THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS (1934) by Erle Stanley Gardner

THE-CASE-OF-THE-LUCKY-LEGS-1934-by-Erle-Stanley-Gardner-panThe third in the Perry Mason series is set in the world of crooked beauty pageants and hails from back when the character was a pretty hardboiled lawyer who spent most of time racing around outside the courtroom.

“I always take risks. It’s the way I play the game; I like it.”

I offer this book & film review as part of Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for links click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Never mind the hard luck story,” Mason said. “Go ahead and tell me what happened, and make it snappy, because I’ve got places to go.”

In reading these early Mason cases, originally published in Black Mask magazine, one immediately notices how much less cozy the relationship between Perry Mason, Paul Drake and Della Street is, not to mention the fact that prosecutor Hamilton Berger had yet to appear. Indeed, one of the interesting things is how formal it all is – the central trio not only tend to refer to each other by their full names but Paul and Perry even end up slightly at odds, with the lawyer turning to another detective agency to keep an eye on one of Paul clients! The plot is convoluted rather than complex and there is a sense that often Gardner Gardner_Case-of-the-Lucky-Legs_pocketdoes make things unnecessarily elaborate. For instance, at one point he has to smuggle a witness out of a hotel. To do it he has to coax her out of her clothes and into bed, then teach her how to pretend to chew gum, then pretends to be drunk so he can get a large trunk out of the hotel’s storage room, then gets her to climb in and thus transports her back to the city. This goes on for pages and is amusing in fairness but very over-extended too and adds absolutely zero to the plot. The storytelling is also intensely verbal with practically no action but with events being relayed over and over again, to a degree on suspects reflecting the fact that Gardner dictated his fiction – one way or another, it always feels like someone is telling you a story here.

“The mask of patient tranquility dropped from Perry Mason. He flexed his muscles, His eyes became hard, like the eyes of a cat slumbering in the sun who suddenly sees a bird hop unwarily to an overhanging branch. “

So, the plot: Mason is sent a letter from a woman named Eva Lamont saying she needs his services, but a man named Bradbury turns up instead, saying he used the alias to cover his tracks. A friend of his, Marjorie, won a movie contract at a ‘Lucky Legs’ contest, but the local town was fleeced by promoter Frank Patton, who weasled out of getting her on film. It turns out he has done this several times but Marjorie never came back. Bradbury wants Perry to find her and prosecute Patton – he thus hopes to marry Marjorie, though he has competition in this department from a local dentist, Dr Doray, who also loves the girl with the pretty gams. Drake tracks down Patton and Mason arrives in time to see Marjorie leave the apartment. When he gets there he find the man stabbed to death and evidence pointing to Marjorie and another woman who was the victim of his scam having had an appointment to see him. As the cops are on the way, Perry locks the door and pretends to have just arrived. He then finds Marjorie and her friend Thelma Bell and isGardner-Lucky-Legs-cardinal immediately suspicious as they are both getting washed as he arrives – where they washing blood off their clothes? Marjorie is spirited away to a hotel and Thelma offers to act as a decoy with the cops as she says she has a solid alibi. Complications then ensue as Bradbury becomes very demanding in terms of Mason’s tactics, especially after it turns out that Patton was killed with a knife bought not long before by Doray. But Mason is unconvinced by the setup – for one thing, why was there a blackjack at the scene of the crime? Then it turns out that there really is an Eva Lamont, but who is she really working for? Pretty soon the cops are after Perry for tampering with the evidence at the scene of the crime and then Marjorie skips town – how will he get out of it?

Della Street: “Chief,” she said, “Why don’t you do like other lawyers do?”
Perry Mason: “You mean plant evidence, and suborn perjury?”

Perry never gets inside the courtroom in this novel though he does provide, at the conclusion, a summing up to the police in the form of a ‘confession.’ The case is not too tough to crack given the paucity of characters though there is lots and lots of movement and the pace keeps the book ticking over very nicely and Bradbury in particular comes across as a strong and vivid character in his own right while the tone is essentially light and breezy throughout. When it was turned into a movie it became a full-out comedy, but without having to change all that much if truth be told.

Case-of-the-Lucky-Legs

In November 1935 the New York Times had this to say about the film version of The Case of the Lucky Legs:

A gay, swift and impertinent excursion into the sombre matter of murder … at once the best of the Erle Stanley Gardner collection and deserves being rated close to the top of this season’s list of mystery films … And there’s never a dull moment.

The Perry Mason movie series (1934-37)
The book has been filmed twice: the first was in 1935 when it became the third in Warner series starring Warren William (I previously reviewed the second instalment, The Case of the Curious Bridehere) and then again in 1959 when it was adapted for the third season of the Raymond Burr TV show. Warners 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 as the series got downgraded to co-feature status. 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 when she appeared first opposite Ricardo Cortez as Mason and then Donald Woods, who had previously played a suspect in Curious Bride (which I previously reviewed here)

Gardner-Case-of-the-Lucky-Legs-consul-1964The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) – reviewed here
The Case of the Lucky Legs
 (1935)
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)
The Case of the Black Cat (1936)
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937)

Relocated to San Francisco, this film follows on directly from Bride (albeit with a noticeably lower budget) with Allen Jenkins providing comedy support as ‘Spudsy’ Drake but with a new Della in the mirthful shape of Genevieve Tobin, a lively actress who retired shortly afterwards after marrying Warner contract director William Keighley. Lyle Talbot, always reliable when playing a stuffed shirt, is perfectly cast as Doray while Porter Hall makes for a much gentler version of Bradbury compared with the forceful character in the novel. The plot is tightened up but followed very closely, though Perry here is very much in the emerging screwball tradition, forever cracking jokes and refusing to take anything seriously – a million miles away from the hardboiled character in the novel. The film is even more fun than the book and at under 70 minutes never outstays its welcome. It’s not as good as Curious Bride (which it name-checks incidentally) – the settings are cheaper and it badly needs the pace and pep that director Mike Curtiz brought to the earlier film, but there are plenty of compensations in the frivolous humour. Well worth an hour or so of your time.

WA-Perry-Mason-CollectionDVD Availability: The film is available in a no frills but extremely well-preserved edition courtesy of the Made on Demand Warner Archive series (which I previously profiled here).

The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)
Director: Archie Mayo
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Brown Holmes, Ben Markson and Jerome Chodorov
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker
Music: Leo F. Forbstein (musical director)
Cast: Warren William, Genevieve Tobin, Patricia Ellis, Allen Jenkins, Lyle Talbot, Barton MacLane, Peggy Shannon

I offer this book & film review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the Golden Age bingo in the ‘Lawyer’ category:

mark4-1-vintage-golden

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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43 Responses to THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS (1934) by Erle Stanley Gardner

  1. Sergio – You are making progress on that Vintage challenge! And I think you make a very well-taken point about the Mason of these early years and the Mason we see later. He is less personable in my opinion, even if he is still a dogged and principled attorney. I have to admit that I prefer Mason as he evolved later. Still, this one has an appeal, convolutions or not. Thanks for the reminder and as always, for the fine post.

    • Thanks for saying such nice things Margot, as ever! In some ways you could argue that the Mason character is more in keeoping with the standarad hardboiled hero of the Black Mask era so I completely see your point – what i find is that I remember these one much less well so do enjoy revisiting them just for that!

  2. Tony Renner says:

    Wow, those ’30s Perry Mason’s sound like my cuppa. Have managed to avoid reading Earle Stanley Gardner for some 40 years….

  3. Yvette says:

    I was heartbroken when youtube stopped running the Perry Mason films starring Warren William since I am a very major WW fan. But I see that the dvds are available so I suppose I’ll have to plunk down some cash. :) I remember reading a bunch of Perry Mason books many MANY years ago, Sergio. One right after the other. But damn if I can remember anything more than they were were fun to read. I’ve always liked that scene at the end when all is revealed and the bad guy confesses. Thanks for this engaging review, didn’t bring back any memories though I know I read the book. Getting old is the pits. Well, but you’ve heard that from me before. :)

    • Ah but Yvette, you know that it’s your enthusiasm that keeps the rest of us young though, right? I didn;t remember this one much at all but really enjoyed having Perry square off another Alpha Male while surrounded by delectable ladies – and the Warren William films are just loads of fun – more Perry Mason / Warren William reviews are bound to be heading this way …

  4. neer says:

    Like Yvette, I too have read the book but can’t remember anything about it. I love the way the relationship amongst the three: Mason, Street, and Drake evolves over the course of the series. Thanks for the fine review.

  5. TracyK says:

    We have the DVD set and enjoyed all the movies. I plan to read some of the books too. Someday. I also read many of them years ago and I mean a really long time ago. Also the A. A. Fair books with Donald Lam and Bertha Cool.

  6. Colin says:

    We chatted about the movie series when you posted that last Mason piece I see, nice that the films have been made available on DVD now.

    one way or another, it always feels like someone is telling you a story here
    That line kind of jumped out at me when I was reading as it seemed to sum up the handful of Mason books I’ve read.

    • Admittedly this was partly based on the well-known fact that Gardner very early started dictating rather than writing the books manually – there is a fascinating extra on one of the TV show DVDs in which we see it work dictating one of the last books in the series and it is extraordinary to see how detailed and technical the dictation is and the fact that he is doing it straight off the bat without recoure to any notes (well, at least while the cameras were rolling) – amazing!

  7. Great title, and I love the idea of crooked beauty pageants. Very much enjoy the way you link in the film reviews, and your careful analysis and comparison….

  8. I enjoyed the early Perry Masons. As you point out, the court room theatrics of the later books take a back seat to actively investigating the case. And I really like those LUCKY LEGS paperback covers! Nice.

  9. Great choice and review, Sergio! There was a time when I prided myself on having read every Perry Mason paperback by ESG and most of those involved courtroom battles opposite Burger or some other DA. At the time I wasn’t aware of Gardner’s early stories published in Black Mask and probably elsewhere and which are now accessible online. I can see how different Mason and Co. were back in those days and the development of their characters in successive stories.

  10. Richard says:

    I have that Cardinal pb you show. Sergiio, I think I liked this one a bit more than you did. I couldn’t find my review of it, must have been before I started my blog, in one of the columns I did for paper or spa. I do like the early Masons for their more hard-boiled nature, but it was inevitable that the series would come to focus more on courtroom tactics, given Gardner’s own legal background as a practicing attorney in California.

    • Thanks Richard. I am probably more familiar with the books from the 40s and 50s, which to a degree more closely match those expectations based on familiarity with the TV show but it’s been really fn reconnecting with the 30s iteration!

  11. John says:

    Does anyone know the first novel in which Mason actually tries a case? I think it didnt’ happen until the after the TV series took off. My guess would be one of the titles written in the mid 1950s. The first Perry Mason book I ever read (back inmy high school days) was TCOT LONG LEGGED MODELS and it involved his usual business with switching guns — a gimmick Gardner overused in his later career. There was a long section set in the courtroom, but the plto was so confuisng to me that I swoare off Perry Mason for decades. Around 2008 I tried him again. I read …VELVET CLAWS and couldn’t beleive how different Mason was. He really is like a tough guy pulp hero in the early books. But principled (as Margot says above)? Manufacturing evidence, beating up suspects, circumventing police procedure, breaking into a crime scene… That’s not principled in my book. ;^)

    • Wow, thanks for that John – it can’t have been as late as the 50s, can it? Now you’re really got me going! Well, in this one he is principled in that he tends to stick to the spirit if not the letter of the law (unless its convenient) though one of the things I liked the most about this was the fact that Perry is very much put under pressure for the fact that he messed with the scenes of the crime before the police arrived as he knows he could well and truly be sunk if it came out, which is not really how you think of the character normally! But this is probably why he didn’t get into court that much in the early days!

  12. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, an excellent analysis and film tie-in as always. I never read a Mason book before I started blogging–and it’s really only because of my love for those pulp-era, pocket-size books that I read my first one. For whatever reason (you’ll need to hop in a time-machine and ask my younger self) I took a particular dislike to the black & white TV show and just never thought I’d enjoy the books. I was definitely pleasantly surprised. I’ve got several sitting on the TBR shelf waiting for me to use them for the appropriate Vintage Challenge square.

    • Thanks Bev – I think the TV show works because of the cast because it did become increasingly pedestrian and far too convoluted as it went a long – at a certain point I certainly stopped caring about who did it and just wanted to see the courtroom pyrotechnics!

  13. Todd Mason says:

    And the Detective Book Club survived for decades offering new members a small slew of Gardner Mason novels in a deviation from the typical triple volumes that DBC subscribers would receive…over the years I’ve collected a long of DBC volumes, but never have picked up a Mason novel…even with a title that makes the covers on this particularly item pretty easy to plan.

    • Critically the Mason novels have not fared all that well, have they? Mike Nevins reckons they hit a peak between the late 30s and late 40s and he is probably right as he is with most such things!

  14. Pingback: Women’s Mystery Month? Classic crime in the blogosphere: March 2014 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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