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 fiancé, 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 Art of Film-Making

I just recently had a conversation with my aunt who reminded me, once again, how little people know about the art of film-making. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing essential, but for an industry that lives on creating images and myths, I find it interesting how inadequate a picture it draws of its most crucial bees in the hive. We all know that actors are important, that they put a face to a story and fill it with life, but who would they play without a script, who would they be without a director who guides them through it?

I know, during awards season, certain names are mentioned from time to time – directors more often than producers, editors or cinematographers. Thing is, it’s a process to create a film and takes a village to carry it from that first sparkle of an idea to an actual theater near you. It often takes years to raise the necessary money and many films are never made for many different reasons – from the studio system until today, some things never change.

Generally speaking however, film-making is hard work and requires skill, sweat and imagination. You need enthusiasm, a thick skin and dedication, no matter what position you are working in. From the set runner to assistants or the wardrobe department, if you don’t love your job, it will affect the production. And while that may be true for any job, be sure to know that film people rarely work on a regular schedule and are constantly looking for a new project to sink their teeth into. So if you don’t love what you do, why bother? Why put up with the hassle of possibly never seeing your project come to life?

If you’re working in the creative industry, failure, disappointments and frustration are as common as the flu. If you can’t deal with it, it’ll eat you up. So no matter how, if you want to write, compose or act, direct, produce or design, find your coping mechanism, because success is not easy to come by. Surround yourself with supporters, not with people who like to bathe in the possibility of meeting celebrities. Casting shows and gossip paper articles about actors and their supposed fairytale lives have shaped many people’s perception of an industry that has always relied on reinventing their own achievements and popular faces. Don’t buy into what they tell you and learn by doing what it means to make a film. And if you can spare a minute, sit down and imagine how different your favorite movie would’ve looked like with a different cast, score or coloring – it may give you a perspective of all the jobs that were pivotal to make it. Just look at Perry Mason, at Warren William’s portrayal in the 30s compared to Raymond Burr’s two decades later. The same character performed in such a different style and manner. Both perfectly cast if you ask me, but still so unalike in their delivery.

And while I’m at it, I’ve always thought that Barbara Hale would’ve been a beautiful Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life and I’m convinced that Raymond Burr would’ve tackled Stanley Kowalski in a hauntingly impressive way. Daydreaming aside, I also appreciate the wonderful casting we’ve seen in both projects and give kudos to the casting directors who managed to merge talent with chemistry. The Donna Reed Show is another example of a job well done and so is I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Our Miss Brooks. For my dream project, I always cast Bill Williams for the lead in The Adventures of Tintin, a film I would have loved to make had I been alive back in the 40s – a film that was released as an animated feature last year and is a great example for the art of film-making.

The Case of the Velvet Claws

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Velvet Claws

USA 1936, 63 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros.. Director: William Clemens, Written by Tom Reed, Based on the novel Perry Mason and the Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Warren William, Claire Dodd, Wini Shaw, Bill Elliott, Joe King, Addison Richards, Eddie Acuff, Olin Howland, Dick Purcell, Kenneth Harlan, Clara Blandick

Plot summary: Perry Mason is getting married to Della Street and lays off his honeymoon to solve a case of a scheming young woman.

Review: In The Case of the Velvet Claws, Warren Williams returned to the screen as successful attorney Perry Mason, spiced up and almost goofy, adding some comic relief to an otherwise obscure story. Reduced to a screwball comedian in his fourth and last performance as shyster Mason, he was teamed up with the Della Street from his second movie, The Case of the Curious Bride, Claire Dodd. Feeding off their on screen chemistry, Della became Mrs. Mason right in the beginning of this adaptation and then invisible, for the most part, diminished to being a bystander rather than the always so loyal and efficient secretary. Although based on the flirtations between Della and Perry in the original books, the movie did not manage to make the story work as it should have. Unfortunately I might add, because the idea answered the romantic hopes of many fans before it reminded them why, in the novels, Della never went beyond an ardent kiss with her lawyer boss.

For the fourth Perry Mason adaptation, Warner Bros. picked the first novel that introduced the famous lawyer and his secretary. Although using the title and general theme of the original book, the movie did not have much in common with Gardner’s fast-paced plot. His Eva Belter was a much bigger challenge to Perry Mason and Della Street showed a lot more edge. Although it’s always hard to translate a written story into a moving picture, this attempt did not even seem to try to resemble the original text. It is rather a reflection of its day and age as the studio was still trying to copy the success of The Thin Man series.

The Case of the Velvet Claws has not much on the famous TV show of the 1950s and 60s either, apart from an always brilliant Warren William. It is unfortunate that he didn’t get a chance to shine as much as in his first Mason endeavor, but for true fans of the character(s), this movie is still a worthwhile addition to their collection.

Available online.

The Case of the Curious Bride

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Curious Bride

USA 1935, 80 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros.. Director: Michael Curtiz, Written by Tom Reed with additional dialog by Brown Holmes, Based on the novel Perry Mason and the Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Warren William, Claire Dodd, Allen Jenkins, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Woods, Phillip Reed, Barton MacLane, Wini Shaw, Warren Hymer, Olin Howland, Charles Richman, Errol Flynn

Plot summary: Perry Mason is about to head off to China when he’s approached by an old lady friend of his who charms him into postponing his trip by neglecting a beaded purse that contains a gun.

Review: The Case of the Curious Bride was the second adaptation out of four Warner Bros. produced with Warren William as Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous lawyer Perry Mason. After a rather straightforward first adaptation of The Case of the Howling Dog, the second Perry Mason was spiced up with comedic elements and a platinum blond Della Street, dipping into the waters of box office sensation The Thin Man.

Although losing some of the original tone of the novel, The Case of the Curious Bride did not fail to introduce Mason’s favorite private eye Paul Drake. Renamed Spudsy to fit the lighthearted atmosphere of the detective flick, his role is a lot less feasible than in the book but entertaining nonetheless. Della Street, although not spoiled with too much screen time, was turned into a private secretary of sorts, one who never failed to insinuate that Perry only believed to be the boss.Her interaction with Perry is naturally quick-witted and hilarious at times, right down to the always included touch of romance.

All in all, The Case of the Curious Bride is a good eighty minutes of suspense, laughs and clever dialog. Warren William is a wonderful Perry Mason, gentlemanly, clever and quick on his toes. Claire Dodd is his darling girl Friday, reliable in her deliveries and a great joy to watch. If you’re looking for a light movie to make you smile, this 1930s Perry Mason will do the trick. Just don’t expect a complete realization of Gardner’s novel. It’s fair to say this adaptation is an interpretation of it and you either enjoy a decent cast of actors (including Errol Flynn) and an upbeat plot, or you don’t. But give it a chance. I am a big fan of the Perry Mason of the 1950s, and I greatly enjoyed this flick.

Available online.

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.

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.