To lay the groundwork . . . Warner Brothers had purchased the screen rights to the Hammett novel and released the first (relatively faithful) film version back in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez as Spade. The film bombed. But by 1936, following the film version of The Thin Man, Hammett’s star was flying high, and they decided to exploit it. Trailers for Satain Met a Lady touted it as being from “Dashiell Hammett, author of The Thin Man.”
Because only five years had passed, they must have figured it was too soon for a remake of the Falcon, so they turned the story inside out and upside down and tried to disguise it as something different. And in that they succeeded. It’s different as hell.
First, as you already know, the title was changed. Then the falcon became the Horn of Roland. And the characters got new names, and - in some cases - new genders and sexual preferences.
Sam Spade morphed into a goofus named Ted Shane, portrayed like a maniac off his meds by Warren William. Bette Davis, who got top billing, is actually only a bug-eyed bit player in the ersatz Bridget O’Shaughnessy role. Arthur Treacher, as “the tall Englishman,” fills in for Joel Cairo. Instead of Wilmer the gunsel we get a pudgy dork in a beret. And the Casper Gutman substitute is a woman.
Warren William, who behaved like a reasonably sane human being in the first Perry Mason movies, seems to have completely lost it here, launching into giggling fits or roaring like King Kong with no provocation. Many scenes are so goofy they leave you wondering What the hell was that?, but the worst was the all-important history lesson laying out the origin and importance of the Horn of Roland. The tale is tossed off between gags as Shane and the Englishman cavort around his apartment playing ring-toss with a lampshade.
Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Actually, the film does have its moments, like whenever the Effie character (here known as Miss Murgatroyd and played by Marie Wilson) is on stage. Yeah, she’s goofy too - in a Lucille Ball sort of way - but I like better her in the role than the real Effie in the Bogart version. And the dialogue, while almost entirely Hammett-free, is sometimes snappy.
So. What possessed Warner Brothers to turn the Falcon into a slapstick farce? I have a theory. In 1936, Hammett’s fame among movie-goers was based mostly on the movie version of The Thin Man that had hit it big two years earlier. To them, Hammett meant Nick and Nora characters who were always clowning around. So that’s what the studio tried to give them, twisting The Maltese Falcon into their version of The Thin Man. To me, that’s the only way this movie makes sense. What do you think?
Tune into SWEET FREEDOM for your weekly fix of Overlooked Films & Stuff.
Warren William as Ted Shane
Shane and the bug-eyed Lady
Marie Wilson as Miss Murgatroyd (Effie)
Arthur Treacher as Travers (Joel Cairo)
Maynard Holmes as Kenneth (Wilmer)
Alison Skipworth (left) as Madame Barabbas (The Fat Lady)