“Bugle, bugle, who’s got the bugle?”

As part of our week-long celebration of the 70th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon (1941), today we are taking a look at the second film version of Dashiell Hammett’s pulp crime novel. For a brief introduction to the 1941 film, check out our post on Falcon from last year. For a more in-depth synopsis of the film’s plot, we recommend the AMC FilmSite entry about the movie.

In 1935, Warner Bros., unable to re-release the somewhat racy 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon due to stricter enforcement of the Production Code, decided to film a second version of the novel. The studio assigned an unenthusiastic William Dieterle to the director’s chair, an unwilling Bette Davis to the leading lady role, and pre-Code heartthrob Warren William to the pivotal role of Sam Spade … er, I mean, “Ted Shane.” The end result, released in 1936, was nothing short of underwhelming; to call the film a “misfire” is a severe understatement (the term that comes to my mind is “clusterfuck,” in case you were wondering).

The job of adapting the book into screenplay form was given to Brown Holmes, who had also worked on the screenplay for the earlier film. One would think that his previous experience with the material would result in something that was greatly similar to the original production. But the resulting script was merely a loose adaptation of Falcon. Now, when I say “loose,” I mean LOOSE. The screenplay ultimately had little in common with the source material. Holmes, in what appears to be an attempt to imbue the film with a farcical sense of irreverence, changed the characters’ names (and even one character’s gender), their personalities, and even the film’s “MacGuffin,” for the fabled gold-and-jewel-encrusted falcon was changed to an ivory ram’s horn stuffed with gems. Elements of the plot were altered to the point that any similarities to Falcon seem, in hindsight, almost coincidental. In short … this just ain’t Hammett’s story.

Satan’s “Spade” figure lacks the subtlety and the ambiguity of Hammett’s characterization. In fact, there’s nothing very subtle about Ted Shane–he’s painted as greedy, ambitious, and an unrepentant womanizer. Every woman he meets is greeted as “Kitten,” regardless of her actual name. William plays the role almost tongue-in-cheek; Shane is not meant to be taken seriously, despite the seriousness of the trouble he’s in. There is no sense of mystery to Shane’s motives. If Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade values women above all, and Humphrey Bogart’s values self-reliance, then William’s Shane is most concerned with gain–monetary gain, romantic gain, ego boosts, and whatever else he can get. In this sense, Shane is perhaps the most mercenary of the Spade incarnations … though this is undermined greatly by his sheer goofiness. After all, can you really refer to a man who imitates King Kong as a “mercenary?”

Davis absolutely loathed the experience of making the film. The actress, who demonstrated a keen eye for quality throughout much of her career, knew the script was bad and that the part of Valerie Purvis virtually reeked of “vapidity,” as she would later state in her memoirs. But while Davis may not have wanted to make the film, she simply did not have it in her to deliver a half-assed performance, regardless of the weaknesses of the concept. As a result, Davis is easily the best thing about Satan Met a Lady. Valerie is scripted as more antagonistic than other versions of Brigid O’Shaughnessy–she is combative from the start, and instead of manipulating Shane through her feminine wiles, Valerie (at least initially) relies on a pistol to get her way. Because of this, she is a much less effective female foil for the detective. Still, Davis manages to make an impact when she’s onscreen, bringing a steely determination to Valerie that belies the character’s sometimes insipid dialogue.

The “vapidity” Davis complained about is evident in all of the female characters in the movie. Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson), the parallel to loyal secretary Effie, is a shrill, ditzy, whiny combination of worldliness and naivete. Astrid (Winifred Shaw), the wife of Shane’s doomed, shlubby partner Ames (Porter Hall), is a flirtatious man-eater whose role in the plot is reduced to irrelevance. And this film’s “Casper Gutman” figure, the stout Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth), lacks the menace and suavity befitting a purported criminal mastermind. None of these characters can hold a candle to their literary and (other) cinematic counterparts.

Equally ineffective are Satan’s versions of Dr. Cairo–now a dapper, tall Englishman named Travers (Arthur Treacher)–and the “gunsel”–now a baby-faced “nephew” of Barabbas, Kenneth (Maynard Holmes). Travers spends much of the film apologizing for trashing Shane’s apartment and office while complaining that Shane’s behavior is “not cricket.” Kenneth threatens to kill the teasing Shane, and has in fact murdered other characters in the film, but his comically young appearance and whining tone make you doubt his ability to kill a bug, let alone a person. The effort to paint these characters in a “funny” light ultimately weakens whatever impact they may have otherwise had.

That’s the problem with the entire film, truth be told. In the end, though Dieterle and company try to make the movie work as a comedy, the audience is not laughing. It’s almost impossible to take a story with the darkness and verve of The Maltese Falcon and turn it into slapstick–well, successful slapstick, anyway. Satan Met a Lady stands as a prime example of how literary adaptations can go horribly wrong when the source material is utterly bastardized on the way to the big screen.

Tomorrow: Hollywood finally gets The Maltese Falcon right.

6 thoughts on ““Bugle, bugle, who’s got the bugle?”

  1. I’m a fan of “Satan Met a Lady”. When approached as a screwball comedy spoof instead of a hard-boiled pulp story, it works for me. William and Hall were a most simpatico team, but I felt Davis had trouble connecting with her inner goofball.

    • When I was preparing to write this review, I had to take my own bias (i.e. my love for the ’41 version) into account. So this week, I initially tried to re-watch this movie without comparisons to the book or the other two films. Still, I found that it doesn’t make it any “better” or easier to watch, in my opinion. The story itself really doesn’t suit the “screwball” genre. Perhaps this is due to the performances, which, if intended to BE screwball, don’t go over the top nearly enough. The one screwball that I can think of that actually works well with darker themes like these is Arsenic and Old Lace. And I can’t help but compare William’s performance to Cary Grant’s in the later picture. Grant really goes all out to highlight the farcical nature behind the otherwise serious subject of murder. William, to me, seems unwilling to REALLY let loose. And I agree that Davis is a poor casting choice for screwball in general, but her character isn’t really scripted as a “goofball”–she kind of functions as the “straight man” in this movie, in a strange way, and for me, she’s really the only one whose performance stands out in the end.

  2. I’m biased towards this one surely because I run a Warren William fan site, but I always felt Satan gets beat up more than it deserves. The problem is it’s inevitably compared with the later movie and who could blame anyone for that since beyond the source material it now even shares a DVD release.

    Watching it as part of a run of other William detective movies it doesn’t compare that badly to his Perry Mason or Lone Wolf, though it is admittedly a bit more over the top than most of those entries. I always liked it though, with the pre-code persona both behind him and impossible by this point a goofy Warren William is a lot more fun to watch than some of the weaker male leads he plays in better regarded titles of the period.

    All that said, it’s my third favorite movie in the set, still, I do enjoy it. Thanks for covering it!

    • Cliff, I’ll admit my exposure to Warren William is limited–I’ve only seen a handful of his movies, and none of his Perry Mason films (though I’m curious about them now). He’s a charming actor, and it’s a shame many people aren’t even familiar with his name these days. I would say, though, of his movies I’ve seen, this is probably my least favorite. And it’s not really because of his performance, which admittedly has some delightful moments. But there’s only so much any actor can do with such an ill-conceived script as this one.

  3. Brandie, again I find myself loving your post, though I agree with Caftan Woman — I’ve always approached SATAN MET A LADY(SMaL) as a screwball comedy, and it’s a shame not enough people realize that. That still doesn’t make SMaL an underrated classic, but I feel it’s good lightweight fun, with fresh young Bette Davis showing her comedy chops as wily Valerie Purvis, who could be Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s witty, bantering sister. Good comedy cast, too with Warren William, Alison Skipworth as a kind of “Lady Gutman;” Arthur Treacher (does anyone besides me remember the restaurant chain Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, advertised as “the meal you cannot make at home”?); and my fave, the pre-MY FRIEND IRMA Marie Wilson redoing trusty secretary/receptionist Effie Perine as cheerful blonde Über-ditz Miss Murgatroyd. Her cute little squeak of surprise/distress cracked me up! My fave was Shane’s dialogue with Murgatroyd when she’s about to quit on account of Ames being unable to pay her: Shane (cheerfully): “Have you finished packing all your things?…And all the things that weren’t yours, but that you thought you could use?” Murgatroyd (flustered): “Yes—um, I mean, I’m all packed.” SMaL is unfairly maligned and misunderstood for not being a serious TMF adaptation. SMaL wasn’t Oscar bait, but it was a pleasant, if forgettable, piece of fluff for a lazy afternoon. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Saturday in the Hyborian Age… well, almost | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources

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