Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Maltese Falcons for the birds

I blame The Thin Man. Why else would anyone have wanted to film The Maltese Falcon not just once but twice as a comedy?

The movies in question are The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936). Watch either at your peril, especially if you know Dashiell Hammett's novel or the celebrated 1941 film version with Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre.

On second thought, the 1931 version is odd less for its considerable comic moments than for its casting of Ricardo Cortez (real name: Jacob Krantz), who played Sam Spade as an eyebrow-raising Latin lover. Weird all around, to the point where the occasional displays of emotion seem strange and intrusive.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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18 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

I'm getting them next week from Netflix. I will attempt to be prepared and will fortify myself with sufficient pain-deadening medication.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Cullen Gallagher said...

I'm a big fan of the 1931 version. It's not necessarily 100% faithful, but it does have its own unique conception of Spade, and its playful sexuality is decidedly pre-code and far less stringent than in later adaptations.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, perhaps you might need a tranquilizer to deaden the shock rather than a painkiller. The movies are not awful, at least not the 1931 version, but they are very different from Hammett's novel and the 1941 film.

Once I get over my own shock, I might prepare a post about some of the good things in both movies as well as a discussion of some of the bad ones.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cullen, the idea of bringing out Spade's lecherous side has a firm basis in the novel, but expressing that lecherousness through a leering, grinning 1930s-style Latin lover would wear hard on audiences today, I think. It's the execution rather than the idea that had me rolling my eyes.

The pre-code sexuality was one thing I knew about the 1931 version before I saw it. We get it right from the beginning, with that shot of Effie's legs, and there are many other examples.

The sexuality, I expected, but not that it would be so playful. Duddley Digges' Casper Gutman was effective, but he seemed to have wandered over from a Noel Coward play. And all that playfulness makes an awkward combination with what is supposed to be an emotional ending.

Those were the days of Little Caesar and Ernst Lubitsch, and I don't think the filmmakers blended the two tendencies all that well.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Peter, I'm now imagining Little Caesar as directed by Lubitsch, and it's given me my first laugh of a rather ordinary day.

I've seen When Satan Met a Lady, though many years ago, and my strongest memories are that a) it was a silly idea that wasn't executed well enough to make it less silly, and b) that Bette Davis should stay far, far, far, far away from comedies. (Garbo could be funny; Barbara Stanwyck could be funny; Bette Davis could not.

Actually, give in the date on the film, I think it was one of the things which contributed to Davis' conviction she was being given bad roles and decided to sue Warner Brothers. (She lost, but Olivia de Havilland, who is actually still alive, won a similar case later.)

I do wonder what William Dieterle did to deserve *Satan.* It doesn't quite fit with the rest of his career...

Incidentally, my favourite film of a Hammett novel will always be the 1934 "Thin Man."

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

By the way, while I know about any number of other actors changing their Jewish names, I didn't know this applied to Cortez. I'm fairly sure he's the only one who went Latino though (was it his choice?) - it makes sense that this was in the silent era when such characters were still heroic. Post Valentino, I think heroes became less and less ethnic.

The article linked from the Cortez page on Wikipedia has a classic title - "Hollywood Unmasked: Latin Lover is Kosher Butcher’s Son."

I'm particularly fond of the quote from his wife: "Many persons who have followed my career on the screen and stage mistake me for a Jewess. This belief perhaps was strengthened when I married Ricardo Cortez, my third husband, the only one I ever really loved, and whom I am now trying to divorce.

Although I didn’t find it out until almost a year after our marriage, Ric, instead of being a gallant Spanish caballero which I believed him, was the son of a kosher butcher, with a shop on First Avenue, New York City. His real name is Jacob Krantz."

Hmmmm.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, Little Caesar has dated poorly, I think. Trouble in Paradise, on the other hand, remains to this day the closest to a perfect movie I have seen.

I think you're dead on about Satan Met a Lady: bad idea poorly executed. I'm a little easier on Bette Davis than you are, though. She obviously was not terribly well suited to light comedy, but she was enough of a professional to do a workmanlike job with the role, without the giggling and overenthusiastic line delivery that defines comedy for inferior actors.

With respect to a good director having been given a bad movie, I suspect the producers had the bright idea of trying to duplicate The Thin Man's success. One Hammett novel was as good to them as any other. They even brought back Porter Hall, who played MacCaulay in The Thin Man, and cast him in the Miles Archer role, a role that contends for the film's silliest.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Wikipedia article on Cortez says Hollywood producers changed his name. And I suppose that many of the leering shots of Cortez in The Maltese Falcon are direct holdovers from silent film's discovery of the close-up.

I would not bet my entire week's salary that the disappointed Mrs. Cortez/Krantz uttered the words attributed to her. That is a classic title, though. Perhaps someone could make a biopic about her called I Married a Butcher. Ok, a butcher's son, but who's counting?

July 22, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

If "Little Caesar" has dated poorly, this may be attributed partly to our inability to see it through the eyes of its 1931 audience. Reading the 1929 novel recently I had to remind myself that the somewhat stereotypical characters were _not_ stereotypes but prototypes for hundreds of characters in subsequent gangster books and films.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right. That's why I was careful to specify that Little Caesar had dated poorly, not that it was a bad movie. I don't know enough about the era to be able to speculate about how contemporary audiences might have received the movie.

Maybe if I have a couple of hours to spare for analysis some evening, I'll rent it again and try to figure out why I think the way I do. Perhaps this archetype has not aged as well as some others because, as striking as his performance might have been at the time, Edward G. Robinson was not that great an actor.

July 22, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

And other than being short, Robinson bears no resemblance to Burnett's description of Rico -- thin, pale. The terse, flat dialogue of the book, punctuated by plenty of "yeah" "all right" and "see?" was overplayed for effect in the film. This is an irritating distraction for us today when watching many of the early talkies. Robinson parodied himself through the repetition of "see?" in other films (and played for laughs in Warner Bros cartoons) but its use, and that of other 1920s interjections and slang, in the novel added to its feeling of authenticity. I love this little representative paragraph from early on in the novel: Rico was a simple man. He loved but three things: himself, his hair and his gun. He took excellent care of all three.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That is a beautiful paragraph. I have at least one story by Burnett in anthology at home. Maybe I'll read it tonight.

And yes, that "see?" gets on my nerves. I bet he said "Get me?" a time or two in the movie as well.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger the editor., said...

Hello! Peter Rozovsky,

I most definitely, have to agree with all the previous commenters and their comments.

Being a fan of actor Humphrey Bogart(Whom by the way, my mother and brother introduced me to through director John Huston's 1941film The Maltese Falcon hmmm...maybe 3 or 4 years ago.
(I most definitely, thank them both...For it was this introduction, which set me on the path to discovering, film noir, but I have not read Hammett's book The Maltese Falcon yet...Go figure!)

By the way, I too received The Maltese Falcon special edition box set as a gift.(Which includes all three films, but of course!)
and...
...all I can say, after viewing all three versions is...Thank Goodness! for author Dashiell Hammett, John Huston, and following the script!

Hmmm...
What a Very interesting post indeed!
Thanks,
DeeDee ;-D

July 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Huston's version certainly explored the novel's dark side in ways the earlier movies did not.

I wonder what Hammett's reputation might be today had the 1941 movie never been made.

July 23, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

And am I the only one who's noticed how many times Huston's celebrated version utilizes the same camera shots and even duplicates the way the actors hit on some of the lines from the previous version?

Huston's version is far superior, but much of it seems reworked from the 1931 version.

July 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Speak of the ... I have just browsed the Thrilling Detective Web site for research on another post.

I noticed some similarities in the line readings, which made the lighter tone of the earlier movie all the more jarring. I got the feeling that Huston and company must have felt they were bringing to fruition what the earlier movies had only hinted at.

Some of the camera set-ups were similar, too, but the lighting was obviously a lot harsher in Huston's version. Without the movies in fromt of me, I seem to recall roughly similar set-ups in the first meeting between Spade and Gutman, though the first version lacked the imposing low-angle shots that made Sidney Greenstreet's Gutman so imposing.

July 23, 2009  
Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

On second thought, the 1931 version is odd less for its considerable comic moments than for its casting of Ricardo Cortez (real name: Jacob Krantz), who played Sam Spade as an eyebrow-raising Latin lover.


I just saw this movie. And the only thing Latin about Ricardo Cortez was his name. He portrayed Sam Spade strictly as a hard-boiled, yet womanizing American.

November 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. It's always nice to receive comments on an older post.

I'd suggest that the only thing Latin about the Latin lover stereotype may have been the word Latin. The "Cortez" character's exaggerated smoothness with women definitely played up to stereotypes popular in Hollywood at the time.

November 09, 2009  

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