03 June 2015

Another Side of Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda was such a great film actor that we forget he was a very successful stage actor, too. Everybody loves Mister Roberts, the movie, and it is largely forgotten that Fonda starred in it on Broadway to great critical and audience acclaim. 

Fonda in Mister Roberts

We can get a rough glimpse of the charisma and authority he might have shown onstage, though admittedly it's a very rough glimpse. There is a 1955 live television version of Robert E. Sherwood's play The Petrified Forest presented in a series called Producer's Showcase. The play is so strongly identified with Leslie Howard, who starred in the original Broadway production and the 1936 film, that casting an American in the role he took gives a whole different resonance. In this production, directed by Delbert Mann, Lauren Bacall plays Gabrielle, Humphrey Bogart plays Duke Mantee (recreating his breakthrough performance in the original Broadway production, in his first live tv performance ), and Henry Fonda takes the Alan Squier role.  

Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda in The Petrified Forest, 1955

It was extremely well done, with a supporting cast including Jack Warden, Richard Jaekel, and Jack Klugman. Bogart is as riveting as he must have been in the original production. And Fonda is absolutely terrific. He was obviously perfectly secure with live performance. And his flat, midwestern voice makes Alan's bitterness and self-loathing all the more stinging. 

Henry Fonda was an extraordinarily versatile actor, yet he imagined his varied roles without changing his face or his voice -- it was the inside of the character that was different. He was never flashy, but always deeply committed; and he could be equally effective in a highly polished comedy diamond like The Lady Eve or a truly serious drama like The Grapes of Wrath. 

The Petrified Forest is viewable on youtube -- barely. What's available is apparently a copy of a vhs copy of a kinescope, and the picture is simply horrible. But you might find it worth looking up if you're a big fan of the play, of Bogart, or of Fonda.