Only a ‘Tumblr Refugee’ these days, I still keep tabs on several Tumblrs to see what I’ve missed. Gentleman Loser – Gentleman Junkie posted a lobby card from 1931’s The Maltese Falcon, which got me thinking about the one time I’d seen this oldie. Film Noir? Not quite. But it’s a rousing piece of retro crime melodrama nonetheless.
It was either during college or right after that I saw The Maltese Falcon the one and only time. No, not the the classic John Huston Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor ‘proto-noir’ film, but a 1931 pre-code version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, which had been published just a year earlier. Here, Latin-lover matinee idol Ricardo Cortez (real name: Jacob Krantz) plays Hammett’s iconic private eye Sam Spade as more of a well-groomed philanderer than the tough, hard-boiled P.I. Bogart made all his own ten years later. Bebe Daniels plays Ruth Wonderly, the Mary Astor Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy role. Take away Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond and Elisha Cook Jr., and obviously everything’s going to be quite different from The Maltese Falcon we know and love. But then, we do get Dwight Frye, Dracula’s Renfield, as small-framed but big-talking Wilmer Cook.
Like the 1941 version, this 1931 film follows Hammett’s novel pretty closely, but with random alterations for typical book-to-film condensation, screenwriter conceit and some who-knows-why modifications/additions. Huston-Bogart fans will be unpreprared for the convenenient Asian merchant who tips off Spade about partner Miles Archer’s murder, or the private eye’s new career revealed at the film’s end.
Some folks get all revved up about pre-code cinema, looking for lurid decadence and peekaboo thrills. There are websites, books and journal articles aplenty brimming with naughty film stills to support that expectation. Myself, I’ve learned not to expect too much. Along with the stage bound blocking, overacting and general ‘creakiness’ of some of the films, there’s rarely quite as much naughtiness as promised. It may be that pre-code cinema wasn’t really all that provocative, but merely seems so when compared to the subsequent two decades of over-sanitized Hollywood filmmaking.
Here, for instance, the opening shots include a nifty bit of leering business with a woman adjusting her stockings. Sam Spade’s illicit affair with partner Miles Archer’s wife/widow, played by Thelma Todd, is more plainly evident. The fortune hunters’ homosexuality relied on vague, teasing references in the 1941 version, but gets more acknowledgment in this earlier film, in keeping with the novel. (I was surprised to learn that “gunsel” was actually retro code for an older fellow’s younger gay boy-toy. And here I thought I knew my vintage slang!) Bebe Daniels’ Ruth Wonderly spends the night in Spade’s bed (alone), is strip searched (sort-of), takes a bubbly bath, and she does lounge about in a negligee. But that’s about it for pre-code sizzle. Nonetheless, when the studio tried to re-release the film just a few years later, the Hays Office rejected it for ‘lewd content’.
The Maltese Falcon was shot under the early working title of A Woman Of The World. When the film finally was re-released for television in the mid-sixties, it was retitled Dangerous Female, so as not to be confused with the (by-then) 1941 classic. In between, the studio remade the movie in an even lighter-toned version starring Bette Davis and called Satan Met A Lady, with names changed and the iconic black bird now a jewel-filled horn.
In this 1931 version, a denouement includes Sam Spade visiting Ruth Wonderly in jail, where we learn he’s now the Chief Investigator for the San Francisco D.A.’s office. On his way out, he prompts a prison matron to look after Wonderly and at his expense. I’ll take Huston’s glorious closing shots with the powerful Warner Brother’s studio orchestra pumping out composer Adolph Deutsch’s score, a resigned Brigid O’Shaughnessy descending in a gated elevator, off to her fate in prison, the electric chair…or hell. Now that’s what dreams are made of.