Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Overlooked Films: SATAN MET A LADY (1936)

Yeah, I still have Hammett on the brain, so here's a post I ran a few years ago about the second film version of The Maltese Falcon (the Bogie classic was the third) - and this time I have the movie to go with it, 

The bad news is, this is a really silly film. So silly that even Warren William can't keep a straight face, The good news is that it stars Warren William and Bette Davis, who are always interesting to watch, even when the movie sucks. And I wouldn't really say this one sucks. It's just , , , silly.

Watch it yourself and see:

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?

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)

Tune into SWEET FREEDOM for your weekly fix of Overlooked Films & Stuff.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Too bad!

Anonymous said...

I think your theory is the most likely explanation. That is, it was advertised as being by the author of The Thin Man, so they tried to emulate that movie. They probably assumed that the audience would expect a tongue-in-cheek mystery.

Similarly, the movie version of Mildred Pierce added a murder (not in the novel), maybe because it was "by the author of Double Indemnity," and they figured the audience would expect a film noir crime drama.

Todd Mason said...

Still better than DANGEROUS FEMALE, with the stiffness and the smugness of the lead...

Oscar Case said...

I may watch this just to see what the heck is going on. Was that Marie (The Body) Wilson?

Oscar Case said...

I may watch this just to see what the heck is going on. Was that Marie (The Body) Wilson?

Anonymous said...

George Raft turned down the chance to play Sam Spade in the 1941 version, invoking a clause in his contract that said he would only do A-list movies. Maybe he had seen the 1936 version (and/or the Ricardo Cortez version) and assumed from those that the latest remake could only be more of the same. That is, another run-of-the-mill "B" programmer.

Actually, the 1936 movie is mildly entertaining, if you accept it for what it is, and if you don't expect it to be a classic like the Bogart movie.

Stephen Mertz said...

Okay, you talked me into giving this one another chance. I like Warren Williams and I think your "Thin Man" theory provides the reason for his going off the rails in this one though this tendency does slip in as his Mason films went on. Although Spade in this film becomes Shane, Williams did manage to play Hammett's character and Mason and Philo Vance. Just re-watched The Dragon Murders last night. It's a good mystery film and Williams, reined in, is a fine Vance. Whenever I watch Warren Williams, I always think of him as the quintessential "hambo" actor in Bellem's Dan Turner stories. Regarding the '31 version of Falcon, it's a fine, tough little film...except for Ricardo Cortez.

Barry Ergang said...

Warren William in a Spade-like role is as convincing as Spanky McFarland portraying Mike Hammer.