Thursday, April 16, 2015

Howling Dogs and Dead Husbands

Read/Watch 'em In Order #53

We've visited with Warren William while he's solved murders as the Lone Wolf; as a Sam Spade expy; and as Arsene Lupin's nemesis. Now we'll drop in on him as he walks in the shoes of ace attorney Perry Mason for four movies.

Mason had only been around a year or so in 1934, but Erle Stanley Gardner had already churned out four excellent and popular novels in the series--the latest of which was The Case of the Howling Dog. It's this book that Warner Brothers used as a starting point for a series of Mason B-movies.

Gardner was unhappy with the films--disliking the way they departed from the books and annoyed that any offers he made to act as a consultant on the films was ignored. I'm not at all critical of Gardner for this--Mason was his baby and he wanted the character to be treated correctly. And this attitude paid off two decades later when Gardner personally made sure the Raymond Burr TV series stayed relatively true to the source material.

But, taken for what they are, the films are very entertaining. 

The movie does carry over several important plot elements from the book intact, but we see changes to Perry Mason pretty much right away when we discover he heads a huge law firm with many lawyers taking the less important cases and a regiment of secretaries fielding phone calls. He also has several private eyes directly attached to the firm. Alas, there's no Paul Drake to be found, though Della Street is still Mason's personal secretary.

But if you have an interesting case, you can still get Mason's personal attention. Millionaire Arthur Cartwright at first doesn't seem to be that interesting. He's complaining about his neighbor's dog howling all night long and wants a warrant sworn out against him. But what makes Cartwright a little more interesting is the new will he wants--leaving his fortune to his neighbor's wife. He also asks Mason if a will is still valid even if the person dies via execution for murder.

Well, after that, it's not that surprising that someone does indeed get murdered. But even before that, Mason and his detectives uncover shenanigans involving who is actually married to whom and who has been running around on whom. When the neighbor with the loud dog is murdered, Arthur Cartwright goes missing. The neighbor's estranged wife, though, turns out to be the main suspect, with Mason agreeing to defend her.

It turns out the key to proving her innocence involves figuring out why that darn dog had been howling all night long.

Warren William is always fun to watch in a B-movie. He gives the impression that he's enjoying himself immensely and carries us into the same mood. Though his version of Mason is different from the books, he does still have that fast-thinking determination to fight tooth-and-nail for his clients.

Mary Astor plays his client, which is fun in a movie trivia way. Two years later, William would star in a loose adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. Four years after that, Astor would play the femme fatale in John Huston's more faithful adaptation of that novel.

The film isn't perfect. Whereas the courtroom scenes in the novels are often the best part of the stories, here they seem a little contrived. And I'm not sure the ending explains everything quite as neatly as a murder mystery usually should. But the virtues trump the flaws, backed by an interesting plot and a cast of talented character actors.

I can see why Gardner didn't care for the movie series--heck, it's going to depart a little farther from the novels with each successive film. I'm a huge fan of those novels and a more faithful adaptation made in the 1930s would have been a wonderful thing. But the Warren William films create their own Mason sub-universe that's well worth visiting.

We'll eventually look at the three other films as part of the In Order series, at which time we will meet the 1930s Paul Drake--sort of.

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