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The Petrified Forest (June 3, 2008)

Humphrey Bogart was the son of a New York couple, a socially prominent doctor and an artist. He had a rather lackluster Broadway career mostly playing juveniles. In late 1934 the playwright Robert Sherwood, suggested to the producer-director, Arthur Hopkins, that Bogart would be good as the ex-football player, Boze, in his new play The Petrified Forest. Hopkins decided instead to cast him as the gangster, Duke Mantee. The role was unlike any Bogart had ever played. The play opened, with Leslie Howard as Alan Squire and Bogart as Duke Mantee, on January 7, 1935. According to Bogart’s biographers A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax, “Audiences literally gasped when he entered with his two days’ growth of beard and prison pallor, his shuffling gait and menacing mannerisms. The gangster John Dillinger had recently escaped from prison and his image was fresh in everyone’s mind, which added an eerie realism to the play. Mantee’s necessary paleness allowed Bogart to play the part without makeup, and rather than put on what would be seen as fake stubble, he allowed his own heavy beard to grow and kept it trimmed in a scraggly fashion. The New York Post reported that people asked for seats close enough for them to see Mantee’s beard.” The play was a hit, and Bogart’s performance was a critical success.

Howard, who co-starred on Broadway, owned the movie rights to the play. He made his acceptance of the role of Alan Squire contingent on Bogart playing Duke Mantee. The role catapulted Bogart into a Warner Brothers contract in Hollywood, first as a heavy, then as a star. The character you’ll see tonight is not the heroic Bogart that evolved later in the 40s, after The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Sherwood said, about Duke Mantee, “There is, about him, one quality of resemblance to (the hero) Alan Squire: he too is unmistakably doomed.” All the characters that meet here in The Petrified Forest, say Sperber and Lax, are symbolically petrified – Mantee, Squire, the grandfather who used to be an Indian fighter, the ex-football player Boze dreaming of his days of glory, the banker’s wife who left her dreams of being an actress to marry her husband. All except Bette Davis’ character, Gabrielle Maple, who still has dreams and lives for her hopes.

We’ve shown movies at the library for eight months, mostly Paramount and Columbia pictures, with a few Universal films thrown in, and this is the first Warner Brothers movie we’ve shown. No other studio could have made this picture. Warners, aside from owning the gangster genre with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson (who was the man Warners would have replaced Bogart with had Howard not insisted), was the studio with a social conscience. Throughout the hard times of the 1930s, Warners pictures spoke about the Depression and tried to tell it like it was. The look of the pictures mirrored that message – the sets and costumes look gritty and everyday. Thanks for coming, and we hope you enjoy the movie.