Archive for Perry Mason

Philo Facts

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2020 by dcairns

Warren William only made two Philo Vance movies, and he made them six years apart, which is not as surprising as the fact that there are so damn many PV movies. He’s a pretty tedious character — Sherlock Holmes without the interesting qualities, and without a Watson to place his inhuman intellect in relief. Also he, in the words of Ogden Nash, “…needs a kick in the pance.”

But the WW duo are of some interest. Partnering him with Gracie Allen is certainly an unusual idea: S.S. Van Dyne was a fan of the comic, and wrote her into a book, and she then consented to play herself. WW’s reactions to Allen’s “pretzel logic” are marvelous. He doesn’t do a full double-take, just a sort of irritated hesitation of bafflement. He knows he’s Philo Vance. He knows this is a Philo Vance movie. So what is this idiot woman doing making absurd statements and calling him “Fido”? He’s finally found a mystery he can’t solve.

The earlier film, THE DRAGON MURDER CASE amused me because the story of a guy who dives into a swimming pool but doesn’t come back out is a good sort of inversion of a locked room mystery, and because the suggestion that a dragon might be responsible is a pretty delightful red herring to throw in Fido’s path.

The natural pool is called “the dragon pool” after a Native American tradition, and one character has a bunch of books and articles about sea monsters, including “Nessie” — now, KING KONG had just been released and interest in the Loch Ness monster flared up at this time — cynics might say Willis O’Brien’s man-eating lake dinosaur was more of an influence on the reported sighting than any actual Scottish plesiosaurus.

Of course the dragon footprints found in the mud when they drain the pool are in fact — SPOILER ALERT —

— something else entirely.

Which led me to an odd connection. Yves Le Prieur was a prolific French inventor — among other things, he was the first person to take off in a glider from Japanese soil (a fairly niche record to hold) and he invented a plane-mounted rocket launcher for taking down German observation balloons in WWII. Remarkable guy.

Two of his big deals were scuba diving — he’s the one who got the idea to connect the re-breather mask to oxygen tanks worn on the back, rather than to a surface air pump — and the translux screen, which greatly improved the brightness of image possible in rear projection. He gave that invention to the world for free.

In the early thirties he accompanied producer Bernard Natan on his tour of American film production centres, and around this time rear projection became much more common. So maybe his trip made KING KONG possible.

And so THE DRAGON MURDER CASE could be said to be inspired by KING KONG which is inspired by Yves Le Prieur’s working holiday. If the “dragon” were actually a scuba diver, the poetic connection would be really satisfying, but sadly this is not the case. He wears a “shallow-water diving suit–the kind largely used in pearl fishing” says the source novel. This is regrettable, but it leads to a lovely image when the suit is discovered hidden in the family crypt ~

Is the lovely image worth the loss of the lovely scuba-Kong connection? Oh, I suppose maybe it is.

The other point I’d make is that Vance is so boring, the decision to turn the Perry Mason adaptations into WACKY COMEDIES, playing to WW’s sense of fun, is probably a direct result of DRAGON. And, more regrettably, the egregious SATAN MET A LADY is also a consequence.

 

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…