Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

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 at the same time and you wonder if he's a 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), and another example is William Powell as Flo in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. History is full of such men, but the movies often don't know how to portray them and so wind up on the either/or dichotomy, either 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. And in playing we in the audience as easily as he plays boardrooms full of filthy investors, Warren William straddles that / between either and or and rides it 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.

If, in films like SKYSCRAPER SOULS and THE MATCH KING, he falters on account of some woman screwing up his circuits, 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, 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, until 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, and he sacrifices it all so she can ride into the sunset with some dimwit rube of acute moral integrityzzz.

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 his 'series's - for 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 the same time zone, lazy detectives just assume they should round him up, forcing our antihero-hero to lead them to the real thief or killer. Eventually 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. A lot of times it all depends on his sidekick to get the ball rolling when the Wolf would rather 'not get involved' (just what we want, to cheer him on in not rescuing imperiled heroines). Eric Blore's a peach of course, 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, he's down right irritating and rather than find a nice low note, he just overplays to the rafters as if the director is making little 'hammier, hammier!" signs from behind the camera. 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, and it all 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 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. 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 while we're in no great hurry to nail the culprit, and 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 granting 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, but to me this semi-shady version of Mason is a delight. 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, ever a legal precedent ahead of disbarment or incarceration as he races around setting up deliberate dodges to discredit witnesses before the cops know there's even been a crime committed. By the third or fourth season Burr's Mason had become more of a saint, but in the four Mason movies William made for Warners in the mid-to-late 30s, he's 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.

With William, 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. In his Perry Mason films for example, the movie around him is ever trying to find its footing, as 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. Even if you don't cotton to William's flippancy in the role, there's no denying his momentum, even if some of the Spudsy Drake stuff can get a little dumb and shrill (he manages to start on some mail order weight lifting program and actually graduate with his 'tiger skin' by the end of what is supposed to be one long night, as if the school's whole semester went by from midnight to two AM) as if an order from on high demanded they shoehorn lowbrow schtick in there, and sometimes they try and pile so many bits of business over the climactic meet-ups in his office it gets frustrating, but hey - Williams always rocks it.

Let's look see at the best 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 with him.  Della Street (a bemused Genevieve Tobin) regularly fights off vast arrays of clients, and several detectives are at his beck and call. When Mason stumbles onto a murder scene, he never judges, just regularly evades the cops, determined to protect his clients from prosecution (by sequestering them out of town). Porter Hall catches onto the witty madness in a unique way as the smitten department store owner who hires Mason, which means watching as he wakes up from sleeping behind his desk, and 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 (he sets up big leg contests then absconds with the prize money, leading to a lot of girls and their possessive boyfriends [like stalker Lyle Talbot] to untangle after he's offed. There's an exciting scene where Mason helps 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 alcohols, 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 the restaurant 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. 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 includes a reporter who's name is 'Toots' (Thomas E. Jackson), so we can enjoy dialogue like Howlin (clearly having a ball being a William wingman) saying "help yourself, Toots."

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 making 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) or 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 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 bond trading rather than crime solving and his pained evasion. especially considering the fey weariness of George Sanders. Rather than giving us any indication why he would want to spend five minutes with such a nag, he conveys the isolated anguish we might see from a closeted actor pressured into straight marriage by his studio.

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 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 covered up another person's crime. Only the one who delivered the fateful, final blow is--upon being exposed to light--revealed as evil (or if not, Mason immediately takes up defending them on a case 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 sconce 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 again, then the last guy goes to jail BUT if he dies from the fall down after the first blow--even if that initial blow wasn't fatal, then the first guy goes to jail. Man, with Mason you learn so much. We learn too that murder of an evil man, no matter who did it, is also very cathartic for the whole community. The victim's evil is excised from the social order, and all those who were afflicted by that evil are now free. It's as if this person is a straw dog soaking up all the venal odium our era needs to shed, secretly slaughtered by a collective urge within the texture of reality, after which Mason eventually focuses and solves the case, 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 who must be punished is named Jesus, whom else is William's giddy Mason but the Pontius pilot of Steamship Satan!?

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