Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Warren William's Moveable Feast: The Perry Mason Edition: CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS

Now more than ever, and you know why, we need to examine the pre-code films of Warren William. Expert as a cruel capitalist, he's got plenty of moxy and wit and though way more charismatic than a certain president, shares his mercenary capitalist spirit, the sort that has billions in assets and billions in debt, so many his creditors can't afford to say no to giving him more, until you wonder if he's the jagged knife in capitalism's heart or its resuscitating defibrillator. My old art dealer embezzler boss was like that (I found out I wasn't getting paid for my last month of work when I saw he'd made the front page of the NY Post who announced he was the single greatest art swindler in history, owing upwards of $50 million), and another example is THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. History is full of such men, their legend often outlives their debts. Alas, until WW, the movies didn't know how to portray them. The result was an either/or, a Daddy Warbucks or a Scrooge, an embezzling market crasher or a hardworking tentpole of American industry.

But Williams' titans are always more than either a champ or a villain, the swamp the banks of opposites and rise right up through the sewers. And in playing us for suckers as easily as he plays boardrooms full of filthy investors, Warren William rides the razor's edge of nation-bankrupting high finance chicanery like a ripsnortin' stallion. If it throws him in the end, well, the credits were coming anyway, so let the 'little people' pick over his corpse as they may. They'll find he somehow managed to 'take it with him' after all. Even his bones are soon frozen assets, crows and vultures waiting in line to file their injunctions for whatever scrap of marrow he didn't pick clean himself before departing.

If, in films like SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1933) and THE MATCH KING (1932), Williams meets his waterloo via some pure souled woman screwing up his chicanerous circuits with last second philanthropy (fatal, in his case), it's always late enough in the film that we've enjoyed at least a few uninterrupted reels of pure Williams' champagne-and-cocaine trouble-ducking. We've soaked up usually sufficient brilliance--been awed at the way he charms and disarms a constant stream of alimony-hungry ex-wives, bank examiners, potential investors, mistresses, and CEOS, having a great time doing it all too--that when some innocent hick girl, a ballet dancer, a loyal secretary, or the sister of a man he ruined in s semi-crooked deal, undoes him with her acute integrity, we're not too disappointed. It has to come from somewhere, may as well be a girl with cute legs.

I've covered my love of WW last year in Warren William: Titan o'Vitaphone, but this time I want to take a closer look at the mystery series's that sustained him in the post-code era: he's played Philo Vance (once - rather lacklusterly); Perry Mason (four times - brilliantly); and The Lone Wolf (eight trillion, averagely).

The Lone Wolf is one of those Boston Blackie-style things ala TO CATCH A THIEF where a prominent but reformed jewel thief is regularly swept up in daring robberies he initially had nothing to do with but since he was seen in approximately the same time zone, lazy detectives accuse him, forcing him to lead them to the real thief or killer. Eventually, in the later films, the lazy cops accuse him of murder and put out a warrant just so they can get him on the phone! They know if they just chase him around the bends long enough he'll unearth the culprits just so he can go back to his life of leisure, unharried. This saves the cops a lot of thinking for themselves, and as a result they seem to get stupider, more grotesque. In the more comedic entries, The Wolf's involvement stems from his crime hungry sidekick.

Now, as that assistant, Eric Blore may be a peach of a character actor, especially when directed by Preston Sturges, but I've never felt a palpable zim and zoom between him and William's Wolf. At times, such as speeding to escape a simple traffic ticket, nicking random goods and drawing heat down upon himself, overplaying to the rafters as if the director is making little 'hammier, hammier!" signs from behind the camera, he's down right irritating. Add the relentless ambling of the cops who have merely to see the Wolf walk down the street past a newsstand's jewel robbery headline to 'link' him to the crime gets pretty tiresome. When he's tangling with Axis spies, snaking through B-budgeted hookah bars and leading the cops like he's the hounds in a fox hunt, William can sometimes resonate. Other times, it becomes harder to care who's got the button, or the stamp collection, or the diamond, or the fake diamond.

But I think he really shines, is really pure WW, in his four Perry Masons, because he gets the chance to play someone who actually belongs at the scene of a crime, thus sparing us so much labored set-up, and since he isn't the first person suspected, but rather he's defending the guilty-seeming party, he's much freer to connive, and to do so above board (it's for a client rather than himself, so the code isn't as worried).

Lawyers with a lot of oratory, confidence, and grinning wolf delight (styled after notorious real-life legal stars like Bill Fallon) were Williams' specialty (see Titan o Vitaphone - Warren William part 1) and with Mason he crafts a lawyer whose high wire technicality-skimming leave us bedazzled, even if he seems in no great hurry to nail the culprit. Best of all, there's no need to get reformed by some sappy girl hick's idealism as he's already, supposedly, the good guy with a girlfriend who keeps him keep 'beyond' the clutches of mortal honesty. Free of these third act reformations, then, William gets positively giddy in these four films. Mason's encyclopedic grasp of the law grants him an almost holy ghost power which William capitalizes on with lordly glee.

Some critics decry the Williams of this era, the WB post-code / pre-war zone. Fans of the TV version scoff, but if you know that show at all you know that, in the earliest seasons, Raymond Burr starts out more like William's Mason than the paragon he'd conveniently become. Ever a legal precedent ahead of disbarment or incarceration, this early Mason races around setting up deliberate dodges to discredit witnesses before the cops know there's even been a crime committed. In the first season of the Burr TV show, and in Williams' four WB movies, Perry Mason is definitely at least 70% unmitigated rascal.

In his giddiest films of the Mason series, the spirit of William seems to affect the movies he's in so that the entire cast joins into a kind of specialized mania. The quips fly a bit faster, the dialogue becomes a tad racier and everything's more sophisticated when he's around, and, if you can keep up with him, the fluidity of persona and shifting interpersonal relationship power ratios becomes its own kind of Shiva flame dance reward.

 Even if you don't cotton to William's flippancy as Mason, there's no denying his momentum. Not surprisingly for a WW role, it's all about the hustle and charm, the act of being fully alive in the moment, the liquidity with which he floats his way through a scene. It's like he exhales laughing gas or his contract dictates a nitrous tank is always just off camera. The movie around him is ever trying to find its footing; actors and actresses either get on board his magic train (Owlin Howlin and Virginia Bruce are stand-outs in this regard, and--most surprisingly--Porter Hall!) or get left behind. The Spudsy Drake stuff can get pretty dumb, as when Spuds manages to start on some mail order weight lifting program and actually graduate with his 'tiger skin' by the end of the same night, and sometimes the writers try and pile so many bits of comedic business during the climaxes (held in his office instead of court, to allow for more futzing), it just stops being fun and becomes desperate, but hey - Williams always rocks it.

Let's look see at the best (as in zaniest) two of the four:

(1935) Dir. Archie Mayo
THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS is a fine example of Warner mystery 'product' at its post-code peak. William's office is shown as being quite plush; everyone is trying to get five minutes of his precious time but he's not available.  Della Street (a bemused Genevieve Tobin) regularly fights off vast arrays of ignored high-paying clients, and several private detectives are at his beck and call with finding, planting and otherwise procuring evidence. We're instantly aware why he's so popular: when Mason stumbles onto a murder scene he never judges the killer/s, just regularly evades the cops, doggedly determined to protect his clients from prosecution (by sequestering them out of town until the trial, or ordering them not to talk no matter what). Porter Hall catches onto the witty madness, in a unique way only seasoned supporting actors seem to know, as the smitten department store owner who hires Mason to investigate a crooked beauty contest. This means watching in shock as Williams wakes up from where he crashed out behind his desk the night before, then pulling himself together for the day with some slugs from his private office bathroom bar.

Seeking justice for his beloved (one-sided) employee (Patricia Ellis) after she's rooked out of her prize money in a gigolo's traveling scam (the lout sets up big leg contests then absconds with the prize money, leading to a lot of angry girls and their possessive stalker ex-boyfriends [like stalker Lyle Talbot] to wade through after he's deservedly offed. There's an exciting scene where Mason helps one of the girls escape a watched hotel by pretending she's very sick and he's the doctor. Their chartered plane takes off just as the cops (who include Barton MacLane!) have driven onto the airfield. What a con artist! Owlin Howland is 'Dr. Croaker' here, whose office is on the same floor and who declares Perry has to stop drinking all alcohol, which leads to some tiresome business with having to switch to milk. Minus ten demerits! 

(1935) Dir. Michael Curtiz

In the CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, Williams' Mason is suddenly made an amateur master chef, fond of taking over his favorite restaurant's kitchen with his pal the coroner (Owlin Howlind), who thinks nothing of bringing the entire gang back to the morgue for a quick autopsy over coffee. afterwards. The whole affair seems to devolve into a tipsy moveable feast ala the writing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Robert Altman movies like Nashville. From personal experience, I do love that feeling, of running into all your friends wherever you go, and just constantly eating and drinking from location to location, breakfast to brunch through to late night after-hours drinks. Here the feast moves from murder scene to morgue to DA's office and the inner circle and includes a reporter who's name is 'Toots' (Thomas E. Jackson), so we can enjoy dialogue like Howlind (clearly having a ball being William's wingman) saying "help yourself, Toots." No one rocks a long vowel like the Howlin.

Ever the center of attention, William is so clearly loving life he almost overdoes it, even for us fans. The more irritating moments involve the big climaxes, such as the need for a medical examination to be going on during the big climactic denouement in LEGS, or the night court histrionics of Virginia Bruce in CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1936), with Della demanding a divorce mere hours after getting married because Mason gets  highjacked by a beautiful damsel (after insisting he do no more criminal cases, which is a bad faith streak going around in the mystery sets at the time, as each sleuth or crime doctor needed a fiancee forcing him swear to stop doing the things we're watching the movie to see, and we're left to wonder: do the writers believe we want to see such badly-dated misogynist subtext ('good' women want to tie you down and stop you from having fun)? Is this a nervous producer's idea on how to placate the censor? Or is it the writer's sly ribbing of the censors and their memos on how maybe these crime movies should have less, you know, crime in them?

At some of these we balked. I still have a hard time watching the first few FALCON movies from RKO, with the bitchy fiancee determined to usher Tom Lawrence into a life of staid bond trading rather than crime solving, especially considering the fey weariness of George Sanders making us easily convinced he's not interested in her even as a sex object. Rather than giving us any indication why he would want to spend five minutes with such a nag in the first place, his Falcon conveys the isolated anguish we might see from a closeted actor pressured into straight marriage by his studio. We never had to worry about that shit when he was the SAINT. ("he who travels fastest, travels alone")

CODA: In all the Masons there's a detective story mixed with a kind of anti-justice lawyer scheme repertoire checklist, i.e. clearly true stories about the crazy lengths the brilliant criminal lawyers go to, explaining damning evidence away via a ridiculously elaborate overlaying of killers, i.e.-the Howling Dog with its loose "two murderous sets of interlocked neighbors on NYC's ritzy Upper East Side with one of their two dogs being dead"-i.e. The Kennel Murder Case"--structure being like a jazz standard, which is then boiled into shady lawyer practice jazz solo vignettes, climaxing in a balls-out courtroom barnstormer of a jump-up.

One subtextual aspect of the Masons--and this holds true with the TV show too-- is how some murders benefit the entire world. The set-up might be purely formulaic: the more odious a character is the more diverse the array of suspects, and with Mason plots, that usually means more than one person may have tried to kill our victim that fateful night, or actually thought they did and in their haste to wipe off their own fingerprints, covered up another person's crime. Fun lawyer fact we learn: only the one who delivered the fateful, final blow that killed the person is--upon being exposed to light--revealed as evil (or if not, Mason immediately takes up defending them and with a plea of self defense). It's as if the poker or vase was a hot potato, so it's okay to smash an evil guy on the head if he falls and doesn't die; but if the next person comes along, and--while said guy is prostrate on the floor--hits him one last time and then he dies, even if he was going to die from the first blow given time, then the last guy goes to jail BUT if the victim dies from the fall down after the first blow--even if that initial blow wasn't fatal, if it was just a love tap, then the first guy goes to jail, even if it was an accident and the guy who came after beat the shit out of him not knowing he was already dead.

Man, with Mason you learn so much about how ritzy murderers get to go free if they can afford the right lawyer.

One reason I'm so fond of these films, and the Philo Vances too, is that the deceased is always deserving of his death. The murder of an evil man, no matter who did it, is presented as very cathartic for the whole community, so in a way the murderer is the hero, even if he goes to jail in the end (thankfully for our conscience, he's usually almost as evil as the first guy). The victim's evil and the killer's lesser evil are both excised from the social order through this holistic ritual exorcism and all those who were afflicted by that evil are now free. It's as if the victim is a straw dog soaking up all the venal odium our era needs to shed, slaughtered by a collective urge within the texture of reality that the weakest of the afflicted cannot resist. Mason eventually focuses and solves the case, so everyone can go about their business, like rain putting out the blazing wicker man pyre only after its inhabitants are done to a fine crisp.

If the murderer of our sins--he who must be punished for the crime of freeing us all--is named Jesus, whom else is William's giddy Perry Mason but the Pontius Pilot of Steamship Satan!?

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