In 1943, after having published some twenty odd successful whodunits, Erle Stanley Gardner signed a contract with Procter & Gamble to bring his fictional lawyer and his team to America’s living rooms. Although scarred by his experiences with Hollywood and Warner Bros’ six reluctantly successful screen adaptations, he agreed to broadcast Perry Mason as an afternoon program to entertain his target group and thus promote his books. Despite Gardner’s own deficiencies to turn his narratives into suspenseful scripts, Perry Mason premiered in the fall of 1943 and underwent several revisions until the author finally came to like the radio version of his famous character three years later. Improved by writer Irving Vendig in 1946, Perry Mason was brought to life by several actors, among them Donald Briggs, John Larkin, Sanots Ortega and Bartlett Robinson. They presented a sophisticated, multifaceted lawyer who was in the habit of defending friends and enjoyed good food. He was supported by an ever-loyal and savvy Della Street, played by Joan Alexander, Jan Miner an Gertrude Warner. Their relationship, like in the books, remained a riddle: close-knit and intimate, yet respectful and professional, they shared a kiss more than once. Paul Drake, the smart-mouthed, brisk detective, was played by Matt Crowley and Charles Webster. Always kept on his toes by Perry’s cases and eager to banter with Della, he was an important ingredient to the slowly blooming success of a soapy yet suspenseful show. Broadcast five days a week in fifteen minute segments, Perry Mason solved his cases with the help of recurring guest characters such as Helen and Jake Jacobson, two news reporters who helped fool suspects or the prosecution more than once. Designed as a suspense program with melodramatic elements, the show lasted twelve consecutive seasons and was finally terminated in 1955. Followed by the still popular Perry Mason TV show (CBS 1957-66, NBC 1985-95) and The Edge of Night (CBS 1956-75, ABC 1975-84), selected episodes of the Perry Mason radio program are now available on The Internet Archive and Old Time Radio. Although incomplete and rather different in quality, the episodes are a wonderful treat for any Perry Mason fan, novice or seasoned, and a great addition to any radio detective collection.
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.
Review: 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.
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 screenadaptations 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.
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.
TV classics: Perry Mason TV movies
USA 1985-95, 30 episodes, 90 minutes each, NBC. Based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels and the Perry Mason TV series. Cast: Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Katt, William R. Moses, Recurring Guest Stars: James McEachin, David Odgen Stiers, Guest Stars: Barbara Babcock, Scott Baio, Polly Bergen, Gene Barry, Angela Bassett, Shari Belafonte, Tom Bosley, Diahann Carroll, Dixie Carter, Morgan Fairchild, Genie Francis, Robert Guillaume, Hal Holbrook, Brian Keith, Diana Muldaur, Patrick O’Neil, Regis Philbin, Davis Rasche, Debbie Reynolds, John Rhys-Davies, Jerry Orbach, Anne Schedeen, Dwight Schultz, Jean Simmons, Paul Sorvino, John Spencer, Susan Sullivan, Holland Taylor, Alan Thicke, Vanessa Williams et al.
Plot summary: Perry Mason returns to Los Angeles to defend his former secretary Della Street and opens up shop with her again after he gets her acquitted.
Review: It was nineteen years after the last episode of the original Perry Mason series that the famous lawyer gone judge reunited with his loyal secretary in Perry Mason Returns: facing murder charges in L.A., Della Street calls her former boss who steps down from his duties in San Francisco to rush to her aid like he used to when a damsel was in distress back in the days. Fitting right back in with Della who easily switches into her secretarial mode during her own trial, Perry immerses himself in saving his friend and contacts Paul Drake Jr. to get on the case. Skeptical about Junior’s attitude at first, he hires young Paul upon his client’s request and asks him to investigate the murder victim and his family. Like in the classic show, justice prevails in the end and Perry wins his case with his usual theatrics and courtroom charm.
Although Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale were the only members of the original Mason cast who were able to reprise their iconic parts in 1985, the fate of their characters’ friends remained open. Paul Drake Jr.’s existence was never explained in the nine episodes William Katt played the charismatic detective, but it was clear that he had grown up in the presence of Perry and Della. Profiting from his natural chemistry with his mother Barbara Hale, Billy Katt added a spark of energy to the rejuvenated investigation scenes, reminding fans of Bill Hopper’s original Paul Drake whenever he started flirting with the ladies. In 1989, he was replaced by William R. Moses as Ken Malansky, a young lawyer Perry defends and later takes in as his associate. Ray Burr and his longtime leading lady picked up where they had left off at the end of the Perry Mason series in 1966. As experienced performers in their golden sixties, they returned to their congenial dynamic and used their sparkle to remind the audience of the lingering attraction between Perry Mason and Della Street. Although never openly expressed on the original show but always sizzling in the air, the famous lawyer finally got to kiss his loyal secretary in 1993, confirming the romance Erle Stanley Gardner himself had established in his early Mason novels.
In general, the TV movies gave Della and Perry more time for having a private life, as well as a past. Although still underused as faithful Miss Street, Barbara Hale got more screen time in most of the ninety minute episodes which were produced on an irregular basis. Moving production to Denver to cut down the costs, Perry Mason eventually moved his practice to the Colorado capital, too, which didn’t stop him from traveling to New York or Paris, something he had rarely done on the original show.
Successful from the first reunion movie on, the re-imagined franchise lasted another ten years and welcomed a variety of top notch guest stars who were eager to be on the stand for Perry Mason. Some of these stars were former colleagues of Raymond Burr or Barbara Hale, others merely impressed by the TV lawyer and his suspenseful cases. There were two actors who stepped into Perry Mason’s shoes without impersonating him after Raymond Burr’s untimely death in 1993 – Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook. Both played lawyers who replaced Perry on a case while he was busy otherwise in the Perry Mason Mysteries. Perry Mason himself never died and was ultimately entangled in court in Europe where Della joined him when Barbara Hale bowed out of her contract for personal reasons in 1994. The series ended with her departure and the movies are still frequently shown on different channels. Perry Mason Returns was published on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD in 2008 and with the original show still being released in its entirety, fan hopes are high that the complete movie collection will also be available eventually.
The Perry Mason TV movies:
- Perry Mason Returns (1985)
- The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986)
- The Case of the Shooting Star (1986)
- The Case of the Lost Love (1987)
- The Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)
- The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987)
- The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987)
- The Case of the Avenging Ace (1988)
- The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)
- The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)
- The Case of the Musical Murder (1989)
- The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989)
- The Case of the Poisoned Pen (1990)
- The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)
- The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990)
- The Case of the Defiant Daughter (1990)
- The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)
- The Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)
- The Case of the Glass Coffin (1991)
- The Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991)
- The Case of the Fatal Framing (1992)
- The Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)
- The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (1992)
- The Case of the Skin-Deep Scandal (1993)
- The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993)
- The Case of the Killer Kiss (1993)
The Perry Mason Mysteries:
- The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993), starring Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso
- The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994), starring Hal Holbrook as “Wild Bill” McKenzie
- The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1994), again starring Holbrook in the same role
- The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995), again starring Holbrook
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.
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.