Tuesday, March 23, 2010


To all who decry the endless glut of remakes and sequels that seems to be pouring out of Hollywood and splashing all over our theaters, I’d like to offer some faint reassurance that this is nothing new. The biggest difference between the “sequel-itis” afflicting modern studios is lack of creativity in titling (Father of the Bride 2, really? Would “Father’s Little Dividend” really have gone over people’s heads?). Franchises have always provided the suits-that-be with quick no-brainer cash. Why do you think the Universal Monsters Classics sets come packed with so many “Bride Of The Son Of The Ghost Of The Return Of…” variations? It’s only when the laziness set in that we started numbering the rehashed sequels that we entered into Saw XIII ridiculousness.

As for remakes, today’s argument can be applied just as easily to the past. Audiences want something new, even if it’s merely something old in disguise. At least that’s the thought ingrained in the minds of studio-heads. When you further analyze why that thought exists, you run into William Goldman’s terror philosophy—all executives are terrified of losing their jobs, so they spend most of their time avoiding decisions. When it comes down to it, they’d rather do something that’s already been done before than dare anything new. Really, this is the human condition at work and it isn’t singular to the movie business. It’s only when the crackpot arrives on the scene that we learn the world is round or the Earth revolves around the sun. Lunatics challenge the establishment; the rational prefer the status quo. The opposite is only true when it comes to religion and politics.

So if you’re dismayed over all the retreads in the theaters—all the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street “reboots—let me put forth this example: over the course of just ten years, Warner Brothers produced three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. And through this example we can take away an exception to the accepted “rule” that “the original is always better”. At least in this case, it took them ten years and three tries to get the damned thing right.

It is unlikely that I’ll get much hate mail or argument if I make the bold statement that the 1941 version, the one we think of as The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, is the best of the three (if you do take umbrage, will you at least concede that it’s better than the George Segal vehicle The Black Bird?) and deserves its respected status as bona fide classic. For whatever faults modern eyes may find with the filmmaking of the fourth decade, the 1941 version still holds its own as a taut, intelligent and entertaining hard-boiled mystery. As for the previous versions…

The first on-screen adaptation in 1931 starred Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels in the roles of Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessey (renamed Ruth Wonderly, presumably to “un-Irish” the character). Cortez and Daniels were popular silent actors who made the rare transition to the talkies and seemed like good choices for the roles. Cortez’s Spade is more glib playboy than detective; his introduction after a woman emerges from his office, adjusting her stockings. He removes a sign from his doorknob reading “Busy”. His affairs with both secretary Effie (Una Merkel) and Iva Archer (Thelma Todd) are more explicitly outlined here as well, as is his animosity with his partner Miles Archer (a much older Walter Long), who knows all about the affair. Also played broader are the novel’s homosexual undertones: Effie facetiously describes Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson) as “gorgeous”; Wilmer the gunsel (Dracula co-star Dwight Frye) is blatantly referred to as Guttman’s (Dudley Digges) “boyfriend”. Ruth is even stripped naked (off screen) and searched late in the film. As Spade, Cortez smiles all the way through, never hinting that he feels in danger at any time and exhibits not even the slightest remorse when Archer is killed early on in the film, which is the impetus for Spade to turn in O’Shaunessey/Wonderly in the end. Without this motivation, his refusal to “play the sap” for Ruth comes off not only as callous but misogynistic. He’s had his fun, he got his reward, he’s done with her. On to the next dame. Cortez also lacks the sense that he is controlling the situations, as Bogart does easily through presence and delivery. Though following the novel just as faithfully as the 1941, right down to the now-familiar dialogue, the 1931 movie has no gravity to it. Under the creatively bereft Roy Del Ruth’s indifferent and unimaginative direction, the movie is light and disposable—Guttman poses no threat, implied or otherwise—and seems to just float away after it ends.

Soon after its release, the Hays Production Code kicked into full gear in Hollywood and the 1931 Maltese Falcon was declared too racy for the suddenly delicate audiences. Unable to re-release it, Warner Brothers exercised their copyrights and decided to remake the movie from scratch. Brown Holmes returned to retool the script for the stylish director William Dieterle and crafted a comedy to star Warner darling Bette Davis. This time around, Spade, Archer, Effie and O’Shaunessey—in fact, everybody—is jettisoned in favor of sideshow performers. Swashbuckling leading man Warren William appears as the morally-questionable “Tom Shane”, hired to find the legendary “Horn of Roland”, now supposedly filled with jewels, for Davis’ Valerie Purvis, thwarted along the way by the actually-pleasant-for-a-villain Madame Barabas (Alison Skipworth). More screen time is given to ditzy secretary “Miss Murgatroyd”, which isn’t a bad thing considering she’s embodied by Marie Wilson (often considered the inspiration for future dizzy blonde characters like those personified by Marilyn Monroe). Wilson is daffy, compared to William’s sleazy and obsequious Shane, who again shows no real concern over the murder of his partner (Winifred Shaw as a fussy Astrid Ames) and even carries on openly with Ames wife in his own home. In the end, there is no nobility in his selling out Valerie and is so robbed of his reward. In fact, she allows a washroom attendant to turn her over to the police in order to screw over Shane, which is actually the most satisfying scene in the movie.

Moving with a better pace than ‘31’s The Maltese Falcon, Satan Met a Lady benefits from moving out of the apartments and offices that kept Cortez’s Spade confined. The biggest benefit to the film (which pains me to say as I’m no advocate of the actress) is Bette Davis. While Marie Wilson is fun, Davis dominates the scenes she’s in, bringing control to the all-over-the-place performance of her co-star Warren Williams. Davis’s Valerie doesn’t even attempt the charade of the damsel in distress and pleasantly manipulates Shane into one situation after another in order to gain the ram’s horn (and later just to see if she can maneuver him out of her hair entirely). Davis famously detested this role and the production, demanding “better things” from Jack Warner, which resulted in a suspension for failing to report for filming early in the production. She acquiesced for monetary considerations only (her mother’s failing health a primary concern) and to her credit brings the nearly-thankless role to life. She’s a bright spot amidst the mugging, the milking and the winking at the camera.

Better thought-of now than during its release, which was criticized for looking cheap and dull by the New York Times (which also called for a “Bette Davis Reclamation Project (BDRP) to prevent the waste of this gifted lady's talents”), Satan Met a Lady still pales (actually, it virtually vanishes) in comparison with the Bogart/Huston/Lorre/Greenstreet 1941 version (which all but beats up and takes the lunch money of the pitiful 1931 Cortez catastrophe).

With disappointing box office returns met by both 1931 and 1936 outings, it’s actually a bit of a surprise that Warner Brothers opted to revisit the story and produce the 1941 classic. The prevailing attitude at the time seems to have been that since they owned the story, they might as well get the most out of it. It was virtually a tossed-bone to first-time director Huston and meant as a vehicle for hoofer-turned-leading man George Raft, but he famously turned it down because he refused to work with first-timers and felt that appearing in a remake was beneath him—a clause he actually inserted into his contract. Raft’s notorious ego may have been a detriment to him, but it was a boon to mankind as his refusal of projects led to Bogart’s continual success (he also turned down High Sierra, which ignited Bogart’s career). Huston rewrote the script sticking very closely to the novel (though careful to downplay anything that would annoy the censors) and his cast and direction brought Hammett’s carefully-crafted world to immortal life.

So the next time you moan to the gods “why o why” are they remaking this or that or the other, maybe—an admitted longshot—the new version will improve upon the original. Or, as in the case of The Maltese Falcon, prove that the third time is the charm.

That being said, I await in cautious trepidation for the Coen Brothers’ take on True Grit.

(Both films are available on one Warner Brothers DVD for all of your comparing and contrasting delight. All three can be had on anniversary DVD of The Maltese Falcon.)

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