Friends and I have been meeting now and then to take in as many ’30s films in one setting as we can. Most of what we are able to come up with are things I have seen countless times before, such as Grand Hotel. But occasionally we all have the great pleasure of watching something together which none of us as seen and which turns out to be great. Such was the case with the Edward G. Robinson film Five Star Final, which we all loved. We found another film that we loved just as much, if not more.
The 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is something I have been dying to see for ages. I of course have seen the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart version and I had head a lot about the 1931 version. Not only does it feature poor, tragic Thelma Todd in a rare non-comedy role, it is also widely known to be much racier than the version that came a decade later. This version was made during the 5-year sweet spot between the spread of talkies in 1929 and the establishment of the Hayes Office in 1934, which would censor anything “immoral” out of movies. Actually, the Film Production Code had been drafted in 1930, but since there was no enforcement body, the makers of The Maltese Falcon, and most other filmmakers of the period, simply ignored it.
Since it can be directly compared with the later version directed by John Huston, the 1931 film is a textbook example of what a pre-code film is. Both apparently follow the Dashiell Hammett novel rather closely, and there are several stretches of identical dialogue. But there are quite a few differences in pacing and tone. Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade is a lot less tight-lipped then Bogart, and spends a good deal of the movie laughing off the threats posed to him by both the men and women in the story.
Roy Del Ruth was allowed a lot more freedom than Huston would later have. While just the hint of a relationship is alluded to between Bogart’s Spade and the widow of his partner, Thelma Todd as Iva Archer makes little effort to hide her relationship with Sam, making titillating calls to him during office hours. I was set to be disappointed by the absence of Sidney Greenstreet, who is so good in the Huston version, Dudley Digges is even better as the man obsessed with tracking down the falcon, although he is too slim to be called “the fat man,” the nickname which was so aptly applied to Greenstreet. Sam Spade puts the moves on in an all female clients who step into his office and flirts openly with his secretary Effie, played by the very funny Una Merkel. It is not even implied in the Bogart version that he sleeps with Mary Astor’s character, but here we have Bebe Daniels waking up with a tell-tale indentation in the pillow beside her.