Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Race in the Petrified Forest

I was recently watching the 1936 film the Petrified Forest, based on the stage play by Robert E. Sherwood. The film concerns Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a melancholy poet hitchhiking across the USA who finds himself at a remote Arizona truck stop where Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis) works. Eventually, a gang of criminals led by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) hole up at the gas station, taking everyone present as hostages. While Mantee waits for his girlfriend to meet him there so they can escape to Mexico together, Squier decides to will his life insurance to Gabrielle and have Mantee kill him so she can afford a trip to France she's always dreamed of.

Now, the film is very much a product of the stage. Even though the media allows the creators opportunities to expand upon the material from the original play, the movie takes few advantages from the shift in media. For instance, Mantee dies in a shootout with the police which occurs off-screen in the climax of the film. This would have been expedient on the stage, but one of the advantages of film is they can perform shootouts rather well (in fact, in the original play Mantee simply escapes; the dialogue about him being killed is simply tacked-on, probably due to the Hays Code)! The film is best-remembered for Bogart's performance as one of his early star-making roles.

While it was out of historical interest in Bogart that I sought the Petrified Forest out, I found something rather more interesting in the film itself. At one point Squier takes a ride with the Chisholms, a well-to-do couple traveling in an expensive car with their chauffeur, Joseph (John Alexander), an African-American. Soon after this we see Mantee's gang for the first time and amongst Mantee's four-man operation is Slim (Slim Thompson), an African-American.

Seeing a "menial" African-American like Joseph didn't register with me, but Slim was a bit of a surprise; I'm always fascinated by portrayals of African-Americans in pre-Sidney Poitier Hollywood and the Petrified Forest didn't let me down. Joseph and Slim eventually share a few scenes and those scenes stood in stark contrast to the melodrama developing between Squier, Mantee, Gabrielle and the Chisholms.

Slim isn't present when Mantee's gang take the Chisholms hostage. While the Chisholms sit at a dining table with Squier and Gabrielle's grandfather, Joseph is seated upon a stool at the bar. It's interesting that Joseph is kept separate from the others, considering it means the gangsters have two separate pools of hostages to watch (Joseph in one pool, everyone else in the other). Strangely, Mantee specifically commands Joseph to sit apart from the others, even though it means he'll have to be doubly alert.

Soon, Slim enters the scene. Seeing Joseph, Slim smiles and greets him with a friendly, "Hi, fellow brother!" Joseph, a little taken aback, replies in an austere tone, "Good evening!" Slim jerks his head back in surprise, evidently unnerved to find the only other African-American in the room (or the picture!) has the air of being upper class. As Slim departs he remarks "See you later, Deacon!" to Joseph.

By the time Slim returns, the hostages have begun a round of drinks and Slim supervises the process. After seeing to the white hostages, Slim turns to Joseph at the bar: "Have a drink, colored brother!" Joseph, not looking at Slim, directs his response to his employer: "Is it all right, Mr. Chisholm?" At this, Slim makes a face: "Listen to him! 'Is it all right, Mr. Chisholm?' Ain't you heared about the big liberation? Come on, take your drink, weasel!" Mr. Chisholm permits Joseph to imbibe and Slim delivers a mocking "Mr. Chisholm!" as he turns away from Joseph. Joseph seems confused by Slim's hostility.

I'm rather fascinated by Slim's hostility toward Joseph. Slim seems upset by Joseph's air of superiority and his deference toward his employers. And yet, Slim is hardly independent - Mantee is his boss and he's bound to obey everything Mantee demands, even as Slim observes every minute spent waiting for Mantee's sweetheart is another minute for the law to catch up with them. Slim can hardly express his frustration with Mantee openly, given how gangsters can be rough even to one of their own, so I wonder if his hostility toward Joseph's station is how he expresses frustration at his own predicament.

Many of the players from the stage version of the Petrified Forest reprised their roles for the movie, including Howard and Bogart. John Alexander and Slim Thompson were also in the play, although there Slim's character was called "Pyles." There's also some outright racism in the play as Pyles observes he's not allowed to eat with "the white folks," gnaws on a chicken and at one point Mrs. Chisholm calls him a "black gorilla," nearly angering him into shooting her.

In all, I'm glad the Slim-Joseph conflict exists in the Petrified Forest, it's not typical 1930s Hollywood fare and I find it refreshing next to the obvious melodrama of the plot (that said, Bogart's performance as Mantee is still a great selling point for the picture as he's gifted with many of the best lines).


ne said...

Just came across your blog thanks to having developed something of a strong interest in Bogart. I really loved the Petrified Forest, and that scene really stood out to me, for a lot of reasons. I really appreciate your take on that scene. To me, it seemed that at that time, when it was a crime for a black person to be "uppity" or laugh at a white person or look look twice at a white woman, or even step on a white person's shadow, the only way a black person could be a full person was to be an outlaw and this point was being very subtly but forcefully made with this exchange.

Michael Hoskin said...

Thank you, it's encouraging to find someone else shares my interest in the Joseph-Slim dialogues. I just re-watched Petrified Forest last week, funnily enough, and was again struck by Slim's simmering hostility towards Joseph.