Between 1954 and 1957, one of the most prestigious programs on American television was the monthly “Producers’ Showcase” on NBC. This big-budget offering served up all-star versions of classic dramatic works, musicals, and even special entertainments such as concerts and ballets. All of the programs were broadcast live (which was not uncommon in those days) and in color (which was very unusual since relatively few color televisions were installed at that time). Such luminaries as Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Cornell, Margot Fonteyn and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane made their first TV appearances under the “Producer’s Showcase” aegis.
The most famous title of the series was the Mary Martin version of “Peter Pan,” but this week’s column focuses on something which not as well known but far more intriguing: the “Producers’ Showcase” presentation of “The Petrified Forest” starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda. Broadcast on May 30, 1955, “The Petrified Forest” is a true curiosity which deserves attention as being a noble and distinguished failure.
“The Petrified Forest” is based on the play by Robert Sherwood, which is primarily remembered today for being the vehicle that gave Bogart his first taste of stardom. His performance as the gangster Duke Mantee electrified Broadway, and even his co-star Leslie Howard was in awe – so much that when Warner Bros. set about making the film version, Howard refused to star in the movie unless Bogart was also cast.
The fact “The Petrified Forest” is remembered for Bogart’s performance and not for the text itself is telling. Quite frankly, the Sherwood play is lousy. It is a talky, claustrophobic and credibility-free drama about the unlikely denizens of an isolated Arizona diner being held hostage by Duke Mantee and his gang of snarling miscreants. The central focus is the struggle between Mantee’s brute force and the romantic view of life by an idealist intellectual played by Leslie Howard. Casting Bogart as the tough and Howard as the intellectual helped immensely, as both actors injected their considerably talents into their respective one-dimensional roles.
Bogart was naturally fond of the Duke Mantee character and expressed an interest in reprising it for television. However, his nostalgia came with a price: $50,000, which for the time was the highest fee given to an actor for a single performance on the small screen. Sweetening the deal was casting Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall in the role of the daughter of the diner, who has her own dreams of escaping to Paris to study art. Rounding out the cast was Henry Fonda in the role of the intellectual who challenges Duke Mantee during the hostage crisis.
Unfortunately, the dream casting proved fatal on all counts. Bacall was 31 when she appeared in “The Petrified Forest” and, quite frankly, she was too mature and too sophisticated to be credible as the daughter of a small-town diner owner. With her distinct diction and trademark poise, she seemed as if she had returned from living in Paris for years rather than being an isolated girl seeking an adventure in France.
Complicating matters was Henry Fonda, who was unable to make sense of the romanticized mumbo-jumbo that Leslie Howard turned into gold in the stage and screen versions. Whereas Howard specialized in the guise of a world-weary idealist, Fonda’s middle American persona and voice cruelly exposed Sherwood’s text for being rot. His visible discomfort throughout the production could either be attributed to his unease at being on live TV or his slow dawning knowledge that he was miscast.
If one expected Bogart to save the day, forget it. Bogart appeared to be ill during the production – for the bulk of the show, he is seated and nearly immobile. Director Delbert Mann tried to hide Bogart’s lethargy by shooting him primarily in close-up, and the great actor did his best sneery growl in delivering his lines. But the menace and animalistic force of the character was absent; the enervated Bogart was as threatening as a 10-year-old doing a Bogart imitation. Bogart died less than two years after “The Petrified Forest” from cancer, and it is possible the disease was already draining his energy when “The Petrified Forest” aired.
There are some noteworthy trivia items here: “The Petrified Forest” was the first time a helicopter shot was incorporated into a live TV broadcast. And future sitcom icons Jack Klugman and Natalie Schafer had small supporting roles. Delbert Mann would graduate later in 1955 to the big screen by directing “Marty,” and he won the Academy Award for his direction of that classic.
The disappointment of “The Petrified Forest” ensured it would be quickly forgotten. Indeed, over the years all notions of the production faded from memory – to the point that when people tried to locate a copy of the broadcast in the decades after it was broadcast, it was considered lost. In the pre-video era of 1955, live television was preserved on something called a kinescope, which was basically a movie print made by aiming a 16mm camera at a TV monitor and recording the broadcast. It was an imperfect solution (if you ever see vintage TV shows, you can see the poor visual quality of the kinescopes), but it was better than nothing.
A kinescope of “The Petrified Forest” was located in the 1970s, albeit in black-and-white and without the soundtrack. The production was considered lost forever until Lauren Bacall located an extant 16mm black-and-white print in her private collection. It has since been determined that no color kinescopes exist of any of the “Producers’ Showcase” titles, so the original color broadcast is forever lost to us.
In 1992, a company called Producers’ Showcase Inc. (which claimed ownership of the 1950s productions) secured a new copyright certificate for “The Petrified Forest”; prior to that, there was confusion whether the production was in the public domain. Producers’ Showcase Inc., however, has not officially licensed this title for commercial home video release due to problems in talent clearance rights. According to the company’s web site, it is in negotiations with NBC to determine a commercially viable and mutually beneficial distribution deal.
However, “The Petrified Forest” has been circulating quietly for years as a bootleg video. The quality is okay, given the circumstances of its preservation. While it is not a great work (or even all that good, truth be told), it does offer Bogart fans a rare glimpse of the mighty performer at the twilight of his career and it is special as the last Bogart-Bacall teaming. And while one could wish it was a better work, even second-level Bogart is better than a lost production.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on April 15, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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