The two cases I'm familiar with and have viewed are the two versions of Gaslight (see my post of August 26, 2008) and the three versions of The Maltese Falcon. The Maltese Falcon has long been a favorite of mine, so I was surprised and intrigued when I recently discovered the two previous attempts at film versions of Dashiell Hammet's fine novel. The two earlier versions are The Maltese Falcon which came out in 1931 and Satan Met a Lady, which appeared in 1936. The classic or best known version with Humphrey Bogart appeared in 1941.
Satan Met a Lady is quite different from the other versions for it is a comedic adaptation of Hammett's novel. Most of the basic plot elements are present, although in a modified form. The black bird becomes a ram's horn, specifically the horn Roland the Brave finally sounded to bring back Charlemagne, although too late to save him and the rear guard from annihilation. (See Le Chanson de Roland, an epic poem of some 4000 words written probably around the early 12 century.) The horn is, of course, stuffed with jewels. Along with various plot element changes, the characters were renamed:
Actor Character Hammett's character
Warren William -- Ted Shane (Sam Spade)
Bette Davis -- Valerie Purvis (Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O'Shaughnessy
Alison Skipworth -- Madame Barabbas (Casper Gutman)
Marie Wilson -- Miss Murgatroyd (Effie)
Porter Hall -- Milton Ames (Miles Archer)
Arthur Treacher -- Anthony Travers (Joel Cairo?)
Maynard Holmes -- Kenneth (Wilmer Cook--young gunman)
Imdb.com gives the complete cast for those who are interested.
The film opens with Ted Shane being kicked out of a small town. He then returns to rejoin his former partner Milton Ames. The Woman appears, and the plot loosely follows the novel, more or less, mostly less. Although I watched the movie last week, I've forgotten most of it.
Warren William makes Shane a bit of a dunderhead, always tripping over his own feet, metaphorically speaking. Bette Davis clearly is the Class Act as Valerie Purvis. She is too strong for the rest of the cast. Alison Skipworth's Madame Barabbas was also quite good. I wonder if Greenstreet had watched her performance. Marie Wilson played Effie as a ditsy blond, much like her later roles as the ditsy blond in several Dean Martin--Jerry Lewis comedies. Maynard Holmes' Kenneth (the young gunsel) becomes a schoolyard bully who spends considerable time scowling and whining.
The title isn't as weird as it sounds, for Hammett in the first paragraph of the novel describes Spade:
"Sam Spade's jaw was long and bony; his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down--from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan." So, the satan met a lady.
The 1931 version, the first version, plays it straight. As far as I could tell, the only significant plot difference between it and the 1941 version is the ending. The 1931 version kept Hammett's original ending in which Wilmer kills Gutman. Aside from that, there are only a few differences between it and the Classic 1941 version. The secondary characters seem to have less onscreen time in comparison to the Classic version. This perhaps may partially be the cause for what I see as the most significant difference between the two.
It's hard to describe the difference, but the closest I can come to it is to say that the characters in the first version were thin in comparison to those in 1941. They seemed to be surface characters only while the characters in the 1941 film had depth to them. Moreover, the choice of Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade is bewildering. Why it was decided to cast someone who appears to be the Latin lover--Ramon Navarro or Valentino--is beyond me. Perhaps that type of leading man was the rage at that time.
Cortez is not convincing as Spade. For example, when Ruth Wonderly is doing her helpless heroine bit, Cortez has this big wide grin on him--this is all fun and games. Bogart, on the other hand, has just the slightest grin, and it's not an all fun and games grin. It is a tired, cynical grin; he has been lied to by his clients in the past and it always made his job harder, and now he's hearing more lies again.
And again, when Cortez explains to Wonderly at the end why he's going to turn her in to the police, it seemed to be just someone reading lines. Bogart looks directly and her, and then turns away, looks down at the floor because he can't face her. He may be in love with her, but other considerations are more important--loyalty to a dead partner being one of them.
The same holds true for the rest of the cast: there really is no comparison between Greenstreet, Lorre, and Elisha Cook and their counterparts in the 1931 version. The dialogue and the encounters among them are similar, but the difference is between real people and one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
There's always the debate as to whether it's the director or the cast that's most important. Would Roy Del Ruth, director of the 1931 film, have produced the same film if he had the 1941 cast? What would John Huston have done with the 1931 cast? Intriguing questions. I don't have an answer, except the perhaps too obvious suggestion that it is the combination of director and cast that creates a forgettable film in 1931 and a classic some ten years later.
Overall Rating: Have some fun and see all three. Read the novel too.