Case of the Curious Bride (1935) Directed by Michael Curtiz. Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, Alan Jenkins, Claire Dodd, Donald Woods (80min.)
A comely widow, recently remarried, can be excused for being curious if it appears that her first husband has returned from the dead. But, what’s this? Attorney Perry Mason as a bon vivant? Anyone used to the stiff that Raymond Burr used to play on the long running Perry Mason tv show will be shocked to see the delightful Warren William living it up as a womanizing, hard-drinking gourmand. Surrounded by the crème de la crème of the Warners stock company, this B-picture mystery holds up almost as well as its avowed model, The Thin Man.
Mason’s creator, Earle Stanley Gardner, was a lawyer himself. Self-educated, he passed the bar at the age of 21 and practiced during the teens and twenties in Ventura County, California. He was creative in his law practice. An early case hinged on the police identification of numerous Chinese sellers of illegal lottery tickets. Gardner proved that the detectives arrested people based on their addresses, but could not identify the individuals, thereby winning acquittal for all. His law firm partner described Gardner’s courtroom technique, “His way with a hostile witness was plain wizardry. He could coax the fellow along, right into telling outright lies, or into confusion so complete the fellow would end up babbling and no jury could possibly take his testimony seriously.” While he enjoyed the excitement of the courtroom, office work bored him, and in the early 1920s he began submitting stories to pulp magazines like Black Mask.
Gardner’s work habits were exhausting. Toiling in the law firm all day, he’d labor until the wee hours on his fiction, sleep for about three hours and then wake up early to write before his legal duties began. He set a goal of 5000 words a day and wrote stories for a variety of series characters. “In time, he devised his plot wheel. It was a cardboard wheel with spokes radiating from the center. Some of the spokes would indicate characters or character types, some situations, some unexpected complications, some the lowest common denominator of reader interest. The wheel was so constructed that as the spokes revolved and stopped their points of contact would provide the nucleus of a plot.” (Tuska). So, he could devise a story in 30 seconds, accounting in part for his astounding productivity. When his stories, and then his novels began to sell, he quit his law practice.
Originally, his alter ego was from the hard-boiled school, tough, unscrupulous and slangy– “he can dish it out and he can take it.” It’s not too surprising Gardner would have envisioned a lawyer who could slice away legal red tape by making the truth appear a little clearer to the slow-witted police, dense District Attorney, and armies of incompetent detectives. In court, “Perry Mason, apparently, was trying to slip nothing over on any one. He was calm, serene and courteous, belying the reputation which had grown up around him of being a legal trickster, a juggler who could manipulate facts as a puppeteer manipulates his dummy figures.”
Perry’s legal tactics are most interesting. In the film, all trial scenes have vanished, although courtroom accuracy was one of author Gardner’s hallmarks. Mason’s legal shenanigans in this book, and apparently many others, are quite questionable. But, Mason was concerned with the bigger issues of truth and justice and sometimes bent the law to accommodate them. In the novel The Case of the Curious Bride, he advises one witness to leave town to avoid a subpoena, and tampers with crime scene evidence! Oh, he’s got justification, “‘My methods,’ he said, ‘are unconventional. So far they’ve never been criminal. Perhaps they’re tricky but they’re legitimate tricks a lawyer is entitled to use.'” Of course, much has changed. A police officer tells Mason to shut up when he tries to advise a client of his Miranda rights. At the beginning, the Perry Mason novels reflected the unconventional morality of Gardner’s pulp fiction origins, but as Gardner became more successful, his hero, too, became more mainstream. Gardner wrote 180 Perry Mason books between 1933 and his death in 1970.
There is little description of Perry Mason himself in The Case of the Curious Bride and a couple of awkward hand-holding scenes delineate his relationship with Della Street. Yet, as Jon Tuska points out, their relationship was revolutionary. Never before had a woman been a helpmate, a pal, part of the man’s world of the detective story. As women were forced into the workplace during the Depression (the first Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, was published in 1933) Della’s relationship with Perry became somewhat of a role model. A modern audience may find the lack of a sexual relationship to be unrealistic, but earlier audiences would have considered such intimacy objectionable; the prose accommodates all speculations. Gardner married his secretary, and when she retired to be his wife, apparently had a personal relationship with her successor. Perhaps this explains Della’s insistence in the books on not marrying her boss, since then his new secretary would be having all the fun (and implied, all the sex). Gardner’s “Fiction Factory” ran on the professional and personal loyalty of a trio of secretaries, the Walters sisters, who remained with him his entire career. With Perry and Della, as in Gardner’s private life, people could speculate all they wished, but there would be no incriminating evidence.
Claire Dodd and Warren William. Dodd’s ultra-office girl wardrobe was designed by Orry-Kelly. Even the sedate evening gown she wears at the climactic cocktail party has the crisp white detailing of the workplace uniform.
The director of The Case of the Curious Bride is Michael Curtiz. Among his 165 films are Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca; surely one of them is among your favorites. A Warner Brothers workhorse, he brings his high level of skill to this film, and experiments somewhat. Perhaps he, like William Wellman, was inspired to creative heights by unpromising material, even if some critics called the result “piffle” (Hart). Curtiz’ first silent film, in Hungary, was in 1912 this is his 99th film as a director! He may overuse those blur dissolves between scenes, but it’s an unusual touch. The location photography in San Francisco is also out of the ordinary in the studio era (executives found it more economical to build a city on the back lot). Perhaps the freedom of being out of the eye of the front office part of the time was also an inspiration. It’s a lot of fun to have a scene in what appears to be the San Francisco Municipal Airport, and a car chase up and down the city’s hills in Perry’s cute 2-seat roadster. Curtiz couldn’t have suspected that he would owe his greatest fame to a bit player in this film, Errol Flynn. Later in 1935 Captain Blood would make both their careers.
Flynn’s part is a tiny one, in silhouette as corpse under a sheet, and in a 60-second “who done it” flashback. Flynn had been under contract but without an assignment; he said he was collecting salary checks for playing tennis. He’d posed for publicity photos as a policeman, since the publicity department had decided he’d be promoted as Irish (even though he was from Australia and had never been to Ireland). As Flynn remembered his role in his autobiography in The Case of the Curious Bride (completely inaccurately), “I was wheeled onto the set on a morgue table. I lay there, beneath the sheet, holding my breath. If you have to be a corpse, sport, I told myself, be magnificent. William swiftly pulled the sheet back. “That’s him, all right,” he said. He replaced the sheet. I was wheeled out. Some people claim it was my best role.”
The riches of the Warner Brothers stock company yield familiar faces, including Alan Jenkins as ex-fighter-detective Spudsy (a stand-in for the drab Paul Drake of the books), Warren Hymer as comical thug Oscar Pender, Winifred Shaw in a gratuitous hotsy-totsy dance number and Olin Howland as the jolly coroner. Claire Dodd often plays rather nasty girls (“As long as there are sidewalks, you’ll have a job,” says Joan Blondell as she kicks her out of her apartment in Gold Diggers of 1933). But here, she makes a tart and sensible Della Street, as handy with the wisecrack as the stenographer’s notebook. Rhoda Montaine is played fetchingly by Margaret Lindsay, who can be a little too prissy, but is charming here. Lindsay (of Dubuque, Iowa) and Warren William (of Aitken, Minnesota) both speak “Kansas City British” an odd hybrid of American and English speech that was considered the height of sophistication in early talkies.
Margaret Lindsay, supposedly on vacation at Lake Arrowhead.
The movie plot of The Case of the Curious Bride resembles the book, with many recognizable incidents, the long phone booth scene for one. But the literary Rhoda Montaine is not perfumed, fur-clad Margaret Lindsay but a plain looking nurse with a bad complexion victimized by a hustler who specialized in working class dames with a little money saved. And, Rhoda’s second husband is indeed a millionaire’s son, but one she has met nursing back from a drug addiction!
The film plunges you into a crowded scene (at Fisherman’s Wharf?) and is so densely packed with incident and dialogue, it takes at least two viewings to sort out all that happens. It’s certainly a textbook demonstration of how to “open up a story.” In the book, a lost purse with a revolver inside is left on a chair in Mason’s office, where he and Della discuss it and its owner. In the film, the purse is forgotten in a restaurant booth, after Perry has been lured away by Rhoda from cooking his own crab a la Bordeaux dinner in Luigi’s restaurant kitchen. Della finds it in Mason’s bedroom when she comes to wake him up the following morning; assuming it was left there by his latest flame. His office is an art deco palace, not a mere place of business. The solution to the mystery is considerably cleverer, too, if just a tad hard to swallow. And, the dialogue! One of Oscar’s speeches, delivered at break neck speed starts out: “I told him I’d already ankled up from South San Francisco, just to glom a loada…” And then, no matter how many times the crack Moviediva slang translation team listened to it, we couldn’t understand a word he said.
But, best of all, of course, is the divine Warren William, who seems to flip back and forth in his career between cads and seducers, breezy heroes and executives flawed with a fatal hubris. He brings a bit of all this to any role he plays; favorites include Employees’ Entrance, Skyscraper Souls and the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1933. He seemed to be the go-to guy for series detectives, having previously played Philo Vance, and with the Lone Wolf in his future. When asked to play a variation on William Powell in The Thin Man, he almost outdoes his role model. “Warren William was playing Perry Mason after his own heart and was enjoying himself.” (Tuska). Gardner hated the Warner Brothers Perry Mason films, although he liked William better than his successors, Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods. There would be other Dellas, as well. Too bad William never made a Mason film with a later Della, the great Ann Dvorak.
Gardner exercised considerably more creative control over the long running Perry Mason radio and tv series, in part because of his bad experience (although not financially) with Warners. His widow (and second former secretary) said, “Earle would get so mad at what they were doing to his characters. He thought the pictures would turn readers away, not attract them He could say nothing at all about the Warner Brothers movies, except to continue complaining, which he did.”
Sorry. Warren William as Perry Mason is nothing to complain about.
(Photo of William and Dodd from the July-August 1992 FIR. Photos of Flynn and Lindsay in an anonymous movie star scrapbook from Moviediva’s collection. Most scrapbooks can be dated to within a year or two, but this one has photos from the early 30s to the early 40s, pasted in random order, as if a box of photos had been saved over time and all mounted at once. Biographical information about Earle Stanley Gardner from Jon Tuska’s excellent books, The Detective in Hollywood, and especially In Manors and Alleys, “Michael Curtiz” by Henry Hart in the November, 1970 Films in Review, “The Case of the Previous Perrys” by Jim Davidson in the July-August 1992 Films in Review, My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn)