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.

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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.