Based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon are words sure to open any look at Satan Met a Lady. They are usually followed by some sort of scorn ranging from disappointment to ridicule. At the very best Satan garners tempered enthusiasm. That will be our route.
So disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s incidents, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in constant expectation of seeing a group of uniformed individuals appear suddenly from behind the furniture and take the entire cast into protective custody. – Bosley Crowther, New York Times, July 23, 1936
An inferior remake of The Maltese Falcon … There’s hardly any mystery in this version. The comedy isn’t strong enough to fill the bill. – Variety Staff
Getting off to a rather confused start and frequently deviating from its main course, the yarn holds interest chiefly by the work of a good cast, which for the most part is obliged to perform more or less goofy roles. – Film Daily, July 23, 1936
“Honey, it blows!” – Ted Shane to Valerie Purvis as he sucessfully clears the blockage in Roland’s Trumpet.
Let’s get it out of the way. The 1941 John Huston film trumps this 1936 comedy version directed by William Dieterle on every count: it’s smarter, slicker, darker, stylized as compared to routine studio churn, more faithful to the source material. Heck, The Maltese Falcon is even funnier than Satan Met a Lady, even if the humor is black compared to Satan’s heavy-handed screwball formula.
Bogart is an absolute sensation as Sam Spade and, even if you generally love him, Warren William’s Ted Shane really doesn’t deserve to be spoken of in the same conversation as Bogie when it comes to this part. Even here, the home of all things Warren William, not only won’t I compare Warren’s Shane to Bogie’s Spade, but I think smilin’ Ricardo Cortez did a better job in his version, the earliest adaptation from 1931. That film starring Cortez is much closer in tone to the later Huston film with Bogart, even sharing the proper title as passed down from Hammett’s novel.
If you’re already familiar with Warren William’s work in other detective series, think of the zaniest couple of his Perry Mason movies or the most off the wall of his later Lone Wolf entries, slap that mood over the story of The Maltese Falcon and then remove the Falcon itself along with the punchlines to most of the jokes. Satan Met a Lady will make the Warren William fan smile, yet often leave you wondering if you missed the payoff as it moves from scene to scene.
There’s a big problem looming for you, I, or anyone under the age of 85 when it comes to Satan Met a Lady, and that is that later adaptation of The Maltese Falcon starring one Humphrey Bogart. I find it very difficult to distance myself from that classic when talking about Satan Met a Lady and, as usual, I viewed all versions again this week just to make absolute sure I don’t misrepresent any of them in any way. With the 1941 movie and its source material so firmly and deservedly cemented as classics, today it is easy to wonder what anyone responsible for Satan Met a Lady was thinking when they took the hard-boiled story in a completely opposite direction.
Warner Brothers made a very entertaining adaptation of The Maltese Falcon in 1931. It flopped. But MGM made a wildly successful adaptation of another Dashiell Hammett story, The Thin Man, in 1934. The success of The Thin Man almost immediately penetrated our world of Warren William as evidenced by the turn in tone between the first and second entries in the Perry Mason series of films that Warren starred in.
Meanwhile The Thin Man caused sales of all of Hammett’s books to rise and there was Warner Brothers with the rights to this story that they had already done the one time. Warners’ had abandoned the idea of a Falcon sequel even before MGM struck gold with The Thin Man, but eventually came upon the idea to recycle the original story that they held rights to with some changes so that it wouldn’t be immediately apparent to paying audiences that they were using the same story over again just a few years later.
Thus the black statuette became Roland’s Trumpet; Sam Spade was now Ted Shane; and the hard-boiled pre-Code film tried to be a wacky screwball comedy.
Besides Spade’s name every other character in the story had their name, and in one case their sex, changed as well. The most difficult component of the project to put name to was the actual film itself. From script to release it went through several name changes: The Money Man, Filthy Lucre, The Man With the Black Hat, Beware of Imitations, Every Girl for Herself, Hard Luck Dame, Men on Her Mind and, finally, Satan Met a Lady.
Warren is the “Satan” of the title. As a July 1 story synopsis explains:
William, in the role of Ted Shayne, a satanic private detective, experiences considerable difficulty keeping his sometimes questionable professional activities segregated from his affairs d’amour, a failing that is constantly getting him into trouble with various individuals including his secretary, Murgatroyd, Astrid, the wife of his partner Ames, with the police and as the story opens, with Valerie Purvis, a young woman who seeks his aid in looking for a man named Farrow (Kiszely 71).
Obviously Shane’s satanism was not literal in the way we think of the term today, but more a description of the generally low behavior that saw him tossed out of town in the film’s opening scene as well as his behavior towards the women who cross his path. Unfortunately, this is all a bit tame by the already established Warren William pre-Code standards and if you’re amongst those who can stand the movie then William’s Shane winds up far from diabolical.
As Kyle Dawson Edwards points out in his informative look at film adaptations, “The fact that The Maltese Falcon was never under consideration as a title indicates Warner Bros.’ intent to distance Satan Met a Lady from both the 1930 novel and its own 1931 film adaptation” (321). Edwards also draws attention to the advertising and promotion of Satan Met a Lady. In ballyhoo mentioning the story as being based on Hammett’s writings he’s tabbed not as the author of The Maltese Falcon but as the force behind The Thin Man.
Notice that the long list of titles begins with a focus on a masculine character before suddenly drifting to a more feminine focus. Warren William is certainly The Man With the Black Hat throughout much of Satan Met a Lady, but it was Bette Davis who was the Hard Luck Dame when Warner Brothers assigned her to this project just a couple of days after she had completed work on The Petrified Forest (1936).
Davis had won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Dangerous (1935) earlier in 1936, but was nonetheless being rushed from one project to another by her employer. She revolted. Claiming illness she was unavailable for the studio’s doctor. She did not appear at work that Monday and was placed under suspension by Tuesday. It was a brief rebellion with the suspension lifted when she showed up to work that Friday.
The lack of interest shows through in her Valerie Purvis. Not that Warren is worlds better as Shane, but he at least seems to be enjoying what he’s doing. I got the feeling that director Dieterle just told his cast to have fun and let’s get this over with and that, if anything, Warren was more skilled than Davis in just putting himself out there to act the fool. Davis often seems uncomfortable, and you can’t really blame her.
The menu of additional actors includes Alison Skipworth as Madame Barabbas, Satan’s version of Sydney Greenstreet’s fat man, Gutman. Again, Greenstreet is iconic and Skipworth can’t hope to compare, but if you can separate the two performances she passes muster. Her scene bandying with William’s Shane is one of the better moments in the entire movie. Her nephew, Kenneth, or “little chubby” as Shane calls him, is pretty humorous as the psychopathic gunsel we better know as portrayed by Elisha Cook, Jr. in ‘41. Arthur Treacher takes on the Peter Lorre role, here an umbrella toting Brit named Travers, who shares a scene containing some of Satan’s more surrealistic dialogue and behavior with William immediately after his Travers has overturned Shane’s apartment in search of the Trumpet.
Satan Met a Lady ties itself a bit closer to The Thin Man by way of Porter Hall’s inclusion in the cast. Here Hall plays Shane’s partner Ames, and so anyone recalling the fate of Jerome Cowan’s Archer realizes that Hall won’t be around very long. Wini Shaw plays Mrs. Ames, one of Shane’s past conquests who won’t go away, while the two cops on Shane’s tail are portrayed by Charles C. Wilson and Olin Howland. Howland popped up alongside Warren William pretty often during this period.
Marie Wilson, not quite yet 20 years old, plays Shane’s secretary, Murgatroyd — ”Sounds like the technical name for killing your mother,” says Shane in one of William’s best lines. Wilson reminded me of Alice White in the role, though she oozed more innocence than sex appeal in between her squeals and coos. She winds up figuring in even more scenes than Bette Davis and while I won’t blame you if she rubs you wrong, Wilson did receive quite a bit of praise for her portrayal at the time of the movie’s release. I’ll add that given repeated viewings she has grown on me over time.
Just prior to the release of Satan Met a Lady Warren William bought back his contract from Warner Brothers. In consecutive paragraphs Film Daily announces Satan’s July 22 premiere just above news of Warren’s signing of his four movie deal with Emanuel Cohen, who soon co-starred Warren with Mae West in Go West Young Man (1936). Bette Davis next starred in the excellent Marked Woman (1937) for Warner Brothers. Humphrey Bogart co-starred. Satan Met a Lady came and went.
It’s a disappointing curiosity piece for fans of either the famed film version of The Maltese Falcon or the work of its author, Dashiell Hammett. Infuriating curiosity piece may describe it better for Bette Davis fans, who’ll likely be wondering how Marie Wilson was given so much more to do than the screen legend. But for Warren William fans it’s a fun little detective movie that makes for good viewing mixed in amongst Perry Mason and Lone Wolf movies.
Just try not to think about the black bird and you should have a good time.
Satan Met a Lady is available on DVD as part of Warner Home Video’s two disc, three film special edition set of The Maltese Falcon.
- Edwards, Kyle Dawson. Corporate Fictions: Film Adaptations and Authorship in the Classical Hollywood Era. Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 2006.
- Kiszely, Philip. Hollywood Through Private Eyes. Bern: Peter Lang, 2006.
- Sikov, Ed. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Henry Holt, 2007.