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.

Lady Luck

Talkie of the Week: Lady Luck

USA 1946, 97 minutes, black & white, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Edwin L. Marin, Written by Herbert Clyde Lewis, Frank Fenton and Lynn Root. Cast: Robert Young, Barbara Hale, Frank Morgan, James Gleason, Don Rice, Harry Davenport, Lloyd Corrigan, Teddy Hart, Joseph Vitale, Douglas Morrow, Robert Clarke

Plot summary: Mary comes from a long line of gamblers and distastes gambling accordingly. When she falls in love with Larry and marries him, she has a hard time accepting with his favorite pastime but learns to deal with it in her very own way.

Review: Lady Luck was one of Barbara Hale’s first A picture deals at RKO, a movie that put her in the spotlight next to studio heartthrob Robert Young. Blessed with congenial on-screen chemistry, the two leads did their best to turn this film into a decent hit, something that wasn’t particularly easy in the post-war world of entertainment.As Mary Audrey and Larry Scott, Ms. Hale and Bob Young created a romantic atmosphere with screwball wit by using their charm to make the plot convincing.

Written as a diverting romantic comedy, the film picked up on a serious topic that was dealt with in an amusing way and thus found the hearts of movie goers back in 1946. Presented on The Hedda Hopper Show – This Is Hollywood one year later, a thirty minute adaptation of the movie was broadcast with its original stars on radio, tying in with the film’s good success. However, although entertaining and hilarious at times, the movie was not shown in endless television reruns in later years and is still not available on DVD. It would be unfortunate if this film just faded in the minds of those who appreciated it for the excellent cast and funny writing. Frank Morgan’s performance as William Audrey, Mary’s grandfather, was such a wonderful addition to Barbara Hale’s delightful acting and her screen husband’s equally attractive talents, it is worth being passed on to future generations.

So if you come across the film on TV or find a copy elsewhere, do make the time to enjoy this bubbly film about the unlikely impact of gambling on a beautiful romance. Watch TV’s Marcus Welby M.D. and Perry Mason‘s Della Street fall in love on screen – they did it so beautifully. So beautifully, indeed, that Columbia Pictures teamed them up again for And Baby Makes Three in 1949, another lovely comedy for a rainy summer day, and a film I will introduce you to next week.