Hammett: And the Oscar Goes To

Arliss as Disrali

As I was moping around the web during Oscar season this year a bit of information attracted my attention. I’d no doubt seen the same stats when I looked over Oscar info the previous season, but no bells rang at that time. This round, though, I thought, Hey, wait a minute. . . .

To cut to the chase, it jumped out at me that George Arliss won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the title role in Disraeli — Arliss in costume (and proto-punk hairdo) pictured above. Only the third time the Oscars had been handed out, covering films from 1929 and 1930. Arliss was nominated not only for Disraeli but also for the movie The Green Goddess — and both Maurice Chevalier and Ronald Colman, of the Jack Benny radio show, also got double nominations during that ceremony.

So what? you may well ask — 1930 is a long time ago, and Arliss, while big in his era, isn’t someone who comes up a lot even when I’m talking about who won an Oscar and who should have won an Oscar.

But 1930 is the year a novel titled The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett saw print, on Valentine’s Day, hot on the heels of the serial appearance in the pulp Black Mask from September 1929 to February 1930. (I’m going to presume that the magazine appeared on the newstands a month or so before the technical publication date, a pretty standard practise, otherwise you could have saved your money to just buy the book, if you were picking up The Mask mostly for Hammett.) And although 1930 is indeed a long time ago, some of us consider The Maltese Falcon as current as current can be.

In Chapter XI The Undersized Shadow you’ll find the line “He looked at a theatre-sign in front of him on which George Arliss was shown costumed as Shylock” — as I mention in the tour book, pages 144-45, a professor named William Godschalk used that bit of information, along with a few other clews, to pinpoint the action in the novel to December 1928, when Arliss was actually in San Francisco playing Shylock.

(Also, some of you know that the version of the novel serialized in Black Mask differs from the Knopf first edition — over 2000 textual changes from one to the other. The ref to Arliss is the same in both texts.)

Still thinking So what?

Yeah, okay, I concede this isn’t earth-shaking revelation stuff.

But I thought it was interesting that by happenstance Hammett name-checked Arliss in a book released on February 14, 1930 and then on November 5 the actor would pick up an Oscar. Today the hype around an Oscar win is enormous — I’m guessing the publicity machine wasn’t wound as tight in 1930. But it would be like, oh, Ace Atkins in a new Spenser novel typing in the name Ben Affleck or Marky Mark and next Oscar season his random name-drop cops top acting honors. Probably doesn’t mean anything, but what are the odds?

And as with all Oscar info, it’s an excuse to ruminate on fame, fleeting or otherwise. I can see the day when Arliss might be best known for being mentioned in The Maltese Falcon — which isn’t a bad way to be remembered.

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