Satan Met A Lady (1936). Starring: Bette Davis, Warren William, Alison Skipworth, Arthur Treacher, Winifred Shaw, Marie Wilson, Porter Hall, Olin Howland, Charles C. Wilson. Directed by William Dieterle, Screenplay by Brown Holmes. Based on The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Produced by Henry Blanke. Run time: 74 minutes. USA. Detective, Comedy, Drama.
Everyone knows that Hollywood likes to remake properties they already own, even if they may have already made the definitive version of the story; that’s how we get gems like The Amazing Spider-Man and the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce. And sometimes it takes Hollywood more than one try to get the story right. In the case of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, it took three.
We’re all very familiar, or at least we should be, with the 1941 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, but what about the earlier versions? Well, as if to prep for the recent theatrical showing of the classic, we watched one of the two prior versions: Satan Met A Lady (1936).
The 1931 version, starring Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, is the closest of the three to the original text. And while the 1941 version is somewhat sanitized by the production code, losing some of the sexuality of the 1931 feature, both straight and homosexual, it is a darker film, some would say even film noir. Both use dialogue directly lifted from Hammett’s novel. The 1936 film neither sticks too closely to the original book, nor is serious about the material.
Warner Bros., having only a few years before released one version of the film, decided to make another. They handed the job of writing the screenplay to contract writer Brown Holmes, who had helped with the original adaptation. The guidelines they’d given him must have been to make it like the novel, but different, since that’s pretty much what he did.
This time around, Holmes was fast and loose with practically everything from the character names to the sexes of characters to even the object of desire. This time, rather than a jewel-encrusted black statue of a bird, it’s a jewel-filled ram’s horn.
The real issue isn’t the changes, but if they work. The first indication may have been Bette Davis, who was cast in the female lead. In her autobiography, A Lonely Life, Davis, who had just completed The Petrified Forest (1930), described her reaction to being cast in the film this way, “I was so distressed by the whole tone of the script and the vapidity of my part that I marched up to Mr. Warner's office and demanded that I be given work that was commensurate with my proven ability.” When the film went into production on December 1, 1935, Davis was a no-show.
Suspended on December 3, Davis would return to the set in a few days; money needs winning out over anger and resentment. She could always hope Jack Warner would make good on his word: "I was promised wonderful things if only I would do this film."
The film opens with private detective Ted Shane (Warren William) being escorted out of town by city officials. We’re never told where or where he’s headed, but town officials only care that he’s leaving on the next train.
While he’s on board, he makes the acquaintance of wealthy Mrs. R. Manchester (May Beatty), whom he convinces needs a bodyguard. She agrees and he offers up the services of The Ames Detective Agency, which happens to be where he’s headed. On the train, Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis) can be seen in the next seat overhearing them.
|After being kicked out of town, Ted Shane (Warren William) finds a new client |
in wealthy Mrs. R. Manchester (May Beatty) while Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis) watches.
The Agency is run by his former partner, Milton Ames (Porter Hall), who also happens to have married Shane’s old love interest, Astrid (Winifred Shaw). Just to prove how much Astrid has gotten over him, Milton invites Shane over for dinner. Things are a little tight, but Shane’s promise of a new paying client is enough to keep the agency afloat and to keep Ames’ secretary, Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson), a cute, but typically ditzy blonde, from quitting. Shane takes notice of Miss Murgatroyd and makes a vague offer about having fun. Shane will pretty much hit on anything with a skirt.
|Marie Wilson plays Miss Murgatroyd, the quintessential dumb blonde secretary.|
Ames takes Shane home, but Astrid has not forgotten Shane and with Ames needing to follow Mrs. Manchester, he is understandably uneasy about leaving the two of them alone.
|Milton Ames (Porter Hall) isn't happy to be leaving his wife alone with Shane, her old boyfriend.|
Soon after, Valerie Purvis comes to the firm and hires the agency to find a man she claims has jilted her. The men agree to take her case, convinced by the monetary advance, and Ames is assigned to follow her when she meets with a man, Farrow, who can take her to him. After they meet, Ames follows the pair, unaware that he, too, is being tailed.
|Shane rides with Valerie as she goes from the hotel to her new apartment.|
Ames is found in a cemetery, shot dead. While the police are investigating that crime, Farrow is also shot dead. Initially, Shane is the primary suspect. He finds Valerie hastily checking out of her hotel and accompanies her to an apartment. When he demands the true story from her, she forces him out at the point of a gun.
|Rather than telling Shane her true story, Valerie forces him out of her apartment at gun point.|
Meanwhile, Shane’s apartment is being searched and when he comes home, Shane finds all his upholstery ripped and things broken. When he goes to the office, he finds the same treatment and discovers Miss Murgatroyd locked in the closet.
This turns out to be the work of Anthony Travers (Arthur Treacher), who confesses to Shane what he’s done. He tells him that he’s on the trail of Roland’s trumpet, an instrument it is rumored, is filled with jewels; an ancient tribute that has fallen into the wrong hands. When Shane suspects that Valerie is also looking for the horn, she denies the accusation.
Shane is summoned by Madame Barabas (Alison Skipworth) by her gunsell, Kenneth (Maynard Holmes). Barabas is a notorious gangster, whom Shane seems familiar with. She tells him that she is also looking for the horn. When Shane takes money from her, he has taken money from all the major suspects. When the Detective Dunhill (Olin Howland) and Detective Pollock (Charles Wilson) come to his office, Miss Murgatroyd takes a message for Shane. He’s instructed to visit a recently docked ship, the Fujiyama. He leaves the detectives in his office and goes to the docks.
|Kenneth (Maynard Holmes) works as a gunsell for Madame Barabas, a notorious gangster.|
When he arrives, he finds the ship on fire. Shane is not alone, as Barabas, Kenneth, Travers and Valerie are already there watching. A shipmate rows from the burning boat carrying a duffel bag. When Shane approaches them, both are apparently shot dead by Kenneth. Leaving Barabas in the car, the other three go to investigate, but they find the duffel bag does not contain Roland’s horn.
Even though Kenneth has taken credit for the kill, Shane is not dead and he has the package with the horn in it. Barabas, herself, goes after him, but Shane manages to take her gun away. When the others surround him, Shane offers the horn to the highest bidder. However, when it is opened, the horn is full of sand.
|Shane offers the horn to the highest bidders, including left to right,|
Anthony Travers (Arthur Treacher), Valerie and Madame Barabas (Alison Skipworth)
The two detectives, who have followed Shane to the docks, arrest the criminals, with the exception of Valerie, whom Shane escapes with. On board an outbound train, Shane tries to get Valerie to confess to killing Ames. When the train is stopped and searched at the next station, Valerie manages to have a washroom attendant turn her in, keeping him from the $10,000 reward, as a sort of personal victory over Shane.
|On the train, Shane tries to get Valerie to confess to killing Ames.|
But after Valerie is led away, Miss Murgatroyd pops out of the next car into Shane’s arms and the two leave together to have some fun.
While The Maltese Falcon (1941) plays it fairly straight, Satan Met a Lady plays it very tongue in cheek. It always looks to me like Warren William is trying not to laugh. The light-heartedness also seems to be a costume choice. The hat William’s Shane character wears seems like it would be more appropriate in a Western than in a crime film. His skirt-chasing is relentless and overt to the point that it is almost too much to take. How could anyone know where they stand with him?
|Warren William plays Shane for laughs rather than drama.|
William is not a bad actor, per se, but there is really no one that shines in this film. Davis was right to have protested her being cast in this film. Her Valerie is a waste of her talents. When you’re watching, you don’t feel like your discovering a hidden gem from her career, but rather a rock she didn’t want to have turned over.
Marie Wilson has a certain charm. She’s cute and vivacious, but there is only so much stupid you can take. She rarely seems to know if she’s coming or going, let alone how to spell her own name. I’m repeating myself when I say that I’ve read her performance in this film is viewed by some as a template for Marilyn Monroe, somehow it isn’t the same.
|Some people think Marie Wilson provided a template for Marilyn Monroe.|
Many of the other actors are certainly not household names. The idea to recast Mr. Gutman as a woman is fine, but like most of the roles, the part seems very scattered. Alison Skipworth, who played Madame Barabas, had been acting for years prior to this film, both on stage in her native England and in films in the U.S. If you’re a fan of W.C. Fields, you might recognize her as his foil in four films: If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), Alice in Wonderland (1933), and Six of a Kind (1934).
Arthur Treacher was another English actor, who often played a butler. His film career began in the 1930s and he appeared opposite Shirley Temple in Curly Top (1935), Stowaway (1936), Heidi (1937) and The Little Princess (1939). His part here as Anthony Travers again seems ill-defined.
Porter Hall had a long career as a character actor. Even though his Ames gets killed off quite early, Hall would make more memorable appearances in such films as The Thin Man (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Going My Way (1944), and Double Indemnity (1944).
When it was released on July 22, 1936, the film was not well received. Critics like Bosley Crowther of the New York Times referred to it as “a cynical farce of elaborate and sustained cheapness." A Variety review of the time summed Satan Met a Lady as "an inferior remake of [1931's] The Maltese Falcon.... Many changes have been made in story structure as well as title, but none is an improvement." Not rosy reviews to say the least.
Pretty much everything about Satan Met a Lady seems to be a letdown after having seen The Maltese Falcon that would be made five years later. Better script, better direction and better acting are why that film is remembered as a classic, while Satan Met a Lady is best overlooked.
Satan Met a Lady is available at the Warner Archive Collection:
Satan Met a Lady is available at the Warner Archive Collection: