Recently Watched: Perry Mason

After some delay, Warner Archives has released a 2-disc set of all six of the Perry Mason films from 1934 through 1937. To commemorate the release, I thought I’d bring over one of my old posts from the SBBN archives, a quickie summary of all six Mason films from 2009. This was written back before I knew how to post pictures properly, plus the imported comments will be in the wrong order, so please forgive the aesthetic chaos.

Please note: The screen grabs in this post are from movies recorded off TCM, they are NOT from the Warner Archive set.

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Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer-slash-detective character Perry Mason was created in 1933, and within a year Warner Bros. created a film series based on the books. The first film, “The Case of the Howling Dog” (1934), was based on a serialized novel published in Liberty Magazine earlier that same year. In all, six Perry Mason films were made before Mason disappeared from the big screen.

In the 1940s, the character appeared on CBS radio for 12 years, voiced primarily by John Larkin. Gardner disliked the radio series and refused to allow it to be made into a TV show in the 1950s, so CBS revamped the radio show and turned it into the soap “Edge of Night” — also starring John Larkin, but not as Mason — and the soap ran for another 30 years. A few years after “Edge of Night” premiered, Gardner forgave CBS and helped create a nighttime Perry Mason television show. This show, starring Raymond Burr, was a huge hit and ran from 1957-1966, then again from 1985 to Burr’s death in 1993. It’s this television series that most people are familiar with, rather than the movie series, radio show, or even the books.

I haven’t read a Perry Mason novel since I was a kid. I own a collector’s copy of The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece; it was originally bought as a gift for my dad, which wasn’t very well thought-out on my part. My father, born in 1927, didn’t think a book published in 1942 was a collector’s item. Fair enough. But even this book sits unread on my shelves so, like everyone else, when I think “Perry Mason” I think Raymond Burr. Only after accidentally stumbling on the Ricardo Cortez version of Perry Mason late one night on TCM did I even think about watching the movies.

The first 4 Perry Mason films starred Warren William as the title character and were released in quick succession from September, 1934 to August, 1936. Perry’s capable secretary and assumed love interest Della Street was played by several actresses: First by beautiful stage actress Helen Trenholme, but Trenholme disappeared from Hollywood later that year after making only 2 films. The next Della was Claire Dodd, who appeared as Della in the 2nd and 4th films, and then Genevieve Tobin who appeared as Della for the 3rd. In the last 2 films without Warren William, Della was played by June Travis, and in the 6th film was played by Ann Dvorak of all people.

Mason’s sidekick Spudsy Drake is as jostled around in the series as Della. Spudsy doesn’t even exist in the first film, but arrives in the second. It gets kind of confusing though, because blog fave Allen Jenkins — and his very goofy moustache — appear as Sgt. Holcomb in the first film. In the second film Jenkins returns (and gets shaved!) to become Mason sidekick Spudsy Drake. Did they think no one would remember Jenkins was a cop in the first film? Jenkins remained Spudsy in the 3rd film, but disappears and is replaced by Eddie Acuff in the 4th film. Then suddenly Spudsy Drake changes to Paul Drake for the 5th and 6th films, being played by character actors Gary Owen and Joseph Crehan, respectively.

Confused yet? It gets better! For whatever reason, Warren William did not play Mason after the first four films. The fourth film in 1936 ends in such a way that the series could have wrapped up there, but less than 3 months after William’s last Mason film, a fifth Perry Mason film starring Ricardo Cortez was released on Halloween. It was nearly a year later in June of 1937 when the 6th and final film was released, with Mason played by Donald “Mr Bland” Woods.

The first Mason movie was “The Case of the Howling Dog”. They went all out for the series in the beginning, with Warren William as the lead, Mary Astor as the female lead, and gowns by Orry-Kelly. Wait, there were gowns? Wait, don’t I always say that when I see the “Gowns by Orry-Kelly” credit?

A very nervous man comes into Perry’s office, going on about dogs and death and such, and wants to make out his will. He wants to leave everything to the wife of his next door neighbor, the one who owns the howling dog that keeps him up at nights. Mason is intrigued and his staff psychologist (!) confirms that the client is probably not completely mental, so he takes the case. It all turns into a sordid affair where people are married to one spouse but are pretending to be married to another, and there are murders… particularly gruesome ones, actually. Not that we see anything, but imagination works wonders.

Warren is great as Mason, and as I mentioned Helen Trenholme is quite good as Della. This is a great film in the series, but all of the Warren William films are good.

Hey look, it’s a Clue Club Picture! From a scan I found of an old film magazine (page 16), it appears the Clue Club was a “national organization of mystery story fans”, and in conjunction with this Warner Bros produced 12 films in the Clue Club series and offered contests and prizes for members. The Comprehensive Index to Black Mask says it was a short story contest started in 1935. A few reference books refer to the series as “Clue Club Mysteries” instead of “Clue Club Pictures”, but I’m not sure that’s correct — Clue Club Mysteries were a paperback book series during the same years, and I don’t believe the Warner Bros movies were related to the Clue Club books. I know nothing else about Clue Club Pictures, only that 2 Perry Mason films were Clue Clue Pictures, as well as: “The Murder of Dr Harrigan”, “While the Patient Slept”, “The Florentine Dagger”, and “Murder by an Aristocrat”. No idea what the other 6 were.

Isn’t that kind of sad? Seventy-odd years ago people must have loved following the Warner Bros Clue Club pictures and entering the contests, and now I can’t even figure out more than half the titles of the dozen movies in the Clue Club. See, this is the kind of thing I spend my days thinking about.

The next in the series, “The Case of the Curious Bride,” starred the actress I love to hate, Margaret Lindsay, and Donald Bland er I mean Woods. Later Woods would become the last person to play Mason in the film series; with all the character changes and repeat actors in the Mason films, you gotta figure Warner Bros was just playing with us at this point.

Despite the presence of Woods and Lindsay, “Curious Bride” was not bad. In it, Perry is planning on a vacation to China when his ex-girlfriend Rhoda (Lindsay) shows up. She tells him she’s remarried after being widowed, but now her skeezy supposedly-dead former husband is back and blackmailing her for money to not reveal that she’s essentially a bigamist. My, this plot sounds so familiar…

This is a good film, the kind of rare entry in a series where the film can stand alone and doesn’t have to rely on the context of the series it belongs to. The plot is tight and focused, courtesy of mega-professional director Michael Curtiz. The chemistry between William and Jenkins is terrific — in the first film when Jenkins plays a cop, William in one scene looks like he’s about to laugh just from looking at Jenkins. That energy really works for them when Jenkins returns here as the sidekick. As an added bonus there is a lot of San Francisco scenery, more than in “Fog Over Frisco” although many of the buildings shown are the same.

Mayo Methot has a really great role that she hits out of the park, although she’s barely credited in the film. Doesn’t the reporter on the left look familiar? I think it’s Rosalie Roy, all olded up for the role in a grey wig, but I have no idea. I’m bad with faces.

The comedy in the movie hits all the right notes without ever turning into one of those awkward “was that supposed to be funny?” moments. Also, Errol Flynn has a small role as a corpse, and he turns up later in the film in a flashback explaining just how he became a corpse. He was literally moments away from becoming a huge star when he did this film.

“The Case of the Lucky Legs” is another solid entry in the series. In this one the best Della of them all, Genevieve Tobin, steals the show out from under everyone else. She is amazing. Tobin makes this my favorite of the 6 Perry Mason films.

Tobin is probably best known for her second lead roles in “The Petrified Forest” and “One Hour with You”, and even though she’s second credit in this Perry Mason film, I kind of have to wonder how she ended up in the movie. Most 1930s movie series’ seemed to only have room for one big name, and of course the big name in this series was Warren William. Tobin seems to be a little too high profile to be playing Della Street. Am I overestimating Tobin’s name recognition? Maybe I am.

Also in the film is blog fave Lyle Talbot and…

Craig Reynolds as a dead dude with a smile on his face.

A local hosiery company hosts a “Lucky Leg” competition, but it turns out skeezeball Craig Reynolds isn’t really from the main office and isn’t really going to give the lady with the best legs a prize, he’s just in it to scam women for… well, you know. Unsurprisingly, Reynolds turns up dead (with a smile!) and the most recent winner of the contest, played by Patricia Ellis, is a suspect. Her boyfriend Lyle Talbot is a suspect as well.

Still from “Lucky Legs” yoinked from Louie – it’s the only still from “Lucky Legs” I’ve ever seen on Le Internette.

 

“Lucky Legs” is fast-paced and funny. The beginning scene with Mason comically hung over and the running gag of the doctor always barging in to check on Mason’s health never gets old. Other character actors in the film that you’d recognize are Peggy Shannon, Porter Hall, and Joseph Creghan… yep, the guy who later shows up as sidekick Paul Drake. Seriously, Warner Bros, stop messing with us already.

“The Case of the Velvet Claws” was the last one to feature Warren William. In it he marries Della, who is now Claire Dodd again, but he can’t go on a honeymoon because a woman named Eva shows up with a gun. She forces Perry to go to a gossip rag and demand they stop a story about her husband. It turns out the guy she said was her husband is really just her boyfriend, and her actual husband owns the gossip rag that’s about to print all the naughty things the boyfriend has done. Sadly, this isn’t really explained very well in the story, so we never know if the husband was going to post something true but scandalous or if he just made things up to get back at the cuckolder.

Perry initially thinks he can get out of this messed up case and return Eva’s $5000 retainer, but the cash is accidentally burned (wacky!) so he cannot return it, thus he’s stuck taking the case.

When Eve’s tabloid-owning husband turns up murdered, Perry decides to defend Eva but becomes a suspect himself. He has to hide out until everything is settled. Very exciting. Or, you know, not. Everything is so obviously half thought out that the entire movie suffers. Della’s character is played as either whiny on purpose or to help cover her husband’s tracks, you can’t tell which.

While this is not a bad film at all, it wasn’t as engaging as the others. The only semi-interesting trivia about the film to note is that Kenneth Harlan, the former Mr Marie Prevost, has a small role as Peter. Harlan is pictured on the right in the above screencap, the blurry one that looks goofy. For most of his tiny role you’re staring at Harlan’s back, which is probably just as it should be.

I watched these films out of order, which I didn’t realize until it was far too late to do anything about it. Ricardo was my first introduction to Perry Mason, and I really liked him in this film. I couldn’t tell you if any of these films were accurate to the character in the book, but hey. Ricardo. Any film with Ricardo is a good film. Please don’t mention “Transgression” to me just to prove me wrong.

“The Case of the Black Cat” was written by F Hugh Herbert, which struck a note of fear in me. Thankfully he’s not related to Captain Mumblypants, although he did also write “Fashions of 1934″ that had Captain Mumblypants as a supporting character, so he isn’t completely innocent.

The two stars of the film — after Perry and Della of course — are Jane Bryan and Craig Reynolds. Bryan is an actress who is really growing on me. This was her first movie, but she only made 18 in her short 4-year career before marrying and spending her days as a society wife, philanthropist, and member of a family that had large behind-the-scenes roles in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Bryan passed away just a few months ago.

In this story, Perry is called to the bedside of crotchety old Peter Laxter, who wants to change his will in the middle of the night to make sure his granddaughter (Jane Bryan) doesn’t get anything, as he’s convinced her boyfriend is just a gold digger. Laxter dies later in a fire, and his 2 grandsons (Craig Reynolds as Frank and Bill Elliott as Sam) inherit everything. The will, however, has a clause that the caretaker and his cat must be allowed to stay on the premises.

Sam doesn’t like the cat, though, so the caretaker fears for his job and his cat’s life. He goes to Perry to have an official letter drafted reminding Sam of the will’s stipulations. While doing this, Perry discovers the fire that killed Laxter was suspicious, and begins to try to find out who killed Laxter.

Complicating the investigation is a surreptitious love affair between Laxter’s nurse and Frank, the caretaker’s iffy past, an angry DA, and more murders.

“The Case of the Stuttering Bishop” was the last of the Mason films, starring Donald Woods as the title character. Donald Woods with a moustache, maybe the one Allen Jenkins had in the first film, who knows. No matter what, Woods bores me. He was dependable and dull. He’s the guy you always forget was in “Night and Day” and “Fog Over Frisco”. Was his TV work better?

This is by far the worst of the Mason films. It’s still not bad, but Woods and Ann Dvorak are sadly miscast. Dvorak might have been a great Della if she’d been paired with Ricardo Cortez instead, though. The plot is pretty weak as well: A bishop with a stutter arrives to tell Mason that a woman who was accused of vehicular homicide many years ago will come to him for help. The bishop disappears, but the woman does indeed go to Perry. She turns out to be Ida Gilbert and says she’s the long-lost granddaughter of very wealthy, influential Mr Browley. Or is she an impostor? Mr Browley says he already has his long-lost granddaughter living with him. Mr Browley is murdered soon after and Ida is identified as the murderer. Perry thinks she’s innocent and he takes her case.

Craig Reynolds is in “The Case of the Stuttering Bishop”, too. He’s a supporting actor I always crush on when I see him, and he was in 3 of the Perry Mason films! It’s Warner Bros playing us for saps again!

I knew so little about Reynolds I decided to look him up. Like so many character actors of the classic age, there is almost nothing about his life available. This site, though, has quite an outline of his life. Reynolds, once the third most popular actor at the WB studio, had a lengthy career from 1933 until WWII. Reynolds was the first actor to join the Armed Forces in WWII, and also the first Hollywood actor injured in action. He served in Iceland and later with the first troops at Guadalcanal, where he received for his service a Purple Heart, at least one Presidential citation, and serious injuries. His semi-paralyzed leg required a brace for the rest of his life.

Reynolds returned to Hollywood in 1944 to find no roles for him. His wife, actress Barbara Pepper, also is reported to be out of work in these same articles, but the IMDb shows that’s untrue. At any rate, Reynolds reportedly worked as an ice delivery man just to make ends meet after he returned from the war. In 1946 his career seemed to be on the upswing, but that was short-lived. Two years later, Louella mentions that Barbara has taken the kids and left Craig, as he “became bitter”. Craig responded to Louella saying Barbara was suing him for divorce, implying that it was not his fault. (Maybe he’s right. Pepper turned to television work just a couple of years later and, despite being great friends with Lucille Ball, didn’t get the role of Ethel Mertz in 1952 despite desperately wanting it. Barbara Pepper later recalled that Ball was already worried about one alcoholic on the set, William Frawley, and didn’t want to have to worry about Pepper and her drinking, too.) Craig also tells Louella that he’s working as a cab driver now. During this time in 1947 and 1948, he only had 2 uncredited roles.

In October, 1949, less than 6 months after Barbara Pepper told Louella she’d left Craig, Reynolds was serious injured in California when another driver’s motorcycle collided with his motor scooter. Five days later, Reynolds died at French Hospital, Los Angeles. He was 42.

Gah.

As I said, Craig Reynolds is an actor I always coo over when I see him in a film. But I forget sometimes that actors and actresses aren’t just pretty, pretty things to stare at for my own amusement. Reynold’s sobering life story really brought that realization home. Again, these are the things I think about in my spare time.

Here is Craig Reynolds with actor Tom Kennedy. Reynolds has a relatively important role in the film, although I can’t remember who exactly his character Gordon Bixler was. Some dude who saw some car at a yacht club, that’s all I know. I think it has to do with Ida’s alibi.

But back to the film. The bishop who stutters is such an odd, half-realized character that it throws the whole film out of whack. Ann Dvorak looks bored and insulted, and Anne Nagel pretty much just sleepwalks through her role.

Like “Velvet Claws”, this film doesn’t have much by way of neat character actors or fun trivia. In the film in a stand-out but small roll is the amazing Veda Ann Borg, though, looking fabulous as always. Is that Tom Kennedy with her? Probably. I can’t recognize anyone, which is why I always suck at the Daily Mirror’s Movie Star Mystery Photos.

FURTHER READING:

The Grooviespad Erle Stanley Gardner page

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6 Comments

  1. I've only seen The Case of the Velvet Claws but I have a couple of the others. Warren William is terrific. What I found slightly disconcerting was that they were playing it so much for laughs lot of the time. Which just wasn't what I'd expected.

  2. I loved the Warren William Masons – they had his trademark style and more comedy than Gardner allowed for in the books. I read a whole s**tload of Gardner's work, including pulp works, plus a lot Perry Masons and especially his A.A. Fair nom-de-plume – the Cool and Lam private detective series had lots of fun, more so than the Masons, and were actually closer to the earlier films. You might try picking one of those up. When Gardner's wife Jean passed away, I went to the house-cleaning sale at their former home, and bought some of their personal paperbacks as mementos. I watched the TV series many times over, and used to have the some of the radio plays on cassettes. You're right about Craig Reynolds, he was pretty good, and I used to wonder whatever happened to him. He had face the camera liked, and he should've been a bigger star, but he risked his life, and came back unfilmable I guess. Poor guy. One last Perry Mason tidbit – when my oldest son was still a wee lad and using one word expressions, my wife would put on the Perry Mason TV show and do housework. The lad would follow her around, or watch the show.She left the room for a sec, and the victim got killed, off screen. They showed the guy laying there just as my wife came back in the room, and she said aloud to no one in particular, "What happened?!?"My son looked at her and spoke his very first complete sentence, rich with watching Perry Masons: "Man's dead, Mom."

  3. I like that they play it for laughs, personally, but my memory of the books is that there weren't many laughs to be had. Cortez is a much more serious Mason, wry but not laugh-out-loud funny like William, and I think he could have done several films in that vein.Vanwall, that story is hysterical! I think I have some AA Fair stories in my Big Book of Pulps (or some other book hanging around), I'll have to check them out.

  4. Oh I can't believe you didn't mention my favorite scene- the one where one of the suspects works in a burlesque house- so we get to see her wrapped in a towel singing "I was pure and lily white" as the chorus throws in "Boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo"s and "He will quickly be refuted / by the gal he disreputed / on a dark and stormy night"

  5. Eric, I confess I just kind of slept through the musical number. I didn't even notice the lyrics!

  6. Pingback: Serious Sport and Fair Play: The Footloose Heiress (1937) | She Blogged By Night

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