Sidebar: A Memo from Joseph Breen

A (possibly apocryphal) story I’ve heard about Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon was that Huston was going on vacation before beginning work on the script. Before he left, he asked his secretary to transcribe the book’s dialogue into script form so he’d have something to work with when he got back. While he was gone, his secretary’s transcription was accidentally sent to studio head Jack L. Warner, who loved the “script” and directed a very surprised Huston to begin filming immediately.

A confidential informant (see Greg, I protected your identity!)  

Greg and I were batting this around in the comments section earlier today, and it got my juices flowing, to the extent they can flow nowadays.  Is it possible that maybe the most famous and revered crime movie of all time resulted from a director being forced to film his secretary’s transcription of a novel’s dialogue? No it is not, but could some version of this story be true?  How much do we know about what went on over at the Warner’s lot back then?

I’d hate to have to tell you who I had to kill to get what I’m about to share with you all now.  Mainly because I’d hate for you all to know what a humdrum existence I lead.

I pulled down this venerable dusty tome (paperback, I’m not made of money) that I recently obtained for research purposes, entitled Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade, by one Richard Layman.  (Clearly an alias.  Perhaps a defrocked clergyman.)

I found this.  You tell me whether it supports our source’s secondhand allegation–or dismantles it.  I honestly don’t know.

(Please note, the original memo, which the so-called Layman reproduces in photostatic form, was not in block format, but I just can’t be bothered to hit the tab key that many times.  Old war injury, carpal in nature; I was in the 69th Typist’s Brigade, the Fighting Hunt&Peckers.  Otherwise, I have endeavored to reproduce it faithfully.  Please note, this memo in its original form took up three entire sheets of typing paper, which I shall infer was foolscap.  Single spaced.)

May 27, 1941


Mr. Jack L. Warner
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Burbank, California


Dear Mr. Warner:


We have read the final script, dated May 24, 1941, for your proposed production titled THE MALTESE FALCON, and regret to advise that while the basic story is acceptable, a picture based upon this script could not be approved under the provisions of the Code because of several important objectionable details, namely:


(1)    it is indicated that Spade and Brigid have had an illicit sex affair and that the relationship between Spade and Iva has been illicit.


(2)    Cairo seems to be characterized as a pansy.


(3)    There is a great deal of unnecessary drinking.


It will be necessary to overcome these objections before the finished picture could be approved.


Going through the script in detail, we call your attention to the following points:


Page 13:    Spade’s line, “Damn her !” is unacceptable.


Page 14:    In accordance with the Association’s policy re drinking, some other business besides drinking in Spade’s apartment must be substituted on Pages 14 sqq. 19, 50 sqq. and 65 sqq.


Page 21:    Any flavor that Spade and Iva have been illicitly intimate must be eliminated from this scene if it is to be approved in the finished picture. Accordingly, it is essential that there be no physical contact between Iva and Spade, other than that of decent sympathy.  In this connection, see Page 80, where the physical contact is unacceptable.  The entire conversation between Iva and Spade will have to be rewritten to get away from this flavor.


Page 35:    We cannot approve the characterization of Cairo as a pansy, as indicated by the lavender perfume, high-pitched voice, and other accouterments. In this connection, we refer you to scenes 21, and 115, where Cairo should not appear effeminate while rubbing the boy’s temple.


Page 54:    Gruesomeness must be avoided in this shot where Cairo is shown bleeding.


Page 67:    This fade-out of Spade and Brigid is unacceptable because of the definite indication of an illicit sex affair.  There must be no indication that Brigid and Spade are spending the night together in Spade’s apartment. Otherwise it cannot be approved in the finished picture.  In this connection, please see Page 75.


Page 70:    The Boy’s line, “–you !” and his soundless repetition of the same words will be unacceptable if curse words.


Page 81:    While the drinking in these scenes is necessary as a story point, in order to prepare for later scenes where Spade is drugged, we must insist that the actual drinking be kept to the absolute minimum necessary to the development of the plot.  It seems that audiences are offended not so much by the presence of liquor as by the actual drinking.


Page 84:    Gutman’s use of the interjection “by Gad”, here and on pages 92, 117, 121, 125, 126, and 128, seems to be offensive if only by the number of times he uses it.  We suggest you use some other interjection at times.


There should be no gruesomeness in Scenes 71, 81, 88 and 89.


Pages 118 and 119:    Spade’s speech about the District Attorneys should be rewritten to get away from characterizing most District Attorneys as men who will do anything to further their careers.  This is important.


Page 141:    Brigid’s line to Spade, “Not after what we’ve been to each other  ” is unacceptable as pointing up the previous sex affair.


Page 143:    There must be nothing sex suggestive in Spade’s eyeing of Brigid.


Page 144:    The underlined words in Spade’s speech are unacceptable, “I won’t because all of me wants to — wants to say to hell with consequences and do it.”   Likewise, in this conversation between Spade and Brigid, there should be no flavor of a previous sex affair underlying the conversation.


Page 147:    The action of Spade putting his hand on Effie’s hip must not be offensive.


You understand, of course, that our final judgment must be based upon the finished picture.


Cordially yours,


Joseph I. Breen.




Many clues.  I shall look forward to seeing your deductions in the comments section.  But please, no offensive language, unnecessary drinking, or intimations of previous sex affairs.  If any.  I’d say no pansies, but that is now unacceptable, and anyway, some of my favorite people…..

Cordially yours,

Frederick Effing Fitch.




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9 responses to “Sidebar: A Memo from Joseph Breen

  1. Nice find! I couldn’t say whether this supports or contradicts the anecdote regarding the secretary’s transcript, but it is interesting to see how Huston ignored or subverted censors’ concerns. Regarding Joel Cairo’s “pansy” status, the perfume reference remains, and this shot seems especially deliberate/subversive:–peter-lorre-film-making.jpg

    Also, as previously discussed, “gunsel” did not mean gunman, which Hammett surely knew, but Hollywood censors surely did not.

    • Yeah, I noted a lot of ‘unacceptable’ material got through. That was probably part of the bargaining process that went on. Some things they just finessed, satisfying the letter of Breen’s objections, but not the substance. Spade sniffs Cairo’s card with a bemused air–Effie says “Gardenia.” Honestly, she could have said it was Old Spice. Everybody in the know would know, the minute Lorre walked onscreen.

      (Parenthetically, my dad went to see Fried Green Tomatoes, thought it a fine wholesome film full of sound moral messages, and was shocked later, when I told him the two main characters were engaged in an illicit sex affair. It’s an Irish Catholic thing. So was Breen. My people.)

      However, I just recently watched the film, and they did not suggestively fade to indicate to the audience that Spade and Brigid are about to enter into an ‘illicit sex affair.’ (Honestly, it would sound less dirty if Breen had just said “fucking.” ::sigh:: My effing people.)

      It’s worth mentioning that elsewhere in that book I got this from, there’s a letter from Hammett to his publisher, saying that he wants all the “To bed” stuff between Spade and Brigid left in–there was some pressure for him to tone that down, but he wanted there to be no ambiguity there at all, and he got his way. They wake up naked in bed together, and later, Spade insists Brigid strip in front of him to make sure she’s not concealing something on her person (damn, now all of a sudden I get the point of that scene from Flashfire.)

      What all this tells us, of a certainty, is that the screenplay submitted to Breen was a screenplay, not a lot of typewritten dialogue. There are things here you wouldn’t get from dialogue, like Spade putting his hand on Effie’s hip, and the suggestive fade. (I think they probably cast an older actress to just get rid of the whole Spade/Effie sexual tension subplot, though some tension remains, regardless).

      It also tells us (much more significantly) that Huston wanted to make an even more faithful adaptation than the film we have today.

      It’s impossible Warner told a nonplussed Huston to just go ahead and shoot what the secretary typed up, because (1) Warner would have known just by reading it that it wasn’t a shooting script and (2) He still had to get it past Breen. Movies didn’t get made that way in the 1940’s. Movies never got made that way.

      It’s still barely possible that Warner’s enthusiasm for the dialogue, as typed, convinced Huston that he didn’t have to make a lot of changes, emboldened him go where few if any Hollywood directors had gone before (and definitely not after the Pre-Code era, but the Maltese Falcon movie made during that era sucks ass).

      In other news, I might finish my review of The Glass Key tomorrow.

      Or I might not.

      You have, after all, granted me a stay of sentence with this aside.


      • Oh, the 1931 version wasn’t *that* bad. It just pales next to the 1941 version — particularly the blank they had instead of Bogie. But it’s a serviceable potboiler at worst, and interesting to see a version that emphasizes Spade’s womanizing.

        Now the 1936 “Satan Met a Lady”… *that* version sucks.

        • Well yeah, I mentioned it was Pre-Code, didn’t I? Womanizing would be the whole point of the story. Pity they couldn’t get Warren William for that one.

          Maybe Loretta Young as Brigid. Jean Harlow as Iva. I’m torn between Maureen O’Sullivan and Joan Blondell for Effie. Actually, Mary Astor was a bigger star back then, and at the peak of her seductive powers (when she showed up, Gable couldn’t see Harlow for Red Dust). What do you mean, who’s Mary Astor?

          Well, just write roles for all the early 30’s hotties. Warren could handle them. Ever see Skyscraper Souls?

          I dig Pre-Code. It’s the stuff wet dreams are made of. But that movie still stinks. 😉

          • Some guy on the internet once wrote:

            Maybe this is blasphemy, but I’d like to see somebody adapt it again. But who’d have the balls to even try? (Maybe a woman director?)

            You have anyone in mind? Michelle MacLaren has some chops, and deserves a big-screen shot. Any head-casting for this one? For modern-day tough guy roles, my head always goes to Michael Shannon, but he’s no blonde Satan either.

            • In the book, ‘blonde’ clearly means ‘light brown’ and I don’t consider that blonde. (The Ancient Greeks did, which tracks, real blondes being thin on the ground there, everything’s relative.) There’s dirty blondes, honey blondes, strawberry blondes–there’s no brown-haired blondes. (Clint Eastwood was never a blonde, no matter how many times Eli Wallach called him ‘Blondie’) Anyway, if we’re talking about actors, natural hair color is kind of moot, no?

              MacLaren definitely comes to mind, but after Wonder Woman, you’ve got to figure her dance card is pretty full. There are plenty of others waiting their turn.

              Gals have always dug Spade (you see what I did there?), going back to Dorothy Parker. There’s a rather poignant story there–Mrs. Parker met Hammett at somebody’s party, and instead of just saying “Mr. Hammett, I truly admire your writing,” she knelt reverently, and kissed his hand, gazing up with the worshipful air of a hopeless fangirl.

              She meant it whimsically–he took it the wrong way. In spite of Parker’s guarded friendship with Lillian Hellmann (I get the impression all Hellmann’s friendships were pretty guarded, and with women most of all), they never met again. Hammett was weirded out. The Op in him. Daffy dames spell trouble.

              I’m less concerned with casting than approach. This is, after all, one of the few famous novels that got almost perfectly cast (after two previous tries).

              As JJ said, the first film showed us Spade’s womanizing (played it up, made him look like some drugstore Lothario), but didn’t see any problem with it. Boys will be boys. The second, made in what was a bit of a golden age for female stars, went for more of an equal footing, but was a complete mess scriptwise (Bette Davis wanted no part of it, but her contract compelled her).

              Good as Mary Astor’s performance as Brigid is, it’s not beyond improvement. Brigid is a complex character, always another layer to uncover. She’s not a good person, but she’s not really evil. She’s just fighting in a man’s underworld, for her piece of the pie. The progenitor of many a more successful noir seductress.

              As to Effie, she’s never come close to getting her due. Her relationship with Spade is really the emotional centerpiece of the story–she’s the one person Spade lets his guard down with. And when she turns her back on him at the end, he is, for the first time, mortally wounded. Wondering if maybe he’s exactly as crooked as he’s supposed to be.

              Not a revisionist take. Not a ‘feminist’ take. Just give us the whole story. Tell us the goddam truth, warts and all. Hammett did.

  2. Point of order: Wonder Woman was directed by Patty Jenkins.

  3. Addendum to this piece–turns out that when the first Maltese Falcon adaptation was being made by Warner Bros. (the one with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels), the same objections were raised–almost the same language used, right down to ‘unnecessary drinking.’

    It was Mr. Hays himself then, not Breen. But the production code hadn’t been imposed yet. The studios were competing to see who could be raciest and most out there, with regards to both sex and violence (the former was considered more objectionable, naturally–America).

    So basically all of the objections got shot down, they shot the (not very good) script as written, and there are sexy scenes in the movie that aren’t even in the book. They could have done a totally faithful adaptation of Hammett’s novel then. They just didn’t want to.

    The problem was, the 1931 movie wasn’t supposed to be about Sam Spade. It was supposed to be a vehicle for Bebe Daniels, who Warners thought could be a really big star–so the most important character was Brigid. They were upset when people ended up liking Spade more. (The movie was a solid hit, and made Cortez a much bigger star than he was before, though that didn’t last long).

    Cortez was on loan from RKO, they didn’t care about his career. (They were going to cast John Barrymore as Spade, but that didn’t work out.) So the story got rewritten to emphasize Brigid’s part of the story, and make her a more sympathetic character. In principle, I’d say this was a good thing. But not the way they did it.

    Cortez could have worked out fine, he fit the description well enough, but he played Sam Spade like he was playing Miles Archer, was the problem. Too happy-go-lucky, always leering at the dames. Not so much a heel as a douche. Not serious enough. But it was not seen as a problem then. It’s not a serious film. It didn’t hold up well over time. For what it’s worth Hammett said he liked it. (His book sales went up, and he became a name in Hollywood, is what he really liked.)

    So I think Huston’s original idea was to make a film a lot like that first one, only much closer to the original story. With lots of sexual innuendo and drinking. The code was well in place by then, so they had to write around most of the more sensational material. In some ways, much as I hate to admit it, that works better. That film will hold up long after most of today’s megahits are forgotten.

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