Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Overlooked Films: Perry Mason in "The Case of the Howling Dog" (1934)

The esteemed Mr. Richard Robinson, aka The Broken Bullhorn, has been reading Perry Mason lately, and that reminded me I had four old Mason movies waiting to be re-screened.

First up is The Case of the Howling Dog (1934), Perry’s screen debut, and the first of three films starring Warner Brothers stalwart Warren William. That same year, William also appeared as Philo Vance and Julius Caesar, and later starred as “Ted Shane” (a Sam Spade stand-in in Satan Met a Lady) and the dashing d’Artagnan. William’s portrayal of Mason is a far cry from the character in the Gardner novels, and an even farther cry from the Raymond Burr version, but mighty watchable just the same.

At the time this film was made, Perry’s character was only a year old, so moviegoers’ image of him was likely not too well-formed. The first two Mason books, The Case of the Velvet Claws and The Case of the Sulky Girl, were published in 1933, followed by TCOT Lucky Legs and TCOT Howling Dog in 1934. That’s when the Warner Brothers movie machine sprang into action, releasing this film before year’s end.

It starts off with some surprises. Perry, we learn, is the head of a large law firm bearing his name, so successful that he has numerous other lawyers handling most of the cases. He also has an in-house Investigation Bureau (with no Paul Drake in sight) and a bevy of beautiful secretaries. His personal secretary, though is Della Street, so all has not changed.

The Della-Perry relationship is a bit uneven, and I suspect the filmmakers were making it up as they went along. Though she always addresses him as “Mr. Mason” or “sir,” she sometimes seems like a slightly privileged employee, sometimes like an investigative partner, and sometimes almost a love interest. But come to think of it, that’s sort of the way she comes across in the books, too.

In the female arena, Della, (Helen Trenholme, left) wins hands down.

The female lead in this one is actually Mary Astor (destined for immortality seven years later in The Maltese Falcon), so I expected she’d be the love interest. Nope. She’s merely a client, and much less interesting, both visually and character-wise, than Della. Her best line, a foreshadowing of the Falcon, is “Please don’t ask me that.”

Being 1934, this one is without a soundtrack, but with the swift action and snappy dialogue, it’s hardly missed. When music is actually needed, someone conveniently turns on a radio.

Here's William/Mason with Sergeant Holcomb (Allen Jenkins, center) and Mary Astor.
D.A. Claude Drumm (Grant Mitchell) looks on from background, right.

The plot is a good ‘un, involving two millionaires squabbling over two wives and the issue of whether a German Shepherd does or does not howl in the nighttime. It builds to a murder, of course, and a courtroom scene, where Perry pulls a particularly satisfying rabbit out of his hat.

“You’re a cross between a saint and a devil,” Della tells him at the end. And that sums up William’s portrayal of our hero pretty dang well.

More Overlooked Films, as always, at SWEET FREEDOM.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

The lack of a music score does tend to date this one but Alan Crosland certainly keeps the story moving at a great clip - on the whole I think i prefer the following entry, CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE directed by the great Michael Curtiz, but it's a close run thing - love the poster you've got for this one too!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Although I probably saw almost every episode of the TV show, I don't think I ever saw a movie.

Evan Lewis said...

The first three are great fun, Patti. Watch for them on TCM. As for the fourth, with Ricardo Cortez as Perry, I can't remember. I'll report when I see it again.

Rick Robinson said...

I liked the book, I wonder how much they changed the plot, beside no Paul Drake.

Evan Lewis said...

Been so long since I read the book, I can't remember a thing about it. And like all my other Mason books, it's buried in storage. Tsk.

lose belly fat for men said...

Thank you for this publication

Evan Lewis said...

Hm. Thanks, I think. Maybe. Sort of.