Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lucky Legs and Unlucky Murders

Read/Watch 'em In Order #58

I like all four of the Perry Mason movies starring Warren William, but starting with 1935's The Case of the Lucky Legs, the balance between mystery and comedy tips a little too far towards the comedy side, weakening the latter films in comparison to the first two.

In Ron Baker's excellent book Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood, Baker insightfully notes that this is probably a reaction to the success of The Thin Man (1934), in which William Powell and Myrna Loy bantering together in perfect harmony.

"Warner Brothers," writes Baker, "apparently decided to emulate the style of [The Thin Man] and in the process gutted the original Gardner plot of its hardboiled crime elements and emphasis on the law."

He's right and though I do like the film better than Baker does, turning the series into a Thin Man clone was a bad idea. I know this version of Perry Mason isn't Gardner's and I accept that, but seeing Mason sleeping off a drunk on the floor of his office when he's supposed to be meeting a client--well, that goes a little bit too far afield.

Lucky Legs also amps up the banter between Mason and Della Street, hoping to recreate the Powell/Loy dynamic, with Della played this time around by Genevieve Tobin. She's very pretty and William is always good in B-movie roles, but only Powell and Loy can be Powell and Loy.

"Spudsy" Drake--again played by Allen Jenkins--is a little goofier and no one character in the movie seems to take the murder all that seriously. But, as I said, William is good as the lead and the plot has its points of interest.

It starts when a woman named Margie Clune wins a "Lucky Legs" contest, but the guy who runs the contest is a scam artist who runs off with the prize money. He's soon dead and Mason is hiding Margie from the cops while he tries to find the real killer to clear her.

There's no courtroom scene--though to be fair, the movie is based on one of Gardner's early novels, which didn't usually have courtroom scenes themselves. It took Garnder a few tries to discover the best formula for the novels--early on, Mason had more of a hardboiled P.I. vibe.

Anyway, it all ends in Mason's office, with the attorney explaining who the real killer is to the cops and the district attorney. There's another awkward attempt at comedy here--his summation is interrupted several times by a doctor trying to give him an examination (the culmination of a running gag that started early in the film).

I fully get why Baker and other fans of either Perry Mason or '30s detective films don't like The Case of the Lucky Legs. It may be that I'm a little too forgiving of its faults. But Warren William never fails to entertain me, whether he's Mason, The Lone Wolf,  Philo Vance, a Sam Spade expy, or chasing after famous thieves. He simply never fails to entertain, even when the script he's working from is weak.

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