Turner Classic Movies announced today that they will preempt scheduled programming on September 15 and 16 for a 24-hour marathon honoring the life and career of Lauren Bacall, who died on August 12 at age 89.
Following Robert Osborne’s delightfully candid 2005 interview with the then-81-year-old legend at 8 p.m. (ET) on September 15, TCM will air eleven of Bacall’s films, including four team-ups with real life leading man Humphrey Bogart: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), her Howard Hawks-directed debut, sets sail at 9 p.m.; Hawks’ narratively inscrutable (but who cares) THE BIG SLEEP (1946) follows at 11 p.m.; Delmer Daves’ pulpy noir DARK PASSAGE (1947) un-bandages on September 16 at 10 a.m., and John Huston’s Academy Award-winning KEY LARGO (1948) blows in at noon.(September 16 would have been Bacall’s 90th birthday.)
The four Bogart/Bacall noirs are arguably her best-known films, but they don’t tell the whole story of the iconic duo’s on-screen partnership. Missing from TCM’s schedule is their final team-up, a production so rare that many classic film fans haven’t even heard of it, let alone seen it.
On May 30, 1955, nearly seven years after the release of KEY LARGO, Mr. and Mrs. Bogart reunited on-screen one last time for NBC’s live television remake of The Petrified Forest. Broadcast in color – still a rarity at the time – Tad Mosel’s adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play for the RCA-sponsored Producer’s Showcase featured 55-year-old Bogart recreating the role of Duke Mantee, the Dillinger-esque gangster he played on Broadway two decades earlier and in the 1936 Warner Bros. film. Bacall, in a role originated by an ingénue-y Bette Davis in the film, is waitress Gabrielle “Gabby” Maple, daughter of the owner of the dusty roadside diner Mantee and his gang appropriate as a hideout. And for the lead character of ennui-afflicted Englishman Alan Squier (played by Leslie Howard on stage and screen), director Delbert Mann cast the decidedly un-British Henry Fonda.
No, I’m not kidding. Tom Joad as a British intellectual.
Like many live dramas from the Golden Age of Television, The Petrified Forest is stage-bound and talky, but you could say the same for Archie Mayo’s 1936 film, which makes very little effort to transcend the walls of Warner Bros. Stage 8. Still, the film is highly regarded by many classic film fans (including this one) for providing Bogie with his big break, courtesy of Howard, who insisted to Jack Warner that the actor reprise his stage role. (Bogart honored Howard posthumously for going to bat for him with the studio by naming his daughter Leslie. Howard died in 1943 at age 50; Leslie Bogart was born in 1952.)
The 1936 film edition of Duke Mantee was the world’s first glimpse of Bogart as a “complicated” gangster. The real John Dillinger was 31 when he was finally taken out by Melvin Purvis in Chicago in 1934 and Bogart, just a few years older, was virile, ruggedly handsome, and genuinely menacing in his film portrayal. Amazingly, he pulls it off again two decades later, and then some. Defying his age and the developing illness within him, Bogart gives an energetic, almost feral performance, matching the physicality and distinctive line readings that were so memorable in the film.
Bacall does not necessarily fare as well. While her youthful bravado allowed her to believably portray older women in her first few films, here the situation is reversed: she’s 30 playing a character supposedly in her late teens. Her older-than-her-years maturity seems wildly out of place; while Davis – Bacall’s idol as a youngster –was 28 when she played Gabby, she still pulled off a nervous, dewey-eyed innocence that Bacall had aged out of by 1955, or perhaps never had to begin with. (Except when she bops out of the bar with Bogie at the end of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, my favorite moment from her film career.)
Faring the worst is Fonda, whose casting necessitated changing Alan’s origins from (olde) England to New England. His folksy, uncomplicated charm runs counter to the Shakespearean fatalism of the character, and he and Bacall never seem to be doing anything but reciting lines of dialogue in each other’s general direction. And, at 50, Fonda’s too old for the part. Alan’s world-weariness has little to do with age.
Still, this is a must-watch curiosity for even the casual fan. While Bogart and Bacall don’t melt the screen like they do in their other pairings, seeing them together again so close to the end of his life is like the missing piece to a puzzle. The Petrified Forest also was the only pairing of Bogart and Fonda, two of the greatest stars of the Studio Era, and it’s Bogart’s only dramatic TV appearance (save for a very hip parody of his gangster persona Bogie did on The Jack Benny Program in 1953).
As an extra bonus, a few beloved classic TV figures show up in smaller roles in The Petrified Forest. Jack Warden is a far more menacing college football player than the harmless doofus played by singer Dick Foran in 1936, and he gets to spout some 1950s-style anti-Commie propaganda. Natalie Schafer, who would go on to three seasons (and countless reunions) as Gilligan’s Island’s Mrs. Howell, is the wealthy woman whose car is commandeered by the thugs. And 33-year-old Jack Klugman shows up as Duke’s henchman Jackie (played in the film by Joe Sawyer) delivering the film’s most famous line – “This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer. And he’s hungry.” – in a manner so Oscar Madison-y you practically expect a honking Tony Randall to walk through the door.
But the real reason to watch The Petrified Forest, which aired just once and survived only in Bacall’s personal kinescope copy – available for viewing at the Paley Center in New York and L.A. and in a fuzzy You Tube posting – is Humphrey Bogart. Watching his ferocity here, you’d never imagine he’d be dead 20 months later from cancer.
Although Bogart appeared in four more films before his untimely demise (including his 1956 swan song THE HARDER THEY FALL, which I love), I’m now romantically regarding the 1955 version of The Petrified Forest as the bookend to Bogart’s film career. He came in tough and he went out tough, and Bacall– and the audience– loved him for it.
You can watch “The Petrified Forest” on YouTube here, but I strongly suggest you view it on a small screen (I watched on my iPhone) and use headphones (the sound is audible, but low). Bogart and Bacall also make a cameo as themselves in TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE (1946), which you can watch here. A tip ‘o the hat to classic film historian and New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick for that piece of knowledge.