Raymond Burr remains the defining screen incarnation of Perry Mason, the defense attorney created by author Erle Stanley Gardner, but he wasn’t the first. Long before Burr stepped into the role for the long-running TV series (and many subsequent made-for-TV movies), Warren William played him in the movies, starting with the first screen appearance of Perry Mason in The Case of the Howling Dog (1934).
Lawyer-turned-author Erle Stanley Gardner began writing stories for pulp magazines in 1923. He created Perry Mason, his most successful fictional character, in 1933, with the novel The Case of the Velvet Claws, which also introduced secretary Della Street and investigator Paul Drake, his loyal team in what would eventually number more than 80 novels and short stories. The Case of the Howling Dog was his fourth Mason novel, serialized in Liberty Magazine in 1934 and quickly purchased by Warner Bros.
Jack Warner took a personal interest in this production, which he hoped would launch a successful new series for the studio. After considering Edward G. Robinson for the role, Warner chose William after his turn as Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case (1934). He assigned director Alan Crosland, an old hand and reliable craftsman with a long career handling big Warner productions in the silent era (such as Don Juan, 1926, and Old San Francisco, 1927), and famous for directing the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, in 1927. He plied Crosland with notes that bordered on micromanagement. “We want plenty of animation out of William,” he wrote. “Don’t let him cross his eyes through the picture. Let him do one or two twists of the mustache and three pinches of the nose and about four pulls of the ear. Also, have at least half a dozen shruggings of the shoulder and fourteen quick look-backs with the camera behind him.”
Plays on Turner Classic Movie on Friday, July 27, and again on Thursday, August 30.