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 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.