Turner Classic Movies showed Perry Mason movies from the mid-Thirties on March 26. Naturally I watched as many of them as I could, even playing hooky to do so.
It wasn’t worth it.
The Case of the Lucky Legs, 1935
The first Mason movie is really bad. Taking a cue from The Thin Man, Perry Mason is made into a Nick Charles- type bon-vivant. Mason’s secretary is the typical gal Friday, snappy, sassy, and serenely never taking the males around her seriously. Also popular at the time were screwball comedies, but the rough mixture of murder story and laughs doesn’t work at all. Spudsy (not Paul) Drake does slapstick annoyingly. Many so-called comedic scenes turn on booze-hound Mason’s futile efforts to stay on the wagon. The only bright spot is Barton Maclane, playing his hard-nosed copper in a couple of scenes.
The Case of Velvet Claws, 1936
Nothing works in this movie except the stylish sets, cars, and clothes. Again Mason as the man about town and his sidekick Spudsy as bozo are not funny in any sense. Perry and Della get married but their honeymoon is delayed. A running joke is that Perry passes on a case of influenza to everybody that he comes into contact with.But somehow everybody‘s sneezing, coughing, waving handkerchiefs around is not funny.
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, 1937
This is more like it. A different actor was cast as Perry Mason. He brings more gravitas to the role. He even paces like Perry does in the novels. Ann Dvorak, the foxiest Hungarian-American in Hollywood before Mariska Hargitay, was a lively Della Street, if mouthy. The actor cast for Paul Drake was older, but more plausible in the part. Just like the novels, the plot is complicated and a moment’s lack of attention will result in getting lost. I think fans of the novels will like this one the most. However, it is a film that sunk the franchise, just going to show that being faithful to the book is not enough for a movie to come off well enough to be popular.
I seem to remember reading someplace that the creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner, was not happy in his dealings with Hollywood. After 1937, he did not return the character the tender mercies of Hollywood until 1957. For the TV series, Fred MacMurray was going to be Perry Mason, but when Gardner saw Raymond Burr at an audition for the part of DA Hamilton Burger, he jumped up and yelled, “That’s Perry Mason!”