The Collector: The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of
Gary Milan, a retired dentist who lives in the greater Los Angeles area, maintains collections of material from The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and Stagecoach, as well as documents from the American Revolutionary War. For years, he has loaned the Maltese Falcon statuette and the piano from Rick’s Café in Casablanca to the Warner Bros. Museum in Burbank, Calif.
Milan, who grew up in Michigan, near Detroit, recalls viewing Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon for the first time as a teenager in the 1950s. “Casablanca is about basic, core values, right and wrong,” he says. “It’s not based on blowing up things or special effects; it’s best in black and white, and it has a plot.” Milan enjoys The Maltese Falcon, he says, because “it’s one of the earliest, and probably the best, film noirs.”
“The Maltese Falcon is the most important single prop in the history of movies,” Milan says. “It drives the plot of the movie. There are few icons from movie history, and the Maltese Falcon is number one.”
Milan’s Maltese Falcon is one of two statuettes that the Warner Bros. prop department created for the film. The falcon is made of lead, weighs nearly 50 pounds, and has a bent tail feather. The statuette sustained that damage when actress Lee Patrick, who played secretary Effie Perine, accidentally dropped the falcon as Humphrey Bogart, portraying detective Sam Spade, reached for it. (The prop landed on Bogart’s left foot and injured his toes.)
The falcon also bears a few scars where Sydney Greenstreet, as the villainous Kasper Gutman, scraped it to see if its dull surface was actually a layer of paint concealing gold and jewels.
Milan does not offer details regarding when or from whom he bought the Maltese Falcon, or how much he paid for it, except to say that he purchased it in the early 1980s, after he had acquired two pianos that appeared in Casablanca—the one from Rick’s Café and another from a flashback sequence; he has long since sold the flashback piano. “Collectors don’t remember details like that, but they never forget the things they want but don’t get,” he says. “The most important thing that you get is the last thing that you got, no matter what it is. Then it’s on to the next thing. You don’t remember dates, dollars, or where you got it from.”
In addition to the statuette, Milan’s Maltese Falcon collection includes passports shown in the movie and the chair from Sam Spade’s apartment. His Casablanca props include lamps, tables, and chairs, as well as the piano. But Milan seems disappointed that his movie memorabilia draws more attention than his Revolutionary War material does.
Among his most prized documents is a letter that John Hancock wrote at 9 pm on April 18, 1775, on the eve of the battles of Lexington and Concord, which initiated the revolution. In the letter, Hancock alerted his fellow future Declaration of Independence signer Elbridge Gerry that American spies had just seen British troops on the move. Hancock penned the missive hours before Paul Revere, making his famous horseback ride to warn of the British maneuvers, reached the house in Lexington, Mass., where Hancock and Samuel Adams were hiding.
Milan says that his items from the Revolutionary War and from films, like all historic collections, serve as links to the past. “To collectors, a letter autographed by Washington creates a bond between a long-dead person and themselves. That feeling does not exist in people who do not have the collecting gene,” he says. “If you don’t have it, you can pick up a letter from a Revolutionary War hero and think, ‘That’s nice.’ A collector thinks, ‘George Washington signed that. That’s his ink. He signed it.’ You get a sense of when it occurred, years later. It’s almost as if you are sent back in time and interjected into the moment.”