Favorites List --- The Petrified Forest --- Part Two
Leslie Howard came to The Petrified Forest
presold as the sensitive leading man. Forest had been written
for him, so he'd be protective of it. Howard wanted a faithful picturization
and was in a position to see it was completed as such. Being outside talent,
and notable, meant Howard got his way in whatever pinch arose. His Alan Squier
reads T.S. Eliot and Carl Jung. I actually looked up theliterature he
mentions, Jung's Modern Man In Search Of A Soul having been published in 1933.
Being deepest dish reading for the time, its take on human psychology was said
to rival Freud's own research. The T.S. Eliot poem, Hollow Men, is the one that
wraps with the world ending not with a bang, but a whimper. That I recognized,
not being otherwise conversant with poetry.
These were the kinds of reading an Alan Squier,
and by extension, Leslie Howard, would embrace. Yes, The Petrified Forest is a
lot of talk andphilosophizing, but I found it hypnotic since first seeing the
pic at age 14 (laid out of school to watch, in fact). Depression concerns are
bandied. No one has money, nor can pay for a meal at Maple's. Bette Davis' Gaby
wants out of this landscape of cattle skulls. Dick Foran's character having
been a college grid star is just another name for promise unfulfilled. The rich
banker's wife despises her husband because he is a rich banker. The black chauffeur
gets off some barbed racial observations. You could say everyone's a type, but
The Petrified Forest is too well-written for such casual dismiss.
Warners wanted a new ending, Alan Squier's death
thought by them to be a biz killing bummer, but Howard stood fast, knowing the whole
thing would collapse given a happy finish. The Petrified
Forest was liked, but barely got into profit, thanks to $503K in
negative costs. Jack Warner would refer back to The Petrified Forest as "a
failure" when a remake was proposed in themid-forties. He'd also hold the
job over Bogart's head during contract disputes to come, calling HB an ingrate.
Hadn't Jack given Bogie his big Hollywood
break? Not really, knew Bogart. That was Leslie Howard, and Howard alone.
The Petrified Forest
would be damned by posterity for theatrical underpinnings and archaic social
concerns. These, however, are what I like about it. Without same, The Petrified
Forest would be another Bullets Or Ballots. Historians are too quick diminishing
then-plays to films. Those who remembered headlines that inspired The Petrified
Forest would take note of three television adaptations of the play, a first on
Robert Montgomery Presents in 1950, again in 1952 (David Niven as Alan), and
most notably on May 30,1955 when NBC tendered a live broadcast with Humphrey
Bogart repeating his by-then iconic Duke Mantee, this time with Henry Fonda as
Alan Squier and Lauren Bacall as Gaby Maple. This was ultimate must-see TV, or
would have been for me, given age enough to watch.
NBC telecast The Petrified Forest once and not
again. Most remarkable was the fact it was done in color. TV sets that could
receive multi-hues had been introduced less than a year before, their cost to
consumers $1000 and up. They'd be called "a resounding industrial
flop," with less than 75,000 receivers in use by mid-1956. The televised Petrified Forest was thought lost until a
black-and-white, considerably degraded, survivor turned up. It's here and there
online, but hard getting through for wretched picture and sound (the
dramatization was knocked by 1955 critics, for, among other things, tommy gun
fire that sounded like cap pistols). Still it's fascinating to watch Bogart go
back to the part that began it all. Who knows what thoughts went through his
mind as he spoke those lines again.