The Maltese Falcon (1941):  “The stuff that dreams are made of”

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941) Opening Banner

So what do you think happened next? 

After his fifth-billed role in The Petrified Forest, did Humphrey Bogart end his second marriage, shoot to stardom, and finally meet the love of his life?

Not so fast.

His second marriage did end.  Though his affair with actress Mayo Methot was the final straw, ultimately his second marriage ended for the same reason as his first—Bogart was a traditional man at heart, and he wanted to be the family breadwinner, and to have a family.  Mrs. Bogarts 1 and 2 were actresses—more successful than him at the time—who were not about to set aside their careers for love, marriage, and babies.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade holding The Maltese Falcon

Bogart grew up in a cold and possibly abusive home.  His artist mother showed affection for nothing but her work, and his physician father slowly ruined his health by injecting himself with morphine meant for patients. 

But his parent’s marriage was a Norman Rockwell painting in comparison to his union with Mayo Methot, whom Bogart reluctantly married in 1938.  Their alcohol-fueled arguments were constant and often physical—they got into a shouting match so heated at their reception that they didn’t spend their wedding night together.  It didn’t take long for friends to start calling them the “Battling Bogarts.”

His career wasn’t going any better.  Everyone knew Bogart was a good actor, but he was at the bottom of a Warner Brothers leading man pecking order that included Paul Muni, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft.  And so Bogart spent the six years after Forest playing gangsters, crooks, and thieves who came to a bad end, often in ‘B’ pictures. 

By 1941, he’d passed the age of forty without a leading role.  He was balding and didn’t have traditional leading man good looks.  He seemed fated for life as a character actor.

Then came John Huston (last seen here coming to blows with Errol Flynn over Olivia de Havilland) and The Maltese Falcon.

For his directorial debut, Huston wanted to adapt the Dashiell Hammett detective novel The Maltese Falcon.

And he wanted Bogart as his hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.

Huston surrounded Bogart with a winning cast starting with Mary Astor as the beautiful schemer who drags Sam into the whole mess.  Lee Patrick plays Sam’s faithful secretary, Peter Lorre a villain after the falcon, and veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet made his film debut at sixty-one years old as “Fat Man” Kasper Gutman.

Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet

The film begins when Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) hires Sam to follow a man she fears will kill her sister.  Sam’s partner Miles Arches takes the job and is shot dead on what should have been a routine tail.

Brigid’s story and her sister are a complete fabrication, and Sam is dragged into a web of thieves and murderers looking for the Maltese Falcon, a jeweled bird lost in the sixteenth century that would be worth untold riches if found.

Bogart’s Sam Spade is cynical, clever, and tough but not ruthless.  He’s got his own moral code—one that compels him to “do something” about his partner’s murder despite the fact that he never liked the guy and sometimes slept with his wife.

Peter Lorre, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Peter Lorre, Bogart

The audience unravels the mystery along with Spade—we learn what he learns, as he learns it.  As with any good mystery, there are twists, turns, and double-crosses.

Spade falls in love—or at least lust—with Brigid, but that doesn’t prevent him from seeing her for the murderess she is.  In the film’s final act, the falcon is determined to be a fake—all the lying, cheating and killing was for naught.  Brigid—and the audience—assume that Spade will take her on as a lover for at least awhile, but Spade is hard-boiled and nobody’s fool.

Brigid murdered his partner, and the film closes on him as he turns her over to the police with obvious regret.

“What’s that?” a cop asks him, nodding to the fake Maltese Falcon that has caused all the trouble.

“The stuff that dreams are made of,” Spade tells him, slightly misquoting Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

And it was—for The Maltese Falcon is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, listed at number 31 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films.  It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Huston and Bogart that would have huge personal and professional dividends for both.

At 42, Humphrey Bogart had finally become a leading man.

And what of the love story with Lauren Bacall that I promised to tell you last week?

I am telling you.

For as the Bard also wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

The Maltese Falcon Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • De La Hoz, Cindy.  Bogie & Bacall:  Love Lessons from a Legendary Romance.  2015.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Great Lie (1941): Bette Cedes the Spotlight

George Brent and Bette Davis in The Great Lie (1941)
The Great Lie (1941) opening banner

Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is torn between two very different women:  home and hearth Maggie Patterson and temperamental pianist Sandra Kovak.

Maggie (Bette Davis) is devoted to Peter but refuses to marry him until he stops drinking and gets a job.

Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) likes him just as he is, a wasteful layabout.  Her career comes first, and she’s content to play packed halls and party all night with no thought of children or marriage.

The film opens with Peter waking up with a hangover and discovering he and Sandra ended last night’s particularly raucous party by marrying.

The marriage is a flash of clarity for Peter and the audience—he isn’t torn between two women, he never was.  His heart has always been with Maggie, and without a word to his new wife, he runs to her.  

They both believed they’d marry when he finally grew up.  Maggie waited; he didn’t.

She’s devastated, of course, and Peter’s presence the day after his marriage confuses and hurts her.

Yet in a twist of movie-land fate, Peter discovers he is not technically married to Sandra, as she got the dates mixed up on her divorce and was still married to her first husband during her drunken nuptials with Peter.

To his credit, Peter offers to marry Sandra again when they are both sober and single.  Yet on the day she is a free woman, Sandra travels to Philadelphia to perform, signalling that her career will always come first.

Peter takes this opening and marries Maggie instead, finally becoming the family man she always wanted.

Peter and Maggie live in marital bliss while Sandra stews over losing her man.  It’s not Peter she wants so much as to win the head-to-head competition with Maggie.

Then Peter dies in a plane crash and Sandra turns up pregnant.  (It is now clear why the convoluted marriage-not-marriage plot was necessary.  The hero of our tale is permitted a drunken consummated fake marriage in 1941, but not a drunken one-night stand.)

Here’s where things get interesting—Maggie wants a piece of Peter with her forever.  Sandra wants a career as a concert pianist unencumbered by a child.  So The Great Lie is conceived—Maggie will raise Sandra’s child as her own.  Maggie pays Sandra the bulk of her inheritance from Peter for the privilege of raising Sandra’s son.

The film shines in the scenes between the women.  In the best segment, Maggie and Sandra escape to a private cabin in the woods where Sandra can have the baby in complete privacy and thus pass it off as Maggie’s.  Patient Maggie placates Sandra, who is going mad from the pregnancy and confinement.

Bette Davis and Mary Astor in The Great Lie (1941)

I’ve written a lot in this blog about Bette Davis’ skirmishes with other actresses, and her need to hold the spotlight.  It’s all true—she owned it during her lifetime and she would own it now if she were here.  But The Great Lie is the rare Davis film made great by her understated performance.  She is the patient and calm woman any man would want to marry.  

Mary Astor’s Sandra is petulant, fiery, and gets all the best lines.

“I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf – I’m a musician, I’m an artist! I have zest and appetite – and I like food!”

The film is a contrast of the two women, and Davis allows Mary Astor to shine in their scenes together.  Watching it I realized that I had never seen any actor—man or woman—steal scenes from Bette Davis the way Mary Astor does in this film.  

People have said that I stole the picture from Bette Davis,” Astor said.  “But that is sheer nonsense.  She handed it to me on a silver platter.”

Mary Astor in The Great Lie (1941)

Mary Astor knew as well as anyone that no one could steal a scene from Bette Davis unless she allowed it.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I like Bette best when she’s bad—but watching her homespun Maggie play off Astor’s stone cold bitch is a true delight.

Mary Astor won a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra, and she thanked Bette Davis in her acceptance speech.

The title of the film telegraphs its big twist, and anyone who grew up watching soap operas knows Peter—who was presumed dead without a body—will show up alive before it’s all said and done.  The great lie will be exposed.  But knowing what’s coming doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of this film, a lovely product of the studio system that doesn’t transcend into legendary status but is a pleasant way to pass a cold winter night.

The Great Lie (1941) Verdict:  Give It a Shot

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George Brent and Bette Davis in The Great Lie (1941)

Before & After

#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932)
Red Dust (1932) and Mogambo (1953) opening banner

In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust.  Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina.  He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.

His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection.  First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced.  She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.

But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.  

It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another.  Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.

Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around.  She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.”  Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously.  And she lives to annoy Dennis.

Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell.  But what we forget is just how funny she was.  She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.

Gable is deliciously young and handsome.  He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.

Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara.  Their chemistry burns up every scene.

But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.

Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932)

Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust.  They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo.  Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses.  The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl.  The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey.  Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.

The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner.  The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.

And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?  

Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.

Ah, Hollywood.

(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role.  And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)

For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.

Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine.  Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course.  In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy.  The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.

Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:

Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley.  He just comes across as a jerk.

Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed.  She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.

She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley.  There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing.  Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.

Clark Gable with Jean Harlow (Red Dust), and then Ava Gardner (Mogambo)
Clark before the mustache and production code with Harlow…..and after with Gardner.

And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old.  He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older.  To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.)  And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.

Grace Kelly with Clark Gable in Mogambo (1953)
Grace Kelly, Clark Gable

Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags.  And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.

The critics disagree with me, as critics often do.  Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress.  Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing.  Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.

Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences.  Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.

You won’t be sorry.

Final Verdicts:  Red Dust - Give It A Shot, Mogambo - Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932)