Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon is the stuff that dreams (and movies) are made of.  According to the Dashiell Hammett story, in 1539 the Knights Templar of Malta paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a solid gold Falcon statue encrusted with priceless jewels.  The statue was stolen in route to the King by pirates then painted with black paint to conceal its incredible value.  Since that time the path to gain possession of the treasure has been marked by murder and double cross.
Evolution of the Maltese Falcon..
The 1941 Warner Brothers movie "The Maltese Falcon" is a classic example of Film Noir and part of the equally iconic body of Humphrey Bogart's  work. Bogart holding the "bird" is a familiar image for film buffs.  
In the film the  Falcon statue ends up in the office of Sam Spade, of Spade and Archer private investigators, where it is discovered to be a fake.  At the end of the movie the thieves are off on another trail to find the real Falcon.  Although this is where the movie ends, this is where my Falcon story begins.
Harry Anderson is a major Dashiell Hammett fan.  He named his company Spade and Archer, Limited, and his son Dashiell.  The first time I was invited to Harry's Hollywood apartment decades ago, on his shelf was a replica of the "Maltese Falcon". Like all of the treasured collections of Harry Anderson it had a great story. He told me it was a replica cast from the original Warner Brothers movie prop and sold only at the Mystery Book Store of the Valley, now long gone. Over the years Harry and I have shared various office space together and the Falcon has always been displayed prominently. It is, and always will be integral to the con man image of his Harry the Hat character. 
Then came a television show called "Night Court" where Harry played an eccentric Judge named Harry Stone. The character in "Night Court" was drawn very closely from Harry's stage magician character.  To that degree the set designer wanted to make the Harry Stone office on stage look as close to the real Harry Anderson office as possible. 
I remember when the set designer came over to take pictures of the real Anderson office. There was no way to miss the Maltese Falcon on display. The designer asked if he could use some of Harry's memorabilia as eye wash for the set, the Falcon statue being one item of several requested. Of course Harry said yes.  Although the real office became a little more drab the set was very familiar.  
"Night Court" was a huge hit for NBC and stayed on for 11 years. The size and location of the Anderson office got bigger and better. The Falcon would be in the Anderson office for the summer hiatus and then it would go back to the set of Night Court for the season.  One year Harry decided that he missed having an "office Falcon" during the season so he told props to buy their own Falcon at the Mystery Book store.  That could have been the end of the story but like I said, most everything Harry owns has a great story attached to it.  
When Harry arrived for the beginning of the season that particular year, there was another Falcon statue where it had always been on the set.  But this Falcon was different. Not so much that you could notice on television but it was thinner, much more detailed and beautiful than the replica at the Anderson office. It became obvious to Harry that the one he owned was a casting of a casting of a casting of the original.  With each new casting the sculpting became less detailed and thicker in size.  It was similar but side by side the differences were startling.  
Harry asked if the prop man bought the new Falcon from the book store. The prop guy said, "No I got it from the Prop department here at Warner Brothers." It was a nexus that might have gotten lost.  Night Court was an NBC show shot at, and associated with Warner Brothers Studio, Burbank, CA. The 1941 Film Noir of "The Maltese Falcon" was a Warner Brothers production. You are probably way ahead of me but play along like you don't know what comes next.  
The story goes that Bogart dropped the Falcon statue and broke it in the early days of shooting so they made several back-up Falcons just in case.  Nobody knows how many Falcon statues they used or needed for the film, nor how many the studio kept, but it became obvious to Harry that Warner Brothers still had at least one. The Falcon sitting on the set of the "Night Court" offices was THE prop of the real Maltese Falcon. 
In less than a few days Harry switched the bird on the set with the one at the office to see if anyone would notice.  They didn't. The one currently on the set was the same one that had been there since the start so only the prop man knew for sure. Harry admitted the switch and the prop man who said it would be their secret.  Harry was now in possession of the Real Maltese Falcon.  
It was really beautiful sitting on a shelf of prominence in the Spade and Archer, Limited offices. I used to marvel at it like I was Golum with the ring. I remember the day that Harry returned from the studio to find that I had wiped the dust and smudges off the Falcon to make it shine. Instead of seeing the beauty of my actions, he reminded me that the smudges might have been the finger prints of Bogart and the dust was from Warner Brothers prop storage.  Indeed in my attempt to make it shine I had wiped it clean of any forensic trace evidence of legendary actors. Although my friendship with Harry survived that event, I agreed never to straighten up the office again. However, soon after that the Maltese Falcon got its own pedestal stand with a glass dome keeping the likes of me at a distance.

There came a time when Harry's friend Mel Torm√© invited the two of us to Movie night at the Playboy Mansion. Mel wanted Harry to bring the Falcon to show Heff.  During dinner, Mel took the lead on telling Hugh the story of how Harry got the Falcon which was dramatically placed on the table in front of Heffner. He listened intently, dismissed himself from the table and left without a word.  In a few minutes he returned with a Maltese Falcon of his own. He set his on the table next to Harry's and the group of 10 dinner guests carefully examined the two black birds.  There were differences, not many but enough to see they were not exact duplicates. Without the DNA evidence that I had wiped clean the actual authenticity of neither bird could be satisfied that night. 

Cut to the present day...
For Christmas Harry got a 3-D printer.  He has become obsessed with it as much as any toy he has ever owned.  It was only a matter of time before he would scan the original Falcon and print a scale model of it.  There is a picture of one here on the left.  Better than a casting, it is an exact digital copy of the original. But isn't the Falcon all about fraudulent copies.  How would some one really know?

Pedigree and provenance is always difficult to prove with an object of art, especially one originally created as a prop for a movie. What it needs is independent verification from a person whom themselves can be verified as knowledgable and truthful.  In this case the Anderson Falcon tops all others.  During an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Harry told the story of how he was in possession of the real Maltese Falcon.  It was a great story to tell at the Carson couch.  However, Johnny was not persuaded since he had seen the Hugh Heffner statue as well.  It was far from an endorsement of Harry's statue as the actual Falcon.  But it does not end there.
The next night on the Tonight Show as Johnny is signing off for the evening he says, "We have a correction to make. Last night I doubted that Harry Anderson had in his possession the real Maltese Falcon.  Today we got a phone call from the prop man at Warner Brothers Studio who said he had indeed given Harry the original Maltese Falcon. So there you have it. Harry we stand corrected."  
Johnny Carson becomes part of the mystery and the best independent source that Harry has the original Maltese Falcon. These 3-D prints are as close to the original as one can get. 
I have in my possession what we call the "fat Falcon" that was the actual Falcon on the Night Court set. It became famous with its own television history.
As you were,



P. Grecian said...

And I have one up in my bookcase that I got some years back with a "certificate of authentication," swearing that it's struck from the original mold and only, like fifty were made or some such.
I could probably find the certificate, as I saw it only the other day while going through files.
Mine looks an awful lot like the movie stills.
I have not, however, scraped at it to see if it's gold underneath.
I guess maybe I don't have to.
Because, you know, Jay, it's the stuff that dreams are made of.
And so, my friend, I dream.

Amanda Furr said...

So.....when will new/old falcon be available on ebay????

Roy said...

I always thought Wilmer, the Fat Man's stooge, had it. But, well, Wilmer...not the brightest of henchmen.