This stylish and fast-paced thriller, adapted from the eponymous Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, was just one of the fifty movies made in the 1930s by Warner Bros. auteur Michael Curtiz, a director still under-appreciated despite regular periods of critical re-evaluation. The new Blu-ray of Casablanca (for which he won the Oscar) includes a new documentary devoted to him entitled, ‘The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of’. He was remarkably versatile, as happy directing swashbucklers and Westerns as gangsters films and thrillers.
One of his most deserving of rediscovery may be the second in the Warner Bros. Perry Mason series starring Warren William, The Case of the Curious Bride (it’s easy to see how it got lost in the shuffle as it was just one of five Curtiz movies released in 1935). The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
The Plot: A bit like the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout, I always find it hard to remember the plots of the Perry Mason books – so here is a brief rundown of the how the story was adapted for the film, relocating the action from LA to San Francisco and Paul Drake transmogrified into ‘Spudsy’ Drake, tailor-made for the wonderful comic stylings of long-faced Allen Jenkins (later to play Officer Dibble in Boss Cat, or as the shown was known in the UK, Top Cat). Mason has just won another major case, is planning a long vacation in China and is celebrating at a restaurant in San Francisco. He is approached by an old friend, Rhoda Montaine (busy Warner contract player Margaret Lindsay). She claims that a ‘friend’ is in a real bind as her first husband, long-thought dead, has in fact turned up and is trying to blackmail her now that she has remarried into a wealthy family. Mason sees through the ruse and realises she must be talking about herself and Gregory Moxley, her first husband. Their tete-a-tete is interrupted and she leaves. When he returns, he finds a gun and some narcotic in her purse. While dining with the coroner, he learns that an exhumation order has been made for Moxley as the man has been sighted some four years after his presumed death. Perry and Spudsy go to the morgue and find that the coffin only holds the statue of a wooden Indian! Perry talks to the doctor who prescribed the sleeping draught for Rhoda – its clear he was once in love with her as he now refuses to say anything more about her.
Mason, using a cable found in Rhoda’s purse, is able to track down Moxley, but finds the man dead, stabbed in the back. Rhoda’s keys are found next to the body by the police and, now wanted for murder, she goes on the run, leaving her husband to avoid any scandal for his wealthy family. Perry stops her at the airport and, using his connections in the press, turns her in to them before the police so that her story gets into the media. She claims that Moxley struck her when she refused to pay him and after hitting him back with a poker the lights went out. She fled the scene but dropped her keys in the fracas. Perry of course postpones his trip and takes her case, though an unexpected problem occurs when her father-in-law, desperate to avoid a scandal, insists that the marriage was invalid if Moxley had been alive at the time and thus his son could testify against her. Unfortunately for everybody, the son turns out to be something of a weakling, unable to stand up to his father, even for his wife’s sake (much to the opprobrium of just about anyone in the film). Mason hires a woman to pretend to have married Moxley to avoid this problem, though Spudsy actually finds out that Moxley really had got married to someone else. It seems he did this as a racket to extort money (there must be easier ways to make a living, even for scoundrels and cads …).
After tracking the wife down to the theatre where she sings every night they learn that she called Moxley only half an hour before his murder. This leads to an amusing interlude with the woman’s brother, played by perpetual 30s lug Warren Hymer, who briefly gets the best of Spudsy, It turns out he saw a man coming out of Moxley’s apartment and was paid to keep silent. Mason invites all the suspects to a cocktail party at his house to explain what really happened, which we see in an elaborate flashback. Rhoda is freed, Perry gets a new client to defend and once again has to postpone his trip to China – as Della says to him at the curtain call, “You’re so wonderful. If only you couldn’t cook.”
The Cast: Warren William had already made a name for himself playing a character based on real fast-talking lawyer William J. Fallon in The Mouthpiece (1932), so he was a natural to play Mason, a character who is barely described in the books anyway. Lawyers tended to get a bad rap in movie then, as now, so Mason was unusual, though as depicted onscreen here (as in the book) he bends the rules near-breaking point in a way that he would never have done on TV as played by Raymond Burr in the 50s and 60s. Claire Dodd make for a bright and shiny Della, very much bantering in the style of Nora Charles, and it’s a shame that she only played the role once more in The Case of the Velvet Claws, though that is the entry in which she finallt gets to marry Perry! In general though this is a film that makes good use of the Warner Bros. stable of character actors – Jenkins had appeared in the previous film in the series The Case of the Howling Dog as a cop before playing Drake, Barton MacLane plays a nasty copy and would turn up in the next film The Case of the Lucky Legs as another cop entirely. But of course this is the film mainly remembered for launching the career in America of Errol Flynn. It has become something of well-told tale that Flynn made his debut here as a corpse, but this is not strictly speaking true – yes, he is dead from his first scene, but is then seen very much alive in flashback later in the film – and as this is the most dramatic and dynamic set-piece of the movie (i.e. the murder), strikingly staged in front of a very larger mirror, he got a slightly better intro than one might have been led to believe. Apparently Curtiz was not too impressed, but in the end he would make a star of the Tasmanian devil in Captain Blood (as a replacement for an ailing Robert Donat) and would ultimately shoot eleven more films with him (although not very harmoniously apparently).
The Style: Warner Bros. executive Hal Wallis was acutely sensitive to the fact that MGM had just had a massive hit with The Thin Man, a comedy thriller made in clear imitation of the fast-paced, low-budget, wise-cracking, urban movies usually associated with his studio. He immediately fired-off a memo to producer Harry Joe Brown to see what could be done about it:
“I saw The Thin Man tonight and it would certainly be great if we could [get] the treatment into The Case of the Curious Bride that they got into that picture … if you could get the lightness into the character of Perry Mason and let his solve the case … in that manner, it will make twice as good a picture as if it is handled in the usual straight, detective story fashion.”
To top it all, MGM had even used William Powell, who had been under contract with them until shortly before and had just scored a sizeable hit with them as Philo Vance in The Kennel Murder Case, directed by Michael Curtiz, who was dutifully signed to help turn Mason into the kind of character that Powell had made so popular at the rival studio. This of course infuriated original Erle Stanley Gardner, who saw the tone of his novel changed quite considerably from his tough, pulp style to something much more overtly comedic – in fact Mason never even steps into a courtroom in this movie!
The Director: Why is the name of Michael Curtiz still known to so few? It seems remarkable given the breadth and range of his output. Based for nearly thirty years at Warner Bros, from 1926 to 1953, he directed all their major stars and was instrumental in launching the careers of such varied actors as Errol Flynn, Doris Day and John Garfield. On top of which he also directed such solid gold classics as The Kennel Murder Case (1933), Captain Blood (1935), Angels with Dirty Faces, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Four Daughters (all 1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). After leaving the studio he was also responsible for such musicals as the blockbuster White Christmas (1954) and that fine Elvis vehicle, King Creole (1958). For his only Perry Mason movie he has the camera moving in almost every shot to keep the plot bubbling along, while transitions from one scene to the next are handled via an unusual use of zoom and dissolve created via an optical printer that was a real innovations at the time – it gets a little bit tiresome perhaps but it is certainly distinctive. There is much evidence of the director’s customary use of long shadows and a heavy emphasis on mirrors (which proves to be crucial to the plot anyway), making this another stylish little beauty and great fun too.
The Perry Mason series
Warners Bros started the series with high hopes and the first three are definitely 8-reel A-pictures with first-rate directors and casts – after that the returns must have been a little disappointing though as they clearly got downgraded to B-movies. Running times got cut down by about 15 minutes each to last about an hour on the second half of the double bill. The first four starring Warren William as Mason are definitely the cream of the crop, climaxing with Perry and Della actually getting married! This was reversed after William left with Della single again opposite as played by Ricardo Cortez first and then Donald Woods, who in Curious Bride had played the weasel second husband of Rhoda.
- The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) – starring Warren William as Perry
- The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) – starring Warren William as Perry
- The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)- starring Warren William as Perry
- The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) – starring Warren William as Perry
- The Case of the Black Cat (1936) – starring Ricardo Cortez as Perry
- The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937) – starring Donald Woods as Perry
Robert Downey Jr is apparently set to play Perry Mason for Warner Bros. in a new movie – with luck that will help revive interest in the studio’s early adaptations, which at present are officially AWOL on DVD. Some listings erroneously give the 1941 film The Case of the Black Parrot as being a Mason movie, but it isn’t, though it is due out in May as part of the Warner Archive series of MOD releases – which is more than can be said for the Mason series so far. Let’s hope more (real) Mason titles will follow …
DVD Availability: So, nothing legal but it is currently on YouTube …
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Harry Joe Brown
Screenplay: Tom Reed with additional dialogue by Brown Holmes (based on the novel by Erle Stanley Gardner)
Cinematography: David Abel
Art Direction: Carl J. Weyl
Music: Bernard Kaun (uncredited); music director: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Warren William (Perry Mason), Margaret Lindsay, Allen Jenkins, Claire Dodd (Della Street), Barton MacLane, Warren Hymer, Errol Flynn