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.

Della Street

Everyone who knows me is aware of this: I’m a big fan of Della Street. I have been for many years, ever since I was a kid and watched the Perry Mason TV movies until my grandma introduced me to the original show from the 1950s and 60s. That’s when I liked her even more, for her skills, her style, her elegance. She’s the epitomized girl Friday who was brought to life by Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, June Travis and Ann Dvorak in the 1930s, by Gertrude Warner, Jan Miner and Joan Alexander from the mid 40s to 50s, and ultimately by my favorite, Barbara Hale, in the classic TV show and movies.

Created by Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933, Della Street entered the scene along with her famous boss, attorney-at-law Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws. Included from the first novel on, Della was a little feistier upon introduction, but every bit as skillful and loyal as in the following eighty-one whodunits. It was made clear from the start that Della had quite an influence on Perry, that their relationship ran a little deeper than that of an employer and his confidential secretary. Always supported by their friend, private eye Paul Drake, their cases took center stage however and the couple never went beyond an ardent kiss. Proposing to her a couple of times, Perry Mason was generally turned down by his irreplaceable office pearl  who understood that he wasn’t the type to settle down, nor was she willing to spend her life without him in a large home as a housewife and mother. So she stuck it out with him through hundreds of cases in the books and movies, on radio and finally on TV.

Always a little altered in the adaptations, Della remained steadfast, pretty and faithful to her boss and got marry to him once in Warner Brother’s very free version of The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1936. In general, Della Street was quite sassy in the Perry Mason films of the 1930s and frequently involved in taking flight from the police on radio a decade later. With television being a more conservative medium in the late 1950s, Barbara Hale did not get to flirt with Raymond Burr’s Perry as much as her predecessors, but thanks to their on screen chemistry and her intuitive acting, the seething romance between Della and Perry continued in the hearts and heads of many Perry Mason fans until a kiss in 1993′s The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host finally confirmed their relationship.

Never described as anything but beautiful in Gardner’s original books, Della Street donned platinum hair and brunette curls, as well as alluring outfits that were appropriate for the office. As the Della Street who’s left a lasting impression on her audience, Barbara Hale wore outfits that were typical of the time between 1957 and 66: figure-hugging, feminine and always covering her knees. Upon the insistence of executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, Della did not follow every trend when the 60s introduced new hemlines every year and thus stressed the classy elegance Ms. Hale had established for her TV alias. With her limited collection of clothes, Della often changed her outfits by combining her blouse or sweater with another skirt. Her trademark look can be pinned down to waist shirt dresses (including one with her embroidered initials), pencil skirts, cardigans and blouses that embellished her neck with a bow. In the first season, Della was also constantly running around on mules which she later replaced with a classy pair of heels. As an accessory, Della often wore a pearl necklace or a charm bracelet on her left wrist while her little finger frequently showed the presence of a simple ring, matching her boss’ on his own hand. From time to time, Della was also seen wearing a necklace with a pendant showing her initials, long before Carrie Bradshaw made it fashionable for a whole new generation.

In the 1980s, Barbara Hale returned to TV with her longtime screen partner Raymond Burr and continued the tradition of presenting Della as efficient, warmhearted and dressed to the nines. Again, following contemporary but conservative fashion, Della combined over-knee skirts with stylish boots, turtleneck sweaters, blazer jackets and two layers of pearls. Without changing her hair as much as on the original show (while avoiding the beehive), Della Street kept her cropped, practical curls which added credibility to the on-screen depiction of Perry Mason’s tireless associate.

Today, Della’s look can be re-examined on DVD and copied thanks to the many vintage stores and new designs that are inspired by more graceful times. With a circle skirt and scarf, a classy faux vintage suit or classy heels, it’s easy to feel as sophisticated and charming as Della Street. Add a full head of curls, matching intimates and a petticoat to your outfit and you’ll perfect the sentiment. From where I’m standing it is worth the effort, paying tribute to a character many real life secretaries still love to look at for inspiration.

Murder, She Wrote

TV classics: Murder, She Wrote

USA 1984-96, 264 episodes, 12 seasons, 45 minutes each, CBS. Created by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, William Link, Producer: Angela Lansbury, Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, William Link, David Moessinger, Music by John Addison. Cast: Angela Lansbury, William Windom, Tom Bosley, Ron Masak, Guest Stars: Julie Adams, June Allyson, Barbara Babcock, Gene Barry, Polly Bergen, Len Cariou, George Clooney, James Coburn, Courtney Cox, Marcia Cross, Mike Farrell, Michael Horton, Kim Hunter, Shirley Jones, Brian Keith, Dorothy Lamour, Martin Landau, Keith Michell, Kate Mulgrew, Leslie Nielsen, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Nixon, Richard Paul, John Rhys-Davies, Wayne Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Jean Simmons, David Ogden Stiers, Loretta Swit et al.

Plot summary: JB Fletcher is a retired English teacher gone bestselling author who writes mysteries for a living and solves real murders after hours.

Review: Already looking back on a renowned career in Hollywood and on the Broadway stage, Angela Lansbury became a household name when she entered America’s living rooms in the fall of 1984. As former English teacher gone mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, she won the hearts of audiences worldwide, solving crimes on paper and in person while sometimes butting heads with the police outside of her hometown Cabot Cove in Maine. Inquisitive by nature, Mrs. F found it hard to resist investigating the crimes she stumbled into, often bringing her own life in danger when she got too close to the truth.

Supported by some recurring characters, Jessica worked with her hometown sheriffs, Doctor Hazlitt, Scotland Yard and an agent from MI6. She solved murders on vacation and on book tours, found crimes that hit close to home but never got gritty. Her way of investigating was suspenseful yet family friendly. Murder, She Wrote was not CSI or Law & Order_ SVU.  The show relied on strong performances and a whodunit story rather than violence and exaggerated action. JB Fletcher was a widow and retired teacher, she didn’t carry a gun or used science jargon. She used her eyes and ears to observe and connect the dots – much like Miss Marple had, solving crimes a different way.

Always savvy, warm and assertive, Jessica Fletcher was a respected member of her community and extended family, always eager to expose the truth behind the crimes she got involved with. Angela Lansbury did a fine job creating one of TV’s most beloved characters, a part that put four Golden Globes on her resumé and a record of twelve consecutive Emmy nominations.

Canceled due to time slot changes in 1996, Murder, She Wrote has remained a popular program in reruns and on DVD. Living on in a franchise that includes mystery novels, games and four TV movies, JB Fletcher is still a beloved member of many households around the world and continues to entertain her fans both young and old.

Murder, She Wrote opening theme

The Falcon Out West

Talkie of the Week: The Falcon out West

USA 1944, 64 minutes, black & white, RKO. Director: William Clemens, Written by Billy Jones and Morton Grant, Based on the Falcon character created by Michael Arlen. Cast: Tom Conway, Carole Gallagher, Barbara Hale, Joan Barclay, Cliff Clark, Edward Gargan, Minor Watson, Donald Douglas, Lyle Talbot, Lee Trent, Perc Launders

Plot summary: The unusual murder of a wealthy Texan at a thriving party in New York brings the Falcon out West to solve the case on unfamiliar grounds.

Review: The Falcon was created by Michael Arlen in 1940 and introduced in a short story called Gay Falcon which was first published in Town & Country magazine. In 1941, the character was picked up by RKO in an adaptation loosely based on the original story. The film was called The Gay Falcon and presented an altered lead character who resembled Leslie Charteris’ The Saint, previously adapted by RKO in a series of successful movies starring George Sanders. Sanders was also cast as the first Falcon in a series of movies that were shot in the 1940s. In 1943, he bowed out and passed his part over to his brother Tom Conway who had played the Falcon’s brother one year before.

The Falcon Out West was Conway’s fourth endeavor as the Falcon, a film that took the city sleuth out to the Wild West. The plot was filled with wide array of Western clichés that tested the character’s usual sophistication, his big city wit and charm. Tom Conway did make it work however and played the fish out of water to a tee. His talents worked beautifully with an ensemble cast of characters who knew how to mix humor with suspense, especially with RKO’s upcoming starlet Barbara Hale. Introduced to movie goers in Higher and Higher in 1943 alongside Frank Sinatra in his first role, The Falcon Out West was Ms. Hale’s second credited part and her first Western. It was also the first out of two Falcon movies she starred in, both shot and released in 1944.

For fans of the Falcon series or Tom Conway, this film is a must-see. The same goes for detective story enthusiasts and classic movie buffs. For Barbara Hale fans The Falcon Out West is one of those early gems that give you a glimpse of her full potential long before her quiet Perry Mason fame. For everybody else, the movie offers a good hour of murder, laughs and mayhem in the black and white world of Hollywood’s Wild West.

Available on DVD. The Falcon Out West intro scene

The Case of the Howling Dog

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Howling Dog

USA 1934, 75 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros.. Director: Alan Crosland, Written by Ben Markson, Based on the novel “Perry Mason and the Case of the Howling Dog” by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Warren William, Helen Trenholme, Mary Astor, Allen Jenkins, Gordon Westcott, Grant Mitchell, Helen Lowell, Dorothy Tree, Russell Hicks

Plot summary: Arthur Cartwright complains to Perry Mason about his neighbor’s howling dog, a symbol for death in the neighborhood he believes.

Review: The Case of the Howling Dog was the first in a series of four Perry Mason adaptations immediately following the success of Erle Stanley Gardner’s first mystery novels in 1933. Starring Warren William as Perry Mason and Helen Trenholme as Della Street, the first movie picked up a lot of the whodunit’s original spice, including the tingling romance between the attorney and his confidential secretary.

Later rewritten as a Nick Charles character, this first Perry Mason is a lawyer who’s seriously committed to his clients as well as to the law. Although bending the law at times to solve his case, Mason is always a respectable character who likes to be one step ahead of the police and the DA. Although usually supported by his private investigator friend Paul Drake in the books, the film does not feature the entertaining sidekick character – a real loss to the story. However, Warren William’s performance is strong enough to make up for this oversight. His shyster attitude brings a lot of suspense and drive into a misty story that keeps Perry Mason as well as his audience on the toes until the very end.

He is supported by a loyal, reliable and earthy Della Street who tackles the right amount of sass and allure Gardner so beautifully describes in his books. Helen Trenholme is present and unobtrusive enough to give a convincing portrayal of Mason‘s confidante. Although meeting the original’s criteria, Miss Trenholme did not get a chance to breathe life into the tweaked version of Della in The Case of the Curious Bride one year later. She was replaced by platinum blonde Claire Dodd who brought her very own qualities to presenting a likable but somewhat quirked up version of Perry Mason‘s dedicated secretary.

All in all, The Case of the Howling Dog is a decent mystery movie from the 1930s: entertaining, thrilling and fun to watch. It is a treat for every Perry Mason fan who appreciates the books, radio plays and the iconic TV show from the fifties and sixties. It is a good adaptation, making the most of the original story in only 75 short minutes of film. Warren William offers an interesting take on Gardner’s character which may be of great interest to any Raymond Burr fan. The Case of the Howling Dog, when compared to the books and TV show, is probably the best of Warner’s four consecutive Perry Mason films. A gem that’s definitely worth watching.

Available online.

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.

The Perry Mason Books

Growing up, I only knew the TV movies from the mid 1980s to 90s and the original TV show from 1957 to 66, both starring two of my all-time favorites, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale. But recently, I finally got around to reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s original novels. Not all of them of course. Not yet. After all, Gardner wrote more than eighty stories about Perry Mason and his darling secretary Della Street. But I plan to read them all, sooner rather than later, because they are a real treat for anyone who enjoys a decent whodunit with a good portion of adventure and shyster attitude.

So far, I’ve made it through Perry Mason and the Case of

  • The Foot-Loose Doll
  • The Glamorous Ghost
  • The Grinning Gorilla
  • The Long-Legged Models
  • The Lucky Loser
  • The Screaming Woman
  • The Terrified Typist
  • The Waylaid Wolf

I wholeheartedly recommend them all, from the first few chapters of discovering Perry’s new case to the final twists and turns in the courtroom where our attorney-at-law reveals the delinquent and remains undefeated. A reliable formula, highly entertaining and spiced up with great characterizations of Mason himself, his pretty as well as capable girl Friday Della and their P.I. friend Paul Drake.

If you are familiar with the iconic TV show, the books will please and surprise you. They are different in some respect, but the characters are every bit as genuine, entertaining and tangible as Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and Bill Hopper depicted them. For those of you who share my fondness for romance, the books contain more than one hint towards a tingling attraction between Della and her boss. And the storylines always embrace an almost uplifting quality despite the imperative ingredient of murder and mayhem.

Having finished the first couple of novels, I now can’t wait to read on. The mix of suspense, mystery and humor is utterly addictive and a good eighty years after first appearing on the market, Perry Mason is still a gem.