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 fiancĂ©, 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.

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.