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Mary Astor

Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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Videophiled: Preston Sturges’ ‘The Palm Beach Story’

PalmBeachThe Palm Beach Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Leave it to Preston Sturges to create the sexiest and most grown-up romantic comedy of his day. Claudette Colbert has never been more desirable as Gerry Jeffers, the flirtatious pragmatist with a clear-eyed take on the realities of men, women, and sex, and Sturges turns Joel McCrea’s All-American stiffness into comic perfection as her husband, the aspiring inventor Tom, a would-be Horatio Alger with a sense of pride and honor at odds with Colbert’s willingness to leverage her sex appeal. She’s not mercenary exactly, merely more socially sophisticated, and without the usual homemaking skills of the traditional housewife, those are tools she is more than willing to use. They are opposites in everything from attitude to onscreen energy to body language. Colbert moves like a dancer and even her dialogue seems to dance through the film while the stocky, blocky McCrea is slow-moving, deliberately speaking bedrock, a foundation of hard-working focus and unbending values. They shouldn’t work but when his hands work the stubborn zipper on the back of her dress, their temperature rises noticeably.

The Palm Beach Story is a variation on the classic comedy of remarriage, a theme that runs through such films as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Not that this couple divorces, but that’s Gerry’s plan, convinced that he’s better off without her expensive tastes, and she runs off with little more than the clothes on her back and almost literally falls into the lap of an idle rich oddball (a brilliantly underplayed comic turn by Rudy Vallee) and his cheerfully man-hopping sister (a sparkling Mary Astor). Meanwhile, Tom runs after her and gets introduced to Palm Beach society as her brother, Gerry’s plan to leverage the situation to finance his future as well as hers. She’s nothing if not thoughtful.

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MOD Movies: Lust in the ‘Red Dust’

Red Dust (Warner Archive), the 1932 jungle melodrama starring Clark Gable as a rubber plantation foreman in East Asia and Jean Harlow as the street smart showgirl who takes a powder from “Say-gone” (as they call the future Vietnamese city of Saigon) and lands upriver in his primitive plantation manor, is as sexy, frank, and grown-up as pre-code cinema gets.

Gable’s Dennis Carson is pure testosterone, a macho hunk of survivalist instinct, racial bigotry, and unapologetic chauvinism, as arrogant and judgmental as he is hypocritical, which strangely enough is part of his rough-edged charm. And make no mistake, the man is mesmerizing, even when he’s insufferable. Gable was quite a prolific player in the MGM stable but until then he was always playing in support to the star. Director Victor Fleming plucked Gable to take the lead here with newly-minted star Harlow and helped shape Gable as the rugged man’s man star, a cocktail of machismo and impertinence and sassy confidence that defined his image. Fleming soon became Gable’s friend and hunting buddy and the actor’s favorite director.

As with Gable, Fleming helped shape Harlow’s screen persona with this and the subsequent “Bombshell” (also available from the Warner Archive; reviewed on Parallax View here). Harlow is Vantine, a woman of indeterminate employment (she’s hitched a ride on the first boat out to get out of a spot of trouble, a hazard, as she explains, “in my line of work”) and no apologies. That’s her charm and Harlow magnificently embodies this creature. Whatever her career, she makes no apologies of how lives her life. She’s open, unashamed, likes to sleep with men, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it.

Which is more than you can say about Carson, a man who makes a show of independence and morality, then proceeds to put the moves on a married woman (Mary Astor), the wife of his new engineer, who is conveniently sent to survey the farthest reaches of his jungle plot. The heat between the proper society woman in the wild and the great white hunter dazzled by culture is palpable and it makes a fool — and a hypocrite — of Carson, who immediately kicks Vantine out of his bed to make room for his hot and heavy affair. But Vantine is still there, lounging around in lingerie and merrily bathing in the rain barrel without bothering to pull the shades, not as a temptation but as a conscience.

It’s all shot on the leftover “Tarzan” sets on the MGM backlot, a perfectly artificial jungle set of fake trees and painted backdrops, and filled with demeaning Asian stereotypes of native “coolie” workers. Most of the conversation between Carson and his engineer consists of swapping complaints about how lazy and sneaky the coolies are, a work force indistinguishable from press gangs or slave labor. No irony here, merely the usual extension of manifest destiny and colonialist arrogance that Hollywood happily embodied in its golden years.

You can (and should) enjoy the film even while recognizing the insensitivity and western arrogance. In fact, the film so frankly acknowledges and confronts Caron’s hypocrisy that you can mentally extend the theme in ways the filmmakers surely never intended. But even if you can’t, the glow of Harlow, the heat of her chemistry with Gable, the strength and grace of Astor, and the exotic fantasy of uninhibited jungle love among the American expatriates is irresistible.

The star power made this a classic of late-night TV and early VHS release, but the lack of high-quality archival elements made it MIA when other star-powered Hollywood classics rolled out on DVD. And while this Warner Archive release isn’t necessarily stellar, it looks very good and marks one of the biggest releases of the format. It’s about time this film was available on disc.

Available exclusively from Warner Archive:
Red Dust

The Maltese Falcon

[Originally written for the National Society of Film Critics anthology The A List: 100 Essential Films (2002)]

In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – but pirates seized the galley carrying the priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.

The black bird
The spell cast by the black bird

That crawl appears following the opening credits of The Maltese Falcon, set to dreamy-sinister music and laid over a dark image of the peregrine statuary seemingly poised in some undiscovered tomb. The grammar is regrettable (surely it should be Knights-Templar?), and suggestive of some haste. Was the foreword perhaps added at the last minute, in an act of desperation, after preview audiences had grown fidgety with reel upon reel of baroque conversations and ornately peculiar comings and goings in a collection of offices and hotel rooms purporting to be modern-day (1941) San Francisco? More than half the film elapses before anyone even mentions the titular bird, let alone accounts for its immense value and lurid history. Yet strike the keynote with that one-sentence prelude and the mantle of legend settles over the entire proceedings.

Of course, The Maltese Falcon has become positively encrusted with legend in the six decades since its release. It’s the classic hardboiled private-eye movie; the nervy maiden offering of its celebrated director, John Huston; the first glamorous star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, an icon of American cinema and the 20th century’s definition of existential cool; and still the most triumphantly well-cast movie from Hollywood’s golden age (rivaled only by Casablanca). Watching The Maltese Falcon now, everybody and his brother know they’re in the presence of something extraordinary. But it’s tantalizing to contemplate how easily the brass ring might have been missed – how close the picture might have come to being just another detective thriller, like the two previous screen versions of Dashiell Hammett’s groundbreaking novel (respectively so-so, in 1931, and ludicrous, in 1936).

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