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.”
Between Christmas 2007 and Oscar night 2008, the entire critical discussion seemed centered on arguing out which side you stood on: No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood. Which was the most authentic, the most provocative, the most profound, the most elemental, and which was the best American film of the year. It was almost like you had to denigrate one to support the other. Now that the debate has calmed, I think we can let these two distinct portraits of the hard, unforgiving American frontier co-exist as different perspectives from the same wellspring.
Loosely adapted from Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Oil!,” it reworks the American entrepreneurial success story as an elemental frontier myth, roughly hewn out of the landscape that is remade in its wake. The magnificent opening pits lone prospector Daniel Plainview against the very earth itself, wordlessly digging his way to the American dream until his mine strikes a gusher. When he finally speaks some 15 minutes into the film, he has reinvented himself as a self-made oil man, and he finds his nemesis in a self-aggrandizing young preacher (Paul Dano) who set out to humble Plainview as he builds his church on Plainview’s money.
Not quite as ambitious or serious is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the latest from the Judd Apatow comedy factory, and it’s being released in both the original theatrical version and an extended cut the filmmakers call Walk Hard – American Cox: The Unbearable Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut, which I have to admit makes me smile.
John C. Reilly plays Cox with wide-eyed harmlessness from age 14 (towering over his high-school bandmates) to somewhere around 70. In between he gets hooked on every substance known to show-biz, drops acid with The Beatles (played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman), turns into Brian Wilson for an endless summer, abandons a few dozen children, and meets his soulmate in country-twanged singer Darlene (Jenna Fischer in June Carter mode). Directed by Jake Kasdan (who co-wrote the script with producer Apatow), it’s more silly than clever, quoting “Ray” and “Walk the Line” (among other biopics) as Dewey morphs through country, R&B, rock, folk and other musical genres