Saturday, June 22, 2013

Satan Met a Lady

Satan Met a Lady (William Dieterle, 1937) Warners' second adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcoln" done with a much freer hand and less devotion to the source novel.

When confronted with the Hays Office crackdown on lascivious content in movies, Warner Bros. found a lot of their catalog unreleasable for re-issues.  In the short term, they solved the problem by judicious cuts in audience favorites and by creating revamped versions of past product.  A new "Maltese Falcon" was put in production a scant five years after the first's release.  In the interim, another Hammett property had scored big at the box office; The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy had proven a sensation, and since nothings exceeds like success, "The Maltese Falcon" was freely adapted to be more in line with what worked with The Thin Man, more comedy and an emphasis on glamour and the high life.  So, Sam Spade became detective Ted Shane, as played by Warren William, a stetson-wearing rake, seen at the start of the film as being run out of town by some city-fathers and returning to his old haunts and old job at a detective agency in San Francisco.  Among his first clients is Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis) who warns of being tracked by a dangerous man, and before long, Shane's detective-partner (Porter Hall) is killed and the story begins anew.

Same story but, like Hammett's detective, the characters are significantly altered, if the track of story-line still stays basically the same.  Take, for example, Joel Cairo who is transformed into a stuffy Brit played by Arthur Treacher (rather than fisticuffs, Shane and the character do some jolly breakage in Shane's apartment); Kaspar Gutman is Madame—note thatMadame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth), and Wilmer is a thick gunman named Kenneth (Maynard Holmes), whom she dotes on, and Effie Perrine, the Spade and Archer receptionist is Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson), the epitome of a dumb blonde.  And the falcon?  It's now the legendary horn of Roland.  The whole debacle is treated as farce, with more interest in having a good time than actually acquiring the MacGuffin.

The film is directed by William Dieterle, one of Warners' prestige directors, having already directed their all-star version of A Midsummer's Night's Dream in 1935, and who would go on to direct the multi-Oscar winner The Life of Emile Zola, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and projects for David O. Selznick.  He keeps everything moving breezily for awhile, but the movie stops dead at the end with an exposition scene that makes up for lost dialogue and movie-time (the Huston version, four years later—the only one where the male lead is top-billed—has the same issue, but it's part and parcel of the drama).  Davis was so dismissive of the script that she stayed away from filming for three days, hoping to be taken off the job, in favor of the more serious, prestigious roles which she favored.

Satan Met a Lady probably did not need a falcon, as, by itself, it is one strange bird.  With its detective that is anything but private and sticks out like a sore thumb, its eccentric cross-gendering to appease the Catholics, and its game of "Who's got the horn," it does no justice to the source novel or the other Hammett adaptation its trying to ape.  Five years later, John Huston, hot from his scripting duties for Warners (including Dieterle's Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet) would take the property with another Warners B-player in the lead, and stay true to the novel by scratching awy at the layers of lacquer demanded by the studio, to find the gold underneath. 

William and Davis not seeing eye to eye

No comments: