Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Warren William's Moveable Feast: The Perry Mason Edition

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' have their day.

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 uninterrupted leisure unharried. A lot of times it all depends on his sidekick, who has to do most of the heavy lifting. Eric Blore's a peach of course, but I've never felt a palpable zim and zoom between William's Wolf and Blore's criminal manservant and at times, such as Blore's bored ex-criminal determination to break the law (speeding to escape rather than pulling over when chased by the cops, even though they're innocent and hasn't been a crime yet), and habit of nicking random goods and drawing heat down upon himself--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 be sure he did it, and it all gets annoying fast. 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 what I like most of all Williams' series are his four Perry Masons, because he gets the chance to play someone who actually belongs at the scene of a crime, and who isn't the first person suspected, but rather he's defending the guilty-seeming party; overall, he's positively giddy in these films; his encyclopedic grasp of the law granting him an almost holy ghost power. 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. In the long-running TV series, Raymond Burr starts out more like William's Mason, ever a legal precedent ahead of disbarment or incarceration as he sets 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, 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 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, the moment, the liquidity with which he eats his way through a scene. It's Williams's 'nitrous' phase as I call it, for it's like he exhales laughing gas or his contract dictates a nitrous tank is always just off camera. In his Perry Mason roles, for example, the movie around him is ever trying to find its footing, actors and actresses either get on board the train (Owlin Howlin and Virginia Bruce are stand-outs in this regard, and--most surprisingly--Porter Hall) or get left behind. If you're a big fan of the long-running TV series you won't cotton to William's flippancy in the role, but there's no denying his momentum. 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).

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, with Della Street a bemused Genevieve Tobin, regularly fighting off vast arrays of clients, and detectives with their own office within his. When William's 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 to get justice done for his dizzy object of counter girl affection (Patricia Ellis) after she's rooked out of her prize money in a gigolo's traveling scam (he sets up big leg contests that promote the height of objectification, then absconds with the prize money, leading to a lot of girls and their possessive boyfriends [like possibly stalker-ish suspect Lyle Talbot] in the suspect pool after said gigolo's inevitable murder. There's an exciting scene where Mason gets Talbot out of a jam by helping 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. Croker' 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 milk. Minus ten demeirt! Was the censor watching or something? 

(1935) Dir. Michael Curtiz

In the CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, Williams' Mason is suddenly an amateur master chef, ever taking over kitchens to whip up some impromptu ten course meal; a bemused gourmand tags along in the form of the NYC coroner (Owlin Howlind) who thinks nothing of bringing the entire gang back to the morgue for a quick autopsy over after-crab coffee. The whole thing seems to devolve into a happy party, a moveable feast ala the writing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Robert Altman's 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." But generally here are actors and sets that would never be so giddy and Altman-ish without William as the inspiration.

Ever the center of attention, 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 fronting 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 think this just badly-dated misogynist subtext ('good' women want to tie you down and stop you from having fun), a nervous producer's idea on how to placate the censor, a censor demand/request, or the writer's sly ribbing of the censors and their memos on how maybe these crime movies could 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 (except clearly the writers know nothing about bond trading), and his pained evasion (especially considering the few weariness of George Sanders, which conveys the kind of isolated anguish of a closeted actor being pressured by the studio into marrying some bossy nag he barely knows).

One subtextual aspect of the Masons, and this holds true with the TV show too-- is how murder benefits the world. The set-up is to of course make a lot of suspects for Mason to sort through: more than one person may have tried to kill our victim that fateful night, or actually thought they did; the one who delivered the last blow is--upon being exposed to light--revealed as evil (or else Mason immediately changes his approach upon dismissal of the charges to defend the person he just convicted as a clear case of self defense). It's as if the poker or vase was a hot potato, so it's okay to smash a guy on the sconce if he falls and doesn't die, and then if the next person comes along, and while said guy is prostrate on the floor shoots him, then the last guy goes to jail BUT if he dies from the fall, then the first guy goes to jail. In addition to the suspect pool, this murder is also very cathartic, the victim's evil is excised from the social order. It's as if this person is a straw dog soaking up all the venal odium our era needs to shed, then being slaughtered by a collective urge within the texture of reality, after which Mason eventually focuses and solves (as in the opposite of dis-solves), like rain putting out the blazing wicker man pyre. Lawyers with a lot of oratory, confidence, and grinning wolf delight were Williams' specialty - 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.  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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