MOD Movies: Warren William is the first 'Perry Mason' on the screen
Before Raymond Burr, William created a sassy, sophisticated version of the legendary litigator
"Perry Mason: The Original Warner Bros. Movies Collection" (Warner Archive) –Raymond Burr may be the definitive screen incarnation of Perry Mason but decades before his small screen debut in the iconic TV series, Warren William played the legendary lawyer in a series of big screen movies in the thirties.
William was the silver-haired wolf of some of the great Warner Bros. pre-code movies, adept at playing corporate sharks with ruthless business instincts, suave manners, and an eye for younger women. In "The Case of the Howling Dog" (1934), his Mason is a lawyer right out of the pre-code sensibility: cavalier with professional ethics, obstructing justice to protect a client, flamboyant in the courtroom, where his style is filled with dramatic, showboating tactics. You'd never recognize the character if all you know is Burr's measured, low-key, serious incarnation. This Mason is quite the dapper bigwig, the star attraction of a big legal firm in an art-deco skyscraper office, and it takes a challenge to get him to personally take a case. Or maybe the appearance of Mary Astor as the mysterious woman in black.
Alan Crosland directs his debut but things get livelier in his second appearance in "The Case of the Curious Bride" (1935), directed by the great Michael Curtiz, who kicks things off with a breakneck montage and introduces Mason as flamboyant character with high class style and epicurean tastes (he cooks his own meal in a high-end restaurant, with the blessing of the chef), and friendships throughout the city that pay off in his investigations (the "Welcome" mat at the morgue is a sardonic touch, but it's true in Mason's case; the coroner is a drinking buddy). Warner company player Allen Jenkins, who played a police detective in the first film, gets promoted (sort of) to play Mason's investigator Spudsy (kind of a comic Warner wise-guy version of Paul Drake). If Mason played fast and loose with the law the first time out, he even more shamelessly skirts it this time around.
"The Case of the Lucky Legs" (1935), directed by Archie Mayo, the most screwball of the Mason movies, opening with Mason passed out drunk in his office and Della (played by Genevieve Tobin, the third actress to take the role in three films) lobbing wisecracks at him. The flirtations between Perry and Della are priceless here. The film rushes along with a snappy Warners pace and a non-stop barrage of banter and comic insults and William has even more fun that usual with his cheeky attitude and investigative antics. He's unfazed by anything that crops up, rolling with the twists and turns and offering a wisecrack for every occasion, and this time he doesn't even enter a courtroom. He explains it all while getting a physical in his office from his personal physician (fittingly enough, the coroner from "Curious Bride").
By "The Case of the Velvet Claws" (1936), the series settles in to B-movie mode, with a running time of 63 minutes and yet another turnover in supporting cast. Jenkins is gone and Claire Dodd is Della this time around. In fact, the film opens with their marriage and a honeymoon interrupted by a client who forces Perry to take a new case at gunpoint. The series is getting sillier and the third act resorts to a running gag of Mason getting a headcold and passing it on to the characters in the film, distributing tissues to the gathered suspects as he explains it all in classic murder mystery fashion. It's fun stuff but has drifted far from the Perry Mason universe created by Erle Stanley Gardner, and Warren William finally bowed out after this one.
Ricardo Cortez took over as a younger, slicker Mason in "The Case of the Black Cat" (1936), the film that also introduced two more iconic characters in the Mason universe: Paul Drake as Mason's investigator (played by Garry Owen) and District Attorney Hamilton Burger (Guy Usher), just like in the books. June Travis plays Della Street this time (no longer married to Mason).
Donald Woods is the final big screen Perry Mason in "The Case of the Stuttering Bishop" (1937), and he's the least of them as well, with little distinctive personality or presence. The sassy Ann Dvorak, however, plays Della Street this time around, and true to form, there's also a new Paul Drake (Joseph Crehan) and Hamilton Burger (Charles Wilson).
Six films on three discs.
Available exclusively from Warner Archive:
MOD stands for "Manufacture on Demand" and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and "burned" individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.