Erle Stanley Gardner
July 17, 1889 - March 11, 1970
Erle Stanley Gardner was a successful lawyer, author of mystery fiction, as well as books on travel and conservation. Along with other legal professionals, he began the Court of Last Resort to assist the wrongly convicted. I highly recommend Dorothy B. Hughes The Case of the Real Perry Mason for Gardner's fascinating life story.
Gardner's most famous protagonist and greatest gift to popular fiction is the lawyer Perry Mason. I love kicking back with one of the Mason page-turners. The energetic and quick-witted lawyer goes beyond the extra mile for his clients. This attitude echoes much of Gardner's thinking that the law has everything on its side in terms of power and resources, and anything a lawyer has to do to assist his client is right.
The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
The first Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws
was published in 1933 followed by The Case of the Sulky Girl,
and in 1934 The Case of the Lucky Legs
and The Case of the Howling Dog
. It was The Case of the Howling Dog
that Warner Brothers chose to kick off their series based on the newly popular fictional sleuth. It was the beginning of Gardner's dissatisfaction with adaptations of his novels. Gardner did not have an expectation of slavish devotion to his work but failed to understand why the studio would pay for a property with a built-in fan base and its inherit advertising value and then stray so far from the character.
"Warners proceeded to ruin Perry. It seemed to me had had about an acre of office and Della was so dazzling I couldn't see her for diamonds. Everybody drank a lot."
- Gardner interview with Dwight Whitney, TV Guide, 1961
The Case of the Howling Dog was a great success for its author. It is an excellent story that packs a real emotional wallop with an ending that just tip-toed past the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Alan Crosland, whose greatest successes as a director had been in the 1920s directed a stylish and witty film of Gardner's story. William Rees' cinematography gives us a nice, early noir feeling, especially in the nighttime scenes.
Helen Trenholme, Mary Astor, Warren William
Warren William, the sophisticated star equally at home in drama and comedy, was cast as Perry Mason following his impressive success as a lawyer in The Mouthpiece and his casting as Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case. Canadian-born Helen Trenholme played a smart Della Street in one of two pictures she made before returning to the stage. Allen Jenkins played Sergeant Holcomb and Grant Mitchell the District Attorney Claude Drumm. Although part of the novel, Perry's legman Paul Drake was not included in the movie.
When Gardner refers to the "acres of office" he is not kidding. The film sets up Perry's law practice as a major industry employing dozens of employees from investigators and clerks to doctors. They are housed in a huge art deco set that looks like a museum.
Perry finds himself with a client in an untenable situation after the murder of her estranged and abusive husband. Perry's original client, Arthur Cartwright disappeared after leaving instructions for Mason to defend Mrs. Foley should the need arise. It is only one of the interesting twists and turns in this story. We see the risks Perry Mason is willing to take for the sake of clients who invariably lie. Gardner always satisfies his audience when the truth is discovered and revealed in dramatic fashion.
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)
The second outing introduces us to Perry Mason, gourmet and connoisseur of fine wines. This Perry is intimately acquainted with produce retailers, restauranteurs, and chefs. Perry's closest friends form an entourage and include City Coroner Wilbur Strong played by Olin Howland. Allen Jenkins plays investigator "Spudsy" Drake. Spudsy!? Spudsy is one of the "dese" "dem" and "dose" chaps which Jenkins could play in his sleep.
Warren William, Margaret Lindsay
We are also given to understand that Perry is something of a ladies' man when his commandeering of a local restaurant's kitchen is interrupted by the appearance of an attractive young woman played by Margaret Lindsay. She and Perry reminisce about their past before getting down to the reason for her out-of-the-blue visit. Of course, she is lying about many of the facts but Perry has come to expect that from clients. It is little wonder that our Della Street, this time played by Claire Dodd, displays more than the usual shades of green.
Perry's apartment takes the place of the office in the earlier film as the site of elegant opulence. The abode is the perfect site for the gathering of suspects culminating in a stunning reveal, a la Nick Charles from Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man popular novel and MGM film.
Michael Curtiz had a way with all the genres he directed. He always knew how to entertain and The Case of the Curious Bride, with Gardner's fascinating plot, is a fast-paced and fun film. I could probably get used to this iteration of the character in film but Warner Brothers was not yet done with their tinkering.
Note: Future Perry Mason Donald Woods and future Warners star Errol Flynn have roles in this adaptation of another popular Gardner novel.
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)
The above advertising should dispell any lingering doubt that Warner Brothers was more interested in Nick Charles than they were in Perry Mason. In this movie, we are introduced to a hungover Perry Mason asleep on his office floor. The office this time around is of a more manageable and realistic size yet it is attached washroom is almost as large as the one in his penthouse in the previous film.
Olin Howland is back, but not as the coroner. He is Perry's personal physician called Dr. Croker. Allen Jenkins' "Spudsy" is still around but considerably dumbed down for comic effect and is now the henpecked husband of Mary Treen.
Genevieve Tobin, Warren William
Genevieve Tobin and Warren William showed themselves to be an excellent comic pairing in the 1933 screwball Goodbye Again, and keep up that standard here as Della Street and Perry Mason. Theirs is a fun-loving and understanding relationship in which every conversation has a punchline.
Porter Hall plays the client this time out; a businessman bilked by a phony contest racket. Many of the beautifully gammed gals who were scammed are also involved in the murder of the con man. Hall and Warren William make a grand comic tag team. See them also in Satan Met a Lady and Arizona.
The script here makes reference to a "curious bride" and a more subtle allusion to William's role as The Match King. Watch for them in this nifty and shifty movie directed by Archie Mayo (Moontide, Angel on My Shoulder, The Petrified Forest). Have we finally found Warner Brothers idea of the perfect Perry Mason?
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)
The movie maintains the interesting Gardner plot involving a blackmailing tabloid editor and the most duplicitous of clients. Olin Howard returns to playing coroner Wilbur Strong. Also back in the mix is Claire Dodd as Della. "Spudsy" Drake is still on the premises, but Allen Jenkins is out and Eddie Acuff is in. Spudsy is still the comic relief and the character returns to the single life. In an act of charity, they give the character a few more brain cells than Jenkins had on his last appearance.
William Clemens directed the movie, and it was right in his wheelhouse with Nancy Drew, Torchy Blane, and The Falcon also coming under his watchful eyes. Highlights include Winifred Shaw as the double-dealing client, a peroxide Carol Hughes as a cutie southern belle, Ruth Robinson as a housekeeper who is more than she appears, and Clara Blandick as a judge.
Claire Dodd, Warren William, Eddie Acuff
The script also includes a lot of silliness. Perry and Della get married! Della has persuaded her husband to give up the practice of criminal law! When the honeymoon is interrupted by a murder case, Della swings between being her usual competent and understanding self to weeping on the sofa and seeking an annulment. Ah, me.
"What a honeymoon; murder, influenza, and looming annulment!"
- Perry Mason
Warren William, Winifred Shaw
Exciting sequences in interesting settings are interrupted by Perry's sneezing. He is catching a cold which he exaggerates to influenza. By the dramatic reveal, everybody in the cast is sneezing. Is this really how Warner Brothers saw Perry Mason? They monkeyed around with the character to the extent that you didn't know what to expect from picture to picture, except that it wasn't going to be Perry Mason.
The Case of the Black Cat (1936)
Stage Struck filmed after The Case of the Velvet Claws was the movie with which Warren William finished out his Warner Brothers contract. It was obvious at this time that dissatisfaction between the studio and the star went both ways. If the Mason series were to continue, there would be a new Perry.
Ricardo Cortez had recently signed with the studio and was pegged to bring the crusading attorney to the screen. This Perry Mason was not a Nick Charles knock-off, but the determined, smart, and slightly bemused professional who went the extra mile for his clients. This is the Perry Mason who likes to stir things up and use the authority of the law to help those caught in the web of red tape.
Gardner's popular novel The Case of the Caretaker's Cat was retitled The Case of the Black Cat, I should imagine for the sake of mysteriousness. However, Clinker, the cat in the story looked to me like a run-of-the-mill tabby. Nonetheless, the duplicitous family of crotchety millionaire Peter Laxter played by Harry Davenport is on display with all of their greed and murderous intent.
Nedda Harrigan, Ricardo Cortez, Garry Owen
June Travis, who spent only a few years at Warners before leaving Hollywood for marriage, is an attractive and competent Della Street. She and the boss are not married (forget that last movie, folks) but do engage in some adorable flirting. "Spudsy" is gone! He is replaced by - here's an idea! - investigator Paul Drake played by Garry Owen. The character is still played for laughs by displaying a lack of social graces and a habit of opening his mouth at the wrong time. Guy Usher plays District Attorney Hamilton Burger in a gruff, let's-get-Mason manner.
Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Clinker
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937)
Alan Crosland (The Case of the Howling Dog
) was directing when he lost his life in an automobile accident and was replaced by William McGann, Oscar-winning Effects Artist for A Stolen Life
. The film moves briskly and holds your attention due to the palette cleansing performance of Ricardo Cortez. I'd say things were looking up for the series. I don't know what Warner Brothers thought, but Cortez thought there were greener and more lucrative pastures elsewhere (The Magnificent Heel, The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez
by Dan Van Neste). Here we go again!
Manitoba-born Donald Woods becomes the first, but not the last Canadian actor to play Perry Mason in 1937s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop directed by B mystery champ William Clemens (The Case of the Velvet Claws). The opening credits and the publicity material don't mention Perry Mason. It is as if they are trying to slip one over on the public. I think they should have been pleased.
Joseph Crehan, Ann Dvorak, Donald Woods
Paul, Della, Perry
It took me the entire movie to get used to Donald Woods moustache, but his work as the crusading lawyer felt natural. He even did the hands in pockets while pacing his office and the courtroom attitude which can be found in Gardner's novels. This Perry seemed the right age and the right physicality. He's not a habitual souse, and he's not a pretentious gourmet. Ann Dvorak played Della Street. I don't think the studio really knew what to do with that talented girl. She had the chops to make Della interesting, plus the personality to blow everyone else off the screen if she wanted.
Joseph Crehan is on board as investigator Paul Drake, no longer comic relief, but a professional on the level of Mason with the gravitas of being older than his employer. Tom Kennedy handles the detective as a clown bit. He's a hotel dick of halting mental process and over-baked enthusiasms. He was doing the same thing for the Torchy Blane series as Gahagan. Frank Faylen was around as one of the Drake Detective Agency lads, and I couldn't help but think he would have been an excellent Drake from the beginning of the series.
Donald Woods, Craig Reynolds
Charles C. Wilson was the fuming Hamilton Burger, pronounced with a soft "g", and I found that a more difficult adjustment than Woods' moustache. Gardner's tale of a blackmail racket, missing heirs, and international witnesses played out at a nice, interesting pace. Perry kept almost a half a step ahead of the law and the crooks leading to an exciting courtroom reveal. Very satisfactory.
I suppose it is easy to understand why Warner Brothers wanted to copy the "Thin Man" formula as most studios did make the attempt with varying degrees of success. However, Perry Mason was popular in his own right and when they finally got around to following Gardner's template, they let Perry fade away from the big screen.
Warner's contractee Craig Reynolds
appears in three of the Mason features. If some bright executive had kept his eyes open back when they purchased Erle Stanley Gardner's stories, they might have seen that the attractive and versatile actor would have been perfect for the role of Perry Mason.
They could add my idea of Frank Faylen for Paul Drake, and maybe give Jane Wyman's career a leg-up as Della. Only, for the love of Heaven, no "Spudsy!"
Tim Considine, Russ Conway, Tommy Kirk
Mason #3, Donald Woods' younger brother was actor Russ Conway, Fenton Hardy on the Disney Hardy Boys series. They were born Ralph and Russell Zink in Brandon, Manitoba.