Ricardo Cortez: The First Sam Spade
There likely isn’t a film buff on the planet who doesn’t know - and love - the 1941 classic detective drama The Maltese Falcon starring, among others, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. It is the living, breathing definition of a film classic. It is also one of the very first movies both written and directed by the same person - in this case, the then 35-year old Huston who made a deal with studio owner Jack Warner that he would only charge his boss a measly ten bucks for the screenplay if only he were permitted to also direct as well. What a lot of film buffs do not know is that Jack Warner actually produced two other films based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel prior to the Huston classic:
1931’s The Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez as detective Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly,
The 1936 tongue-in-check send up entitled Satan Met a Lady, starring Warren William as Sam Spade (here called “Ted Shane”) and Bette Davis as Ruth, here called “Valerie Purvis.” Unlike the 1931 version, which was a box-office hit, Satan Met a Lady was so bad that Bette Davis spent a lifetime trying to get it expunged from her official filmography!
For decades, film historians believed that original version of The Maltese Falcon starring Cortez, Daniels, (as well as Una Merkel, Thelma Todd *(about whom we’;ll devote a blog piece in the near future and Dudley Diggs) was either destroyed or missing. Actually, it was neither; Warner Brothers buried the 1931 version on a back shelf for fear that moviegoers would mistake it for the 1941 Bogart/Astor/Greenstreet classic. What a pity! For although not quite as true-to-form as the Bogart/Astor version, Ricardo Cortez does make a compelling - though less nuanced version - of the iconic, hard-boiled Sam Spade. Unlike Bogie’s Spade, Cortez’s wears a perpetual smile and is far more sexually aggressive. Then too, Cortez was not nearly as good an actor as the stage-trained Bogart. Unlike Bogart, Cortez was first, last and always a movie star . . . not an actor. And believe me, there is a world of difference between the two.
Nonetheless, unlike Humphrey Bogart, Ricardo Cortez is little remembered. In his day, Cortez was a first-rate “Latin Lover” and great fan favorite. He was the only actor to ever receive top billing over Greta Garbo (1926’s Torrent, her first American film); during his heyday in the late silent and early sound era, he played opposite a majority of the greatest actresses of the silver screen (Mary Astor, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell, to name but a few) with many of the most acclaimed directors and filmmakers in cinematic history. And yet, precious little is known about him.
For two reasons: first, in the words of his biographer Dan Van Neste, “Cortez was an excessively private person. He didn’t leave diaries, didn’t trust the press, granted very few interviews, and when he did, they were rarely substantive. Second, there never was a “Ricardo Cortez”; he, his life, background and family history were all the product of a slick Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) publicity campaign. When, in the early 1920s, Paramount inexplicably lost the screen’s greatest “Latin Lover” Rudolf Valentino (Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla) to Metro (soon to become Metro-Goldwyn and eventually Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Paramount realized they needed a new, flashier, more sexually charged Latin. And so, they went to work and turned a Jewish kid from New York’s Lower East Side (Hester Street to be precise) born Jacob Krantz, the son of Morris and Sarah (Lefkowitz) Krantz, immigrants from Galacia, into Ricardo Cortez, whose original tagline was “The Man with the Bedroom Eyes.”
From the very beginning of his film career in 1917, when he started doing extra work in films shot in Ft. Lee, New Jersey at $2.00 a day, Krantz (who would legally change his name to “Ricardo Cortez” after becoming a major star and making in excess of $3,000.00 a week) was typecast as a either a Latin lover or exotic villain. Because of his dark olive complexion and heavy-lidded dark eyes, the deception was an easy one to pull off. Back in the 20’s and 30s, moviegoers were far more willing to believe what the fan magazines (fed largely by the various studios’ p.r. teams) told them about their favorite stars. Morever because movies were silent, there was no problem with the fact that stars like Ricardo Cortez didn’t sound anything like cultured, aristocratic Spaniards . . . or Mexicans or Italians; rather he spoke English like a Jewish kid from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Interestingly, where many silent stars decided to retire with the coming of sound rather than have their loyal fans discover that they weren’t who they were supposed to be, “Ric” Cortez, decided to keep on chugging along . . . and if for other reason than he loved the money they paid him.
The Cortez/Daniels Falcon was made by Warner Brother Broptherss in 1931 - several years before the Movie Production Cod, which mandated a stiff jolt of morality - into the industry. As such, the Cortez Falcon had Spade obviously sleeping with Miss Wonderly. In one scene, Miss Wondely (payed by Bebe Daniels) Additionally, takes a bath in the nude and Spade forces her to get out of all her clothes in order to determine if she has taken a thousand dollar bill.” There are numerous references to the homosexual relationship between Gutman (the “Fat Man”) and Wilmer (here referred to as his “boyfriend,” and in the 1941 version as a “gunsel,” which is an inside term for gay lover); moreover, in the Cortez/Daniels version, Miss WonderlyIn 1931, this as all OK. By 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, such scenes or suggestions were absolutely verboten. By comparison, the 1941 Bogart incarnation of Sam Spade was a growling Boy Scout.
As a Hollywood Brat, I can attest to the fact that the “six degrees of separation” are always at work. Consider the following:
Brown Holmes, the screenwriter for Cortez’ Maltese Falcon, served in the same capacity for the 1941 Bogart version.
Both the 1931 and 1941 version had the same cinematographer, Robert Edeson.
Warren William, who plays the Sam Spade character (Ted Shane) in 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, also played Perry Mason in a series of films beginning in 1934, but was replaced in 1936 by none other than . . . you guessed it, Ricardo Cortez.
Getting back to The Maltese Falcon, Ricardo was signed to play Sam Spade mainly because Jack Warner’s first choice, the legendary actor - and world-class drunk - John Barrymore, was unavailable, having been already signed to star in another Warner’s film, Svengali (based on George Du Maurier’s Trilby. To a great degree, The Maltese Falcon revived Cortez’s cinematic career. and caused his loyal fans to forgive and forget that he in no way sounded the way they assumed a Latin Lover might. Over the next decade, Ricardo made several dozen motion pictures, including 1932’s Symphony For Six Million, one of classic Hollywood’s most Jewishly significant films. Based on a Fanny Hurst short story, Symphony stars Ricardo Cortez as Dr. Felix “Felixer” Klauber, a brilliant young doctor who grows away from his Jewish family and community when his older brother convinces him to make his fortune as a Park Avenue doctor. When tragedy strikes, he sees where his obligations lie, but will it be too late? This particular film hit home with Ricardo Cortez, who had long felt that he, Jacob Krantz, had abandoned not only his family, but his cultural and religious heritage heritage in exchange for the extraordinary riches which only Hollywood could afford a junior high school dropout. Interestingly, Symphony for Six Million costarred Jewish actors Anna Appel and Gregory Ratoff, who, prior to their Hollywood years had starred with, respectively, Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre, and Chekhov’’s Moscow Art Theatre..
Cortez, realizing that he was losing his hold on the public, decided to start directing pictures. Between 1930 and 1940, he directed 7 films for Warner Brothers, all of them "program pictures made on a shoestring for the express purpose of filling the bottom half of the mandatory double bill ..." Between 1940 and 1958, he appeared in a mere 15 films and 1 television show (Bonanza). Forsaking Beverly Hills and returning to New York City, Cortez went back into the world of Wall Street, where he had begun his working life as a runner in the nineteen-teens. He succeeded admirably as a broker and continued selling stocks and bond - and doing an occasional commercial, until his death in 1977 at age 76/ The thrice married Cortez died childless. Over the course of a 43-year career, Ricardo Cortez made his way into 103 films, for which he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If you’re ever out in Hollywood, you can find it at 1500 Vine Street.
For those of you who live in South Florida, I will be showing the 1931 Maltese Falcon at Florida International University on Wednesday, October 3rd at 3:00. If you;’re interested in attending class, please contact me through this website and we’ll see what we can do.
Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone