Friday, October 28, 2005

Blackboarders discuss the first Maltese Falcon (1931) and Mary Astor in the 1941 version

Posted by Marie on 10/27/2005, 8:46 am
I picked this up for a pittance at a thrift store in a generic cover thinking it was simply an early talkie, when I discovered it was in fact, the original film of "The Maltese Falcon", made only a year after it was published. If you can get past the clunky, sometimes static pacing of early film's technical limitations, don't miss a chance to see this, as it was a fascinating, faithful version of the Hammett novel and Huston classic filled with marvelous performances by all the actors all around, that served to flesh out a story we could all recite in our sleep.
Roy Del Ruth directed with Ricardo Cortez playing a womanizing, ignoble (always wanted to use that word) arrogant and urbane Sam Spade, who though not as gritty as Bogey's, is somehow more practical and down to earth. He thinks only of himself in every situation. No false codes of loyalty for this guy. He's looking out for number one and out to score with as many females as possible. This sexually explicit version even raised my eyebrows. It begins with one of Spade's female clients pulling up her stockings after a tumble on the couch. The wonderful Una Merkel who plays Effie his secretary, looks tolerantly on even though she, too is having an intimate relationship with Spade. Thelma Todd, an actress who was murdered in sordid circumstances in real life, played Archer's wife, Spade's partner, with whom he was also having an afair. The more the merrier in this film!
Enter Bebe Daniels who plays the O'Shaughnessy role, called Miss Wonderley in this film. I have personally never bought Mary Astor in the role of "femme fatale" as I don't think she's beautiful enough (even though I adore her as an actress) but the beautifully dressed and seductive Daniels brought to life the greediness and pathological lying that is the lifeblood of this character. This precode gem has Daniels nude in a bathtub, sleeping in Spade's bed, and stripped in the kitchen.
The real revelation to me was the grotesque trio of Gutman, Cairo & Wilmer, marvelously played by Dudley Diggs as Gutman, a much sleazier character with a spit curl on his forehead, his "boyfriend" (pointedly referred to in this film) Wilmer Cook, (Elisha Cook Jr. in the Huston film), here played by Dwight Frye, the wretched Renfield of "Dracula" fame. And Joel Cairo was played by another really great character actor. These three hammed it up to the max and created what I'm sure were the permanent imprint in Huston's mind. The film is rife with the spirit of desperation and unbridled greed by the four baddies in the story.
This one was far, far superior to the Bette Davis "Satan Met A Lady" version. Though I didn't care much for Ricardo Cortez, his Spade's characterization became strangely believable as the movie went on. I recommend this one to all students of early cinema, and to the Hammet and Falcon fans.

Posted by G.George on 10/27/2005, 9:54 am, in reply to "Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"

I generally stay away from films much before, say...1939. IMO, film/camera/lighting technology took some big leaps forward around this time,
as did the make-up trade (I hate those old mime-looking make-up jobs from early films!). If you want an example of improvement in acting technique and direction, just watch anything Bogart did pre-1940...he didn't become "Bogie" until FALCON. make DANGEROUS FEMALE sound deliciously depraved! I love Hammitt's novel, and it would be interesting to see the first filmed version of the book... and while I don't really even know what Richard Cortez looks like, I may have to dig this one up somewhere for a look.
I like you're line about John Huston having DF burned into his mind...good point, and I've always wondered why he choose THE MALTESE FALCON as his first film, with it being filmed twice before...the reasons are obvious now, but I'm sure some folks thought he was nuts back then.
Thanks for the tip, Marie, and a great write-up on a film I'll have to catch.

Posted by Marie on 10/27/2005, 10:17 am, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
I'll pop it in the mail to you for a gander. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who's never seen it before.
If you can get past the hopelessly stagey "tough guy" patter (especially in the beginning of the film), you will find it worthwhile. Stay with it. I too, always wondered why Huston chose this as his first film.

Posted by Rand on 10/27/2005, 2:06 pm, in reply to "Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
I taped this years ago on TCM and agree with you. Anyone who likes Huston's version should check this out. It actually was titled THE MALTESE FALCON and only retitled after the Huston/Bogart remake became such a hit. I think it was TCM that retitled it. I also agree about Mary Astor. She is the only false note in Huston's casting. My first exposure to TMF was the book, not the film and would highly recommend reading Hammet's version. The first and the third versions owe their style and most of their dialogue to the book, and that is what makes them far better than SATAN MET A LADY which is terrible, basically a complete rewrite of the basic premise. Sort of like IN A LONELY PLACE, except in that instance, the rewrite was far superior to the novel on which it's based.
Speaking of pre-code, Cortez made another interesting film with Kay Francis called MANDALAY that also featured some pretty blatant sexual content, including Kay dropping her bath towel in front of him and Cortez selling Francis into sexual slavery (to Warner Oland better known as Charlie Chan) to finance a smuggling project.
Do you know Warner's considered titling Huston's version of TMF THE GENT FROM FRISCO? That alone might have been enough to torpedo both Huston's and Bogart's careers instead of launching them into superstardom.

Posted by Marie on 10/27/2005, 3:33 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Rand, you couldn't have voiced it better:
"She is the only false note in Huston's casting".
Rand, I have always privately thought this, and since Falcon hinges so much on the O'Shaughnessy character, the story has never rung true for me, or packed much of a punch, despite enjoying the hell out of it over the years. I realize most people don't agree but that's ok. Agree with you too on Satan Met A Lady -absolutely terrible! Thanks for all the info on the name(s) - I had no idea TCM renamed it, and the terrible Gent from Frisco name is new to me too.
Rand, you are my friend for life, simply mentioning Kay Francis. I'm crazy about K.Francis movies, such glorious fluff that they are. I think Ricardo Cortez mostly played gigolos and latin lovers, but I think he was originally from Vienna! (typical). I must say my estimation of his skills have gone up since seeing him as Sam Spade.

Posted by charles c. on 10/27/2005, 4:33 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Who do you all think would have made a better Brigid in 1941? How about Kay Francis? She wasn't a great actress, but she had the looks, bearing and glamour to pull off the part. Anyone else that might have been more suitable than Astor?

Posted by Miss Smith on 10/27/2005, 4:46 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
All of my dislike for Kay Francis aside (Don't hate me, Marie.), I'm going to stick up for Mary in this part. She wasn't your typical femme fatale but was cast in a more upper crusty mold as Brigid. Whether the character's real antecedents were upper class seems unlikely but I really like her totally faked vulnerability, put-on airs and feigned shock at the suddenly seedy and violent turn her life has taken. She plays Spade like a fiddle right up until the penny drops. Please. Isn't that what successful femmedom is all about, no matter what the technique? Femmes fatales come in a lot more colors than black with liquor and cigs. I really like her approach. It's certainly fatal and it makes a nice change from the more obvious displays of other gals. Think of Mary as finishing school fatale.
Miss S

Posted by Rand on 10/27/2005, 5:17 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Miss Smith
As I stated in my earlier post, I came to the movie having read the book. In the book, Miss Wonderly (the first, false name she gave Spade), is a drop-dead knockout, the kind of woman men immediately fall in lust with, as did Spade's partner, Miles Archer. Poor Mary just didn't fill that bill. Also I found her acting overly mannered, stage acting really, as if having to reach people who were sitting hundreds of feet away. By 1941 most film actors no longer were wed to that necessity. Mary wasn't nearly so overwrought in ACROSS THE PACIFIC and was quite convincing in DESERT FURY. Even in 1932's RED DUST with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, her performance was much more in tune with performing on film rather than the stage. Maybe it was Huston's direction.
As to Charles' question; any number of actresses might have played Brigid but the best one, based on her performance in several later femme fatale roles, would have been Ann Sheridan.

Posted by Marie on 10/27/2005, 8:14 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
I certainly agree with you Mary was a nice change of pace from the usual gals, and that there are all kinds of us out there. But her particular type of upper-crust, patrician sex-appeal seemed wrong for the picture, which was, after all, quite gritty. Scratch her and underneath you'd still find that well-brought up young lady, that served her so well in Dodsworth & Red Dust, etc., when she was used as a foil for all the "trampy" types. I couldn't see Bogey's Spade going for her in a big way. This is the impression I had when I was a young person seeing the film for the first time, and it's the impression I retain today.
That's not to say I don't adore Mary Astor. She's usually great in anything and I like her type of movies. She's written some great books about Hollywood, too. Really, one of the grand dames, of film noir and filmdom, to be sure.

Posted by Marie on 10/27/2005, 8:17 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Kay Francis had lost her looks by the time the later Falcon was made. I definitely see someone like Ella Raines, Ann Sheridan or Ava Gardner playing that role.

Posted by Don Malcolm on 10/27/2005, 11:54 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Kay Francis had lost her looks by the time the later Falcon was made. I definitely see someone like Ella Raines, Ann Sheridan or Ava Gardner playing that role.
I recall that FE told us some time back that Huston's first choice for the role of Bridgid O'Shaugnessy was actually Geraldine Fitzgerald, but she turned him down.
Raines and Gardner weren't in Hollywood in 1941. But a "dark-haired vixen" would seem to be the appropriate choice for Brigid, so I think that Huston was on the right track in his initial casting idea...

Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - A TCM title?
Posted by Robert Land on 10/27/2005, 4:18 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
I don't think so. It was pretty common to retitle movies on their re-release, especially if they were cut down and shipped as co-features. Also, if the movie had any life in the early days of television, it might have been re-titled by Movietime or one of the other syndicators. On the other hand, I can't actually remember a case where TCM did re-title a movie.

Anybody have a pre-TCM copy of Leonard Maltin's book lying around?

Posted by Paul M on 10/27/2005, 4:30 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - A TCM title?"
In my '98 copy of the Maltin guide, its listed as The Maltese Falcon, with the note, "retitled Dangerous Female for TV". fyi...

Posted by Robert Land on 10/27/2005, 4:35 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - A TCM title?"
My guess would be that a syndicator did it, a long time ago. I'll see if I can find an older edition.

Posted by Miss Smith on 10/27/2005, 4:35 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - A TCM title?"
It does sound odd, doesn't it? Looking in a 1994 version of Halliwell's, Dangerous Female's listing merely says to look at TMF where both entries are listed. Poking around in the ether wasn't much help either except to add the trivia that at one point the 1931 production had a working title of Woman of the World. I must admit, I rather like that and it sure as shootin' beats the Gent from Frisco.
Miss S

Posted by BmacV on 10/27/2005, 3:08 pm, in reply to "Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Nice call, Marie. It's a surprisingly good movie, and much closer to the times and sensibilities of when the novel itself was written. I think all fans of the iconic '41 Falcon owe it to themselves to give this version a glom.

Posted by Paul M on 10/27/2005, 4:33 pm, in reply to "Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Thanks for sharing, a fascinating read, haven't seen this one, not I want to.
Gar's comments about pre-1939 films are somewhat debatable; for me, the directorial style is what kills a lot of the earlier films. For example, I can watch the first two Thin Man films, or Hitchcock's Sabotage or The Lady Vanishes, and love it. Or M. But some of those other pre-40s films...yawn.

Posted by Paul M on 10/27/2005, 4:34 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Wow...I must be tired...just re-read my post and typos galore. Where’s those noir cigarettes n coffee? :)

Posted by Marie on 10/27/2005, 8:48 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
I somehow end up seeing a lot of thirties' movies, and a great deal of them are so dated it's hard to sit through the predictable dialog, slow pacing, weird humor, boring ethnic stereotypes, etc., but then one comes along that is as fresh, irreverent, and humorously sophisticated as a contemporary film - and it's like a miracle!

Posted by charles c. on 10/27/2005, 4:36 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
Once you get past the very early talkies, I enjoy many of the 1930's movies. Particularly the ones from Warners as those films MOVE.

Posted by G.George on 10/27/2005, 5:58 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"

...I wouldn't debate the "merit" of films from the 30's...hey, I still like many of those Warner Bros. flicks, especially those with Cagney, Raft, and Bogie...and the Marx Bros. can still make me laugh after all these years.
It's just that (imo) films got much "better" in the forties...that "kabuki" pancake makeup just drives me nuts (not to mention all the other stuff they applied to the boys back then), and the stage-like acting style (mentioned above in regards to Ms. Astor in FALCON) leaves me pretty cold.
BTW, I'm in the "replace Mary Astor in FALCON" camp...and Annie Sheridan is a nice choice, Rand. Also, Susan Hayward appeared in AMONG THE LIVING that same year, and I always thought she was a babe that could turn ANY guy into silly putty at hello. Ida Lupino did HIGH SIERRA in '41, and while not as hot as Annie or Susie, she also would have been good/better in the role, imho. For me, Mary just wasn't "hot enough" for all these guys to fall that hard...sorry, Miss S.!
Miles Archer

Posted by Dan in the MW on 10/27/2005, 9:57 pm, in reply to "Re: Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
As a general rule, I would agree that the cinematic art took a giant leap forward in the Forties. Technological advances helped to be certain.
Nevertheless, certain films made a decade earlier can still astonish. "The Most Dangerous Game" has been refilmed several times, but I think the original is still the best. "The Island of Lost Souls" is another film that outshines its remakes.

Posted by Markham on 10/27/2005, 7:01 pm, in reply to "Dangerous Female -1931 - The first Maltese Falcon"
I actually like Astor's approach as opposed to Daniel's. Here's a woman who KNOWS she can't cover up her crooked past no matter what, and its pretty easy to figure that Spade's not going to play easy on her. So what does she do? She makes herself out to be this rigid, sexless, incompetent pathetic thing. Spade knows she's lying, but he gets a kick out of her bad schoolgirl act and plays along.
Astor exhibited a good amount sexuality the same year in another b###h role, "The Great Lie". I think she chose to approach it in a different way.
As for the 31' version, I liked it the same, but both are pretty different and I think Gutman, Cairo, and Cook were SO much better in the remake then the original. I don't know, I wasn't extremely impressed with Bebe Daniels performance, it just seemed like another "pre-code sex crazed vamp" to me.

Posted by Miss Smith on 10/28/2005, 5:06 am, in reply to "Re: My Thoughts on Mary"

We thank you for your support, Markham. And I think that the fact that Huston wanted another very classy dame, Geraldine Fitzgerald, for the part supports my contention that they were looking for someone with a more understated sexuality and a fair measure of refinement. I adore Ann Sheridan but I just can't see her in this role. It's really inseparable with Mary to me, although I think Fitzgerald would have done a great job too. While we're playing the replacement game, anyone wish to add better choices for Greenstreet, Lorre or even, yes, I'll say it, BOGIE?

Miss S

Posted by Ken Z on 10/28/2005, 8:29 am, in reply to "Re: My Thoughts on Mary"

Sorrry, but the idea of replacing Sidney Greenstreet borders on blasphemy, IMHO. He was born for that part. Lorre, Bogie, Eliasha Cook Jr., stay too - great ensemble effort.

As for Mary Astor, I wouldn't say she was totally miscast, but there were probably better choices.
I'll bet if she didn't have that wacky, ultra-short hairdo that she might have come off a little more sultry.

Marie, thanks for bringing up the earlier edition - I'd heard of it, but never in such glowing terms. Sounds like a riot to see.

Posted by Miss Smith on 10/28/2005, 9:45 am, in reply to "Casting "The Falcon""

The whole thing borders on blasphemy. It's a nearly perfect film and I'm certainly not qualified to second guess the choices.

Miss S

P.S. The hair isn't ultra-short. It's just parted in a way that was common and fashionable then and looks weird now. Check it out from the back and you'll see what I mean.

Posted by Ken Z on 10/28/2005, 9:53 am, in reply to "My point exactly, Ken"

ooops....guess I took you a little too literally.

About the hair - do you think there's a connection between "that-matronly-look" & a lack of sensuality?
For me it's a total turnoff - I've always wondered what Bogie saw in her.

Posted by charles c. on 10/28/2005, 10:17 am, in reply to "Re: My point exactly, Ken"

I saw Maltese Falcon for a college film course I took on the films of John Huston. In our discussion with the prof the next day, several people commented on Mary Astor's matronly look and wondered how anyone could cast her in a femme fatale type role. My prof responded that back in 1941, Mary Astor, due to some personal scandal (i think it involved a diary documenting her busy sex life) had a hot reputation and audiences of the time would have no problem believing Mary Astor in such a a part. Astor is a good actress, but her look works against her in Maltese Falcon.

Posted by Miss Smith on 10/28/2005, 11:18 am, in reply to "Re: My point exactly, Ken"

I think you've put this in just the social context that explains the whole thing. Thanks, Mr.C. Mary's certainly not my idea of sexy but then neither is Shelley Winters and she was supposed to be sex kitten. No accounting for tastes, I guess.

Miss S

Posted by Don Malcolm on 10/28/2005, 10:33 am, in reply to "Re: My Thoughts on Mary"

While we're playing the replacement game, anyone wish to add better choices for Greenstreet, Lorre or even, yes, I'll say it, BOGIE?

Well, of course, Miss S, we all know that you could replace Bogie with George Raft and have exactly the vision that ol' Jack Warner had in "mind" in the first place (yechh!!)

And as for Lorre, wouldn't you rather see Percy Helton as Joel Cairo? Or maybe Franklin Pangborn?? Whee-ee!!!

Posted by Miss Smith on 10/28/2005, 11:20 am, in reply to "Re: My Thoughts on Mary"

Oh, this getting heady, Don! Dare not to speak the sacred syllables of Franklin Pangborn! I see you one Pangborn and raise you an Eric Blore!!! Tread lightly or I shall unsheath my Hans Conried.

Miss S

Posted by Don Malcolm on 10/28/2005, 11:28 am, in reply to "Re: My Thoughts on Mary"

There ya go, Miss S... Hans Conried + three pillows strapped to 'im = Caspar Gutman!!

Posted by Miss Smith on 10/28/2005, 11:43 am, in reply to "Re: My Thoughts on Mary"

Having had the pleasure of watching the 5000 Fingers of Dr. T with little Veda last night, Hans is fresh in my memory. I'll get back to in a couple of days when i can be more objective. I do think that Gutman might have really enjoyed some of Dr. T's more silken lounging gear. The man knew a good dressing gown.

Miss S


Michael Powers said...

I'm flummoxed by this business about Mary Astor not being beautiful enough to carry the part. That's literally one of the most shocking things I've ever read: Astor was easily one of the most truly gorgeous women ever captured on film. Making Brigid such a high-toned creature took the film up another notch; I wish I could remember exactly how Hammett presented her in the novel but I haven't reread it in about a year and can't quite remember. By the way, I recently saw the Houston version at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, on a big screen, this is clearly Bogart's one really stunning performance, and he never did anything again that could begin to touch it, not even his turns in "Casablanca" and "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" (and Bogart in "The African Queen" really shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath). I've never seen the 1931 Falcon but I'd love to. As for the comment about preferring films after 1939 to those before, I'm exactly the opposite: movies were dealt two terrible blows. One was the coming of dialogue just when silent film and those with a soundtrack but no dialogue had reached a new peak as an art form, and again a decade later with the onslaught of World War II. It's no accident that 1939 is viewed as the high point of sound movies since it was the last year that films were released that had been made before the war. Me, I agree with Bogdanovich that the transitional films between silents and sounds, from about 1927 to '29, are the most entertaining films ever made.

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