Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Warner Bros., 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the one movie in the Warners’ Perry Mason series from the 1930’s that I hadn’t seen before (in the early 1990’s I recorded all the other five from the TNT network, which was then sort of the Beta version of TCM, cursed with commercial breaks but still showing a lot of great movies from the MGM and Warners catalogs that were otherwise unavailable): The Case of the Velvet Claws, fourth in the sequence and the last with Warren William as Mason. (William played it for the first four, number five — The Case of the Black Cat — featured Ricardo Cortez, and number six, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, starred Donald Woods, horrendously miscast as Mason; I can’t help wishing Warners had given the last one to Bogart so that all three of their Sam Spades would also have played Perry Mason.) In this one he and Della Street (Claire Dodd) actually get married at the beginning of the show — by a woman night-court judge played by, of all people, Clara Blandick (who was so obscure even Aljean Harmetz, in her book The Making of “The Wizard of Oz” — in which she played Auntie Em — couldn’t find any of her previous credits) — and the gimmick is that he keeps being torn away from his honeymoon to solve a new case involving Eva Belter (Wini Shaw, wasted as usual; it’s amazing that this woman got to star in one of the most iconic moments of 1930’s cinema, as the lead in Busby Berkeley’s astonishing “Lullaby of Broadway” number in Gold Diggers of 1935, but seemed ill-used in all her other appearances), a married woman who was caught stepping out on her husband with state legislator Peter Milnor (Kenneth Harlan) by a reporter for the scandal sheet Spicy Bits. She hires Mason to make the story go away and hopefully get the proprietor of Spicy Bits arrested for blackmail; what she doesn’t realize is that her own husband, George C. Belter (Joseph King), is the secret publisher of Spicy Bits. Her husband is shot dead and she’s accused of the crime, especially since she did actually shoot at him, but it turns out the real killer is Belter’s nephew, Carl Griffin (Gordon Elliott), who took advantage of the confusion after Eva’s shot missed to fire a shot with his own gun (which must have been the same caliber since the two spent shells look identical when Mason recovers them), thereby hopefully taking advantage of the fact that Mr. Belter had just disinherited his faithless wife and made his nephew his heir.

This is probably the weakest of the Warners Masons plot-wise (apparently it was butchered in the adaptation and the meaning of the title in Erle Stanley Gardner’s original novel — a piece of anti-feminist propaganda — was deleted) and was clearly yet another attempt by Warners to get their own share of the gold MGM was making on the Thin Man movies (a married detective, a case involving their high-living acquaintances and a formidable amount of on-screen alcohol consumption), and it also doesn’t help that Mason’s investigator, Paul Drake, was here called “Spudsy” and played for the usual so-called “comic relief” by Eddie Acuff. The Warners Masons are interesting movies, and the first three with William are worthwhile — The Case of the Howling Dog for a good-bad performance by Mary Astor anticipating her work in (what else?) The Maltese Falcon (she appeared with Ricardo Cortez as well and therefore made movies with all three Sam Spades); The Case of the Curious Bride for Errol Flynn’s first U.S. screen appearance; and The Case of the Lucky Legs for a genuinely witty script by Jerry Chodorov, Brown Holmes and Ben Markson (the latter two were Warners hacks but Chodorov was a major comedy writer and I suspect that, though he’s only credited with “adaptation” of Gardner’s novel, he’s really responsible for the film’s marvelous wit). Velvet Claws is much less interesting and pretty much of a loser, redeemed only by Warners’ usual professionalism and William’s élan as this more aristocratic version of Mason — though Raymond Burr’s performance on the 1950’s TV series remains the definitive reading of the character. — 11/29/07


Last night Charles and I squeezed in a relatively short movie: The Case of the Velvet Claws, the fourth of the six Perry Mason movies Warner Bros. made in the mid-1930’s and the last one to star Warren William as Mason. Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of the Mason character, disliked William’s characterization of Mason because he thought William made him too much of a gentleman — Gardner much preferred Raymond Burr, his personal choice among three finalists for the part on the 1950’s/1960’s TV show, because Burr was more convincing as the roughneck character Gardner had envisioned (my source for that story was a TV Guide article years ago and no, it didn’t name who the other two actors were) — and for the last two Warners Masons William was replaced first by Ricardo Cortez (who, ironically, had preceded him as Sam Spade by five years — Cortez played Spade in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and William played the character, renamed “Ted Shayne,” in the second version, Satan Met a Lady, from 1936) and then by Donald Woods. (It’s a pity they didn’t tap Humphrey Bogart for the last one, not only because Bogart had played an attorney quite capably in Marked Woman but it would have been nice to have all three screen Sam Spades also play Perry Mason.) The Case of the Velvet Claws was for years the most elusive of the Warners Masons because TNT, Ted Turner’s original movie channel (unlike TCM it was a commercial channel but it did give me a chance to see a lot of films for the first time, and from there I recorded a VHS tape of the 1931 Maltese Falcon that was my reference copy until a commercial DVD of the 1941 version included the previous two as bonus items), showed the other five in the series (including the surprisingly comic The Case of the Lucky Legs, actually the best in the series, and The Case of the Curious Bride, Errol Flynn’s U.S. debut, even though he was killed off-screen midway through the film and the only footage of him was a silent flashback, about a minute and a half long, at the end indicating how he died) but not Velvet Claws.

Perhaps the omission was due to the fact that Perry Mason marries his long-suffering secretary Della Street (Claire Dodd) at the beginning of Velvet Claws — he bursts into the courtroom of an elderly female night-court judge and demands that she perform the ceremony then and there, which she does — though in the next film in the series, The Case of the Black Cat, the writers either quietly annulled the marriage or, more likely, simply forgot about it and she went back to being merely Mason’s secretary. Only their attempt to get away to the Pinehurst mountain lodge is abruptly interrupted by Eva Stuart (the marvelous Winifred Shaw, a potentially major talent Warners wasted), who holds a gun on him and gives him $5,000 in cash as a retainer. What she expects Mason to do for the money is lobby Frank Locke (Addison Richards), the editor of a sleazy tabloid called Spicy Bits that digs up stories with blackmail potential and then offers to kill them if the subjects buy “advertising” in the paper, not to publish a story about rising politician Peter Milnor (Kenneth Harlan) being caught at a roadhouse with a “mystery woman.” It turns out that “Stuart” is actually Eva Belter, the wife of millionaire stockbroker George C. Belter (Joseph King), who’s secretly the owner of Spicy Bits. She was also the “mystery woman” Milnor was with that night, and that’s the real reason she wants the story spiked. At first Mason wants to return Eva’s retainer and reject the case, but he can’t do that because his sidekick Paul “Spudsy” Drake (Eddie Acuff, an infuriating comic-relief performance quite different from William Hopper’s cool efficiency in the same role in the TV show!) has inadvertently burned Eva’s bankroll while lighting a fire in Mason’s fireplace. (Grabbing what’s left of the money, Della Street uses it to light her cigarette and says, “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to light a cigarette with a $1,000 bill” — though as Charles pointed out, the bills on screen had Ulysses S. Grant’s picture on them and therefore were $500’s.)

Eva’s next brilliant move (irony intended) is to go to her husband and plead with him to kill the Spicy Bits story, but he decides to order Locke to publish the story in order to punish her — so she pulls out her gun and holds it on him, Sid Hickox’ camera discreetly dollies out and down a set of stairs, we hear two gunshots and then see her fleeing, running into one of the servants as she goes. Acting as her attorney, Mason visits the Belters’ home and finds two bullet casings, and eventually deduces that Eva’s shot missed and Belter’s real killer was his nephew Carl Griffin (Gordon Elliott), who had just learned that Belter had disinherited his wife and made his nephew the heir, and saw a chance to kill his uncle for the inheritance and pin it on Eva. It’s a clever story, based on something Erle Stanley Gardner published as a novel in 1933, though the movie never explains the title (in the book, according to William K. Everson, the “Velvet Claws” referred to “a piece of literally ‘catty’ anti-feminist propaganda”), and it’s interesting for the sheer diversity of the company credits involved: the opening copyright notice is to “Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. and the Vitaphone Corp.,” the closing credit has the Warners logo and “A First National Picture,” and the opening also featured the “Clue Club” series logo. Nicely directed by William Clemens from a script by Tom Reed, Velvet Claws is a pleasant hour-long time filler and William, as he had in the three previous films, makes a good Mason and offers a nicely different “read” on the character from the powerful but often brusque and unpleasant Raymond Burr. — 10/13/12