Archive for Perry Mason

Warren William Weekends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2020 by dcairns

Fiona and I have been having Friday evening watch parties with friends… for some reason we’ve settled on Warren William as the centre of the cinematic universe. We started with the Lone Wolf series, to which we may return like a lone wolf to its vomit, but we moved on to GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 where he gets to play a fatuous character instead of just playing a regular character in a fatuous manner (I LOVE WW’s fatuousness) and thence on to his Perry Mason films, which are of a slightly higher standard than the Lone Wolves — less generic, more eccentric. Since Mason doesn’t have a regular comedy sidekick or any regular co-stars, he gets to more comedy himself and this is no bad thing. Though of course Eric Blore would always be welcome.

Speaking of casting irregularities, we wound up watching THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT which does NOT have WW in it. Riccardo Cortez who, like WW, had unsuccessfully played lead in a version of THE MALTESE FALCON, unsuccessfully plays lead here. He’d soon start directing films for Fox, not one of which is available even as an illegal download. That’s how good he was.

But the first film in our double-feature, THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE features a really ebullient turn by WW with professional sidekick Allen Jenkins backing him up, and strong support from character wizards like Olin Howland, Warren Hymer and Maya Methot. Michael Curtiz directs with a rocket up his arse and somebody’s just handed editor Terry Morse a shiny new optical printer so every scene ends with a zoom-in and blur effect FOR NO REASON. Morse later got the job of shoving another Perry Mason, Raymond Burr, into GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. Stick with me, kids, it’s not much fun but it’s educational.

GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 stars Michael Lanyard; Lady Fingers; Hattie ‘Mom’ Frink; Peggy Sawyer; Philip Marlowe; Scattergood Baines; Caterpillar; Kitty Foyle; Screwball; Sir Alfred MacGlennon Keith; Chico; Sgt. Dickens; Max Jacobs; Montague L. ‘Monty’ Brewster; Sermon; Helen St. James; and the voice of Winnie the Pooh.

THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE stars Philo Vance; Doris Kane (Leo); Perry Mason; Vivian Rich; Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke; Steve Wilson; Lt. of Detectives Dundy; Inez Cardoza; Angelface; Mr. Davis – Schoolteacher (twice); Judge Thatcher; Uranium Prospector (uncredited); Peter Blood; Zedorah Chapman; Aramis.

THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT stars Sam Spade; Tommy Thomas; Marie Donati; ‘Snoop’ Davis; Player Eating Bonnie’s Chicken (uncredited); Wild Bill Hickok; Colonel Skeffington; Sheriff Prettywillie; Mr. Waterbury; and Wax Figure (uncredited). Let’s face it, this wasn’t a stellar cast.

The Stepford Sleuths

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by dcairns

Hang about, this is more complicated than I thought.

I was aware it was odd: George Sanders gets bored playing Simon Templar, the Saint (boredom was a recurring problem he had), so he switches to playing Gay Lawrence, or sometimes Laurence, the Falcon. When he gets bored of that, he brings in his brother, mysteriously named Tom Conway, to play the Falcon’s brother, Tom Lawrence, and then lets him be the Falcon. Meanwhile, Hugh Sinclair has taken over playing the Saint. Fine. That’s sort of rational.

Not Hugh Sinclair

But the Saint was not the first reformed criminal gentleman sleuth. Nor was Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, but let’s talk about him for a minute. I think of him being Warren William, the starving lion, and anyone else is an interloper, but WW by no means originated the part. Louis Joseph Vance’s hero first came to the screen in 1917, played by Bert Lytell, making his film debut. Lytell played the character three more times in the late twenties, but in between he essayed the role of Boston Blackie twice.

Now, Boston Blackie was the original reformed thief and gentleman adventurer, created by an actual reformed criminal, Jack Boyle. Bert Lytell was the original BB on screen, so the guy must have been suaver than his first name suggests.

While Lytell was on a break from playing the Lone Wolf and had given up playing Boston Blackie, Henry B. Walthall and Bertram Grassby and Jack Holt were busy filling his shoes as the all-new Lone Wolves and William Russell and Thomas Carrigan and Forrest Stanley and Bob Custer were personating Blackie. Nobody seemed able to make a go of it until Lytell returned to the Lanyard part and knocked out a few more installments, seeing the character into the sound era and round things off with THE LAST OF THE LONE WOLF, which was only true as far as he was concerned.

Meanwhile, Philo Vance (no relation to Louis Joseph Vance, though the author may have been on S.S. Van Dine’s mind when he penned his own suave sleuth) was operating a revolving-door policy of his own. A relative latecomer, he was played by William Powell in THE CANARY MURDER CASE which came along so close to the end of the silent era that it was hastily sonorized, with Louise Brooks refusing to have anything to do with it and thus getting badly dubbed. Powell stayed Philo for more creaky talkies before things took off with the snappy KENNEL MURDER CASE in 1933. Unfortunately, Powell then took off himself, making Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN his own. His part was taken by Warren Williams, who handed it off to Paul Lukas, who had played opposite his Vance just two films back, which seems a bit confusing to me. But one film later, Philo Vance bore a striking resemblance to Edmund Lowe, and then he was Wilfred Hyde-White in 1936, which blows my mind. That state of affairs couldn’t be expected to pertain for long, and sure enough, if you went to the movies a year later you got someone called Grant Richards, and the following year you got… Warren William, again. Are we sure this is Philo Vance and not Perry Mason or Michael Lanyard?

It couldn’t last. After co-starring with the title figure of THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE, WW was out and the tragically short-lived James Stephenson was in, which of course couldn’t last either,

Then the movies seemed to be tiring of gentleman sleuths, at least relatively speaking, as there was a seven-year gap before the character made his final movie appearances, played by both Alan Curtis (who?) and William Wright (who?). In separate movies, mind you. I think that’s where they went wrong. If they’d played him in the same movie, switching around randomly from scene to scene like Bunuel’s OBSCURE OBJECT, the character would have achieved the protean ideal to which he’d for so long aspired.

Failing that, Curtis could have played the front half and Wright the back.

That seems to have been the end of Vance for the movies, with only a couple of foreign TV versions thereafter. I’m not sure why he didn’t get a TV series in the fifties: everyone else did.

BUT MEANWHILE, back in the early thirties…

With Bert Lytell safely out of the way (retired? he made a comeback as the MC in STAGE DOOR CANTEEN), Michael Lanyon was anybody’s: Melvyn Douglas and Francis Lederer had their way with the Wolf. I plan to see the Douglas film: it introduces Thurston Hall as Inspector Crane, who would suffer through several subsequent incarnations of his lupine adversary, so it’s arguably the start of the Warren William series, and it’s directed by the gifted Roy William Neill, who made the SHERLOCK HOLMES series with Rathbone and Bruce his own.

THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT introduces Warren William (at a surrealist part, above), with Don Beddoes as a Crane-like cop opponent with a dumb sidekick. Beddoes would, like several other co-stars, crop up in a perplexing variety of other roles later in the series. Jameson the butler or valet is Leonard Carey, who is no Eric Blore but he’s quite good. Blore joins the series in the next film and outlasts the ailing Warren William, who gets supplanted by Gerald Mohr and then Ron Randell and then the thing is finished with until its last gasp as a TV show starring Louis Hayward… who had actually been the first screen Saint.

Boston Blackie had been playing possum, but sprang back into action in ’41, played by the insufficiently suave Chester Morris, formerly the Bat. His sidekick the runt was Charles Wagenheim for this one movie, who would return in a ’45 sequel playing a different role, staring piteously at George E. Stone who was now firmly embedded in the sidekick position, and who had previously tangled with both Philo Vance (the Warren William one) and Mr. Moto. Battle-hardened.

Chester Morris kept banging them out until 1949, when both Boston Blackie and Michael Lanyard bowed out. Blackie got a brief TV show too, with Kent Taylor being the last actor to inhabit the sketchy role. He had cropped up in a Warren Williams’ Philo Vance movie back in 1939. Maybe it affected him.

Is Perry Mason a gentleman sleuth? He;s not a reformed criminal, like the Saint and Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf, poachers-turned-gamekeepers all. At any rate, the Warner Bros films with Warren William exemplify the musical-chairs approach to casting I’m celebrating today. William is a constant, until suddenly and regrettably he’s Donald Woods, who had played third lead to William’s Mason just a few films back. Also, the tone of the series sways wildly from light comic thriller to outright farce, reminiscent of, but more successful than, William’s single turn as Sam Spade, of which we shall not speak. Allen Jenkins, future sidekick to the Falcon (George Sanders incarnation), recurs, a honking shapeshifter essaying different parts from film to film, and Mason’s Girl Friday, Della Street, is positively a different dame each time we meet her: she’s Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, Claire Dodd again (the repetition by now seeming more startling than the constant substitution), and finally Ann Dvorak.

With all of this… this… going on… delving into forties gentleman sleuth films is akin to an attack of the Fregoli delusion.

There must be some films in which two or three Lone Wolves or P. Vances or B. Blackies rub shoulders, their guilty pasts quietly embarrassing them, but I can’t think of any offhand, apart from ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS, which has two former Philos, one of whom is also the title character, a reformed jewel thief turned adventurer…

This is a case for…

Playboy Criminologist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2014 by dcairns

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As soon as I saw a news headline in THE GAY FALCON describing George Sanders’ character as a “playboy criminologist” I knew that was the job for me. Though I’m not sure — is 46 too old to start in that line of work?

And yes, the film is called THE GAY FALCON and George does say “This seems to be my night for using back doors.” Get your sniggering over with.

Indecisiveness: George just finished playing THE SAINT in a popular RKO series and handed the job over to Hugh Sinclair, and then they create a near-identical series for him about The Falcon, with Wendy Barrie, who was his romantic interest in three Saint movies, playing different characters. Here she seems set to be just a guest star, but the Falcon’s fiancee, Nina Vale, mysteriously dropped out of movies after one appearance so Barrie returned to replace her with not a word of explanation.

This movie sets up Arthur Shields as a dumb Irish cop stereotype, foil to the Falcon, but he’s replaced for two follow-ups by James Gleason (knot together three strands of sinew then stretch to breaking point), who played similar stooges to crime-solvers Barbara Stanwyck (THE MAD MISS MANTON), Edna May Oliver (PENGUIN POOL MURDER and sequels) and William Powell (THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD and TAKE ONE FALSE STEP)  Peggy Ann Garner and pals (HOME, SWEET HOMICIDE) and probably others. If he wasn’t available, Sam Levene would do it and no one would know.

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Dibble by lamplight.

Allen Jenkins becomes the main element of consistency across the Sanders entries in the series, appearing as hapless sidekick “Goldie” Locke each time, but the writers only decide to make him a spectacular malaprop in the later films (“Me and my neck prefer to remain in magneto.”)

The writers are Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, fresh from the Saint films, though for THE FALCON TAKES OVER they adapt Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and change Marlowe into the Falcon.

And apparently Dr. Terwilliker himself, Hans Conried, made such a hit as a police sketch artist in the first film (he’s hilariously bored and aloof) that they brought him back as a hotel desk clerk in the second film and a shady playboy in the third.

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Turhan Bey, an oiled baby with a moustache, plays a jewel thief in the first film and a psychic in the third.

George’s manservant changes from an old Chinese guy to an old English guy, vanishes for an entire film, and then comes back as Keye Luke. And, as in a dream, no one else seems to notice.

In the fourth film, THE FALCON ‘S BROTHER, George meets his screen brother, Tom, played by his real brother, Tom, who the takes over the series for nine more films while George seeks his pleasures elsewhere. Conway is like dilute Sanders: listening to them together is uncanny, they’re so similar, but you notice the edge and the droll lassitude in George, the source of his Georgeness. Tom is theoretically handsome, but he’s like a walking argument against the importance of handsomeness — George, with his big fat head, like an Arcimboldo sausage-face, is a consistent pleasure and wonder to look at, whereas the eye slips off Tom, can find no purchase on his smooth frontage. Tom was nicer, they say, and his blandness fitted him perfectly for Val Lewton films, which thrived on colourless leads, low-key as the lighting.

This FALCON episode is like the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS of the series — not only is George rendered comatose for most of the action while his brother goes investigating (nobody worries, it’s just like “He’ll be fine as soon as he COMES OUT OF HIS COMA.”), but Jenkins and Gleason have been replaced by cheaper, crapper actors playng characters with different names but the exact same attributes and histories and roles.

A guy comes home and finds that everything in his apartment has been stolen and replaced with identical replicas…

Even the writers have been replaced: Root & Fenton wrote delightful material: repetitive, of course, but that’s part of the charm. Their replacements create blotchy carbon copy dialogue that sounds like a distorted echo of the previous films, piped through the lips of wan replicants.

…He asks his flatmate, “What happened here?” …

And still, this is nothing compared to Warner Bros Perry Mason series, where not only the co-stars but the genre (straight mystery or broad, drunken comedy) changed from show to show, with Allen Jenkins playing different characters and Mason’s girl Friday, Della Street being played by a beauty parade of contract starlets — just to confuse things, Ann Dvorak appeared twice, so the series was not even consistent in its inconsistency.

…His flatmate says, “Who are you?”

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Anyhow, the films are slick, fun and forgettable, just like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY only half as long and about ten thousand times cheaper and quieter. Also, nobody wears frocks made from caterpillar tracks, which is either a relief or a disappointment depending on your taste.