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Friday, June 20, 2014

On The Wings Of A Priceless Prop

Peeling Back Layers of Maltese Falcon Worth

I recently made an odd-number list of 81 all-time favorite films and put The Maltese Falcon at Number Four, the 1941 Falcon as opposed to a decade earlier version that was for years very tough to see. What occurs to me about Dashiell Hammett's story and the three movies adapted from it is their focus on collecting and extremes to which some go about it. Noteworthy too is how collectable items associated with the Falcon have become. I've read auction results as to the last statuette sold, from the estate of William Conrad, who received it as a gift from Jack Warner in the mid-sixties. Conrad had done lots for WB on both feature and televised fronts, but how was Jack to realize he was giving the man an object greater in eventual worth than all of salary Conrad drew from the company? And did Conrad imagine the bird's "immense value" as it sat upon a den shelf for remainder of his life? ($398,500 as hammered at Christie auction in 12/94, ten months after the actor/director's death)

Further Falcon lore I didn't know: There were two lead statues made, each weighing forty-five pounds. Imagine a thing only eleven and a half inches high being heavy as that. Bogart's grimace when he lifts the prop toward Falcon fadeout makes greater sense now. Publicity was issued to effect that actress Lee Patrick dropped the "dingus" and HB pushed her out of the way with result a couple of smashed toes for himself. I checked the pressbook for mention of the incident but found nothing. The whole thing may have been hooey, as several Falconists maintain that only plaster replicas were used on the set, none weighing over five pounds. As to collectability, here's my question: If a 1941 Falcon approaches half-million in 21st century coin of realm, what would a 1931 prop bring --- the one cradled by Ricardo Cortez and Dudley Digges' Gutman? Based on screen appearance, it was a scrawny bird, beaten down perhaps, by the Depression, but more faithful withal to the Falcon's appearance on the original novel cover. I wonder how long that item stayed in storage, or if/when it was unceremoniously tossed out. Would there be remotest chance that this first of falcons still exists?

The 1931 Maltese Falcon went years being called Dangerous Female, a device to separate it from the better known (and regarded) Bogart remake. TV stations buying both didn't want confusion in event of one playing within weeks or even days of the other, with viewership misled to effect they were getting a rerun. Warners has since restored the original title to DVD and TCM broadcast. Precode's Falcon needs adjusting to, being sleazy beyond bar set by the PCA per 1941. Ricardo Cortez is a "playboy" detective who takes little of narrative seriously. Neither should we, for that matter. The picture was sold on Bebe Daniels as femme fatale, as in "You Will Never Believe There Could Be Such A Woman Until You See Her." Ads like this may have been consulted when time came (1956) to rechristen the show as Dangerous Female. The first Maltese Falcon is a little choppy as to construction and pace, but is by no means a bad watch (additional scenes that would have been helpful were shot, but dropped prior to release). This 1931 version does make for pleasing combo with the underrated Satan Met A Lady, done five years later and the loosest WB adapt of Hammett's story. All are available on Warners DVD.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

As much as I like the Bogey Falcon, which is nearly a sin not to, I have high regards for the Cortez version. My affection for it may equal the latter version. I'm a huge Cortez mark, and being pre-code, Ricardo's Spade could get away with stuff HB's could not. The opening scene in which the sultry female client leaves the Spade office, while host Sam replaces the pillows to the office couch. Things like that. I ran this version last year to my film group. They loved it, and prior to the screening, weren't aware of its existence.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Robolly said...

I find the '31 version entertaining and interesting. The '41 version is one of my favorite movies, and one, in my opinion, that got everything perfect (casting,direction, music, "look" etc), so to see a version that is a little "off" is fascinating -- I keep wondering what I'd think of the '31 version if that was the first one that I'd seen, and wasn't comparing it a "perfect" version.

Maybe there's a real "Gutman" out there who's been looking for the '31 falcon statue for decades!

4:17 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer compares two versions of the "Falcon":

John Huston was familiar with this version of "The Maltese Falcon." The translation of the novel's plot to screen play follows the same lines, the settings and situations are much the same, and even some of the dialog has been reused. From this, he crafted something darker and more melancholy, with a sense of tragedy that isn't in the source material and central performances that are all deeper and more nuanced. That the earlier film still fascinates is largely because it is a reflection of the later one, with a gritty off-handedness that is almost amusing. It plays within the interstices of what is now regarded as the definitive version of the story, chiefly in its casual sexuality. Una Merkel's Effie is obviously providing Sam Spade with services other than secretarial, and Bebe Daniels has a more direct and earthy appeal than Mary Astor's wounded sparrow, though men would likely be more faithful to Astor's Brigid than Bebe's. Perhaps the great difference in the two films is found in their Sam Spades. Ricardo Cortez is grinning, vulpine, and concerned with little beyond the payoff, whether it is cash in hand or something else. He is not so different from Dashiell Hammett's character, but he hasn't Bogart's underlying sadness, with its mystery and romance. Bogart became a star with this role, and for reasons easily understood. No doubt the Spade of this film would have looked on, a sardonic smile on his face and a hand brushing the brim of is fedora in salute.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

My wife found Cortez way too sleazy for her taste, which is why I liked him so much. Nobody can flash a self-congratulatory smile Cortez!

4:29 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

I'm no expert, but I find it hard to believe WB fabricated plastic props in '41. Plaster, maybe?

A few years ago, Eastman House showed a double feature of the '31 version and Satan Met a Lady.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

'My wife found Cortez way too sleazy for her taste'

Was reading Victoria Wilson's A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK - STEEL TRUE, and was amused to learn Stanwyck's nickname for Cortez behind his back, 'old fish eyes.'

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As will be excitingly detailed in my book "Warner Bros: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot," to be published in September (and yes, that certainly is an astonishingly blatant plug), The 1931 falcon prop showed up on-screen the following year in the John Wayne western "Haunted Gold," after that, well, no one knows what happened to it. I can verify that Warner Bros. no longer has it in storage.

One more thing, the bird that just sold at auction was the property of Dr. Gary Milan. it was not the William Conrad falcon -- which seems to be MIA. I do know that the "Conrad bird" was displayed for a time in a Disney park in Orlando in the 90's. The last I heard of it it was in Jordan of all places. Sounds like the plot of a movie...

Interesting post. too bad I just got around to reading it.

Steve Bingen

8:26 PM  

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