The Case of the Howling Dog
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
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."
This take on the famous fictional lawyer is very different from the Raymond Burr incarnation. William was the silver-haired wolf of some of the great Warner Bros. pre-Code movies, adept at playing corporate sharks with ruthless business instincts, suave manners, and an eye for younger women. His Mason is a lawyer right out of the pre-Code sensibility: cavalier with professional ethics, obstructing justice to protect a client, and flamboyant in the courtroom, where his style is filled with dramatic, showboating tactics. While he's not the lascivious wolf of previous roles, William's Mason is quite the dapper bigwig and the star attraction of a big legal firm. He's so busy he delegates most of his cases to his staff. It takes a challenge to get Mason out of his lavish skyscraper office and The Case of the Howling Dog offers just that: a nuisance complaint that careens into missing persons, false identities, murder, and a mysterious will that leaves a fortune to a mystery woman.
Mary Astor took second billing, making a memorable entrance as a mysterious woman in black. It's a small role in terms of screen time, especially for a star of her caliber, but central to the story: she immediately becomes the prime suspect and Mason's new client. She was a last minute replacement for Bette Davis, who dropped out days before production began.
Helen Trenholme plays his loyal secretary Della Street, who joins in the fun and goes undercover in a sly bit of role playing that comes back as a key point in Mason's courtroom case. In place of detective Paul Drake, Mason has a pair of staff investigators named Wheeler and Clark who tag team the stake-outs and surveillance. On the other side of the aisle, Mason races Sgt. Holcomb (wise guy character actor Allen Jenkins) to important clues and matches wits with District Attorney Claude Drumm (Grant Mitchell) in the courtroom. (D.A. Hamilton Burger and homicide detective Lt. Tragg had not yet been created by Gardner; Burger first appeared in the novels in 1935 and Tragg in 1940.)
New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent gave The Case of the Howling Dog a glowing review. "It is a well-knit story, swiftly paced, dramatically punctuated and, above all, honest with its audience," he wrote in 1934, proclaiming "this first Gardner photoplay a welcome contribution to the entertainment of cinema mystery addicts." The film was a hit and a series was born, with William playing the role in three more Perry Mason pictures over the next two years.
Director: Alan Crosland
Screenplay: Ben Markson (screenplay); Erle Stanley Gardner (story)
Cinematography: William Rees
Art Direction: John Hughes
Film Editing: James Gibbon
Cast: Warren William (Perry Mason), Mary Astor (Bessie Foley), Allen Jenkins (Sgt. Holcomb), Grant Mitchell (District Attorney Claude Drumm), Helen Trenholme (Della Street), Helen Lowell (Elizabeth Walker), Dorothy Tree (Lucy Benton), Gordon Westcott (Arthur Cartwright), Harry Tyler (Sam Martin - Taxi Driver), Arthur Aylesworth (Sheriff Bill Pemberton).
by Sean Axmaker
"Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood," John Stangeland. 2010, McFarland and Company.
"The Cast of the Howling Dog: A New Screen Sleuth," Frank S. Nugent. Oct 18, 1934, The New York Times.