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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

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 the literature 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 and philosophizing, 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 the mid-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.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some thoughts about Leslie Howard and literary inspirations (Part One):

So Alan Squier had Carl Jung's "Modern Man in Search of a Soul" and T. S. Eliot's "Hollow Men" in his haversack? This is a fascinating detail and tells us much about Mr. Squier and more about Leslie Howard, whose persona he was.

Eliot and Jung were in a sense reactionaries. Certainly Eliot was in any sense we might appreciate. American-born, he emigrated to England--or went back home, as he would have put it--and became a British subject and an Englishman's Englishman. Having converted to Christianity, he resented the shunning of the church even then by intellectuals and deplored the deteriorating moral values of the time. He would have preferred an England of parsons and squires, sturdy yeoman and beneficent lords. For him, capitalism and communism were two sides of the same materialistic coin.

Jung was far more esoteric, yet as a man also against his time, Eliot would have found comfort in his psychology. Freud at one time regarded him as his protege and successor, but their association ended in bitterness. Jung did not accept the primacy given by Freud to the libido in the development of the human personality. There were other, more important factors, he thought, such as the desire for spiritual experience. He accepted Freud's theories of the subconscious--that is, as a repository of suppressed emotions and desires--but only to a point. He believed that there is a deeper subconscious, expressed in symbols and archetypes, and that the development of the human personality represents an integration of the personal subconcious known to Freud and this deeper, collective unconscious. As he developed his psychology, the collective unconscious formed a nexus between man and the divine, in that there was a spiritual purpose to human life, which would be fulfilled when the individual was wholly himself and wholly in touch with the divine.

10:14 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Dan Mercer on Leslie Howard and "The Petrified Forest":

Obviously neither Howard nor Robert Sherwood, the playwright, could have had any thought that more than a few people in their audience would have any idea who Eliot and Jung were, yet they wanted to make a statement about their lead character. And if, as you suggest, this project was a personal one for Howard, what did he mean to say about himself, through this mask, Alan Squier? That he had a curious, questing mind, certainly, but also that he was against the tide of the times. He was against the materialism and collectivism that seemed the wave of the future, he wanted to hold on a little longer to the old ways, especially to those of romance and chivalry. Like Eliot, the American fallen in love with England, Howard, who had been born Stainer to Jewish parents, also loved England and its traditional values. He had had terrible experiences as an officer in World War I and he would die on an intelligence mission in World War II, when the airliner he was on was shot down by a German night fighter over the Bay of Biscay. He was a patriot then, and probably something of a tory. Not long before he died, he offered the following as a reason why the British should fight to preserve Britain:

"Britain's destiny... has been to uphold tolerance in religion, thought, speech, and race--the mainspring of democracy. We have still far to travel on the road to true democracy, but only the Germans have made no progress in this direction. Britain, with her great gifts and strange inconsistencies had helped populate five continents and shown that the white man and the colored man can live in peace together. We have also taken the Roman ideal of just administration, the Greek ideal of democracy and freedom of art, and the French tradition of the family unit, along with the Norse courage and loyalty and the Christian faith. Like all people, we have made some mistakes and have committed some crimes during our history, but we can say that we have built something worthy of our defense. We can look at our record without shame."

Possibly he believed that the peoples of the world have a spiritual purpose as much as the individuals which make them up. As with Eliot, he may have been a man who found his soul in "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."


10:15 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I have to disagree that no one would have known who Eliot and Jung were. They're exactly who discerning middlebrows would have heard of, as later folks would have heard of Ginsberg and Skinner, say. Both would make the cover of Time in the 1950s.

Anyway, I'm always interested when a Warner Bros. movie from that era comes from a play-- it almost always means a script that's a little better thought out and fleshed out than the average star vehicle. Employees Entrance, Two Seconds, Safe in Hell... it nearly always means a film of greater substance and some unusual social observations.

9:02 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

If you think about it, "The Petrified Forest", as a play and film, seems like an exercise in Jungian archetypes and symbols.

Leslie Howard's Alan Squier is a kind of spiritual seeker, a monk, a "throwback" to chivalry and our higher callings. Bogart's Duke Mantee is our collective id - base desires out of control.

Even the desert landscape of skulls and cacti is something out of a dreamscape Dali painting.

Sure, "Petrified Forest" is rooted in the "types" and concerns of the early 30s, but it has a more universal quality - those Jungian archetypes - that make it a work that stands up over time and worth revisiting.

On Bogart - although he had a range of classic, iconic roles through his career, he seemed to wind up being on the lam from the police and holding civilians captive so many times as you mentioned in the previous post. Even late in his career, with "We're No Angels" and "The Desperate Hours", he was still playing the criminal "type", both for comedy and high drama.

I'd be curious about your take on "Midnight" (1934) (aka "Call It Murder"), one of Bogart's early films that was reissued after he made it big in "Petrified Forest". Bogart has a small role, but is memorable for the way his more natural style of acting stands out among the other players.

9:45 PM  

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