The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

USA 1937, 70 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William Clemens, Written by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan, Based on The Case of the Stuttering Bishop by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Donald Woods, Ann Dvorak, Anne Nagel, Linda Perry, Craig Reynolds, Gordon Oliver, Joseph Crehan, Helen MacKellar, Edward McWade, Tom Kennedy, Mira McKinney, Frank Faylen, Douglas Wood, Veda Ann Borg, George Lloyd, Selmer Jackson and Charles Wilson.

Plot summary: Perry Mason gets involved in a case of identity theft and ends up defending the possible heir to a murder victim’s fortune.

TCOT Stuttering Bisop 1937Review: As the sixth and last adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular whodunits, Warner Brothers released The Case of the Stuttering Bishop in 1937 with Donald Woods as famed lawyer Perry Mason and Ann Dvorak as his faithful girl Friday Della Street. Based on Gardner’s ninth book, the film tried to turn a difficult plot into seventy minutes of entertaining noir, unfortunately another failed attempt at the box office. For Mason fans, the film may now be a gem to complete their collection, for a general audience, however, the film did not manage to live up to Gardner’s original story.

Although blessed with Donald Woods as yet another Mason, the film, once again, lacked the enticing chemistry between Perry and and his savvy secretary, an element the radio and TV show would get down to a T in the 1940s through 60s. Ann Dvorak, despite her decent lines, brief (book-inspired) action scene and physical presence, did not manage to shine as Della Street and Joseph Crehan did not get enough screen time to actually flesh out another pivotal character from the original books, private detective Paul Drake. Charles Wilson, though, as district attorney Hamilton Burger, met the rather unlikeable persona from Gardner’s novels and Edward McWade was a charming stuttering bishop Mallory. Together, they made the film an enjoyable hour of entertainment without living up to the story’s full potential.

Despite my bias for Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and their smash hit show from the 50s and 60s, I must admit, however, that Donald Woods did a fine job at breathing life into his very own Perry Mason. Of all the adaptations from the 1930s, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop may even qualify as my favorite, although each of the six films had its beauty and strengths. As a Mason fan, I’m grateful either way for Warner’s decision to release all of the first Mason films in one boxset on DVD – it sure made the best early Christmas gift I gave myself this year.

The Case of the Black Cat

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Black Cat

USA 1936, 66 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William C. McGann, Written by F. Hugh Herbert, Based on The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Jane Bryan, Craig Reynolds, Carlyle Moore Jr., Gordon Elliot, Nedda Harrigan, Garry Owen, Harry Davenport, George Rosener, Gordon Hart, Clarence Wilson, Guy Usher, Lottie Williams and Harry Hayden.

Plot summary: When Peter Laxter calls Perry Mason to change his will in order to test the loyalty of his granddaughter’s fiancé, his actions result in a series of sudden deaths the prosecution investigates as murders.

Review: Following four silver screenTCOT Black Catadaptations with Warren William starring as Perry Mason, Warner Brothers took another shot at success in 1936 by releasing The Case of the Black Cat based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s seventh whodunit, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Introducing Ricardo Cortez as the famous attorney-at-law and June Travis as his irreplaceable Della Street, that new production did not follow up on previously disappointing attempts of turning Mason into a Nick Charles but rather tried to soak up the essence of Gardner’s original novel. Featuring Garry Owen as private eye Paul Drake, an important asset to Mason’s law practice, and Guy Usher as district attorney Hamilton Burger, The Case of the Black Cat was suspenseful and noir right from the start. What the film lacked, however, was that kind of enticing chemistry between the story’s main characters, an ingredient Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, Bill Hopper (as well as William Talman and Ray Collins) would so easily create on the small screen two decades later.

Although hard to compare to the smashing TV show of the 1950s and 60s, this adaptation from 1936 already took a step into the right direction. Regardless of his excellent performance skills and gentlemanly quality, Warren William did not get to leave a lasting mark as Perry Mason and unfortunately, nor did Ricardo Cortez with his one-time chance at proving himself. June Travis, as the fourth actress to breathe life into Mason’s skillful girl Friday, also didn’t make a big enough difference to win the hearts of Gardner’s fans. Just like her predecessors, she was pretty and useful but never as distinctive as the character in the original books.

In general, The Case of the Black Cat offered a calmer version of Gardner’s crafty lawyer, especially when compared to the screwball-induced The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Velvet Claws, the improved take on the novels still did not stand out enough, however, to attract a larger audience. Today, The Case of the Black Cat is a great little film for anyone who loves Perry Mason. Although for most, Raymond Burr will always be the perfect Perry and Barbara Hale his unrivaled Della, this film is a great example of how Hollywood has always tried to tell stories the audience has already embraced. It is also a treat for anyone who is enamored with the 1930s, the slang, movies and fashion of those troubled days.

Available on the Perry Mason Mysteries DVD boxset.

Bugs Bunny

TV classics: The Bugs Bunny Show

USA 1960-2000, forty seasons, 1040 episodes, approximately 25 to 65 minutes each, ABC / CBS, color. Voices: Mel Blanc, June Foray, Arthur Q. Bryan, Daws Butler, Bea Benaderet, Paul Frees, Marvin Miller, Hal Smith, Larry Storch, Barbara Cameron, Julie Bennett, Sara Berner, Robert C. Bruce II, Paul Julian, Dick Beals, Stan Freberg

Plot summary: What’s up, Doc?

Screen shot 2012-03-31 at 7.46.03 AMReview: Who doesn’t know the Oscar-winning hare and his illustrious friends: Tweety Bird, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig from The Looney Tunes, Sylvester, Roadrunner, Coyote, Pepe’ Le Pew, Granny or Elmer Fudd?!

Originally created for a theatrical series presented by Warner Bros, Bugs Bunny tickled the risible muscles of a worldwide audience as early as in the 1930s. Three decades later, he was an instant hit on TV, first in black and white but soon in color. As the star of his own show, he was cocky, adroit and always perky, a favorite of adults as well as children. In his forty years on television, he shared his stardom with Roadrunner and Tweety, but never outgrew his famous “What’s up, doc” attitude. A Saturday morning treat for many years, The Bugs Bunny Show was finally canceled in the year 2000 but has been rerun since in several countries.

As one of those infamous classics, the show inspired spin-offs, homages and a new generation of Looneys, the Tiny Toons, in the early 90s. Available in parts on DVD, the show is still fresh, wacky and a lot of fun – a true gem for anyone who’s still a kooky little kid at heart.

The Case of the Velvet Claws

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Velvet Claws

USA 1936, 63 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros.. Director: William Clemens, Written by Tom Reed, Based on the novel Perry Mason and the Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Warren William, Claire Dodd, Wini Shaw, Bill Elliott, Joe King, Addison Richards, Eddie Acuff, Olin Howland, Dick Purcell, Kenneth Harlan, Clara Blandick

Plot summary: Perry Mason is getting married to Della Street and lays off his honeymoon to solve a case of a scheming young woman.

Review: In The Case of the Velvet Claws, Warren Williams returned to the screen as successful attorney Perry Mason, spiced up and almost goofy, adding some comic relief to an otherwise obscure story. Reduced to a screwball comedian in his fourth and last performance as shyster Mason, he was teamed up with the Della Street from his second movie, The Case of the Curious Bride, Claire Dodd. Feeding off their on screen chemistry, Della became Mrs. Mason right in the beginning of this adaptation and then invisible, for the most part, diminished to being a bystander rather than the always so loyal and efficient secretary. Although based on the flirtations between Della and Perry in the original books, the movie did not manage to make the story work as it should have. Unfortunately I might add, because the idea answered the romantic hopes of many fans before it reminded them why, in the novels, Della never went beyond an ardent kiss with her lawyer boss.

For the fourth Perry Mason adaptation, Warner Bros. picked the first novel that introduced the famous lawyer and his secretary. Although using the title and general theme of the original book, the movie did not have much in common with Gardner’s fast-paced plot. His Eva Belter was a much bigger challenge to Perry Mason and Della Street showed a lot more edge. Although it’s always hard to translate a written story into a moving picture, this attempt did not even seem to try to resemble the original text. It is rather a reflection of its day and age as the studio was still trying to copy the success of The Thin Man series.

The Case of the Velvet Claws has not much on the famous TV show of the 1950s and 60s either, apart from an always brilliant Warren William. It is unfortunate that he didn’t get a chance to shine as much as in his first Mason endeavor, but for true fans of the character(s), this movie is still a worthwhile addition to their collection.

Available online.

The Oklahoman

Talkie of the Week: The Oklahoman

USA 1957, 80 minutes, color, Warner Bros.. Director: Francis D. Lyon, Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Brad Dexter, Gloria Talbott, Michael Pate, Verna Felton, Douglas Dick, Anthony Caruso, Esther Dale, Adam Williams, Ray Teal, Peter J. Votrian, John Pickard, Mimi Gibson

Plot summary: Dr. John Brighton is on his way to California with his wife and friends when a stroke of fate urges him to stay were it him hardest, in a small town in the Oklahoma Territory that needs a doctor as much as he needs a new home.

Review: The Oklahoman is a Western. The picture above may already have told you as much. Or the summary which basically only sums up where it all starts. If you don’t like the genre, you will probably not be eager to watch this film – which would be a pity, a real one – because The Oklahoman is a classic gem.

Starring Joel McCrea as Doc Brighton, the film is beautifully shot, cast and edited. It’s not artsy, nor dark. It’s entertainment. It’s drama. It’s romance, unpretentiously provided by the leading actor himself and the woman who would enter the supporting actresses’ hall of fame on TV, Barbara Hale. Westerns are as much her homeland as his, and they make their audience feel it. Not only do they create a chemistry that sizzles, they also make you want to grab your boots and saddle a horse to ride along with them. They build up that longing for nature and for something that is hard to describe. It is a feeling of nostalgia for something that’s long gone. A different life. A different time. Be it the 1870s of the plot or the 1950s of the production, take your pick. Watching The Oklahoman today, these two stars make you long for both.

Of course there is more to the film than “only” the congeniality of two performers, their believability and charm. There is also Doc’s friend Charlie Smith (Michael Pate) who gets in trouble when he defends his land against a crooked trio of brothers. And his young daughter Maria who combines innocence and trouble for Doc Brighton, convincingly portrayed by Gloria Talbott. And then there are Ann Barnes’ (Barbara Hale) mother and Doc’s own landlady, both hilariously brought to life by Verna Felton and Esther Dale. To cut it short, the entire ensemble is a joy to watch and the story gripping from beginning to end. It would be a shame to give too much of the plot away, to spoil the surprises and explain how the characters interact. So go get yourself a copy and watch The Oklahoman. (Re)Discover it and embrace what you see: a good movie with a decent cast and two shining leads, Joel McCrea and Barbara Hale.

Available on DVD.

The Case of the Lucky Legs

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Lucky Legs

USA 1935, 77 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. and First National Pictures. Director: Archie Mayo, Written by Jerome Chodorov, Brown Holmes and Ben Markson, Based on the novel “Perry Mason and the Case of the Lucky Legs” by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Warren William, Genevieve Tobin, Patricia Eills, Lyle Talbot, Allen Jenkins, Peggy Shannon, Porter Hall, Anita Kerry, Barton Mac Lane, Craig Reynolds, Henry O’Neill, Charles C. Wilson, Joseph Crehan, Olin Howland, Mary Treen

Plot summary: To save his client Margie Clune, Perry Mason investigates the murder of Frank Patton, promoter of the so-called Lucky Legs contest, and gets in trouble himself.

Review: Erle Stanley Gardner introduced the public to Perry Mason, attorney-at-law, in The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933. Hollywood, always eager to jump on the bandwagon of success, first adapted Mason’s Case of the Howling Dog a good year later, then altered the hero to fit the contemporary stereotype of an investigator rather than Gardner’s depicted shyster. Warren William was cast to star in a total of four consecutive films, all based on original Mason novels.

The Case of the Lucky Legs was Warner Bros. third attempt at bringing Perry Mason to the big screen without really grasping the essence of the popular whodnit. In best mystery-meets-comedy tradition, the movie was meant to entertain and presented a slick version of Gardner’s famous lawyer, resembling a variety of other celebrated investigators such as The Thin Man‘s Nick Charles or The Falcon. Warren William did a fine job at meeting the standards of this altered Mason, but the character has next to nothing on the original lawyer described in Gardner’s books.

Della Street, Mason’s famed secretary, was also spiced up but less drastically so. Her job description still remained the same, at least until the adaptation of  The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1936. In contrast to her on screen boss however, Della was portrayed by three different actresses in Warner’s four adaptations. In The Case of the Lucky Legs, Genevieve Tobin got a shot at presenting an attractively cheeky Miss Street, a job she excelled at. It is due to Miss Tobin’s enjoyable depiction of Perry Mason‘s girl Friday that the film works. In best 1930s tradition, her character is a wonderful mix of charm, sass and class, and Genevieve Tobin knew how to create chemistry with her spotlighted co-star.

An unfortunate casualty of this adaptation is Gardner’s memorable character Paul Drake, Mason’s trusted P.I. Renamed Spudsy Drake in the movie, the character was reduced to a mere shadow of his literary self, a silly handyman to lawyer-gone-detective Perry Mason who was married off to a caricature of a bad tempered wife.

All in all, The Case of the Lucky Legs is a fun movie without the complexity of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels but a tonality of its own. The film is a comedy rather than a mystery and does not contain any courtroom scenes. It is funny on its own merit and lives on the scripted teasing between Della Street and Perry Mason, as well as on the beyond decent performances of Warren William and Genevieve Tobin. It is a must-see for any die-hard Perry Mason fan and a diverting classic for everyone else.

Available online.