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It's one of the true curiosities of cinema that a bad movie can sometimes be as entertaining as a great one; people don't, for instance, harbor special affection for particularly lousy paintings. William Dieterle's Satan Met a Lady (1936) isn't as god-awful as legendary misfires like The Silver Chalice (1954) or Myra Breckinridge (1970). But it forever stands as a prime example of the studio system gone wrong, a cinematic train wreck from the script to the casting to the direction. The film is also known as the next-to-last straw that broke Bette Davis' back at Warner Bros.
Satan Met a Lady is a rather loopy adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's detective thriller The Maltese Falcon (it would take John Huston and Humphrey Bogart to finally get it right, in a big way, in 1941.) Screenwriter Brown Holmes' lack of interest in the source material is the main reason that Satan Met a Lady never finds its footing. Holmes actually turns the object of desire, the Maltese Falcon itself, into a ram's horn full of jewels! And the Fat Man, in this case, is a woman (Alison Skipworth). Only Dan Rowan and Dick Martin showed the novel less respect when they alluded to it in their mystery parody, The Maltese Bippy (1969).
No one seemed to like Satan Met a Lady when it was initially released- not the star, the director, the producer, or the critics. Everyone would eventually disparage it in one way or another. Davis even discusses the film at length in her memoir, The Lonely Life, mainly because it drove her to the brink of career suicide. "I was so distressed by the whole tone of the script and the vapidity of my part that I marched up to Mr. Warner's office and demanded that I be given work that was commensurate with my proven ability." By this point in her career, Davis had already won an Oscar, and was viewed as the most gifted actress in the industry. Everyone except Jack Warner, it seemed, was duly impressed by her.
Davis was furious with Warner when he wouldn't release her from Satan Met a Lady, but she gamely fought her way through the shoot. Bosley Crowther, the critic for the New York Times, was ultimately less than impressed, calling the story "merely a farrago of nonsense representing a series of practical studio compromises with an unworkable script." He also took time to mention Davis' confrontation with Warner Bros.: "Without taking sides in a controversy of such titanic proportions, it is no more than gallantry to observe that if Bette Davis had not effectually espoused her own cause against Warners recently by quitting her job, the Federal Government eventually would have had to step in and do something about her."
Davis was truly nearing her wit's end when Satan Met a Lady turned out to be exactly the kind of debacle that she had envisioned. But she officially blew her fuse when Warner assigned her next project, an unlikely romance called God's Country and the Woman (1937), in which she was expected to play a female lumberjack! Davis forced her way into Warner's office and screamed furiously, "I won't do it! Satan Met a Lady was bad enough, but this is absolute tripe!" Davis literally walked out on Warner Bros., becoming one of the first performers in movie history to attempt such a gambit. (It should be noted that Satan Met a Lady director Dieterle eventually threatened to do the same thing.) She'd return to the studio, and Jack Warner would bend enough to cast her in more worthwhile roles. But, to a large degree, her dislike of Satan Met a Lady soured her forever on the vagaries of big-time movie stardom. It's nice to know, though, that the backbone she so often displayed on the screen was very much a part of her approach to real life. As great as she was, it wasn't all acting.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Brown Holmes (based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett)
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editor: Warren Low
Music Director: Leo F. Forbstein
Art Design: Max Parker
Costume Design: Orry-KellyPrincipal Cast: Bette Davis (Valerie Purvis), Warren William (Ted Shayne), Alison Skipworth (Mme. Barabbas), Arthur Treacher (Anthony Travers), Winifred Shaw (Astrid Ames), Marie Wilson (Murgatroyd), Porter Hall (Mr. Ames), Maynard Holmes (Kenneth), Charles Wilson (Pollock), Olin Howlin (Dunhill), Joe King (McElroy), Barbara Blane (Babe).
B&W-75m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara