Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Black Bird - Early Drafts

Last night I finished watching the 1931 and 1936 versions of The Maltese Falcon and it was intriguing to see how they differed from the famous John Huston - Humphrey Bogart version.
They both reflect the period in which they were made. The first came along in the racier pre-Code talkie era and made no bones about portraying Sam Spade, played by Ricardo Cortez, as a sleepsround lounge lizard and contained several suggestions that he was having sex with every woman in the movie including his secretary, Effie. There were also a few cheesecake shots of lead actress Bebe Daniels in her lingerie, the kind of sexy shots I've seen in a bunch of Warner Brothers movies from this period. The storyline of this version generally followed the plot of the novel and the Huston version as I remember them although the minor character of Gutman's daughter was still missing and Wilmer, the gunman, got a lot less screen time. It was also a kick to see so many familiar faces in the periphery of things, Dwight Frye as Wilmer, Thelma Todd as Miles Archer's widow and a very young and cute Una Merkel as Effie.
The 1936 version was very different stuff. The title was changed to "Satan Met A Lady", all the characters had new names and even the location was moved from San Francisco to an anonymous California small town. Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" had been a hit movie a couple of years earlier so this version followed that lead and turned the story into a comedy with Warren William playing the Spade character so giddily it became annoying. The absurdity reached its height in the scene where the history of the treasure, here a jewel-filled ram's horn, is told. Instead of hearing it from the Gutman stand-in William gets the story from the Joel Cairo analog, an Englishman played by Arthur Treacher (!) and they do this while puttering around an apartment tearing up furniture and playing with a lamp!
The most noticeable character change is that Kaspar Gutman is a woman this time while Wilmer, now called "Kenneth", is a big, baby faced fat kid. Oddly enough this version, despite all its changes, restores Wilmer to his larger role and includes some key lines from the 1941 film that the 1931 one leaves out.
Both of these versions also feel the need to tack on additional codas past the point of the police leading Brigid O'Shaugnessy away. In 1931 there was a sentimental ending of Spade visiting Ruth Wanderley (They used that as her real name this time) in jail. In 1936 the character was played by Bette Davis so naturally she got a big histrionic exit speech as the cops took here away.
These two aren't bad in their own way but the Huston version looks even more like a masterpiece in comparison.

I also watched "Three Ages", a lesser know Buster Keaton silent feature. This movie was a spoof of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" with Buster and Wallace Beery fighting over the same woman in three different time periods, the Stone Age, Ancient Rome and the modern era. I haven't seen "Intolerance" so there are probably some specific jokes about the film I missed but it was still very funny with plenty of Keaton's precision-tooled slapstick and a brilliant, totally Keaton joke at the end. In each period Keaton and his now-wife leave their home for an afternoon walk. In the Stone Age, a dozen kids accompany them. In the Roman period, it's only five kids. In the Modern story, it's one small dog.

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