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The Petrified Forest (1936): A Movie Review

Updated on June 27, 2019
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


You know, friends, as I have mentioned before, it's getting harder and harder to find and import a proper picture for some reason. Once again, I have been chastised by the "style tip" prompt in the upper right-hand corner.

Oh well...

Anyway, you wouldn't know it to look at the photo, but Humphrey Bogart is in this movie. However, this is before he became the big screen film noir god that we all know and love. This is, apparently, before he was even considered a headliner, as it were.

Therefore, top billing went to the equally legendary Bette Davis, who, obviously, hit it big in pictures before Mr. Bogart, and a British chap called Leslie Howard.

I'll just say this outright: I rented this film a few weeks ago, for free, from my local public library; and I found it to be a dull, lackluster disappointment.

This was a film that I had been recommended to me by my father. His tone of voice, while talking about it, had led my to believe that he at least admired the film. He told me that it was an adaptation from a prior stage play. He said that Humphrey Bogart's performance was "over the top," according to the old man.

Mr. Bogart plays a gangster, a "two-bit" hoodlum --- in other words, a bad guy or villain.

However, far from "over the top," as it were, I found Mr. Bogart's performance to be the most restrained out of the entire cast. Of course, anyone even passingly familiar with Bogart's filmography knows that he was one of those guys who made it look easy, effortlessly exuding cool. He didn't have to be, strictly speaking, "over the top" to command attention.

To begin with, I shall be charitable and say that, perhaps this story was more effective as a stage play as opposed to a movie.

You see, this film is reliant upon symbolism. Bette Davis plays a young woman who operates a kind of stopover general store/coffee shop/diner in the Arizona or New Mexico desert. She operates this establishment with her father, other relatives, and a big, strapping young former high school football player, who is, as they used to say, "sweet" on her, Bette Davis's character.

You see (I keep writing "you see"), inside the background of the "petrified forest" of the Arizona (or New Mexico) diner/store/coffee shop, we are given to understand that Bette Davis's creative hopes and dreams are in danger of becoming "petrified," or dead. She is in danger, therefore, of becoming dead inside.

Because of this, there are long stretches of this 87 minute film in which nothing happens. We are enmeshed in the angst of Bette Davis's character's angst.

Enter Leslie Howard's character (Do you notice how I can't even be bothered to Google the details to jog my memory?)

Leslie Howard is handsome, charming, witty, and urbane. He is mysterious. He also talks funny because he is English from England.

Mr. Howard is a breath of fresh air for Bette Davis. If this tiny speck of light of the exotic, of the wider world can enter her world, then she, Bette Davis, might follow that speck of light back to its source, which is the outer world, specifically though, Paris, or some other worthy, European cosmopolitan spot.

Now, because of all of this symbolism the heavy lifting of storytelling is done by the viewer, through interpretation, as opposed to anything we see on that screen. Did I mention that there are long stretches in which nothing happens in this movie?

Anyway, (and I can't help myself writing "anyway") Leslie Howard plays a wandering, drifting, traveling "writer," who breezes into the diner/store/coffee shop. We are supposed to believe that an embryonic beginning of a romance happens between Mr. Howard and Ms. Davis. Convincing chemistry is entirely absent between these two.

And then, basically, Humphrey Bogart and two of his thugs enters the diner, as they are on the run from the cops.

Anyway, there is a confrontation between Bogart and Howard. Howard engages in dialogue and takes a certain action, which is meant to be his assist in, shall we say, un-petrifying the creative hopes and dreams of Bette Davis.

I won't go beyond that because I don't want to spoil it for any of you who want to watch the movie.

I give this film a four out of ten (4/10). Every bit of those four points comes from Humphrey Bogart, but not even he could save this movie.

Thank you for reading!


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