Satan Met a Lady (1936)

The Maltese Spin-Offs: ‘Satan Met a Lady’ and ‘The Maltese Bippy’

These are not the gospel according to Dashiell Hammett.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a classic American detective novel that became a classic film in John Huston’s 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart. Now available on demand from Warner Archive are two cinematic footnotes on the cultural reverberations of this story.

Satan Met a Lady is the second film version of the novel, the first being the 1931 The Maltese Falcon with Ricardo Cortez. Satan Met a Lady, but missing the falcon, transmogrified into the legendary horn of Roland, refashions the story as a vehicle for Bette Davis in her early Warner Brothers phase as a smart, tough-talking blonde. She was on the side of the law in most of those pictures, but the trailer and indeed the title basically come out and tell you she’s a baddie here, which rather saps any sense of mystery.

In the ’30s, detective movies were often facetious larks full of urbane dialogue and screwball antics, as defined best by MGM’s Thin Man series. In keeping with this, the trailer for Satan Met a Lady makes a point of mentioning that it’s based on a novel by Thin Man creator Dashiell Hammett (even if they misspell his name), and star Warren William was basically Warner’s equivalent of MGM’s William Powell.

All this explains why Satan Met a Lady handles the tale with an eye for character comedy and wise-crackery, as nobody pays much attention to the various corpses. Whereas Bogart’s Sam Spade utters famous dialogue about how a man is obliged to find out who killed his partner, William’s renamed Ted Shane looks unconcerned to the point of being oblivious. We get the notion that he uncovers the killer only as a matter of convenience to avoid the police.

As she’s taken away in cuffs, Davis’ character delivers a surprising harangue that must be described as a feminist statement about proving a woman can be as smart as he — even though he’s not the one being arrested. She’s instantly contrasted with Shane’s dizzy secretary (Marie Wilson) falling into his arms. These two blondes — the smart one and the dumb one — define his romantic choices, and it’s clear which he’s most comfortable with.

This is an interestingly female-heavy version of the story, with “the Fat Man” replaced by wily criminal battle-axe Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth), who’s attended by a curious baby-faced psychopath (Maynard Holmes). She contrasts with a gullible dowager (May Beatty) of the same casting type whom Shane cons on a train. He’s all about manipulating women insouciantly, including a former girlfriend (Winifred Shaw) who’s not exactly a grieving widow when her husband (Porter Hall) turns up dead. Also in the picture are an Arthur Treacher, who looks out of his element not playing a butler, and Olin Howland and Charles C. Wilson as sardonic cops.

Although it exists in the shadow of the “real” 1941 version and finds its greatest value as a Davis vehicle — one she resented, and she’s hardly knocking herself out — it’s a fast-moving entertainment directed with style by William Dieterle. Writer Brown Holmes (I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang ) had worked on the 1931 version. It’s shot by Arthur Edeson, one of Hollywood’s great cinematographers, and although he wasn’t required to prove it here, it was obvious when he did the 1941 remake. Henry Blanke, an important producer at Warner, would also handle the 1941 film — a happier occasion for all.

The Maltese Bippy (1969)

Moving ahead several decades, we have The Maltese Bippy, a spoof that has absolutely nothing to do with the Hammett story besides referencing it in the Dada-ist title and the tenuous plot point of something valuable hidden somewhere. You may be surprised to learn (or you may feel completely unedified) that it wasn’t the first movie starring the comedy duo of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, who first became familiar to viewers of TV’s Colgate Comedy Hour. Their feature debut was the western spoof Once Upon a Horse (1958), and good luck finding it.

More than ten years later, they were momentarily bankable as the hosts of TV’s top-rated Laugh-In. Their rapid patter depended on Rowan playing the dapper, slightly exasperated straight man to Martin’s bubble-headed nonsense, like Gracie Allen with a sex change. This was deliberate, as they evoked George Burns’ old phrase “Say goodnight, Gracie” with Rowan’s “Say goodnight, Dick,” to which Martin’s inevitable answer was “Goodnight, Dick.”

That formula is repeated during the opening credits of this movie, but they adopt different personas for the story itself. Rowan’s Sam Smith is a dishonest, fast-talking, egotistical schemer (an update of Bud Abbott) while Martin’s Ernest Gray is a sensible if too good-natured friend who gets the short end of everything.

Smith has somehow talked Gray into buying a house by a cemetery and taking in boarders–Carol Lynley as a lovely student, Leon Askin as an eccentric violinist. By way of nothing in particular, Sam’s plan to star Ernie in smut films falls apart. The actress says, “You told me it would be a family movie”, to which Sam answers, “This is how families are made.” Such bits of quaintness marked hip ‘n’ swingin’ humor at the turn of the ’70s.

Anyway, it turns out everyone inside Ernie’s house and next door are trying to find a valuable object hidden in the place. First, however, Ernie’s main concern is that he believes he’s turning into a werewolf–apparently like the wacky next-door siblings played by Julie Newmar and Fritz Weaver. This leads to a dream sequence in which wolf-Ernie fills five minutes running through the streets of the MGM backlot.

The cast also includes Mildred Natwick as the lippy housekeeper, Robert Reed and Dana Elcar as cops, David Hurst as a shrink, the formidable Eddra Gale (best remembered from 8 1/2 and What’s New Pussycat ) as a spooky woman with no lines, and character actors Alan Oppenheimer, Garry Walberg, Arthur Batanides and Maudie Prickett as hangers-around who clutter up the neighborhood.

If you’re waiting for the plot to make sense, you’ll still be waiting after everyone’s gone home. As scripted by Everett Freeman and Ray Singer, part of the movie’s self-conscious spoofery is that nothing ties together any more than the nonsense title, which uses a vaguely naughty word promulgated on Laugh-In in such phrases as “You bet your bippy!” If you’re waiting for hilarity to ensue, that never quite arrives either, although I laughed at the “Intermission” gag. When this film aired on TV in my childhood, it seemed the height of sophistication. It now seems several rungs lower, though I see it in widescreen and color for the first time.

Most of it just sits there looking silly if amiable. The ending pulls off a daffy postmodern deconstruction that uses black comedy in the manner of a Chuck Jones cartoon, essentially spoofing Scooby Doo before there was such a thing. The decor is colorful, shot prettily by the great William H. Daniels at the end of his career, of which this is no highlight. Longtime comedy director Norman Panama keeps it moving (though he’s far from his days with Danny Kaye and Bob Hope) while Nelson Riddle’s music tries to make it all sound bouncy.

It’s worth noting that this film, with its jokes about sex and murder, was G-rated in the early days of the MPAA. That would never be true today, yet the movie even jokes about “the MPAA police”. The only extra is the trailer, which promotes Rowan & Martin in the context of Laurel & Hardy, Olsen & Johnson, Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges, and the Marx and Ritz Brothers. They omit Wheeler & Woolsey, who probably come closest. And if you’re asking “Who?” that’s one of the reasons.

RATING 4 / 10
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