Some Broadway plays and even gangster films, besides being entertaining, can teach us important lessons. The Petrified Forest is an excellent example of this possibility.
My encounter with this film
When I was a youngster, some 60 years ago, I took a course at Johns Hopkins University on plays, and one of the plays the college instructor taught us so that we would become sensitive to the quality of other plays, was Robert Emmet Sherwood’s’ magnificent and highly acclaimed play, The Petrified Forest. Too many years have passed since that time, so I do not remember what the professor wanted us to notice. All I can tell readers is that he considered it significant and tell my current feelings about the film based upon this play.
First, I still remember that I was impressed by the play, although I do not recall why I was impressed. I was captivated again by the film and I can say why.
The 1936 film stars Leslie Howard, who is indeed the star of the film, acting as a failed intellectual, trying so far unsuccessfully to make something out of his life, he wrote one book and could not write a second, and Betty Davis, who in 1936 looked and acted like a teen age unsophisticated, delightful, and vivacious girl.
The word “petrified” means “changed to a stony substance” and “unable to move.” I understand the title of the film Petrified Forest to apply not only to the dessert surroundings of the dinner where everything in the play/film is happening, where everything is dead, but also to the people, virtually all of whom are petrified forests, old unused logs which over time hardened into an unusable petrified condition, unable to move forward, unable to grow and become all they can become.
The Howard character, the failed intellectual’s wife married him because she saw in him the possibility of greatness but divorced him several years later after she saw he was unable to live up to his potential. He was living in Europe but after the divorce came to the US, and wondered about, hitchhiking and walking, without a penny in his pocket. He happens upon a dinner in a desert in which he becomes enchanted with the lively teen ager, Betty Davis, who has the potential of becoming something, she is a painter who has some skills and wants to go the France where her mother is and develop her skills. The dinner is attacked by gangsters – Humphrey Bogart, the head gangster, who is also a failure. Bogart gets only fifth billing in this 1936 film.
All the people in the film, as I understand it today, except the Betty Davis character, are petrified. We watch and see this, and we see how the intellectual finally understands how he can be a man. As my professor said, it is great play. Perhaps he taught it in college not only because the story is written well and is fascinating but also to inspire his young students to beware of being petrified.