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No Burr to this Mason

Film and television can help popularize works of fiction through their adaptations, but they can also have a Frankenstein effect, in essence turning upon their creation and obliterating the source.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is "The Wizard Of Oz"; the 1939 MGM movie came to eclipse the original book, especially after CBS made it an Easter tradition for decades. The Judy Garland film so worked its way into the public consciousness that many forgot author L. Frank Baum wrote a series of Oz books, still splendid examples of juvenile literature. (To be fair, Baum himself marketed Oz stories for the stage -- they were enormously popular -- and even oversaw silent film adaptations before his death in the late teens.)

And not to pick on CBS, but at roughly the same time, Bill Paley's network was having the same effect on another series of novels, but this one while the author was still around to enjoy it (and the ensuing profits):



That's Carole Lombard's old friend Gail Patrick, in between actor Raymond Burr and author Erle Stanley Gardner, as Gardner holds an award commemorating the sale of his 100-millionth book. Most of them were a series of novels about defense attorney Perry Mason, whom Burr of course portrayed on TV for nine seasons. To many of us, Burr is Mason, and we probably can hum the melody of the TV show's theme. (Patrick was executive producer of the series.) The show undoubtedly helped Gardner (a self-taught lawyer in real life) sell more copies of the books, but it's safe to say that Perry Mason is now better known as a television than literary character.

Thus, it may surprise many to learn that two decades before the TV series debuted in 1957, Perry Mason stories -- six in all -- were adapted to film. If you're a fan of the Gardner books, or merely want to see what a non-Burr Mason is like, you'll have your chance Wednesday when Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. runs all six films. (Patrick tried to revive the series in the '70s with a good actor, Monte Markham, cast as Mason, but the public demanded Burr, who resumed playing the character in several TV movies.)

All six were made at Warners. Here's the schedule (all times Eastern):

9:30 a.m. -- "The Case of the Howling Dog" (1934). Perry Mason gets caught between feuding neighbors who claim to be married to the same woman. Warren William, Mary Astor and Allen Jenkins. Directed by Alan Crosland (best known for the 1927 "The Jazz Singer")

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11 a.m. -- "The Case of the Curious Bride" (1935). Perry Mason helps a young woman whose supposedly dead husband suddenly returns to life. Warren William, Margaret Lindsay and Errol Flynn (before "Captain Blood" propelled him to stardom later that year). Directed by Michael Curtiz. (Above is William with Claire Dodd as Mason's secretary, Della Street.)

12:30 p.m. -- "The Case of the Lucky Legs" (1935). Perry Mason tries to stay on the wagon while investigating the murder of a crooked beauty contest promoter. Warren William, Lyle Talbot and Allen Jenkins.

2 p.m. -- "The Case of the Velvet Claws" (1936). Perry Mason's honeymoon with Della Street (the characters were never married on the TV series) is interrupted by the murder of a scandal-sheet publisher. Warren William, Claire Dodd and Winifred Shaw.

3:15 p.m. -- "The Case of the Black Cat" (1936). Perry Mason looks into a trio of murders heralded by the shriek of a cat. Ricardo Cortez (who succeeded William as Mason, although here his marriage to Della never happened), Jane Bryan and Harry Davenport.

4:30 p.m. -- "The Case of the Stuttering Bishop" (1937). Perry Mason tries to find out if a long-lost heiress is the real thing. Donald Woods takes over as Mason (he had played a supporting role in "Curious Bride"), Ann Dvorak as Della and Craig Stevens.

Warners was hoping for a successful series along the lines of the "Thin Man" films; each made six movies, but the Mason stories were lower-profile affairs. (Gardner reportedly wasn't happy with most of these adaptations, and exerted more control when Mason stories were adapted for radio and TV.) But William and Cortez, both of whom had frequently played smarmy chracters in the pre-Code era, gave Mason some texture and dimension that the straitlaced Burr version often lacked.

Both William and Cortez also tackled Sam Spade on screen, Cortez in the 1931 "Maltese Falcon," William in the 1936 quasi-remake, "Satan Met A Lady." William had also earlier played another famed literary justice seeker, Philo Vance (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/209508.html).

The films are hardly classics, but they're worth watching for the different approaches to Gardner's characters. And William, in some ways the male equivalent of Norma Shearer (increasingly recognized by film buffs in recent years for his outstanding pre-Code work), here shows that his talent didn't fade after the Production Code was stringently enforced in mid-1934.

And who knows? Perhaps after seeing these films, you'll head over to your local library and see if they have any of Gardner's Perry Mason novels.
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