Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Petrified Forest and Jezebel

I caught a Bette Davis double feature at the Stanford Theater in March. They screened a 12 week series including "early Bette Davis" and I caught the final two films in the series. The Stanford is currently playing an Elizabeth Taylor tribute through April 18.

The Petrified Forest starring Bette Davis, Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart; (1936)
Jezebel starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda; directed by William Wyler; (1938)

Both these films are classics from the Golden Era. Somehow I hadn't seen either film although as I recognized parts of Petrified Forest so I must have seen portions of it on television.

Various stories state Edward G. Robinson was originally cast in The Petrified Forest but bowed out or Leslie Howard insisted that Bogart play the role after Robinson was cast. Regardless, it was a big break for Bogie's and he was forever grateful to Howard. Howard only had another five years to live as he died under clandestine circumstances during WWII when his plane was shot down. No less than Winston Churchill himself expressed sorrow and regret that Howard was killed on the mistaken belief that Churchill was aboard his flight.

The Petrified Forest was a little disappointing. Howard plays Alan Squier, a vaguely effeminate drifter with equally vague claims of being Eurotrash with a tortured soul. It's never explained why he's walking along Arizona's dusty backroads. He drifts into a diner and encounters Bette Davis as a waitress. Bette Davis looks impossibly young and wholesome. She was 25 or 26 if you believe she was born in 1908 but looked younger to me. Davis plays Gabrielle Maple, a dreamer who likes to paint & read poetry between slinging hash in her father's diner and keeping her grandfather on the wagon.

They flirt and Maple makes an incredibly forward proposition for 1936. Squires is too much the gentleman to soil Maple's reputation or youth so he decides to continue his peripatetic journey which Maple kindly upgrades to automotive by imposing up the Chisholms, a wealthy couple, to give Squires a ride.

At this point, Duke Mantee (Bogart), a notorious gangster, makes his entrance. His car has broken down so he and his gang (which surprisingly includes an African American) jack the Chisholms' car. The Chisholms and their African American chauffeur attempt to fix Mantee's car while Squires walks back to the diner to warn Maple. When he arrives, he discovers that Mantee is already holding people hostage. Later, the Chisholms and their servant return to the diner to encounter the same fate.

This begin the heart of the film - an extended scene in the dining room where Maple, Squires, Mantee and to a lesser extent the Chisholms ruminate on life and verbally spar with each other. I found the exchanges to be cliched and superficial. The most interesting part was the piecemeal divulgence of the Chisholms marital problems. The Chisholms were played by Genevieve Tobin and Paul Harvey. Another interesting exchange involved the two black men. The criminal looked down upon the chauffeur as an Uncle Tom.

The three main characters intereacted in ways that made no sense to me 74 years later. Squires doesn't want to tell Maple that he loves her (that must have been one hell of burger!). However, he does have a life insurance policy and he makes Maple the beneficiary so she can travel to Europe, her lifelong dream. The only problem is that he is still alive. Not be deterred, Squires makes a pact with Mantee to have Mantee kill him before he leaves. Mantee is supposedly a ruthless killer but he shows signs of intelligence and empathy. With little provocation or motivation, Mantee readily accepts Squires proposal. With all those witnesses to the their conversation, didn't Squires worry the insurance company would have declared conspiracy to commit fraud in his death and refuse to pay off?

I'll leave the ending a surprise. Not surprising is that the film was based on a Robert Sherwood of the same name. The film looked like it was adapted from a play. 80% of the action takes place in the diner. More problematic than the settings or lack thereof is that the characters speak and have attitudes more consistent with a Boston Brahmin or Ivy League sophisticate.

Bette Davis did look fabulous although I could never quite buy her as the ingenue. Bogart was largely caricature in the role. Duke Mantee was a less introspective and more violent man than Bogie's renditions of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe.


Jezebel is set in Antebellum New Orleans. Davis plays Julie a Southern belle who is engaged to banker Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda). Julie is spoiled, headstrong and petulant but Dillard is a patient Southern gentleman although he is viewed by some as being a Northern sympathizer due to his time spent Boston and/or New York.

Julie's selfishness is all rather childish until she decides to wear a red gown to the Olympus Ball. I have no idea what the Olympus Ball was or is and why (unmarried?) women only wore white but Julie's decision has everyone in an uproar. Seething with anger, Pres escorts Julie to the ball where everyone is aghast and clears the dance floor when Pres and Julie begin their waltz. Finally seeing her folly, Julie begs Pres to take her home but not before she has made herself a pariah in the Big Easy. When they arrive home, Pres breaks off their engagement. Julie responds by slapping her across the face.

A year later, Pres returns to New Orleans. It is revealed that Pres left for New York soon after the Olympus Ball and Julie has lived like a hermit since then. Still smarting from being dumped, Julie's spirits quickly rise when word reaches her that Pres is returning. She believes they can reconcile. Unfortunately, when Pres arrives, he introduces his wife (from New York) to Julie and the rest of New Orleans society. Rather than disappointment, Julie's immediate reaction is jealousy and resentment.

That evening, Julie eggs on Buck Cantrell (great performance by George Brent). Cantrell plays a vainglorious duelist and unabashed anti-abolitionist whose attraction for Julie and politics have made him Pres Dillard's rival. Given Pres's marital status, it's as likely that Buck is picking a fight to settle old grievances and impress Julie. Buck's needling finally gets the best of Ted Dillard (Richard Cromwell), Pres's younger brother. Ted challenges Buck to a duel. Eventually, Buck realizes he has been used by Julie and although not stated, I believe allows Ted to win the duel.

This is the turning point of the film. Julie's aunt Belle (Fay Bainter won an Oscar for Supporting Actress for the performance) compare Julie to Jezebel and all their guests feel similarly in loud silence. Pres has gone down to New Orleans (the previous action took place at Julie's family plantation of Halcyon) despite an epidemic of yellow fever. When words returns that Pres has contracted the disease and is to be shipped a leper colony for quarantine, Julie, Pres's wife and Aunt Belle run a blockade to enter the city. They discover Pres near death and when the health authorities come to take him away, his wife naturally wants to go with him. Julie prevails upon her to allow her to go in her place since she is so unfamiliar with the South. It's not explained how a proper Southern lady became so familiar with a leper colony or how to care for a yellowjack patient. The film ends with Julie accompanying the unconscious Pres to the docks while all around them is chaos, fire and bedlam.

The film veers awfully close to melodrama and the direction that Julie takes in the last third of the film was not really foreshadowed. Ostracized by polite society, rejected twice by the man she loves and responsible for the death of another man, Julie makes an incredible and incredibly quick transformation into a selfless Floreence Nightingale. In fact, the ending definitely detracted from the film. Up to that point, the film was quite entertaining. Davis was manipulative without being over the top the like she would be in her later films.

In fact, the film was buoyed by a handful of incredible scenes. Among the scenes I am referring to is when Julie arrives late for her own party in riding clothes and insouciantly uses her ridng crop to lift her skirt off the floor. My favorite scene is when Julie & Pres arrive at the Olympus Ball. No one will speak to them except Buck whose idle small talk infuriates Pres. The seething rage of Pres (really directed towards Julie) was a take-notice moment for Fonda. Finally, when Ted challenges Buck, he goes in for the de rigueur glove slap but Buck nonchalantly waves him off since he's been in so many duels before.

Actually, an honorable mention should go to a scene where Margaret Lindsay as Pres's wife Amy & Julie are discussing who should accompany Pres. Amy asks if Pres still loves him because women know these thing even the man is not yet aware. Julie's evasive answer leads the audience and Amy to the conclusion that Julie certainly loves Pres. Unwilling to concede, Amy makes Julie state that Pres loves Amy...and then lets Julie go off with her husband to what will likely be an agonizing death.

For me, Davis and George Brent delivered award deserving performances. I wasn't so taken by Fay Bainter's performance. Henry Fonda was solid without being flashy which is par for him. Richard Cromwell makes a most memorable impression from his two or three scenes.

Unlike The Petrified Forest which couldn't live up to its reputation, Jezebel was quite an interesting film for most of the time. With William Wyler helming it and Hays Code enforcing the morality, Jezebel is probably the best film it could have been in 1938.

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