "you're the last great apostle of rugged individualism" (Howard speaking to Bogart). However, unlike other films for which such qualities are the kiss of death, The Petrified Forest is vital and engaging, partly due to the strength of the play itself and partly due to its first-rate performances. All the actors underplay their roles quite effectively. (Even Bette Davis, as the The New York Times reviewer noted: "Davis demonstrates that she does not have to be hysterical to give a grand portrayal.")
Howard was coming off the film The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), for which he received superb notices. In The Petrified Forest, he plays Alan Squier, a disillusioned Englishman who has left his rich way of life in Europe to hitch-hike across America in search of meaning and purpose. After wandering into a diner/gas station in Arizona's "Petrified Forest," he meets waitress Gabrielle (Davis), a dreamer and would-be poet who longs to see Paris. Touched by her romantic vision of life, he falls in love with her, at which point Duke Mantee arrives with his gang. The contrasts between Howard (the civilized, highbrow, poetic talker) and Bogart (the rough, uneducated, blunt thug) are a high point of Sherwood's story, and it's easy to see why the two enjoyed working together so much in these roles.
The Petrified Forest was remade in 1945 as Escape in the Desert. In 1955, two years before his death, Bogart again played Duke Mantee in a live television production of the play, directed by Delbert Mann. Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda played the roles originated by Davis and Howard.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon, Delmer Daves, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editing: Owen Marks
Music: Bernhard Kaun
Art direction: John Hughes
Cast: Leslie Howard (Alan Squier), Bette Davis (Gabrielle Maple), Humphrey Bogart (Duke Mantee), Genevieve Tobin (Mrs. Chisholm), Paul Harvey (Mr. Chisholm), Charley Grapewin (Gramp Maple), Porter Hall (Jason Maple), Dick Foran (Boze Hertzlinger).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold