Friday, 6 December 2013

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Leslie Howard, the soothing actor and the enigmatic Bette Davies were the top billed actors in this Robert E Sherman's adapted play and my question was - Where was Bogie?

Humphrey Bogart's name appeared much later. There was talent, no doubt and before this role there were ten other productions he was part of; though none of those roles stood out. He was present - playing a second fiddle or a character role and I bet the top billing status was a long way ahead.
   
I belong to a generation who have seen a lot of Humphrey Bogart movies in which he has been the main draw. The descending order of his filmography I have gone about watching made me realise how far I was getting away from his stardom. He was at the peak when I watched him first and now after a lot of movies, I have seen merely a reflection of his future status or under the shadows of other stars, namely James Cagney.

 And when I watched 'The Petrified Forest', I somewhat knew this was where it all began for him. Since then he has grown as an actor slowly moving away from being the gangster to being a hero and a star of whom there is a rich legacy.

The movie itself is a journey - a conversation between individuals about their pasts, experiences, dreams and their shortcomings. Set in the backdrop of a region where the scientific process of 'permineralisation' is evident where trees mostly found in the form of fossils - petrified wood highlighting the years of reaction turning the wood to stone like structures. This is 'The Petrified Forest' in Arizona and the story begins and ends at the little service station called 'Petrified Forest Bar-B-Q' on the edge of nowhere. 
Petrified Forest BAR-B-Q
A battered intellectual nomad formerly a writer is shown walking on the dusty roads of Arizona. From his looks it seemed his best days were past him - Alan Squier played by Leslie Howard ambled through the roads on a mission to explore and find a purpose to his well-equipped brains. He recognises the triumph of his thumb and its sideways motion with which he travelled lengths and breadths of America. He was hungry, penniless and among his possessions were a rucksack with his passport, insurance papers and a map.

By the time he had got himself to the embarrassing situation of having no money, the movie was half-way through and by this time he had an admirer - no, a lover in form of Gabrielle Maple played by Bette Davies which left her blue-collared employee and former football (American) player Boze in distaste and jealous of Alan. 
Alan, Gabrielle and Boze (right)
Gabrielle is the daughter of the diner owner Jason Maple and of Gramp Maple, who was not shy in telling to the customers about being missed by 'Billy the Kid' once. Gabrielle was born to a French mother who currently lived in Bourges, France after getting bored of her life in Arizona. Gabrielle assists her father and dreams of being an artist in France, someday! 

Words have their own magic and the power of attraction towards human beings. When these words flow constantly in any conversation, one can fall in love hopelessly. 
Gabrielle showing her the poems of François Villon
Alan was eloquent in what he thought about life and the poetry collection of François Villon, a 15th century French poet which Gabrielle was hooked onto. He requests her to narrate some of the lines -

Such good I wish you! Yea, and heartily
I am fired with hope of true love's meed to get;
Knowing Love writes it in his book; for why,
This is the end for which we twain are met. 

An awkward silence followed by more lines -

Seeing reason wills not that I cast love by
Nor here with reason shall I chide or fret
Nor cease to serve, but serve more constantly;
This is the end for which we twain are met. 


While she showed him her art works and the paintings, he talked about his experience, past life, his strange marriage to a wealthy woman, writer's block while living in Riviera and the separation. 

The Brief Conversation
On the other hand, his words cast a spell on her to an extent that she was ready to run away with him taking all her cash, he declined and refused and decided to part ways. He was on his way on a car with a wealthy couple only to be stopped mid-way by Duke Mantee and his men, who took the car and spared their lives. Few moments later, Alan was back at the diner. Why?

Duke Mantee encounters the intellect Alan 
The next half of the movie is about Humphrey Bogart - his guile, rugged looks and the manner he was introduced made him the most terrifying character movie audience had seen at that time. He engages in a conversation with rest of the crew at the service station.

The customers held hostage at the diner 
After a series of thought provoking conversations between Alan and Duke - the movie concludes with Alan Squier having found his purpose. He knew his life was of no worth and his death could buy Gabrielle the tallest cathedrals, and golden vineyards, and dancing in the streets. He dies through a prior arrangement with Duke for killing him thereby leaving her the insurance money. Alan was in search of a purpose - to live and to die for. He knew he was in love with Gabrielle, someone worth living for and worth dying for. 
Alan dying in the arms of Gabrielle 
The movie like I mentioned before took Humphrey Bogart to the next level and this was possible because of Leslie Howard's insistence of Bogart playing the part of Duke Mantee in place of Edward G Robinson. It has a happy negotiation which gave Bogie, his first break in Hollywood. It was a mere co-incidence that the real-life criminal 'John Dillinger, on whose life is the character Duke Mantee is inspired from resembled Bogart.

When Bogart's daughter with Lauren Bacall was born in 1952, he expressed his friendship and gratitude by naming her Leslie Howard Bogart. She is named after Leslie Howard, who was a close friend of Bogie, after Howard refused to appear in 'The Petrified Forest' unless the studio (Warner Bros) signed Bogart to play Duke Mantee.

Sign they did and rest is history! 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Major and the Minor (1942)

There is something serene and assuring for the entire duration of any movie as long as there is Ginger Rogers in them. I have watched quite a lot of her movies - excluding the famous musicals which she appeared with Fred Astaire.

She comes across as a simpleton in many of her roles and usually plays the characters with vibrant expressions, which makes you fall in love with her. My wife was beside me and yet I could not stop admiring her beauty and telling my wife about the same.

Susan Applegate played by Ginger Rogers is witty, homesick, short in cash - running out of excuses and patience at the train station until she sees a lady who is buying a half-ticket each for her two children.

One moment - Susan appears as a perfect young lady, someone with whom you always wished to dance at a ball. And in the next scene she disguises herself as a 12-year old and manages to board the train with a half ticket. The newly found disguise and her antics would be short lived as the conductors soon find out she isn't a kid from the Swedish stock, which she claimed for her excessive height. Even the Greta Garbo's famous line 'I want to be alone' from Grand Hotel doesn't impress them and is chased away when they catch her smoking while breathing in fresh air. 

Major Kirby played by Ray Milland comes across as gentleman who offers refuge to the 12-year old Su-Su, her alias. He is on his way to his military institute and to his fiancée Pamela.

In spite of these coincidences, twists and turns to the plot -the movie retains the humour without a dull moment. Billy Wilder after being in industry for close to 14 years and having written stories and screenplays for around 40 movies makes his debut as a director with this movie and keeps the crowd entertained without any dull moments throughout. 
Other characters who play a significant part in the movie are Kirby's devious fiancée Pamela played by Rita Johnson, Lucy - the science freak and the sister of Pamela played by Diana Lynn; the six cadets from the military school who take turns in impressing Su-Su and Lela Rogers as Mrs. Appleton.

This 1942 movie was later made in another version as You are Never Too Young in 1955 - which starred Jerry Lewis disguising as a 12-year old. 
The 1955 movie's plot also inspired the Hindi comedy movie Half Ticket which had Kishore Kumar playing the kid supported by Madhubala and Pran.

When I remember of The Major and the minor - all I can think is Ginger Rogers and her different avatars in this movie. A beautiful scalp treatment lady; a 12-year old kid; alone girl wanting care and affection in the train;  a confused love struck belle who plays the centre of attraction to those hundreds of young cadets in the institute; a doll who resembles Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz; a maiden of the prom night; a young woman hopelessly lost and in love; a matured and elderly Mrs. Appleton or the lovely lady Susan who waits at the train station for Kirby towards the end. Take your pick and rest assured you will be left mesmerised with the ease in which she has portrayed all the above mentioned roles. 
Ginger Rogers and her different avatars in the movie