Perry Mason. Raymond Burr, right? That super popular TV series from 1957-1966 about the stern defense attorney who always nabbed the real criminal by the end of the show, right? No, not him. There was another Perry Mason character adaption decades prior- as Warren William took on the role on the big screen originally, in four films from 1934-1936.
The Perry Mason role is a fictional character of a bright and determined defense attorney based on a series of novels and short stories by Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). He knew a thing or two about courtroom drama from his years practicing law in California. Gardner was an interesting character himself. He grew up in the rough and tumble world of the Gold Rush days in the Klondike and other mining towns. At the age of 21, with no formal education, he passed the California bar exam. He also spoke fluent Chinese and took on many Chinese clients in the early years. For supplemental income, Gardner started writing in the 1920’s with mysteries, adventure tales and westerns for pulp fiction magazines (such as the “Black Mask”) under pseudonyms. He had a bankable penchant for writing so he continued at a prolific and successful pace. In 1933, the Perry Mason character was born (the name was inspired by the publisher, Perry Mason & Co., of his childhood favorite magazine, Youth’s Companion) with two stories, “The Case of the Velvet Claws” and “The Case of the Sulky Girl.”
With tremendous success of this character via pulp fiction novels, the first Perry Mason film released with Alan Crosland’s THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934) starring Warren William as Perry Mason. Also starring:
Mary Astor… as Bessie Foley
Allen Jenkins… as Sgt. Holcomb
Grant Mitchell… as District Attorney Claude Drumm
Helen Trenholme… as Della Street, Mason’s loyal secretary
Helen Lowell… as Elizabeth Walker
Dorothy Tree… as Lucy Benton
Gordon Westcott… as Arthur Cartwright
In THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934), our mystery begins with (yup, you guessed it) a howling dog, a neighbor’s window and a rather unnerved man plus his wild story that the barking dog is an omen of a death. He pleads for Mason to write his will, making the lady next door his beneficiary. Perry Mason takes the case as he’s intrigued by all the odd facets of this encounter. In short time, both the mysterious man and his beneficiary are missing- now Perry Mason must unravel the clues including a humdinger of a identification mix-up.
This is the first time we see Perry Mason on screen which is a real treat for several reasons.. for one, the novels do not go into great detail to describe the Mason character in physical form so we get to experience him without any prejudice. For another, we also see a new side of actor Warren William. This straight-laced, all-business character is rather unlike his Lone Wolf or Philo Vance characters. And it goes without saying, watching Warren William in a flick is always a real treat!
While the first film sticks fairly closely to the novels, the next three take a departure. Second in this series of William as Mason films is Michael Curtiz’ THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE (1935). But mystery is still the name of the game as a woman (Rhoda Montaine) comes to Mason for help as she reveals that after remarrying, she discovers her first husband is still alive. Perry Mason goes to resolve the matter with the first husband (Gregory Moxley) only to find his dead body.
By now, THE THIN MAN (1934) had launched to great success and it’s influence was apparent. Instead of the completely straight and serious Perry Mason translation as in the first film, this one injected a more comedic and lighter tone that was also reflected in the supporting cast roles. Now Warren William was transitioning with a confidence that would continue into his next films.
Warren William…as Perry Mason
Margaret Lindsay… as Rhoda Montaine
Donald Woods… as Carl Montaine
Claire Dodd… as Della Street, still Mason’s secretary
Allen Jenkins… as Spudsy Drake, Mason’s whacky sidekick (note the big difference from the last film)
Phillip Reed… as Dr. Claude Millbeck
Barton MacLane… as Chief Detective Joe Lucas
Wini Shaw… as Doris Pender
Warren Hymer… as Oscar Pender
Olin Howland… as Coroner Wilbur Strong
Charles Richman… as C. Phillip Montaine
*Errol Flynn… as Gregory Moxley
*This film is notable as Errol Flynn’s first American film appearance. He’s seen twice: once as a non-speaking part of a corpse and then again as a more animated role as a flashback to this character.
As the third film in this series, William reprises the Perry Mason role in Archie Mayo’s THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS (1935). In this who-dunnit mystery meets screwball comedy, Mason takes the case when a ‘lucky legs’ beauty contest goes awry then the scam artist who organized it skips town with the prize money and he later shows up with a knife in his chest. The antics and one-liners abound in this one. And to witness the ‘Thin Man’ influence, simply note Perry Mason’s appearance on the floor due to a alcohol bender and the influence is unmistakable. Yet it’s undeniably a departure from the straight-laced Mason from the Gardner’s novels.
Genevieve Tobin… as Della Street, Mason’s secretary yet again with a new actress
Patricia Ellis… as Margie
Lyle Talbot… as Dr. Doray
Allen Jenkins… as Spudsy Drake, and his goofiest version yet
Barton Maclane… as Bisonette
Peggy Shannon… as Thelma Bell
Porter Hall… as Col. Bradbury
Anita Kerry… as Eva Lamont
Craig Rynolds… as Frank Patton
Henry O’Neill… as District Attorney Manchester
Charles C. Wilson… as Police Officer Ricker
Joseph Crehan… as Detective Johnson
Olin Howland… as Dr. Crocker
Warren William’s final cinematic take on the Perry Mason character is William Clemens’ THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1936). This one is unique because we see Perry Mason marry his long-time secretary, Della. But in true Perry Mason form, even their honeymoon is not complete with a mystery and a dead body to mix it up. Mason finds himself taking the case at gunpoint. And after the dead body shows up, it’s he himself who is entangled as a suspect. While this storyline is weaker, the snappy one-liners are fun and Warren William always delivers a charming performance.
Claire Dodd… returning as Della Street, Mason’s secretary and now “the Mrs.”
Wini Shaw… as Eva Belter
Bill Elliott… as Carl Griffin
Joe King… as George C. Belter
Addison Richards… as Frank Locke
Eddie Acuff… as Spudsy Drake (note the change-up)
Olin Howland… as Wilbur Strong
It’s interesting to watch the evolution of this Perry Mason characterization in the four films under Warren Williams’ masterful craft. No doubt it is often more of a manifestation of its times than a strict reflection of Gardner’s writings. Guaranteed, this is a Perry Mason unlike the Raymond Burr of more recent history. But if you’re a fan of Warren William as I am (if you’re not familiar with his talent- by all means, check him out!) and if you’re unfamiliar with his Perry Mason roles, any of these films in this series is worth a viewing.
This was my contribution the Sleuthathon Blogathon hosted by the talented blogger Fritzi at Movies Silently. Please read all creative talents that are participating in this fun blogathon.
12 thoughts on “Perry Mason via Warren William”
Warren William is certainly a favourite around these parts, and you can't go wrong enjoying his work in these dandy Warners mysteries. It is easy to see why Erle Stanley Gardner wasn't happy with Hollywood's take on his character. The studio optioned the novels because of their popularity and basically only used them for the titles.
Great choice for the blogathon! I came to these Perry Mason films late in the game, but have really enjoyed them as their own, distinct entity far removed from the famous TV series. A large part of that is due to the presence of Warren William, who's just terrific in his 4 Mason films, and the films are fast moving and funny. The supporting casts are also wonderful, esp. Allen Jenkins. I liked the ideosyncracies given the Mason character here, including his being a gourmand.
I LOVE Warren William, and am so glad to see he's in the blogathon. Films with William deserve more attention than they receive. I don't think I've seen any of these Perry Mason films, but I know I would enjoy them much more than the series with Raymond Burr – as good as Burr is.
Yup- no doubt Gardner was likely less than thrilled these films took such a detour from his vision. But Hollywood certainly made them very entertaining! Thanks for reading my post & commenting here, gal!
I wholeheartedly agree Jeff! What a super fun collection of films with this character- thanks to Warren William & his talented supporting cast. Wasn't Allen Jenkins as Spudsy a riot? Thanks for reading my post!
I do hope you get a chance to see these films soon- especially because you're a big Warren William fan! You will see that William's version is quite different than Burr's. Both great- but very different in style/character/tone. btw- THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (the most 'straight' of the 4) is showing on TCM next on March 27th at 9:15am! Thanks for reading my entry, sweetie!
I didn't realise that the TV series was based on the previous films. Thank you for filling this gap in my cultural knowledge. I haven't seen a great deal of Burr/Mason but I always felt there was something lacking. Think I'll have to give these a try!
I guess you could say the TV series was based on the novels and short stories from Gardner (not the films). These films were very loosely based on the novels but heavily Hollywood-influenced by THE THIN MAN style and Warren William himself. If you watch the 1st film then watch the next three, you'll see the metamorphosis of his character quickly go from straight to screwball. Let me know what you think! Thanks for reading my post and commenting here!
Thanks for the fascinating coverage of this earlier, less famous Mr. Perry Mason. It's always so much fun to unearth an earlier iteration of a character or story and find that there is gold in them thar hills. Thanks for the great post!
Good choice. I have enjoyed the Warren William Perry Masons that I have seen. But then I enjoy almost anything with Warren William. Thank you for sharing with us all.
Thanks for hosting this splendid blogathon, Fritzi! It was a joy to scribe on one of my favorite actors from the 30's, Warren William!
He's clearly a favorite of mine, too Joe! Warren William just stood out from the others. Thanks for reading my piece!