The Maltese Falcon Interview: Michele Fortier, Daughter of Maltese Falcon Prop Artist Fred Sexton
In an interview with UCLA Professor Vivian Sobchak, Michele Fortier recalls her father Fred Sexton's creation of
the Maltese Falcon statuette for the 1941 Warner Bros. movie, "The Maltese Falcon,"
his lifelong friendship with director John Huston, and her visits to the film set.
Cited by critics as one of the greatest films of all time, the 1941 film noir masterpiece The Maltese Falcon featured two stars: silver screen legend Humphrey Bogart and the infamous "black bird" – the Maltese Falcon itself. Directed by John Huston and based on Dashiell Hammett's classic novel, the movie follows Bogart as private detective Sam Spade and Mary Astor as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, his femme fatale client. Spade and O'Shaughnessy form an ill-fated alliance as they contend with unscrupulous adventurers who seek a "golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels." The Maltese Falcon is widely regarded as the first major film noir of the classic era.
Recently, new evidence emerged substantiating the theory that the Maltese Falcon statuette was more than a simple movie prop, but rather an original sculpture by noted 20th Century modern artist Fred Sexton. The Maltese Falcon prop exclusively offered by Guernsey's belongs to Mr. Hank Risan. In 1989, Mr. Risan embarked on an extensive and successful authentication project, obtaining testimonies from experts including Vivian Sobchack, Ph.D. (Professor Emerita, UCLA School of Film, Theatre, and Television), Professor Richard Walter (UCLA Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media), Meta D. Wilde (John Huston's script supervisor and continuity person for The Maltese Falcon), Ben Goldmond (long-time Warner Bros. Property Dept. employee), and Edward Baer (assistant manager of the Warner Bros. Property Department). Dean Sobchack confirms, "I am now completely convinced that the statuettes in Mr. Risan's possession were original plaster props for John Huston's The Maltese Falcon."
The story of the Maltese Falcon statuette begins the same year the movie was filmed – 1941 – when Huston hired Los Angeles-based artist Fred Sexton to sculpt the prop for his directorial debut. Huston and Sexton were high school classmates and close friends, and the film director collected many of Sexton's paintings.
In an on-camera interview with Vivian Sobchack in August 2013, Sexton's daughter, Michele Fortier, discussed her father's distinctive and familiar signature, and described her childhood experiences amongst Hollywood's early elite and on movie sets. Mrs. Fortier was nine-years-old when she watched her father sketch what would become the legendary bird on nothing more than a manila envelope. Fortier recalls the sketch resulting in a clay model for the Maltese Falcon prop.
She was also present with her father for the filming of the famous scene in which Bogart delivers the Maltese Falcon to the criminal mastermind Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), who slashes the prop with a pen knife in search of "the stuff that dreams are made of." She described the Maltese Falcon statuette that she observed on the set of the film as "shiny and black," but "not like patent leather shoes."
Mrs. Fortier said that Fred Sexton's capital letter "F" often looked like a number "7" with a line crossed through it. In a written declaration, she stated that she is "certain" that the "F.S." initials on Mr. Risan's Maltese Falcon prop were inscribed by her father.
Nancy H. Cole, a board-certified forensic document examiner, signature identification expert, and fine art authenticator, was asked to examine the "F.S." inscription on Mr. Risan's Maltese Falcon statuette. She based her conclusions on Sexton's known signatures from the artist's paintings and determined that Sexton's monogram on Mr. Risan's Maltese Falcon prop is authentic.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Fred Sexton (3 June 1907 – 11 September 1995) was championed by Los Angeles Times Art Critic Arthur Millier, and his work was collected by leading Los Angeles-area art collectors including actor Edward G. Robinson and movie director John Huston. Sexton also taught art and headed the Art Students League in Los Angeles between 1949 and 1953. Hank Risan also owns several paintings by Sexton.
Sexton gained recognition for his floral delineations, still life, portrait, and architectural compositions. Many prominent Los Angelinos collected his works, including Robinson, Huston, Paulette Goddard, the Hollywood patron Ruth Maitland, and the Los Angeles Museum. According to the Los Angeles Times, Robinson had "bought and hung among his famous Cezannes, Van Goghs and Renoirs three new paintings...from the brush of Los Angeles artist Fred Sexton." In May and June 1941, three of Sexton's paintings were included in a Los Angeles Museum exhibition of 56 paintings that included important French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edward G. Robinson. Sexton relocated to Mexico in 1950, where, according to Mrs. Fortier, he enjoyed continued success and had many one-man shows in Mexico City.
In a 1991, Hank Risan, Art History Professor Janina Darling, Ph.D., and researcher Bianca Soros interviewed Meta Wilde, who served as John Huston's script supervisor and continuity person during the production of The Maltese Falcon. Ms. Wilde handled the Maltese Falcon props throughout filming and was responsible for the placement and positioning of the props for each scene. During the course of the interview, Ms. Wilde stated that the maker of the Falcon props placed identification numbers in an inconspicuous location so that they would not be noticeable on film. She described the props as black "plaster birds." Upon examining the Maltese Falcon prop owned by Hank Risan, she commented, "This is exactly like the ones I was involved with when making the picture…This is one of the plaster birds."
In 1991, Ben Goldmond, who worked in the Warner Bros. Property Dept. from 1929 to 1974, recalled seeing three semi-gloss jet black plaster Maltese Falcon props in the Dept. in 1941. Goldmond said each prop weighed about six lbs. and that they were gray under the paint, and made out of "casting plaster." The props were cast from a rubber glue mold and, to the best of Mr. Goldmond's knowledge, did not have a Warner Bros. property designation — a "WB" followed by a 4-digit number (e.g., "WB 3165").
Before interviewing Meta Wilde, Hank Risan and Joshua Arfer, a specialist in Christie's Collectible Department, sat down with Edward Baer to discuss his recollections of and relationship to the famed movie prop. Mr. Baer, a long-time Warner Bros. employee, worked in the Property Department and personally cast the 2nd-generation Maltese Falcon props from the original 1941 mold in 1975 for the Warner Bros. production of The Black Bird. Mr. Baer cast a final Maltese Falcon prop from the original mold but the mold had so deteriorated that the prop had many obvious flaws. Mr. Baer said he created a new mold with the final casting in order to make 2nd-generation Maltese Falcon props, and then destroyed the original mold. In their discussion with Mr. Baer, Mr. Risan and Mr. Arfer were privy to first-hand information about the statuettes that support the respective testimonies of other important interviewees. According to Edward Baer, Mr. Risan's Maltese Falcon prop was made of grey plaster and then painted with what was then known as "sketching ink" (or India ink). Mr. Risan's statuette has highly articulate claws, feathers, and beak shape, whereas the 2nd-generation figures display a distinct loss of sharpness due to the deterioration of the original mold, such as a deformed bottom-right tail feather. Another unique feature of Mr. Risan's Maltese Falcon prop is a single articulate seam line that runs from the base of the prop through the inner recesses of the thighs and up into the wings. The single vertical seam is a confirmed characteristic of the original Maltese Falcon props; 2nd-generation props exhibit multiple seam lines. Baer also asserted that only 10 birds could have been produced for The Maltese Falcon due to degeneration of the mold that resulted from multiple castings.
Hank Risan owns two authenticated Maltese Falcon statuettes from the 1941 film production that bear Fred Sexton's distinctive "F.S." markings and they are widely regarded as two of the most valuable film props in the history of cinema. In 2004, UCLA Professor Richard Walter, a court-approved expert appraiser, supported the high valuations in an eloquent comparison to another highly-prized film prop: one of four pairs of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in the iconic Wizard of Oz, which sold for $666,000 in 2001. "But whatever the slippers' value," Professor Walter wrote, "it has to be less than that of the falcons because the slippers are merely one prop, albeit an important one in the movie. The falcons on the other hand are the namesake props that define the picture itself. It is significant in the extreme that in addition to being important props they are also the title of the film."
"Life imitates art," stated Mr. Risan. "What's amazing is that in the film Spade and Gutman discuss the value of the falcon in similar terms. The rara avis has a unique backstory as compelling off-screen as in the film. The black birds are truly objects d'art."
Estimate upon request.
Fred Sexton - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Sexton
The Maltese Falcon (1941 film) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Maltese_Falcon_(1941_film)