The Inafferrabile Leslie Howard

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One of the great things about participating in the classic film blog community is that I get to meet and chat with so many great folks who are passionately writing about their favorite film topics.

This week I was lucky enough to talk with Ginevra Di Verduno (a pen name), an Italian who runs the Leslie Howard fan site, The Inafferrabile Leslie Howard. Leslie Howard had such a huge influence on Humphrey Bogart’s success, that when I came across Ginevra’s site I couldn’t resist making contact to learn a little more about Howard from someone who’s working hard to keep his legacy alive.

Ginevra apologized for English not being her first language – but as you’ll see, her English is probably better than mine, and most certainly better than my Italian!

Bogie Film Blog: Ginevra, can you tell us a little about yourself? What you do, where you are, who you are, etc. . .

Ginevra Di Verduno: I do not like to talk about myself, and I think my story is not so important, after all. I am Italian, English is not my mother language. Ginevra Di Verduno is a pen name, but I think my identity is not relevant. I have been studying and researching Leslie Howard’s life and career for years, he has become the centre of my interests.

BFB: Fair enough! The Bogie Film Blog keeps a few similar secrets, after all! Can I ask how you became a fan of Leslie Howard? What was the first film you remember seeing?

GDV: In my preadolescence years, I met for the first time the character of Sir Percy Blakeney, invented by Baroness Orczy in her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. The incredible adventures of the English baronet who braved dangers to save the French aristocrats from the guillotine, hidden behind the mask of a spineless fop, fascinated me and remained impressed in my memory. Some years later, when I became an avid spectator of the old black-and-white cinema, I met my childhood crush again in the famous film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel produced in 1934 by Alexander Korda. Korda’s movie was adapted quite freely from baroness Orczy’s novel, and the main character, Sir Percy Blakeney, was played by Leslie Howard.

Like most Italians of my generation, I already knew Leslie Howard for his role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. I was not enthusiastic about that film, and Ashley had not impressed me so much. In that role, Leslie Howard inspired me mixed feelings. I certainly loved him better than Clark Gable’s Rhett, because of my instinctive antipathy for Rhett and his type of male character. Nevertheless, though I admired Leslie Howard’s aristocratic elegance in Nineteenth Century clothes, there was something peculiar about his beautiful face that made me feel uneasy. His face was veiled by a sort of painful melancholia, perfectly suited to the sad, resigned character of a Southern gentleman who saw his world disappear. I did not know Leslie Howard loathed that role [and] that he had even refused to read Margaret Mitchell’s novel. I did not know that the making of Gone With the Wind coincided with a crucial moment in his personal and professional life, with the turning point that had forced him to leave Hollywood and go back to England. That melancholia was not only a matter of acting skills.

As Percy Blakeney, Leslie Howard was sensational. I realized that he must have been exceedingly amused when playing that role. The ravishing grace of his movements and the unequaled irony of his speech won me over. His slender, elegant figure was enhanced by the Eighteenth Century clothes, and the close-ups on his youthful face – actually, he was forty-one, but he looked ten years younger – highlighted his eyes, so intensely expressive. He fully embodied my Percy Blakeney, as I had fancied him when I was eleven. I discovered a great actor I have never ceased to love.

BFB: What made you take the leap from fan to blogger in order to honor Leslie?

GDV: I am convinced that Leslie Howard is incredibly underrated by today’s public. The present generation knows him only as Ashley Wilkes, a role he did not love. Many people have never watched classic movies like Berkeley Square, Of Human Bondage, [and] The Petrified Forest. They do not know what a shining Broadway star he was when Hollywood producers started to lure him by offering him the most flattering roles opposite the greatest female stars. He even said no when offered a leading role with Greta Garbo. Under his suave appearance, he was stubborn and strong-willed; he knew perfectly well what he wanted and did not hesitate to put pressure on producers to get it. That is what he did to help Humphrey Bogart to get the Duke Mantee role in The Petrified Forest.

I think it is a shame that after Leslie’s death his name has been almost forgotten. I wonder why the British Film Institute has not taken the initiative of preserving his memory. He chose to leave Hollywood and go back to England to make his films there in very hard times, when many English actors, directors, and producers went the opposite direction. I think his Country should be more grateful to him.

Before I created my blogs (Inafferrabile Leslie on WordPress and Leslie Howard Forever on Tumblr), there were only a few web pages about Leslie Howard. I felt I needed to fill that gap; I wanted to bring him back into the spotlight. I am still working hard, because he deserves a greater recognition than my personal efforts can obtain.

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BFB: Can you talk a bit about Leslie’s history? Hollywood has a habit of mixing myth and truth. For instance, is it true that he got into acting for trauma therapy after the war?

GDV: Leslie Howard’s life is a fascinating and rather mysterious history, mainly because the truth about him is still partially hidden behind the public image carefully built up by the Hollywood studios during the Thirties. He was an unconventional man, who refused to adapt himself to the rules of the star system. His behavior was really a thorn in the flesh for producers, and still is for researchers. He rarely appeared at social events, he was very keen on his privacy, he scarcely gave interviews, and when he did, he only talked about acting and film-making.

His interest for the stage had started when he was still a boy. His sister Irene described him as an avid reader of any kind of plays, “from Shakespeare to Sutro,” often shut in his room writing stories and plays. He firstly wanted to become a writer, and later a director and producer. He always thought his success as an actor was just an outcome decided by chance.

Before the First World War he had worked as a bank clerk, but he was extremely unhappy in that position. So when he left the army in 1916, he decided he would not come back to his old occupation. He had recently married Ruth, who shared his love for the stage and was very supportive. Leslie’s mother was a warm supporter, too; she loved theatre and had even acted in several amateur productions. So Leslie haunted a theatre agent until he got a role in a touring company, and that was the beginning of his extraordinary career.

The story about Leslie Howard taking acting as a trauma therapy is absolutely fantastic. In spite of all the tales about his being shell-shocked during the war, there is no evidence that he even went to the front. Of course, this was an uncomfortable topic to be discussed during the Twenties. The First World War was a real massacre, and those who escaped death felt somewhat guilty. Leslie never talked about his war experiences. When asked about this, he always changed the subject.

I am particularly interested in Leslie Howard’s career on stage. Today, this is probably the least known part of his life, though he was extraordinarily popular on Broadway during the Twenties. His first Broadway role was Sir Calverton Shipley in Just Suppose at the Henry Miller’s Theatre in 1920. In 1927, he became a matinée idol as André Sallicel in Her Cardboard Lover, stealing the show from the famous actress Jeanne Eagels. Then Berkeley Square made a real star of him, in 1929. Hollywood producers could no longer ignore his great popularity.

Anyway, Outward Bound was not his first film. In 1919, when he was still in England, Leslie Howard had founded a film production company with his friend Adrian Brunel. Their company had a short life, but they produced several short films, and Leslie played the leading role in two comedies, Five Pounds Reward and Bookworms. He was always interested in film production.

BFB: Of all the films that Leslie Howard acted in, which one would you say is your favorite and why?

GDV: This is a very hard question for me, because I love all his performances, for different reasons. He was such a great actor; he really could play convincingly any kind of role. Hollywood producers tried to cage him in romantic roles, but he was not easy to handle. After his first movies, he had signed strong contracts which allowed him to go back on stage when he wished and to say the last word about a story or a character or a partner he did not like. Today we may discuss his choices, but he surely made them because he was convinced that he could perform on a high level, and because he thought the film was an interesting experiment, as he did when accepting to play Romeo in Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet. The only role he accepted without being convinced is Ashley Wilkes.

If I have to choose just one film, maybe my favorite one is Pygmalion. Henry Higgins is the perfect Howardian role. Though G.B. Shaw did not agreed on the choice of Leslie Howard as Higgins, I think Leslie gave such an inimitable performance in that role that he has become the unavoidable reference for the following generations of actors.

BFB: How about the films that he directed? Is there a favorite?

GDV: Apart from Pygmalion – that he co-directed – my favorite is Pimpernel Smith. There is so much of Leslie Howard’s soul and wit in that film. It is almost prophetical.

BFB: Can you talk a bit about the circumstances surrounding his death? If I’m remembering right, his plane was shot down by the Germans during WWII, and there is some suspicion that he might have been a decoy for Winston Churchill. Do you have a theory on the rumor?

I am afraid that all these speculations about Leslie Howard’s death have been distracting the attention from his life and career. I do not believe that the shooting down of his plane was a case of mistaken identity. Churchill was too conspicuous; I am convinced that the Germans knew all his moves perfectly well. Leslie’s son, Ronald, believed that his father was the real target of the attack. Leslie had an active and prominent role in English propaganda, his radio broadcasts had made a sort of national symbol of him.

Some theories hint that Leslie Howard was on a secret mission when travelling to Portugal and Spain. I do not know whether he was really involved in intelligence activities or not. He surely was a convinced and fierce opponent of Nazism.

BFB: One of the things I love about Classic Hollywood blogs is that they’re a great jumping-off point for many folks who are looking for more info on their favorite actors and films. If there’s a fan out there that really wants to know more about Leslie’s life, is there a book, website, or documentary that you’d recommend for them?

My favorite book about Leslie is Ronald Howard’s In Search Of My Father. In my opinion, Ronald caught his father’s personality better than anyone else. There is a deep understanding and empathy running through those pages; I have read Ronald’s book several times, and I always feel sincerely moved.

Leslie Ruth’s book A Quite Remarkable Father is very entertaining. She was a lively, outspoken person, and Leslie adored her.

Another important book is Trivial Fond Records, a collection of Leslie’s writings edited by Ronald. Leslie was really a gifted writer. I hope his writings will be reprinted, in a complete edition, including his play, Murray Hill.

And of course, I am looking forward to watching Tom Hamilton’s documentaries. I hope they will be released very soon.

BFB: Can you tell us a bit about Hamilton’s campaign to fund the Leslie Howard documentaries?

In 2006, while visiting Toronto for the International Film Festival, Tom Hamilton met Leslie Howard’s grand-daughter who invited him to visit her mother – Leslie Howard’s daughter. At Leslie Ruth’s home, Tom Hamilton discovered some 4 and a half hours of home movies which were in danger of decaying. Leslie Ruth’s stories of her father were so fascinating and illuminating that Tom had the idea of making a documentary about Leslie Howard using the interviews and the home movies.

The small-scale project evolved into a larger one when Tom started to interview Leslie Howard’s colleagues, as well as writers and historians who had studied his life. Besides, each interviewee had strong views and opinions relating to Leslie’s death. In the end, Tom decided to create two distinct films, one – Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn – illustrating Leslie’s life and career, the other – The Mystery of Flight 777 – examining the 70 year old mystery surrounding the attack and shooting down of civilian passenger Flight 777 over the Bay of Biscay. A special contribution is the comment provided by Derek Partridge, who was only a child in 1943 and escaped a tragic death because he had to give way to Leslie Howard aboard the ill-fated Flight 777.

The two documentaries are now in the post-production phase and should be released in 2014. There are still costs to be covered, so Tom Hamilton has launched a new campaign on Indiegogo to raise the funds needed to complete post-production and legal clearance. All contributions, even small ones, can help to reach the goal. I am actively participating in this campaign, and I hope we will have the support of all Leslie’s fans.

BFB: Can you tell us something about Leslie Howard that most people don’t know?

GDV: Leslie always wore a signet ring on the little finger of his left hand, with the Blumberg family crest on it (his mother’s maiden name was Blumberg), and a gold sovereign Ruth had given him, at a chain around his neck. He was rather superstitious.

BFB: Ginevra, I just want to thank you again for letting me talk to you a bit, and I look forward to following your site and eventually seeing the Leslie Howard documentaries! Thank you!

 

Leslie Howard

howard and bogartLeslie Howard with Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest
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Name: Leslie Howard (Steiner)

Birthdate: April 3, 1893

Number of Films Leslie Howard Made With Humphrey Bogart:  2

The Lowdown:

If you were going to make a “Top 3” list of actors that deserve to be listed under “The Usual Suspects” portion of this blog, first on the list would probably have to be Lauren Bacall.  (I’m getting to it!)  Second, perhaps, might be someone like Peter Lorre – who was not only a common collaborator, but also a close friend to Bogart.  And while other actors might be able to argue for the third spot, I would personally have to give it to Leslie Howard.

Friends with Bogart since their time together on Broadway, it’s generally accepted that Howard was the one who insisted that Bogart get the chance to play the role of ‘Duke’ Mantee in the filmed version of the play that they’d appeared together in on Broadway.  While Bogart had big roles in a number of movies prior to Forest, the role of ‘Duke’ Mantee was arguably his “breakout role.”  And while it would take another thirty or so films to cement his place into Classic Hollywood history, Bogart was so grateful for the friendship and the opportunity that Howard provided him, that he and Lauren Bacall named their daughter Leslie Howard Bogart in honor of their good friend.

Born in London to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Howard began his theater career in London, eventually moving to the U.S. where he would go on to gain his greatest success on Broadway and in Hollywood before finally returning to his home country during World War II.  Howard’s career was unfortunately cut short when a squad of German Luftwaffe shot down his commercial airliner on a trip from Portugal to the United Kingdom.  Howard was just fifty years old.

It’s with great pleasure that I can add Leslie Howard to the growing list of “The Usual Suspects.”  Without his support, Bogart’s film career would likely have never reached the legendary heights and worldwide accolades that it did, and Classic Hollywood might have missed out on recognizing its greatest star!

The Filmography

The Petrified Forest – 1936

howard and davisBette Davis with Howard in The Petrified Forest
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Howard plays Alan Squier, a drifter/writer/rambler who’s hitchhiking his way across the U.S. when he walks into a little gas station café in the Arizona desert for a “bar-bee-cue.”  He meets Gabby Maple (Bette Davis), the daughter of the café’s owner, and she quickly falls in love with him.  Squier knows that it’s not a good match and moves on, only to find himself returning to the gas station to use his intellect and wits to save the day when notorious gangster ‘Duke’ Mantee (Bogart) commandeers the café while on the run from the authorities.

Howard’s Squier is a depressed wanderer at heart.  He’s loaded down with emotional baggage and seems to be struggling to find a reason to keep on living.  Why is he headed to the ocean?  To throw himself in?  Perhaps. . .

Howard portrays the depressive intellectual wonderfully, and his playful banter with Bette Davis is both the heart and the backbone of the film.  We believe that Howard’s mind is stimulated by Davis’ ingénue intellectual-in-the-making.  Do we believe that he’d really turn down her advances and move on with his journey?  Well, the script says that he must, so I guess we have to believe it too.  But doggone it, I wouldn’t have been able to walk away from that smile.

Squier eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice as he strikes a deal with Duke to ensure that Gabby will be able to achieve her dream of escaping the café.

My original write up on the film can be found here . . .

Stand-In – 1937

howard and bogartHoward with Bogart in Stand-In
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Howard plays Atterbury Dodd, the math-obsessed bank accountant who’s sent to Hollywood so that he can audit a studio.

I don’t know when Asperger’s Syndrome was first diagnosed as a legitimate condition, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Atterbury Dodd has a classic case of it.  He’s completely oblivious to many common social cues, he has trouble feeling empathy, and he becomes obsessed over logic and minutia.  Howard’s great in the role, but unfortunately, all the chemistry between him and Joan Blondell suffers because, well, people who don’t feel empathy have a hard time garnering sympathy.  It’s hard to understand why Blondell is in love with him.  It’s hard to understand why he finally returns the affections for a woman that he cannot identify with.

All that being said, there are a few really great scenes in the film between Howard and Blondell, and between Howard and Bogart.  When Blondell tries to teach Howard judo, we get perhaps the greatest laugh in the film.  And when Howard finally teams up with Bogart to save a movie production, it’s the camaraderie that we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the movie.

Also, the scene at the end where Howard is literally overrun by unemployed studio laborers, only to finally learn how to talk humanely to his fellow man, is handled very well, and it’s one of the few moments of believable character growth that we’re given for his Atterbury Dodd.

You can read my original write up on the film here.

The Usual Suspects is an ongoing series of posts about some of Bogart’s more regular collaborators.  You can check out other entries in the series here.

Black Legion – 1937

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My Review

—Very Good—

Your Bogie Fix:

4 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

(Although, this might be a fix you only go to once or twice in your life…)

Director – Archie Mayo

The Lowdown

When machinist Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is passed over for a promotion in favor of a young Polish immigrant, he’s outraged. It’s not long before an ultra-conservative, pro-American, secret society called the Black Legion recruits Frank to join their cause – terrorizing local immigrants in an effort to keep shops and businesses strictly American owned and operated. Soon Frank is involved so deeply within the organization that he cannot keep from getting swept along into a series of brutal attacks, and eventually, murder.

What I Thought

Occasionally there will be a movie that is very well made, and yet so gut wrenchingly powerful that I just can’t imagine sitting through it again. Schindler’s List was this way for me. So was Mystic River. Now I would easily add Black Legion to that category. Loosely based on a true story, Black Legion took me places emotionally that I wasn’t used to going in a normal Bogart film.

It’s easy to distance yourself from a villain on screen when their violence is outlandish and they talk in constant hyperbole, but Bogart’s Frank Taylor is a family man, and his motivations are actually understandable. He feels that he’s been wronged at work. The promotion should have been his based on seniority and his relationship to the company. When he thinks the job is a sure thing, he begins to dream up ways of spending the money – a new family car and a vacuum for his wife.

These are situations we have all been in. Everyone, at some point, gets passed over at work. (Fairly or unfairly, it always seems wrong when it happens to you.) Everyone has those moments where they optimistically hope for the best and dream for a better future, only to have those dreams dashed with a strong dose of reality.

What makes this such a painful film to watch is that Bogart is not the over-the-top gangster or escaped convict that we’ve seen in so many other films. He’s a normal man in a relatable situation. When those types of people begin to make bad choices, choices with motivations that viewers can relate to, they become some of the scariest film antagonists of all.

The Bogart Factor

Director Archie Mayo seemed to be able to get performances out of Bogart that few other directors even got close to. First he directed him as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest, and then a year later as Frank Taylor in Black Legion. Bogart disappears more deeply into these two roles, I would argue, than many of his other pictures.

Unlike so many of Bogart’s more iconic characters, Frank Taylor struggles intensely with his self-confidence, is easily swayed by emotion, and suffers from a severe lack of impulse control. This isn’t Bogart’s typical in-control bad guy or ethically superior good guy. This is a flesh and blood real man that we are appalled by, but also understand. It’s certainly some of Bogart’s best work.

The Cast

Several other familiar faces from Petrified Forest also show back up in Black Legion.

Dick Foran, who played football-obsessed Boze in Petrified Forest, is here as Frank’s best friend Ed – a simple factory worker who loves his beer almost as much as he loves his girlfriend. Foran is given a much deeper role to work with in Black Legion and does very well representing the voice of the audience as we watch him eventually lose his temper and confront Frank.

Joe Sawyer, who appeared as Duke Mantee’s thug, Jackie, is Cliff, the man who pulls Frank into the Legion. While not given as layered a role as Foran’s, Sawyer has plenty more to chew on compared to his gun-toting thug in Petrified Forest. Sawyer was born to play the tough guy with his square jaw and broad nose, and he portrays Cliff as the borderline-intelligent bully that can cause a lot of havoc with just a little effort.

Perhaps two of the best supporting actors are Henry Brandon as the Polish immigrant Joe Dombrowski, and Clifford Soubier as the Irish immigrant Mike Grogan. Though they are given small roles, Brandon and Soubier are able to make strong supporting appearances as hardworking men who find themselves caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Erin O’Brien-Moore and Dickie Jones play Bogart’s wife and son, Ruth and Buddy. Both capably play their roles realistically without falling too far into the melodrama trap, giving us an incredibly heartbreaking moment in the final court scenes as Ruth and Frank lock eyes for the last time before he’s taken away.

Ann Sheridan appears as Betty Grogan, Ed’s girlfriend. She’s sweet enough in the role but doesn’t get a lot to work with beyond that.

Make Sure to Notice

Helen Flint as Pearl Davis, a local floozy who has a wonderful drunk scene with Bogart after his wife and child leave him. They play it up so realistically, arguing over how to appropriately sing Home on the Range, that we get a rare, but wonderful, moment of levity in an otherwise bleak film.

Classic Bogie Moment

Bogart, who made dozens of movies where he carried and used firearms, stands before a mirror, gun in hand, admiring the way it looks in his grasp. It empowers him with a false sense of security as he “plays tough,” trying to bolster his desperate lack of confidence. It’s a great counter balance to all the other times in his career where we saw him comfortably use a weapon as if it was an extension of his own arm.

The Bottom Line

Black Legion is a definite must-see for any self-respecting Bogart fan, as Bogie does some of his best character work.

A Little Extra

According to the short documentary on the DVD, the machine shop featured in the film where Bogart works is the actual Warner Brothers machine shop with real employees in the background.

“Producer’s Showcase” – The Petrified Forest – 1955

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My Review

—A Little Rough Around the Edges, but Worth It—

Your Bogie Fix:

3 Bogie out of 5 bogies!

Director:  – Delbert Mann

The Lowdown 

Nearly twenty years after Humphrey Bogart made Duke Mantee his breakout role on the silver screen, he returned to the small screen to reprise the gangster one more time for the TV show, Producer’s Showcase.  Stepping in for Bette Davis is Lauren Bacall as Gabby, and Henry Fonda plays Alan Squier, the role made famous by Leslie Howard.

You can find my previous plot synopsis here.

What I Thought

I had no idea this existed until a couple of days ago.  My mind is blown.  I knew that Bogart had reprised a lot of his more popular roles for radio adaptions, but to see one of his most famous characters brought back in a remake twenty years after the fact is such a fun discovery.  While it doesn’t live up to the original film, there’s definitely a high thrill factor in seeing Bogart become the gangster on the run again.

The entire cast is older than the original group of actors, and I thought it added a darker, bleaker flavor to the whole thing.  The chemistry between Bacall and Fonda just wasn’t there like it was for Davis and Howard.  Fonda’s version of Alan Squier seemed much more depressed and regret-filled than Howard’s charming drifter.  And unlike Davis’ wide-eyed young gal looking to get out of the desert, Bacall seems more like a woman on the verge of middle age who’s resigned to the life of an old maid.

The Bogart Factor 

The role of Duke Mantee is trimmed.  In fact, the entire movie runs about ten minutes shorter.  (While it’s listed as 90 minutes on IMDB, it’s much more like 72.) A lot of the dialogue between the captive husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Chisolm, is cut down and folded into one short argument towards the end of the movie.  It also seemed like many of Bogart’s lines might have been filmed separately and then spliced into the film.  (Several sources refer to this as a “live” airing, but then, how did they get the exterior shots of Fonda walking along a country road?)

Again though, I have to say that I found it captivating to watch an actor of Bogart’s caliber get the chance to reprise the role – playing Mantee twenty years older, showing a wearier, dead-eyed mobster this time around.  I think it’s a must see for diehard Bogart fans.

The Cast 

While Lauren Bacall’s version of Gabby doesn’t quite live up to Bette Davis’, I thought she handled certain scenes a little better.  Anytime she had to read or quote poetry, I thought it was much more believable than Davis.

Henry Fonda was probably a little too old to play the charming drifter, and I’d say the fault is more on him for the chemistry not working out.  He knows how to act though, and as the movie ramps up towards the climax, he does a fine job of holding his own against Bogart as he challenges Mantee to kill him.

Famous character actor Jack Warden (Google his pic, you’ll know him) plays Boze, the football wannabe gas station attendant who’s in love with Gabby.  If anyone was too old for their role, it was probably Warden here.  While it’s fun to see him so young, it was a little unsettling to see a man in his thirties still wearing his football jersey and going on about his college days.

Don’t Forget to Notice. . . 

Look out for a young Jack Klugman as well, playing Jackie, one of Mantee’s thugs.

Classic Bogie Moment

Towards the end of the movie, Mantee finds out that the girlfriend he was supposed to meet up with has not only been captured, but has ratted him out.  When Bogart plays the moment in this version, we see his mind scrambling, his eyes darting, and his jaw quivering as he can’t decide what to do next.  It’s a wonderful close-up moment on Bogart as he sputters, “Shut up, shut up, give me time to think!”

The Bottom Line

Are you a Bogie completist?  You probably need to check this out.  Even if you’re not, it would still be a fun double feature for a film club to put on, and then compare and contrast, the two versions.

A Little Extra

Hmmm.  I couldn’t find a lot of fun info on this movie, but it was apparently Lauren Bacall’s television debut!

The Petrified Forest – 1936

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My Review

—A Great Film—

Your Bogie Fix:

4.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Archie Mayo

The Lowdown

Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) is a drifter / writer / hitchhiker making his way across the U.S. when he walks into a little gas station café in the Arizona desert for a “bar-bee-cue.”  Gabby Maple (a young, gorgeous, bright-eyed, yes I have a crush . . . Bette Davis) is the café owner’s daughter who waits on Squier, quickly falling in love with him.

Squier is an intellectual and Gabby is an intellectual in the making.  With a fifteen year age difference between Howard and Davis, it’s a May-December romance that’s easy to believe since both actors exude charm from every pore of their bodies.  But, alas, it’s a romance not to be.  Howard’s Squier is a depressed wanderer at heart, and he’s just wise, mature, and intellectual enough to know that he shouldn’t get involved.  Whatever emotional baggage he’s obviously carrying below his plucky surface, it’s enough to keep him from returning Gabby’s advances.  So Squier heads out the door on his way to see the Pacific, and Gabby reluctantly stays behind in the café with her dreams of becoming a Parisian artist on hold and a lunkhead gas station attendant named Boze nipping at the hem of her dress.

Enter Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart in what most consider his breakout role.  A gangster on the run after a shootout in Oklahoma, Duke’s car happens to break down just a few miles away from the café, just before Squier’s hitched ride passes by and stops to help.  Within minutes, Duke and his gang have commandeered a new ride, and Squier is left on the side of the road, watching the gangsters head straight towards Gabby’s café.

Squier returns to make sure Gabby’s okay, of course, and what follows is a tense and gripping hostage situation where Howard and Bogart get lots of time to shine in roles they were both born to play.  As the story goes, Howard was the one who demanded Bogart play the part of Mantee after they played the roles together in the original stage production.

It’s no wonder why it was a star making turn for Bogart, as he adopts a tone, style, and mannerisms for Duke Mantee that I don’t believe he ever surpassed in any other role.  Both IMDB and his biographies claim that Bogart studied bank robber John Dillinger for the role, and the character work done here is nothing short of Bogie’s best.

The Great

Bogart physically becomes a violent, desperate, dangerous gangster.  From the moment he appears on screen (about 35 minutes into the film), he is a rubber band wound tight, and the viewer is just waiting for his inevitable snap.

He walks hunched with his hands held slightly out at the waist.  It gives you the impression that he’s either going to draw his gun, or strangle someone at any moment.

I cannot imagine any other actor playing the role of Duke Mantee as well as Bogart does.  It’s clear that Bogart worked hard to embody the gangster from top to bottom.  I almost began to wonder if he was even able to sweat on command as the movie ramps up to its violent, dramatic conclusion.

Bette Davis, who looks and seems to be playing younger than her 28 years here, is so cute and fun that it’s almost too unbelievable that Leslie Howard would choose to leave her at the beginning of the film.  If the sight and flirtations of a budding Davis can’t break a man out of depression, what could???

Leslie Howard portrays the depressive intellectual wonderfully, and his playful banter with Bette Davis is both the heart and the backbone of the film.  We believe that Howard’s mind is stimulated by Davis’ thirst for more in her life.

The script, which is said to stay very true to the original stage play, offers this group of actors a lot of great dialogue and story to work with.  So many times, a filmed play seems like just that – a play on film, but Archie Mayo adapts this story wonderfully.  It wasn’t until Bogie’s off-screen death scene that I remembered that The Petrified Forest was meant for the stage, and sticking close to the original script is probably why we don’t get to see Duke go out in a blaze of glory.

It’s been written about a lot before, but director Mayo’s use of the buffalo horns behind Bogie’s head is a wonderfully subliminal way of giving us a demonic look at the unstable Mantee.

The Good

The supporting cast is quite good, and there are a lot of great comedic moments spread throughout the movie.

Joe Sawyer’s portrayal of Mantee’s henchman, Jackie, is particularly fun – a role he also originated on stage.  When he taunts the gas station attendant Boze, there seems to be real enjoyment in his cruelty.

Porter Hall and Charley Grapewin do very well in their respective roles as Dad and Grandpa Maple – giving the movie a good dose of its comic relief, and Bette Davis just enough henpecking to remind us why she wants out of the café.

Classic Bogie Moment 

Joe Sawyer’s Jackie narrates Bogart’s entrance as he announces, “Now, just behave yourself and nobody’ll get hurt.  This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer, and he’s hungry!”  And there stands Bogart – a wild, edgy, dynamite stick of a man who’s ready to blow up at any moment.

Director Mayo gives Bogart some of the best close ups he would ever get.  The sneer.  The sweat.  The trembling lip.  The sunken, desperate eyes that dart around the room.  Bogart does as much with just his face in this movie as most actors wish they could do with their whole bodies.

This portrayal should be a textbook example for all actors on how to really lose yourself in a role.  While Bogart would go on to play other desperate, edgy characters, I don’t think any come close to Duke Mantee.

The Bottom Line

There’s no argument needed as to why this was Bogart’s breakout role.  From script to cast, this movie is tight and entertaining.  This was a role Bogie was born to play.  Sit back and enjoy.

Fun Fact

Warner Brothers apparently wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role of Duke Mantee.  While I can understand how Robinson would have lent instant credibility to a gangster film, I don’t know if he could have played Mantee as dangerously dark as Bogart was able to.  There was always just a hint of humor in too many of Robinson’s roles.  (Although, if they’d shot an alternate-Robinson version, I’d be the first in line to make a comparison!)