The Perry Mason movies (1934-37)

Before the hugely popular TV show of the 1950s and 60s starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale (not to mention the long running reunion TV-movies they embarked on two decades later), the cases of Erle Stanley Gardner’s ultra-sharp defence attorney Perry Mason were adapted for the cinema by Warner Bros. These initially starred Warren William, who at the time specialised in playing fast-talking lawyers, with Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods taking over for the final two instalments. All six have just been made available on a two disc DVD set, so this seemed like a good opportunity to celebrate these stylish and fast-paced legal thrillers previously unavailable on home video.

The following overview 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 other selected titles.

“I’m a specialist on getting people out of trouble” - Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933)

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was a lawyer of enormous energy with many outside interests, including writing fiction (which he undertook under several names as well as his own). After 20 years in the legal profession and nearly as long as a pulp writer, he created his Perry Mason alter ego. Dictating novels and short stories at a prodigious rate, he gave up his legal practice, churned out dozens and dozens of books and became closely involved in radio and TV adaptations of the Mason stories, probably because he wasn’t too crazy about the movies made at Warners.

In these zippy thrillers Perry is much more smooth and upmarket than he was in the fairly hardboiled books Gardner was writing at the time for starters – also, the films quite often spent little or no time in the courtroom, which must have rankled a bit too, though the first Mason book (The Case of the Velvet Claws) is also unusual in the canon for not having any courtroom scenes. Fidelity aside, the movies are great fun though – here’s a quick rundown:

The Case of the Howling Dog
The series begins with what was then the newest tale – indeed, it was so new that it had only been serialised in magazine form and not yet published between hard covers. The plot begins with an unlikely case of canine domestic disturbance but soon involves murder and what was a peculiar recurrent plot motif in Gardner’s early Mason tales – a marriage that may or may not be legally binding. Warren William, who had just taken over playing Philo Vance from William Powell, makes a great debut as Mason driving this slick entertainment, notable for sprightly direction from Alan Crosland with some very mobile camerawork; the presence of Mary Astor who keeps us guessing as to whether she is the killer or not; and the complete absence of a musical score (not uncommon in early talkies). Long-faced comic foil Allen Jenkins here plays the cop being thwarted by Perry’s antics – in the next film he would be much more suitably recast in the Paul Drake role. In this film Della Street is played by Helen Trenholme.

The Case of the Curious Bride
Back in April I reviewed the second film in the series, The Case of the Curious Bride, mainly because it was directed by the great Michael Curtiz and co-starred a young Errol Flynn. It remains my favourite of the series though all of the films have something to offer. Claire Dodd is a very spunky Della in this film and would return to the role in William’s series swansong, The Case of the Velvet Claws.

The Case of the Lucky Legs
In this film Della is played by Genevieve Tobin though thankfully Allen Jenkins remains as Drake in this tale of a beauty contest fraud. Director Archie Mayo provides plenty of zip to what may be the most overtly comic entry of the series (it was promoted as a ‘rib-tickling Warner’ hit). This would be the last of the series to be afforded A status by the studio …

The Case of the Velvet Claws
Belatedly Warners got round to filming Mason’s actual first case, though with its anti feminist slant removed. They had started the series with high hopes and the first three pictures are all 8-reel A-pictures with directors and casts taken from the top-tier of the studio rank and file. But on the evidence of The Case of the Velvet Claws it seems that the returns must have been a proved disappointing as the films got downgraded to B-movies. Running times got cut down by about 15 minutes each to last about an hour or so on the bottom half of the double bill. This was the last to star Warren William as Mason and here he is reunited with Claire Dodd as Della, which is very appropriate because this is the film in which Perry and Della actually getting married! Eddie Acuff however takes over from Allen Jenkins as Drake.

The Case of the Black Cat
In the kind of Hollywood reboot now more familiar from the revamps of the Spiderman  and Batman franchises et al, in this film Perry and Della are single again and are now played respectively by Ricardo Cortez, the screen’s first Sam Spade,  and June Travis, with Garry Owen as Drake. This film marked a sad end to the career of director Alan Crosland, who began production on the film but after several days of filming was badly injured in a car crash on 10 July 1936, dying six days later (William C. McGann completed the film). This entry was actually based on Gardner’s 1935 novel The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat but had the title changed to coincide with the film’s Halloween release on 31 October 1936.

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
Perry and Della get new faces again for the sixth and final entry in the series, with Donald Woods, who in Curious Bride had played the weasel second husband of Rhoda, as the lawyer and the elegant Ann Dvorak as his faithful secretary. Joseph Crehan was the new Drake for a case involving a complex inheritance and inevitably murder too. A bit of a soft finish for the series perhaps, but isn’t that usually the way?

Strictly speaking, another Mason novel was filmed by the studio but you would be forgiven for not knowing about it as the belated adaptation of ‘The Case of the Dangerous Dowager’ became Granny Get Your Gun (1940), a vehicle for May Robson with a septuagenarian Harry Davenport co-starring as a lawyer named Nathaniel ‘Nate’ Paulson, which I suppose is a bit like ‘Perry Mason’ only with the letters all shuffled around. Understandably, this film has not been included in the new DVD set!

For details on the new DVD, visit the Warner Archive site at: www.wbshop.com/

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27 Responses to The Perry Mason movies (1934-37)

  1. Sergio – Thanks as ever for your perspective. Interesting isn’t it how the film-makers thought Mason would come across better on screen as less hardboiled and more, well, dapper. And honestly, his legal strategies are part of what make that character fascinating. I think it would rankle in me not to see them as much on film. Hmmm…

    • Thanks Margot. Certainly by the time they made the second one they were going out of their way to emulate the success of William Powell in The Thin Man, so the style got nearer to the screwball mystery, though of course this makes perfect sense since the Hammet adaptation always felt much more like a fast-paced Warner movie than the product of opulent MGM – Powell had in fact just jumped ship from one studio to the other so that probably had somethign to do with it … Interesting to note how thr Thin Man films got more and more glossy and closer to the Metro style as they progress.

  2. Colin says:

    Sergio, there was talk of some Archive sets getting issued as pressed discs. Is that the case with these movies?
    I would be interested in these titles if they were “real” DVDs.

    • I’m afraid that I am not yet the proud possessor of said discs – the site merely lists them as ‘made to order’ so I assume they are DVD-Rs. Which is a crying shame but they have never really been released legitimately on video as far as I know. I shall report back as soon I have the discs – strictly speaing I’m not sure the set has been released yet though clearly there is a longer time lag between ordering and fulfilment when it comes to MOD released.

      • Colin says:

        Cheers. I would have thought at least a limited run of such titles would still be profitable enough. I’ll be interested to hear how they turn out.

        • This was a case of me hearing about the films being finally released and deciding to cheerlead in advance of arrrival! I hope to have nice things to say eventuallly …

          • Colin says:

            Hey, the news itself is very welcome. Here’s hoping the image is up to scratch – or perhaps I shouldn’t say scratch when we might be looking at DVD-Rs.

          • Up to snuff? No, that’s no better … The clip Warner released from Howling Dog certainly looks nice and they always looked OK even on TCM back in the 90s when I used to get that channel …

  3. I was not even aware of these films.

    • They are really great fun Patti, especially if you like 1930s mystery thrillers in that fast-paced, wise-cracking Warners Bros style – the tone is radically different from the more famous TV show.

  4. John says:

    Ricardo Cortez seems utterly wrong for Mason just as he was not so right for Spade. Ironically, he would’ve been perfect for the Greek Nick Charles. Getting off topic — better stop…

    I tried to watch one of the Warren Williams Perry Mason movies on YouTube (I know, I know….) but it just bothered me that it was so flippant. I couldn’t get into it at all and turned it off. Your analogy to The Thin Man movies is apt. But for Mason it was all wrong. It was probably VELVET CLAWS. I think the TV version of VELVET CLAWS (which didn’t air until the sixth season!) is OK but Patricia Barry (as Eva) was directed to go over the top and instead of being a sleazy femme fatale turned out a performance of a floozy who seemed to have escaped from a Blake Edwards farce. At least the plot remained intact – slightly risque bathtub murder and all.

    • It’s been a while since I saw the Cortez version of Falcon but I do really like him in it – he is much less likeable than Bogart but because he is tougher. It’s a less romantic conception but one well in keeping with the book (and the Depression, let’s face it). Not sure I’ve seen the TV adaptation of Velvet Claws actually – I wateched a ton of them as a kid (dubbed into Italian in fact) but it’s been ages since I saw any (they don’t get repeated on any of the channels I get here). I really like Warren William’s high comedy – it is not really Gardner I’ll grant you but to me they stand up as their own very 30s rendition. Just preparing a post on Blake Edwards and his various expenditions in the crime and mystery genre actually …

      • John says:

        EXPERIMENT IN TERROR is a little masterpiece, I think. Just saw it for the first time a few months ago. Amazingly well done. The opening sequence alone is stunning. The scene in the mannequin studio, too — one of a kind in cinema history. Did he do more crime? A SHOT IN THE DARK, great theme song, lots of fun, the nudist camp scenes are still hilarious to me, but it’s more farce than crime. Oh! Peter Gunn (of course!) and THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY which I’ve never seen. Looking forward to your post.

        • Yup, they’re all going to be in my list (posting next Tuesday) but amongst many other examples I’ll be ‘exploring’ (I love how professorial that sounds) it is worth noting that Edwards wrote and directed the original pilot for the first Mike Hammer TV show, starring Brian Keith.

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    • It is impossible not to compare the two, isn’t it? I was particularly fascinated by the DVD set of The Maltese Falcon that had highly contrasting adaptations of the Hammett novel made in 1931, 1936 and 1941 – all valid, all fascinating. For me they don’t impinge in each other, or on the novel but I know many who would disagree …

      • Todd Mason says:

        I dunno, I found Cortez (in what was eventually distributed as DANGEROUS FEMALE after the third MALTESE FALCON film attained classic status) rather clownish rather than tough, but will admit to not having seen that film in decades. Also amusing in context who played Spade in the second film, SATAN MET A LADY: Warren William.

        There was also a 15-episode (apparently), 1973-74 PERRY MASON tv series, while Burr was still doing IRONSIDE, starring Monte Markham, which tanked rather quickly (not even getting a full season order of 26 in those days, just starting to edge toward 22). But even the Burr revival didn’t have the theme music of the first series, always my favorite part.

        • Hiya Todd – ‘clownish’ is a really interesting way of putting it and I know what you mean but he sort of reminded me, with that ever-present s***-eating grin, of someone sporting a kind of cruel defensive rictus to keep emotion away – or at least that’s how I saw it … Yeah, the New Perry Mason (as was) really tanked despite being made by the team behind the original show (that may even be why frankly …). I don’t often get to say this to you, but you are dead wrong about the use of Fred Steiner’s classic theme tune for the Perry Mason show – it’s there on every one of the titles for all 30 of the reunion TV-Movies (even the ones made after Burr’s death) – for instance, here it is in the first of them, but it was re-used throuout, honest …

          • Todd Mason says:

            Same tune, different and worse arrangement. I’m much more likely to be vague (or incoherent) than wrong…though neither is optimal, as a certain chief of state got yelled at for saying in another context.

          • Not a fan of the Dick DeBenedictis arrangement then? Now I get our drift! Like the TV-Movies themselves, it was certainly a bit slow and repetitive …

  6. TracyK says:

    Great overview of this group of movies. We do plan to buy this set. We have purchased a good number of on demand discs from WB Archives and have had no real complaints. Wish I could buy more but they are not cheap and when I have to decide between books and movies… books win.

    We have all of the Perry Mason films with Warren (taped from TCM, transferred to DVD, I think) and watched Curious Bride fairly recently. Hoping for better copies of those and also want the other two.

  7. Sergio, Raymond Burr is the only Perry Mason I watched though I could never get used to his latter avatar where he sports a French beard and is a little too oversize for the role. I have never seen Warren William or any of the other actors in the role, which must have been quite a coveted one at the time, and I’m glad you mentioned the release of a DVD set for it’s something I’d definitely like to buy. While I didn’t see the films, I more than made up for by reading every Perry Mason ESG wrote including a few as “A.A. Fair” one of his many pseudonyms. As a teen I used to hear people tell that Gardner switched over to writing because he wasn’t exactly a success as a lawyer and that, ironically, it was in fact his vocation that made him famous as a writer. If that was, indeed, the case then I’m glad he created Perry Mason. Thanks very much for this fine post, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant, very kind. ESG and the movies would appears to have not been ‘amde for each other’ and he was much happier with the radio and TV adaptations of his work. The AA Fair novels, as I recall, are quite funny, especialy when compared with the Mason books. Incidentally, ESG was apparently addicted to crosswords …

  8. Jeff Flugel says:

    Speaking of boundless energy, Sergio – I don’t know how you manage to produce so many high-quality posts in a week! I tell you, mate, it’s hard to keep up with them all! ;)

    Seriously, this is a very nice overview of what sounds like a really fun little series of films. I had no idea that the first 3 entries were treated as “A” productions. For some reason, this series never received the attention or cachet of stuff like THE FALCON, THE SAINT or, understandably, the THIN MAN series, so it’s all new to me. I’m a marginal fan of the Raymond Burr TV series which seems fairly definitive for me, but I do like Warren William and zippy, lighthearted mysteries of this type, so will be keeping an eye out for the next Warner Archive sale (too many wonderful titles to buy).

    Re: the pressed discs issue raised by Colin, according to this Home Theater Forum thread (which lists the known pressed disc collections from Warner Archives so far), the Perry Mason set is unfortunately not pressed, but regular DVD-R:

    http://www.hometheaterforum.com/t/324154/warner-archives-list-of-pressed-dvd-titles

    Great job as usual, Sergio!

    • Thanks Jeff, you’re a real mate! Really glad you enjoyed the post – I used to watch these on TCM way back when and although it’s a shame they are not burned discs I suspect I really will have to indulge but, as you say, I wish these discs were not so expensive it really is a bit of a rip-off to supply goods on less stable media and then hike up the price as well. Because of the content they are getting away with it but it is truly infuriating.

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