[29 November 2012]
In 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner unveiled his creation, the invariably triumphant Los Angeles criminal attorney, Perry Mason. The novels came out at quite a clip, with Warner Brothers buying the rights to the fourth novel the following year and turning it into the first of six films based fast-and-loosely on the books. In the first four entries, Mason is played by Warren William as the dashing, slightly shady fast-talker he always played.
The first film establishes his luxuriant offices by having the camera pan and swoop across miles of secretaries, assistants, and associates who handle most of the cases because the famous Mason is too busy. This is actually more credible than the famous TV series with Raymond Burr, where any nobody off the street can waltz in for an audience and he’ll drop everything to work for them 24/7. However, one thing both versions have in common is Perry’s indulgence in shady tricks to muddy the evidence and confuse the prosecution; TV’s Perry did the same thing in his early seasons, although he straightened out, later.
The story involves the defense of a woman (Mary Astor) who, in a very trickily composed and edited scene, appears to shoot her husband and his dog, except that we don’t see her hold a gun and she notices a door swinging closed that might have concealed the real shooter. The ending of this adventure will surprise many, but it’s faithful to the book.
That debut film is directed by prestigious A-lister Alan Crosland (The Jazz Singer), and the second film is directed by also prestigious Michael Curtiz, who shows off the lavish budget by panning the camera through dozens of extras in crowded scenes of streets and restaurants. (Although Mason is a Los Angeles lawyer, this film is set picturesquely in San Francisco, which is clear during the pre-Bullitt chase scenes.) Curtiz also employs an almost irritating transitional device of dollying the camera forward and back, unfocusing and focusing again, in the name of speed and modernity.
This entry, The Case of the Curious Bride, gives credit to Errol Flynn, but don’t blink or you’ll miss his moment as the victim of the case. Allan Jenkins, who played Mason’s nemesis on the police force in the last film, is now his assistant in his typical comical tough guy mode. He’s called Spudsy, which says it all, but apparently his real name is Drake—meaning he’s supposed to be the books’ Paul Drake. Olin Howland is much funnier as the lanky, sarcastic coroner. For some reason, Mason spends the whole movie obsessed with preparing gourmet dishes, and he never sets foot in a courtroom. Maybe that’s just as well, for this is one of those stories that couldn’t exist if a certain character just opened his mouth to explain what happened at the start.
Mason doesn’t get into court for Archie Mayo’s The Case of the Lucky Legs (which introduces Mason sleeping off a drunk on his office floor!) or William Clemens’ The Case of the Velvet Claws, unless you count the night court in the latter film where he marries Della (Claire Dodd, the only actress to play the role twice in this series). His honeymoon is ruined by a gun-toting beauty (Winifred Shaw) who gets him accused of the murder she thinks she committed herself.
This is another film that appears to show us the crime, though in a tricky way. We’ll have to wait until the final flashback explains it all, by which time the unravished bride is having a breakdown. As Leonard Maltin observed, these efforts seem to confuse Perry Mason with the Thin Man, though without being as funny.
The marriage is forgotten by William McGann’s The Case of the Black Cat, which has such a clean sweep of casting that Mason is now the dapper and much more restrained Ricardo Cortez! This is the first movie that feels more or less like a straight Mason case instead of half-wacky screwballery. At least it ends in a courtroom, although Mason is so busy explaining the case via flashback that nobody else gets a word in. His detective is called Paul Drake (Gary Owen) for the first time, and it’s our first glimpse of D.A. Hamilton Burger (Guy Usher).
By the way, there’s no black cat anywhere except in the opening credits; the book’s more accurate title is The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat, and he’s a black and white calico. How can such evidence be overlooked? Inauspiciously, the cat is called Clinker.
Clemens returned as director for the final bow, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, with Mason now played by Donald Woods, who’d been the defendant in the second film. He’s the blandest Mason of all, but that’s good for the mystery, as this is the entry that concentrates most seriously on the murder plot and most resembles a template for the TV series. Mason and his retinue project a sense of competence and leave the comic relief to a hotel detective (Tom Kennedy). Clemens also manages a few nice compositions, especially odd low-angle approaches. In general, these final four cases, shorn of the more lavish budgets of the first two entries, focus on fast, confusing action without stylistic flourishes.
All six titles have been conveniently gathered into one set and made available on demand from Warner Archive. While hardly in great shape, these prints look and sound clean in comparison with the faded and battered trailers included as bonuses. Those come-ons emphasize the currently bestselling novels as a selling point, with The Case of Lucky Legs promising to be “rib-tickling”.
Without being riotous, the films are fast, loud and diverting if forgettable. Their chief appeal will be to those who wish to compare them to the much soberer cases of Raymond Burr, whose series reworked all six cases in often significantly different ways to conform with Mason’s increasingly respectable, not to say stick-in-the-mud persona.