Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Maltese Falcon From Book to Screen

 (This post is part of the "Beyond the Cover" blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy)

With the possible exception of The Thin Man, the novel The Maltese Falcon could well be Dashiell Hammett's most famous work. There can be little doubt that much of the novel's lasting fame is due to the enduring popularity of the 1941 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart in the role of Sam Spade. What many in the general public do not realise, although many classic film buffs do, is that the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon was not the first adaptation of the novel. In fact, it was not even the second.

For those who have neither read the novel The Maltese Falcon nor seen any of the film versions, the novel begins simply enough with detective Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer being hired to find the missing sister of a woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly.  After Spade's partner Archer winds up dead the case becomes more complicated than it initially appeared. Ultimately Sam Spade finds himself involved with some very shady characters, all of whom are looking for a priceless statuette of a bird called "the Maltese Falcon".

In writing The Maltese Falcon we definitely know that Dashiell Hammett drew upon one source of inspiration and it seems likely that he drew upon another as well. In his introduction to the 1934 edition of the novel Dashiell Hammett makes it clear he was partly inspired by the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon, a yearly tribute the Knights Hospitaller made to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The tribute consisted of one falcon (an living bird instead of a statue) given to the Emperor each year on All Saints Day in return for the grant of Tripoli, Malta and Gozo to the Knights Hospitaller. It is from the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon that Mr. Hammett took the name of both the novel and the priceless statuette.

While we know that Hammett was inspired by the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon, it seems likely that another source of inspiration may have been an actual, priceless figure of a bird dating to the 17th century. The Kniphausen Hawk is a ceremonial drinking vessel made for George William von Kniphausen, Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1697. It portrays a hawk standing atop a rock. It is covered in a large number of jewels, including amethysts, emeralds, red garnets, and blue sapphires and stands nearly one foot in height. In 1819 it was purchased by William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. The Kniphausen Hawk is still in possession of the Cavendish family, and is currently on display at their house Chatsworth.

 In addition to these sources of inspiration, Dashiell Hammett also drew upon two of his earlier short stories for some of the concepts that appear in The Maltese Falcon. "The Whosis Kid" found Hammett's character The Continental Op involved with a diverse cast of criminals, a femme fatale, diamonds, and pearls. Other concepts for The Maltese Falcon Dashiell Hammett drew from the Continental Op story "The Gutting of Couffignal". According to his introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett thought he "...might have better luck with these two failures if I combined them with the Maltese lease in a longer story."

The Maltese Falcon was originally serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask in five parts starting with its September 1929 issue. It was published as a book by Alfred A. Knopf  in 1930. The Maltese Falcon proved very popular, so much so that its first screen adaptation was not long in coming. The 1931 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was directed by Roy Del Ruth, and starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly.

The Maltese Falcon (1931) followed the novel fairly closely, to the point that it included several things from the novel that later would not be allowed under the Production Code. In The Maltese Falcon (1931) it is blatant that Joel Cairo is a homosexual, just as it is in the novel. That having been said, in many other respects it departed a good deal from the novel. The film over all had a lighter tone than the book. What is more, Richard Cortez's Sam Spade seems just a bit too refined and gentlemanly to be the same character as in the book. The Maltese Falcon (1931) also differed from the novel in other ways, including the omission of a major revelation regarding Ruth Wonderly.

While one has to suspect many Dashiell Hammett fans thought The Maltese Falcon (1931) missed the mark upon its release, it was much more faithful to the novel than the second adaptation would be. Still holding the film rights, Warner Bros. decided to film another version of the novel in the mid-Thirties. Unfortunately Satan Met a Lady (1936) was a very loose adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. Not only did Satan Met a Lady lack the black bird of the novel (it was changed to a ram's horn filled with precious jewels), but it didn't even have Sam Spade (the hero was private eye "Ted Shane", played by Warren William). Satan Met a Lady was not well received by critics upon its release, nor did it do very well at the box office. Even Bette Davis, the female lead of the film, hated it. She would refer to it as "one of the worst turkeys I ever made."

Of course, as classic film buffs well know, Satan Met a Lady would not be the last adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. The now famous, 1941 version was the first film directed by John Huston. Not only would it become regarded as a classic, but it would also become one of the most influential films of all time. It is often considered the film that made Humphrey Bogart a star and there are those who consider it the very first film noir. It has certainly had an impact on the detective genre ever since.

While today Sam Spade is considered one of Humphrey Bogart's signature roles, amazingly enough he was not the first actor considered for the role. Warner Bros. had cast screen heavy George Raft in the role of Sam Spade. In fact, Mr. Raft was even scheduled to report to the set as late as four days before shooting was to begin. While Warner Bros. wanted George Raft for the movie, Mr. Raft was not too keen on the idea. He did not like working with someone new to directing (John Huston) and he did not feel that The Maltese Falcon was a very important film. George Raft had a clause in his contract that allowed him to veto films that he did not think were worthy of him, and so he exercised that power on The Maltese Falcon. Warner Bros. then briefly considered Edward G. Robinson for the role before deciding upon Humphrey Bogart.

Warner Bros. had also initially wanted another actress for the role of Ruth Wonderly. Initially the studio wanted to cast Geraldine Fitzgerald, whom they had under contract, in the role. Despite this Geraldine Fitzgerald showed little interest in the film. Fortunately,  Mary Astor had read the script and saw something special both in the story and in the role of Ruth Wonderly.

Over all The Maltese Falcon (1941) would be very faithful to the novel. In fact, the vast majority of dialogue in the film came straight from the novel. Most of the scenes in the novel made into the film as well, with John Huston only omitting one scene when he realised it could be handled through a phone call instead. There would be some major changes from the 1931 adaptation due to stricter enforcement of the Production Code. The sort of overt references to homosexuality in the 1931 version simply would not be allowed in the Forties. As a result homosexuality is only strongly implied in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Other references to sex from the novel also had to be removed. The Production Code Administration also wanted the consumption of alcohol to be reduced, although John Huston refused to do away with it entirely as it was central to the character of Sam Spade.

Of course, at the centre of the novel and The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the black bird itself. The statuette for the film was designed by sculptor Fred Sexton. Two "Maltese Falcon" props were made for the film, but only one actually appeared in the movie. The surviving Maltese Falcon (and the one that appeared in the film) would be sold at auction in 2013 for $4,085,000. This made it one of the most expensive pieces of film memorabilia ever sold.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) would open to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The film also performed well at the box office. What may be surprising given its current status as one of the best loved classic films of all time is that it only received three Academy Award nominations: Best Picture; Sydney Greenstreet for Best Supporting Actor; and John Huston for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Today The Maltese Falcon (1941) is often counted among the greatest films ever made. It is little wonder that the first two adaptations of the novel are nearly forgotten by everyone but classic film buffs and Dashiell Hammett fans. Indeed, it would seem the novel The Maltese Falcon is a prime example of how the film industry could mishandle a property twice only to finally get it right on the third try. The Maltese Falcon (1941) may not have been the first adaptation of the novel, but it is by far the best and most loved. In fact, it may be be the best adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel ever made alongside The Thin Man.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gregory Peck's Centennial

It was 100 years ago today, on April 5 1916, that Eldred Gregory Peck was born in San Diego, California. It was not long after his film debut in Days of Glory in 1944 that he was established as one of Hollywood's most consistently popular leading men. What is more his career would prove to be very long. His last credit was in the television mini-series Moby Dick in 1998, fifty four years after his debut on the big screen. There can be little doubt that much of his success was due to his sheer versatility as an actor. With his looks Gregory Peck could have easily made a good living merely playing romantic leads. Fortunately for movie goers everywhere, he played far more than that.

Of course, Gregory Peck was best known for playing good guys. Indeed, the vast majority of his roles could quite rightfully be described as heroic. That having been said, the many good guys Gregory Peck played over the years were never one-dimensional. They may have been virtuous and morally upright, but they always had a complex inner life This is particularly true of the best known role he ever played, that of attorney Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Atticus Finch was not a simple cardboard cut out who espoused justice and equality for all. He was a complicated character who sought to do what was right, even when he knew the odds were against him. At the same time he sought to imbue his children with his own sense of honour. Arguably Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch is one of the most sophisticated portrayals of a truly good man in cinema history. Not only did he win the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, but in 2003, the American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch the greatest hero in American film.

While Atticus Finch is by far the best known hero that Gregory Peck ever played, he was by no means the first. As mentioned earlier, the majority of roles Gregory Peck played were good guys. In Cape Fear (1962) Gregory Peck once more played a lawyer, only this time one who must defend his family against a rapist (played by Robert Mitchum) who blames him for his conviction. It seems the lawyer, Sam Bowden, had testified as a witness against him. As played by Gregory Peck, Sam Bowden is an impressive character, one who insists on doing the right thing even when he might prefer taking an easier course of action.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, with his looks Gregory Peck could have easily made a living playing romantic leads. And he did just that in one of the most romantic films of the Fifties. In Roman Holiday (1953) he played Joe Bradley, the American journalist with whom Princess Ann (played by Audrey Hepburn) falls in love.

Gregory Peck played more than heroic roles in his career. He also played complicated characters who cannot easily be considered heroes or villains. One of these was Brigadier General Frank Savage in Twelve O'Clock High (1949), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Brigadier General Savage is a good man, but one who begins experiencing post traumatic stress due to combat. Gregory Peck gave a very realistic portrayal of a man who has seen far too much warfare for his own good.

While Brigadier General Savage was essentially a good man, the same cannot be said for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956). After being nearly killed in an encounter with the whale of the title, Captain Ahab becomes obsessed with getting revenge. While the role is atypical of most of the roles Gregory Peck played over the years, he does a remarkable job of bringing Captain Ahab to life.

Although today when most people think of Gregory Peck they picture Atticus Finch or one of the many other heroes he  played over the years, he did play outright villains over the years. In Duel in the Sun (1946) Gregory Peck played  Lewton "Lewt" McCanles, the younger son of Laura Belle McCanles (played by Lillian Gish). Unlike virtuous older brother Jesse McCanles (played by Joseph Cotten), Lewt is an unrepentant womaniser who knows his way around a gun. A lesser actor might have made Lewt thoroughly unlikeable, but Gregory Peck endows him with a charm all his own.

Later in his career Gregory Peck played another villain, Nazi scientist  Dr. Josef Mengele, in The Boys from Brazil (1978). Gregory Peck's portrayal of Mengele (an actual historical figure known for the atrocities he committed in  Auschwitz) is a bit over the top, but fitting a movie whose very premise is a bit left of centre.

Over the years Gregory Peck played a wide variety of roles. He played many heroes over the years, including Captain Horatio Hornblower in the 1950 film of the same name, Jim Douglass in The Bravados (1958), Captain Keith Mallory in The Guns of Navarone (1957), and many others. He also played a number of complicated characters who could be considered neither hero nor villain, including Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (1950), Harry Street in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952),  and Henry Adams in The Million Pound Note (1954). He played villains less often, but when he did they were memorable. More often than not Gregory Peck delivered truly great performances, so it should be little surprise that so many movies in which he starred are so well remembered: Spellbound (1945), The Yearling (1946), The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), Pork Chop Hill (1959), and many others. One hundred years after his birth, Gregory Peck remains one of the best known and most beloved actors of all time.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Most classic film buffs, at least the ones I know, can remember the first time that they saw any one of their favourite actors. They can remember not only the film, but even the circumstances down to the time of day. What is more, for most classic film buffs, at least the ones I know, the film that served as an introduction to any given favourite actor is usually one made when the actor was at the height of his or her career or close to it. As an example, the first film in which I ever saw Audrey Hepburn was My Fair Lady (1964). For that matter, the first film I saw that starred Vivien Leigh was Gone with the Wind (1939). That having been said, there are a few exceptions where the first time I saw one of my favourite actors was not a movie made at the height of his or her career. For me this is particularly true of Bette Davis. She is one of my all time favourite actresses, but I saw her in a film that was made after the height of her stardom.

That film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).  Not only was it the first film in which I ever saw Bette Davis, but the actress who was always reportedly her rival as well, Joan Crawford. Although both women were still highly regarded and highly respected, their careers were not what they had been in the Thirties and Forties. As the Fifties progressed, both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford increasingly appeared on television rather than in feature films. From 1957 to 1962 Bette Davis guest starred on such shows as Schlitz Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, Studio 57, General Electric Theatre, Suspicion, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Wagon Train (on which she guest starred twice).  During that same period Miss Davis only appeared in three films (John Paul Jones, The Scapegoat, and Pocketful of Miracles).  Bette Davis was still a legend, but her career was not what it once had been. Fortunately, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would revitalise the career of both Bette Davis.

Of course, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would be very different from anything Bette Davis had done before.  Directed by Robert Aldrich and based on the novel by Henry Farrell, the movie centred on two ageing sisters: one time child star Baby Jane (Bette Davis) and her handicapped, but one time movie star sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). Baby Jane, envious of her sister's success in adulthood, outright abuses her sister, such abuse only getting worse when she learns Blanche plans to sell their mansion and place Jane in a sanatorium. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is often called a "psychological thriller" and could even be considered an outright horror film. 

There are conflicting accounts as to how the two legendary actresses were cast as the leads of the film. Robert Aldrich claims that he came up with the idea of casting the two in a film together. According to Joan Crawford, she told Mr. Aldrich that she wanted to work with him once more (having worked with him on Autumn Leaves from 1956) and actually suggested Bette Davis as her co-star.

The casting of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was a major piece of entertainment news at the time. Even then the rivalry between the two actresses was legendary. Indeed, it is difficult to determine how much truth there actually is to the various tales of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford over the years. Whether there was a good deal of truth regarding the alleged animosity between the two actresses before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it would seems possible that there was afterwards.

Indeed, reports vary wildly as to how well Bette Davis and Joan Crawford got along on the set. Director Robert Aldrich has said that the two got along together on the set, even though it was clear they disliked each other.  He has said that neither tried to upstage the other and "They both behaved in a wonderfully professional manner."  According to other reports, however, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were often spiteful to each other on the set. In the scene where Jane assaults Blanche with a telephone, Miss Davis reportedly kicked Miss Crawford in the head, something the latter claimed Miss Davis did on purpose. Later, in the scene where Jane must carry Blanche from her bed, Bette Davis asked Joan Crawford not to be dead weight, as she had a bad back. When Miss Davis went to carry Miss Crawford, however, she found the actress so heavy that it put her back in a good deal of pain. Miss Davis claimed Miss Crawford lined her costume with lead weights.

While reports of the two actresses feuding during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? may be mere legend, there is much more truth to reports of their feuding following the movie's release. Bette Davis was nominated for the Oscar for Best Lead Actress, which infuriated Joan Crawford who was not nominated. Joan Crawford actually campaigned against Bette Davis winning the Oscar and even telephoned the other nominees with an offer of accepting the award on their behalf! Ultimately Bette Davis lost the Oscar to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker (1962).

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? proved to be very successful at the box office. It also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In addition to the nomination for Bette Davis, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was nominated for four other Oscars. It won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

Given the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it should come as no surprise that Robert Aldrich wanted to feature Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in another film. Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte was to have starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but Miss Crawford remained on the set for only four days before dropping out due to illness. Olivia de Havilland then took over Joan Crawford's role.

The success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would revitalise Bette Davis's career. In the Sixties she not only appeared in Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, but in such films as Where Love Has Gone (1964) and Connecting Rooms (1970). Not surprisingly, many of the films in which Bette Davis starred in the Sixties would be psychological thrillers similar to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, if not outright horror movies. In the wake of the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, she appeared in such films as Dead Ringer (1964), The Nanny (1965), and The Anniversary (1968).

Indeed, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? can be credited with the creation of a whole subgenre of horror movies or thrillers, the psycho-biddy movie.  Pyscho-biddy movies are films featuring a mentally unbalanced, older woman, usually one who had once been glamorous. Among the psycho-biddy films released in the wake of the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? were Strait-Jacket (1964), starring Joan Crawford,  Lady in a Cage (1964), Fanatic (1965), The Night Walker (1965), Berserk! (1967), starring Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), What's the Matter with Helen? (1971), and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971).  The boom in the psycho-biddy subgenre finally wound down in the early Seventies.

Following What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis's career never really slowed down. She continued to work steadily through the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. In fact, her final film, Wicked Stepmother (1989), was released the year she died. Over the years Bette Davis gave many notable performances, including  Dark Victory; Now, Voyager; and All About Eve. She played everything from Queen Elizabeth I to Catherine the Great. For many, however, Baby Jane remains among her best remembered performances. Bette Davis's portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson is over the top and entirely demented, and yet one of the most fully realised characters she ever played. It is clear that Bette Davis put a lot of work into the role and it shows. All in all, while it might not be her most glamorous role, it was a good one through which to be introduced to Bette Davis.