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Monday, January 06, 2014

Favorites List --- The Petrified Forest --- Part One

Let's say we're community playmakers that decide to stage The Petrified Forest. How much would performing rights cost? Who would we go to? I'd be interested to know when The Petrified Forest was last done, and where. Books say it's a dated play, but I don't find the movie so, even though it's 100% grounded in depression-era themes. In fact, it's airing of these concerns that made The Petrified Forest one of the most politically charged dramas of its Broadway season. Considering what a hit this was on stage, it's not a little surprising that The Petrified Forest opened, closed, was adapted for the screen, and the movie released, all between January 1935 and late February of 1936. This was Leslie Howard's doing. He had part ownership in the property, eschewed a tour of the play despite critical and popular success, then moved quickly toward sale of Forest to Hollywood.

The original Broadway cast on stage in 1935

Howard was already a movie idol and that made reception on stage all the more fan-driven. His daughter later wrote that Howard was assailed by stage door admirers wielding scissors to cut away articles of clothing, including a go at his trouser buttons. Such gauntlets were run each night of the play's Broadway stay between January and June of 1935. Among a supporting cast, hopes could be raised, then dashed, when time came to cast The Petrified Forest for movies. Peggy Conklin had the lead woman part as Gaby Maple. She was experienced and capable, but a name largely unknown to filmgoers, thus it would be Bette Davis assuming her role when The Petrified Forest was filmed. How big a letdown was this? It would be worth knowing how Peggy Conklin bore that disappointment over years to come, which were many, as she lived to 96 and died in 2003, continuing a stage career for many of those years. It's all a question of ambition, I suppose, and how much lost parts mattered to who. One can imagine Bette Davis harboring a miss like this all her life. As for Peggy Conklin, who knows? Who ever asked her?

Rare Photo of Peggy Conklin as Howard's Leading Lady on Broadway

The Petrified Forest was written by Robert E. Sherwood. He made pointed social references in the play, some of which would not survive translation to Warners' film. There is, for instance, Gaby's father as a member of the so-called "Black Horse Vigilantes," a veteran's group hunting desperadoes on the loose in modern-day Arizona. Sherwood depicted his vigilantes as American Legion members and that's how it stood for the play, but Legion sensibilities were not to be upset by Warners or any other filmmaking concern, that organization too powerful for WB to dare alienate. The Petrified Forest addressed a public's frustration with seeming countrywide failure of law enforcement. John Dillinger and other grass-root robbers were on the loose, and our government seemed unable to contain them. Duke Mantee stood in for rampant evil that needed to be stamped out by whatever means necessary.

Black Horse Vigilantes Held At Bay by Duke Mantee and Gang

Bogart was lucky to step into a part that was so electrified to begin with. Audiences saw Mantee as a threat personal to them --- ones like him could well lay in wait on doorsteps, and that gave Bogart's character a fearful resonance it might not have had a year before, or after (Dillinger was shot down less than six months before the play opened). There comes the matter, then, of Leslie Howard's refusal to film The Petrified Forest without Humphrey Bogart repeating  Duke Mantee for the screen. I'd heard the story and assumed it was true. A few historians had doubts, though, so it took a rediscovered 1935 cablegram (later sold at auction) to confirm for certain the leading man's No Bogart --- No Howard gesture, confirmation of the defining career boost this was for Bogart. The latter's gratitude was said to be continuing and lifelong. He'd name his daughter after Leslie Howard. For all I know, Bogart went over each week to wash LH's car and mow his grass ... certainly he'd not be amiss in doing so.

Bogart had already tried and failed a couple of times in Hollywood, and in Gotham as well, doing a short and feature, so there's no reason to believe he'd have eventually clicked were it not for Howard and The Petrified Forest. Warners got Bogart for $550 a week. They promised and came through with a lower berth for the train ride out (and that would have been considered a major perk, considering duration of east coast-to west travel), but Bogie had to supply his own Mantee wardrobe.

Warners tried opening up the play with brief exteriors. For an initial scene, Leslie Howard's double is seen thumbing a ride over the desert. The gas stop as primary set with immediate surroundings were sound-stage built in that pleasing way Warners had with pretend realities. They had paid $110K for rights to the play. This was serious money, so The Petrified Forest as a property had real value. Remake rights alone were an ongoing asset. In fact, Forest's concept of ordinary folk under siege by gangsters would be a WB evergreen, its echo felt years later when the company released Key Largo, with Bogart now the hostage and Edward G. Robinson for Mantee-inspired menace.

UPDATE: 1/6/14 --- 6:00 PM --- Now comes answer to query I posed re The Petrified Forest and when it was last staged. Turns out the Robert E. Sherwood play is set for live performance at Los Angeles' Theatre West (3333 Cahuenga Blvd.West) from March 21 through April 27, 2014. Cast readings are going on now, as evidenced by photos posted at Theatre West's Twitter Page. Judging by past accomplishment and revered names associated with the Company, this should be a terrific show. Anyone who can get there will profit well by attending, I'm sure. Greenbriar is pleased to see this classic drama being given fresh interpretation by such capable and talented artists.


Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

The American Legion did amazingly consent to be portrayed in "The Battle of Broadway,'' a 1938 Fox oddity distantly inspired by a real-life near-riot that occurred when the legion held its convention in Manhattan the previous year. The local press dubbed it "The Battle of Broadway,'' but the film is basically a faux 20-years-later sequel to "What Price Glory,'' with Brian Donlevy instead of Edmund Lowe trading fisticuffs with Victor McLaglen over Gypsy Rose Lee (as Louise Hovick). The New York Times archives log just 2 local TV showings in 1966, but a darkish DVD is available from Fox Cinema Archives.

4:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great info here, Lou. Thanks. I have the "Battle of Broadway" DVD, but had not yet gotten around to looking at it. Certainly will now that you've filled in background re the Legion riot, an aspect of which I was not aware.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Even though it's not the latest production, I saw a superb version of the play in 1985 at Los Angeles Actors' Theatre with Philip Baker Hall as Mantee and Rene Auberjonois as Squier.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Brad Whitewolf said...

The Eureka Springs Players (in Eureka Springs, Arkansas) did this production in the Spring of 1983. Bill Bailer, our Director, did a GREAT job, and the play received excellent reviews. I played the part of Duke Mantee, and it was indeed, a fun and interesting role. Even though the play is "dated", I think that it still has some important things to say.

7:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for your input, Brad. Good to hear from someone who has participated in a modern dramatization of "The Petrified Forest," and I'm glad to hear that your production got such nice reviews.

7:48 AM  

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