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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Watch List For 10-3-12

CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934) --- Warren William's first as Perry Mason, a series remarkably different from what TV would accustom us to. Mason wasn't precode, mores the pity, but there's black humor and blurred ethics to serve as antidote to stolid Ray Burr and televised adherence to letters of law. William is sassy and the practice is just another line of snake oil for him. Secretary Della is obviously a squeeze, but no one hammers the point (but imagine if this dog had howled prior to PCA enforcement). Trouble, if any, with Warner Masons was shoe-horning the character into fixed blueprint of pics done casual with regard literary antecedent. Not that Erle Gardner's books were sacred text, but they'd caught on sufficient to merit send-off accorded here, Howling Dog beginner of a series Warners meant to cultivate and continue, ala MGM with its Thin Mans.

If Perry wasn't much like Gardner's creation, at least he fit expectation re the sort of detecting mountebank Warren William would play. The actor had lately been Philo Vance to unremarkable effect (The Dragon Murder Case) --- maybe Mason would be a more congenial fit. He certainly was a livelier wire and put William back in high-powered office environs (Mason headquarters reminds me not a little of WW's Employee's Entrance nerve center). Emphasis was wisely on Perry clearing up matters outside the courtroom, thus on-scene investigation with PM in detective as much as advocate mode. Better lawyer pics invariably put their men in the field to trip up crime where it happens. To do so exclusive before the bench chances boredom of excess talk, too little action. Warners was aware enough to posit their Perry Mason as "noted lawyer-detective" and "famed sleuth" for purposes of perhaps misleading, but effective, ad-placement.

William/Mason doesn't mind skirting the law as shortcut to client acquittal, so there's happy maintenance of at least some precode practice methods (though Perry wouldn't, indeed couldn't, go so far as Bill Powell's Lawyer Man or Warren William's own Mouthpiece). Did Mason inspire youth to enter law, or just hustle generally after Warren William example? Initial PM's were just north of B's, descending from there to William's departure and substitution of Ricardo Cortez, the flip side of a same coin (Donald Woods would come too, representing the scrubs). Howling Dog was made for $149K, brought back worldwide rentals of $443K, so there was happiness ahead. Maybe it's not my favorite of the Mason lot (Curious Bride is snappier), but these things blur in the mind, so I'd not say with certainty. Often on TCM, but word is that Warner Archive contemplates release of the set, a motion lots hope will be granted.

BACK FROM ETERNITY (1956) --- RKO had this stellar property filmed before as Five Came Back in 1939, that a sleeper and major career advance for director John Farrow. Now it's 1956 and a wider screen on which to stage air disaster and resulting struggle to survive in South American jungles. Success of such usually hangs on who's cast. Robert Ryan leads as the conflicted pilot. There's also Rod Steiger, Phyllis Kirk, Gene Barry, Anita Ekberg (Ohhh, That Ekberg! said ads). There's even little Jon Provost, who finds a beheaded Fred Clark amongst the brush. Such events keep the show lively. Fun because narrative doesn't always take cliché ways out. Parallels with The High and The Mighty, plus Eternity in its title, as in From Here To ..., might have given RKO reason for hope, but by 9/56 when Back came out, the studio's own liner had crashed and was burning.

THE FATAL HOUR (1940) ---  A first time viewing Mr. Wong with Boris Karloff had me praying he'd not speak pidgin English. Well thanks be, for Wong was Oxford-educated and but for slant eyes, the Karloff of old. These Wongs were for Monogram, so mysteries unfold on dullish sets among stock-still assemblage of mostly four or less. You could listen to Wong on the radio and do as well. Of course, there'd be no reportage of The Fatal Hour at Greenbriar minus BK as lead. There's funny bloopers I used to have on 16mm of Karloff as Wong profaning a prop safe he can't open. Why is it dumb cops have to shout so much? I'd like everyone in movies and life to adopt Karloff's dulcet tones. The whodunit's solution here was cock-eyed even by relax standards of B sleuthing. There's a hatful more Wongs if you dare watching, most all in the Public Domain, so sources are infinite.

EASY LIVING (1949) --- Inside pro football, circa 1949. It's not a young man's game, as embodied by cast members who are themselves beyond athletic prime. Credibility is much enhanced by Victor Mature, Sonny Tufts, and Gordon Jones as beefcake passing sell date, conveying well their unease over futures on a grueling field. Easy Living centers on sport, but is really about men facing reality of short-term prime of life. That the pic excels comes as no surprise what with Jacques Tourneur's credit as director. Whatever was not good was made so once he came to a project. Easy Living had promise to begin with, derived from an Irwin Shaw story with Charles Schnee scripting. It's grown up about what guides and misguides people in areas of stress. Situations that normally serve rote melodramatic purpose go unexpected directions here.

I found myself liking Art Smith's hissable at first glance despoiler of  innocence (and not so innocent Liz Scott as Victor Mature's faithless wife). Scott's final confront with Smith is cruel on both sides, a late 40's getting between the lines of censorship that make us realize adult content was doable even at height of PCA enforcement. The out of left field finish slapped me hard as Vic did Liz, but I'd have been less pleased had he paired with all too clearly positioned (up to then) Lucille Ball, loving him from respectability's distance. The Mature-Ball ending was said to have been intended, which would have made Easy Living more of a standard issue. Whatever Scott's failings as to wifely concern and loyalty, it's her that Mature wants, and obviously for benefits we don't see him enjoy on screen.

BERKELEY SQUARE (1933) --- Leslie Howard time travels to a London past and indulges doomed love. This was among dreamy and wistful characters he was born to play. Come to think of it, you'd need to be both to seek travel back in time. Irresistible concept that was remade with Tyrone Power in the early-50's. Howard gets in hot water when modern references he lets slip make ancestors think him a heretic. Berkeley Square is cautionary for those who think they'd like to live in gone days, as LH finds out these weren't so idyllic (a best scene when he lets down guard and tells them all what a grubby age they're living in). Expensive Fox production at a time when that company was near broke. Folks remembered Berkeley Square with great fondness, but it disappeared for years until preservationist Alex Gordon did a rescue. On TCM.


Anonymous DBenson said...

Favorite bit of low-rent moxie from Mr. Wong: In one film he enters an exotic Chinatown shop and passes into a back room, where he confers with the local tong leaders, all in full regalia. In a later film the entire sequence is recycled, Tarzan-style -- they simply cut in new closeups of Wong and one of the leaders to replace the dialogue.

The last in the series is an interesting botch. Having evidently lost Karloff, they offer Keye Luke as a young Wong -- but he plays Wong as a much older (and duller) man throughout, thanks to a script that was clearly meant for Karloff. The only changes were to allow the shouting police inspector to call him a young whippersnapper and to let Wong exit with a pretty girl on his arm, the two of them suddenly looking like cheerful teenagers.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I remember reading the early Gardner Perry Mason novels and thinking how different Perry was in these early books than in the later ones. He's much more freewheeling in the early ones, and will do anything to acquit a client. In several of these early titles, there's not even a courtroom in sight. His romance with Della Street is much more pronounced in the early books as well.

While Warren Williams' Perry Mason is not the image we have of him thanks to Raymond Burr, they're pretty faithful to those early books.

3:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some thoughts about "Berkeley Square" ...

Berkeley Square is also a favorite of mine. I first saw it about 30 years ago at the Temple University Cinemateque in Philadelphia. The director of the film society, David Goldstein, indicated that the 16 mm print we were about to see had been made at virtually the last moment from a fast decomposing 35 mm lavender print. Perhaps it was the one made by Alex Gordon, but seeing something so rare gave the showing an added thrill. Mr. Goldstein added that the 35 mm print had been a fine grain positive used to generate the negatives from which release prints would be struck. Interestingly, it showed the wear and tear of exhibition. Apparently, Fox was so anxious to wring the last nickel from the film that it even rented out its protection print.

As for the film itself, I was fascinated by the theme and the skill with which it was developed. Many of us, I think, have particular period in history we’re most interested in. We may even prefer it to our own. I know that that is the case with me. In Berkeley Square, the protagonist, a man living in the contemporary world of the 1930s, finds himself transported to the late 18thcentury, a time in which he’d been living imaginatively. At first, he’s charmed by it, but soon enough, he finds himself encountering customs and attitudes which are not very pleasing to his own. He misses the amenities of his own time, which he’d taken for granted, such as toilet facilities and the opportunity for regular bathing. Very quickly, this period and place which he had loved, contemplating it from the safe perspective of an easy chair, becomes for him no more than a filthy pigsty. What distresses him most, however, is the realization that everything is leading to a future fraught with peril and mechanized destruction. It is the future from which he’d come, for which hope offers him no solace. He simply knows too much. And yet there is a saving grace, in that he falls in love there with a woman he never thought to meet. When the same strange circumstances deliver him back to his own time, he learns that this woman had died shortly after he left. Somehow, though, he knows that they will be together again, not in his time or hers, but in God’s time.

All our vanities wither with the passing seasons, as Ecclisiastes wrote, but even so, love endures.


8:08 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

what an elegant post from dan mercer. pure gold. and, how it applies to our love of older movies, my passion for forties hollywood and its protagonists! how disappointing it might be to actually go there, and meet my idols! its all an illusion, a fantasy, and not just onscreen.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Don't get me started!!! I'm a big Perry Mason fan, novels, original TV and, yes, the 1930's features. It's easy to see why Erle Stanley Gardner hated the Warners series; they made hash of his plots and supporting characters (Allen Jenkins as both Sgt. Holcolmb AND 'Spudsy' Drake?)

But I have a theory… remember the novels had been on the scene less than two years before the first movie adaptation. In the initial two or three books, Perry is a pretty hard boiled type and actually does a fair share of standard issue detecting. Warren Williams made a good physical match for the lawyer (Gardner never went into too much detail here, but he often described Mason as having dark good looks and long legs!) But Williams also brought his own silky-sneaky vibe to the character. As much as Gardner detested the movies, and his total lack of control, I'd argue he quickly modified PM into the smoother, trickier Williams model (Cortez was pretty sleek too) a guy less involved in traditional gunplay but full of wild ass legal antics and corner cutting long before anyone even gets murdered (typically you are eighty to a hundred pages into a Mason mystery before the first corpse shows up.) Perry always had an ethical flexibility on the printed page, but the books from the later thirties through the early fifties give us a polished smoothie, the sort of witty egoist Williams could play in his sleep (and, alas, pretty much did, late in his career).

It is fascinating that Gardner himself hand picked Raymond Burr for the television version… a dramatic switch that obviously paid off. I'd recommend fans catching the first year of the series, the only season to base the majority of episodes on published novels. In this first batch, a very svelte Burr (favoring loud sports coats!) almost scurries about, employing tactics far more devious than anything you'll see in the succeeding decade. And I love that idea of pre-code Perrys. Kevin is right, the Mason-Della Street relationship early on is straight forward. At the end of one of the best of the early books, Perry proposes. Della asks if she would have to quit her job. Perry says yes. So Della says no. Then they promptly take off for a romantic cruise around the world!

5:01 PM  

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