Timing is everything and thus here's a series where Warren William gets to be the trailblazer. Unlike his Philo Vance and Lone Wolf, Warren William was the first to play Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason in The Case of the Howling Dog, a film released only a year after publication of Gardner's first Mason story, The Case of the Velvet Claws.
While we'll see William's Mason undergo a dramatic change as soon as the following picture, The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), his first turn at the role is far more straight-laced and much closer to what Raymond Burr would bring to the part later on when he took ownership of the Mason role on television in the 1950's-60's and again in the 1980's-90's. William's following three outings as Mason seem distantly related, more like a preview of what was to come in the later Lone Wolf series at Columbia, but are all extremely entertaining and will also be covered in this space in posts to come.
I'm revisiting these early Perry Mason movies about a year after I'd last watched them, so they're somewhat distant coming in and freshened up after viewing. With that qualification I'm going to write about each in a self-contained post, making no reference other Warren William appearances as Perry Mason from this point forward (With one exception regarding Allen Jenkins below). I don't want to over generalize or simplify those titles, nor especially do I want to write anything that is proved wrong by a faulty memory. After I finish writing about each of the four William Mason pictures individually I will try to do a post summing them up as a whole. Furthermore, I've never read any Erle Stanley Gardner nor was I a big fan of the Burr series when it was in syndication, and so I won't make reference to those either, only what plays out before me in each film.
While The Case of the Howling Dog opens quite effectively with the howling German Shepherd of the title, which we're shown frazzling the nerves of neighbor Arthur Cartwright (Gordon Westcott), I'm sure I was like many a period viewer in anticipating the unveiling of Mason himself. Director Alan Crosland does a fine job of this in panning the outside of a building where window after window advertises the presence of the highly successful Mason inside. We're then made privy to a couple of conversations inside the offices where lesser complaints are redirected to Mason's underlings because the noted attorney has just become too successful to personally handle each case that walks in his door.
The first ever on-screen image of Perry Mason comes when his secretary, Della Street (Helen Trenholme), strolls across his private office to interrupt Warren William's Mason from some paperwork at his desk. As Della reaches his desk she launches into a description of the jittery Cartwright and his troubles with a Howling Dog, to which William, quite bored by the unusual description, says he's far too busy for such a case. When Della insists that she feels there's more to this potential case, Mason relents and Cartwright is shown in.
Cartwright fidgets like a junkie as he sits across from Mason describing how the dog torments him and declaring that a howling dog is an omen of death in the neighborhood. Cartwright also asks Mason some questions about putting a will together slipping in a suspicious question about what happens in the case of fulfilling a will left by a person executed by the state. Our first glimpses of Warren William's Mason reflect what's to come throughout most of The Case of the Howling Dog, he's all business and quite humorless. Mason's business sense continues to dismiss the disturbed man as a client until Cartwright's shaky hand lays $10,000 under Mason's nose and pulls him into the job.
Mason is not at all playful when he arrives at District Attorney Claude Drumm's (Grant Mitchell) office to meet with the DA and Clinton Foley (Russell Hicks), owner of the howling dog plaguing client Cartwright. In fact the entire purpose of Mason's visit appears to agitate Foley, who himself deadpans such limp insults in Mason's direction that the character plays as unintentionally comic today. Mitchell, typically the master of playing cranky fathers throughout the 30's, plays a cranky District Attorney this time around. While he has an unmistakable respect for Mason, the hot shot attorney has a knack for annoying him just a little bit more than he'd like to be bothered.
Other characters in The Case of the Howling Dog are just as sober as Drumm. Cartwright's housekeeper, Elizabeth Walker (Helen Lowell), is an unpleasant old lady with bum hearing. While there is an attempt at some humor playing off Walker's disability, she's so snippy that she drains all of the fun out of it. Across the street attractive Lucy Benton (Dorothy Tree) is the Foley housekeeper. Seemingly kind, Lucy Benton goes on the immediate defense with Mason who purposely antagonizes her in every scene they share. Of all people even Allen Jenkins plays a cantankerous character here, his Sgt. Holcomb suspicious of Mason from the first with Jenkins' typical good nature hidden somewhere behind the ill-fitting mustache he wears in Howling Dog (Note: A far cry from what's to come in the series for Jenkins who plays Mason's comic sidekick Spudsy in future Mason films). Even Howling Dog's intended comic relief, Wheeler (Eddie Shubert) and Dobbs (James Burtis), a pair of fast talking private dicks hired out by Mason, are only darkly comic. This is all as intended, The Thin Man (1934) was only finished up as Howling Dog entered production and so what was to soon be it's widespread influence over the genre had yet to flower. The Case of the Howling Dog is meant to play straight, and it does.
At the heart of The Case of the Howling Dog is the case which spins off of Cartwright's original complaint. When Bessie Foley (Mary Astor) arrives to confront her husband an irate Clinton Foley unleashes the vicious German Shepherd upon her before approaching himself with intent to stab his wife with a letter opener--both Foley and the dog are shot dead. Bessie Foley denies any wrongdoing and sure enough a door to the garden some distance from Mrs. Foley slammed shut immediately after the shots were fired. After original client Cartwright disappears Mason is left working for the person he has bequeathed the major portion of his fortune to: Bessie Foley!
If this sounds confusing on the page I can only say the film itself benefits from multiple viewings as some of the details can be confusing. Until now I've left out the fact that Cartwright's will originally left his holdings to the woman known as Mrs. Clinton Foley living at Foley's address only to be later changed to the woman legally wed to Clinton Foley, two entirely different women as defined from the start. With characters disappearing throughout most of the build-up to the on-screen arrival of Mary Astor, her Bessie Foley is actually by this point the only character left for Mason to defend.
One of the stronger scenes in The Case of the Howling Dog comes when Mason pays a visit to Bessie Foley and not only confirms that her fear of going to prison is about to come true but explains that he has actually caused it by coming into possession of a handkerchief she had left inside the cab that took her to confront her husband on the night of his murder. After using Della to secure the handkerchief from the cabbie Mason turned the evidence over to the police. The incriminating hankie placed Bessie Foley at the scene of the murder and sure enough leads to her arrest while Mason is at her apartment explaining his actions to her. Bessie Foley is left wondering why her attorney would hand over evidence which would lock her away, and while Mason does not explain at this time it's no great surprise that the handkerchief would play a major role in his courtroom defense at the climax of Howling Dog.
Very reserved, Mary Astor makes her Bessie Foley one of the more interesting aspects of The Case of the Howling Dog. Second billed Astor doesn't show up until after we've met everyone else in the cast, far enough along into the movie that you've practically forgotten she's even going to be in it! When she does finally appear it's as part of the confusing Clinton Foley murder scene, one which I was sure she was responsible for during my first viewing and not entirely convinced in later viewings. Other than the handkerchief scene, in which she practically jumps out of a window to avoid capture until Mason tells her to go along with the police, she brings no color to Bessie Foley at all, and this is on purpose as throughout the major portion of the picture we're not supposed to be entirely sure as to whether Bessie pulled the trigger or not. William's Mason keeps Astor from projecting any of her personality throughout the film with one missive, his key to her staying out of the electric chair and best summed up by Mason himself at the jailhouse during another excellent scene between the two when he tells her, "No one ever got into trouble by not talking to much." She's clammed up throughout, only allowed to give away a hint of her guilt or innocence inside Mason's office, in front of only Mason, Della, and us, after her trial.
Perry Mason has perhaps his lightest moment in The Case of the Howling Dog in this final scene after Bessie Foley exits his office and Della puts together what actually happened.
While clearly not as hard-boiled as some of the mysteries playing in later years, nor attempting any of the humor of those Thin Man influenced titles more immediately to follow, The Case of the Howling Dog does just fine in delivering a story that progresses from what feels like a series of potential red herrings to an intriguing mystery we're anxious for the adroit Mason to unravel for us.