Just to show how quickly things changed, in this movie Humphrey Bogart got fifth billing, being edged down the list not just by Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, but two others!
It is a movie-ization of a Robert Sherwood play set in the Arizona desert. Young, cute Davis works at a road stop while dreaming about traveling to France to study art and find life.
Then, dissipated, effete Howard shows up with his wry commentary on the world. (One can see why he was chosen to play Ashley a few years later.) Wouldn’t you know it, Bette falls for him.
Eventually, the room is full of archetypal characters. The gangsters create ominous tension which however is the backdrop for some dialogue that is quite funny and occasionally insightful. Grandpa Charley Grapewin (later: Uncle Henry in Wizard of Oz) is obviously full of admiration for the gangsters, and is actually delighted at their arrival, especially since it leads to getting a whiskey, which his grand-daughter usually denied him.
The American fascination with gangsters deserves more extensive treatment. This play suggests a parallel between the gangster and the land-subduing pioneer, with Howard telling Bogart, “You’re the last great apostle of rugged individualism.” But nature is rising up to gobble them both up, Howard had explained to Davis. Hence the title referencing the old order (of the forest now dead and petrified) about to be replaced by something full of life (personified by Bette).
Unfortunately, the best moments are diluted by waste material. “You’d get tired of a man that had nothing to do but worship you. That’s a dull kind of love: it’s the kind of love that makes people old too soon.” Sounds insightful, until you ask, what does it mean? Another play-write strategy: flatter the women and sell tickets: “Any woman’s worth everything that any man has to give: anguish, ecstasy, jealousy, love, hatred, life or death. You see, that’s the whole excuse of our existence.”
The first twenty minutes, and other moments as just indicated, are irritating, but stick with it. It does pay off.
The surprise ending is surprisingly satisfying.
Despite the fakey backdrops on the outdoor sets, Sicilian-born Sol Polito did excellent lighting and camera work.