Character Development in Movie Series: The Perry Mason Films

Now that the six Perry Mason films made by Warner Bros. between 1934 and 1937 have been released as a DVD set, it gives the casual viewer an opportunity to observe how a single character can change over the life of a series and how the series itself can be transformed.

In 1934’s “The Case of the Howling Dog,” Perry Mason, played by Warren William, is a prosperous attorney. He  has an office with his name emblazoned on six windows, a big staff of secretaries and even a couple of private eyes on retainer. His secretary. Della Street, played by Helen Trenholme is really more like an office manager. The D.A. is a colorless older gent named Claude Drumm, played by Grant Mitchell, and Perry’s chief adversary on the police force is a moustachioed Allen Jenkins, departing from his usual good-natured goof persona to portray “Sergent Holcomb.” Mason actually functions as a lawyer in this film and there is a courtroom finale. Mary Astor headed the guest cast and the film was directed by Alan Crosland and seems to have been awarded a larger budget than one might expect. This looks more a small-scale “A” picture than a “B”-movie.

William returned in 1935’s “The Case of the Curious Bride,” but his character has already begun to change subtly. This Mason is presented as being more interested in gourmet cooking than the law. He’s staring to become a bit of a joke. This time out Della is portrayed by Claire Dodd as a no-nonesense blonde who seems to get the better of poor Perry in everyone of their screwball-comedy like exchanges. Fortunately Perry has a posse of pals in this one–newspaperman “Toots Howard” played by Thomas Jackson and Coroner “Wilbut Strong” played by Olin Howard. For the first time he has a legman, “Spudsy,” played by a clean-shaven Allen Jenkins in his usual lovable goof mode. The adversaries this time out as “District Atorney Stacey” played as a sly weasel by Henry Kolker and “Detective Lucas,” played by Barton MacLane, who never spoke a line when shouting it would do. The guest cast was headed by Warner Bros. leading lady Margaret Lindsay and a pre-stardom Errol Flynn was on hand as the murder victim, a woman-slapping cad and bigamist. Michael Curtiz directed so this is probably the strongest fim in the series visually, with lot of great shot of 1930s San Francisco.

By the next entry “The Case of the Lucky Legs,”(1935)  the series has definitely started to go into “B”-picture mode. Genevieve Tobin is a rather colorless Della Street. Perry’s prosperous office and big staff seem to have vanished and he’s left with just Della and leg-man “Spudsy,” played by Allen Jenkins once again, to see him through. Barton MacLane also returns as another grumpy cop, this time called “Bisonette,” and Henry O’Neill is “District Attorney Manchester.” By now the series has pretty much devolved into comedy-mystery with William more interested in tossed off bon-mots than throwing punches or hitting the law books. Archie Mayo directed this one.

“The Case of the Velvet Claws” (1936)  provided William with his final appearance as Mason. Claire Dodd returned as Della and this one actually has them getting hitched–although Perry spends his honeymoon night trying to solve a murder in which he has been implicated by a tretcherous femme fatale client. This might have made for a suspenseful outing, had not Wlliam been so laid-back in the role. His Mason seems to be fighting a perpetual hangover. This one brought back Coroner “Wilbur Strong,” again played by Olin Howard as a pal and Spudsy got a last name–now he is “Spudsy Drake” and is played by Roy Acuff.

With William’s departure, Warner handed the role over to Ricardo Cortez who brought some of the snap of his earlier Sam Spade to “The Case of the Black Cat.” In this 1936 outing we finally meet up with “District Atorney Hamilton Burger,” played by Guy Usher. The comic-relief “Spudsy Drake” is gone, replaced by an older-dead-serious “Paul Drake,” played by Garry Owen. This is a fairly straightforward entry, especially after the Warren William films. Mason actually gets back into the courtroom and en route to the trial he functions as a sort  of hard-boiled private eye. June Travis was his Della and, oddly enough, they no longer seem to be married! Perry also seems to have shaved off his debonaire moustache.

The final film in the Warner Brothers series was “The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.” This time out Mason was played–surprisingly well–by Donald Woods who had played a spineless suspect in “The Case of the Curious Bride.” This film gave us the strongest Della in the series in the person of Warner Brothers favorite Ann Dvorak. Perry again faced off against Hamilton Burger and this time out Joseph Creehan played “Paul Drake.” This one offered a good mystery with a touch of  “The Big Sleep.”

All-in-all it was interesting seeing the manner in which Perry Mason went from serious attorney to comic sleuth and back to serious attorney, with a touch of the sleuth about him. The various incarnations of Della–from doormat to wife to girl friday were also interesting and it was fun seeing the “Paul Drake” character gradually develop and mature.

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