Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review - The Case of the Lucky Legs

The Case of the Lucky Legs

Starring: Warren William, Genevieve Tobin, Patricia Ellis, Lyle Talbot, and Porter Hall.
Director: Archie Mayo.
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release Date: October 5, 1935.
"Is this the office of the eminent attorney Perry Mason or an insane asylum?"
"Sometimes I wonder."
The success of The Thin Man led to a spate of knockoffs-- The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, Satan Met a Lady and the Fast and Furious series just to name a few-- and even established brands weren't safe. Whereas Warners' Perry Mason series had started out quite similar to their pulp brethren-- gritty, quick-witted law procedurals-- but had quickly evolved to fit more into the Warners' mold. The second film in the series, The Case of the Curious Bride, turned Mason's confidant Paul Drake into Allen Jenkins' dim-witted pal "Spudsy" and reduced Mason's law offices from a place of business to more of a setting for some madcap misadventures.

It really is a bizarre series to try and follow, but the first four entries, all anchored by pre-Code king Warren William with charm and wits to spare, are a treat. Much of the supporting cast is shuffled (the aforementioned Jenkins actually played a uptight police officer in the first movie-- seriously, don't try and follow the logic), which means that Della Street, Perry Mason's secretary/sometimes romantic interest may get juggled between featured players. That's how we end up with one film in the series-- not coincidentally the most screwball of the entries-- co-starring Ms. Genevieve Tobin.

Della Street's main character trait is normally loyalty, which Tobin's Street can give or take. She's far more interested in lobbing witticisms at and over Mason's head, while he's more than happy to banter a few digs with her whenever he's not busy running for his life.

The titular case involves a beauty contest that's a scam. The promoter ends up dead, and the roll call of suspects is pretty slim-- it's only four deep, and one of them is played by Porter Hall. If you saw your Thin Man, it's not too hard to pin it on him, but the joy of using the clockwork plot of Erle Stanley Garner's book in the undiluted insanity of the film is that the clues still add up with a satisfying thoroughness.

There are a number of changes in the movie from the book, even more than the madcap tone. In the movie, Mason manages to lock Patton's apartment door after he does some snooping. His inability to lock it in the original book turn out to be a major consequence of the film that threaten Mason with disbarment as the plot proceeds. Notably, the book also begins in Mason's office-- we don't actually 'see' the Lucky Legs competition. It's not a surprise that Warners' would be sure to add that in.

The Case of the Lucky Legs is definitely one of Tobin's best showcases. She's daft and daffy, the only character who seems to be working on the same level as Mason the whole time. She is frequently flirtatious with him, and immediately turns around to deflate him. One great bit:
"Where's your book, Della?" 
"Oh, right here where it fell the other night when you and I were... oh, I forgot. This is your confession."
An unfortunate side effect of the plot is that Della is mostly stuck on the other end of the telephone, which limits the banter between Tobin and William for much of the film, though it thankfully comes roaring back by the picture's end.

Were Tobin in more of it, it may have been a lot more closer to The Thin Man in terms of pace. As it is, the film does get bogged down in a few of Mason's schemes, and the interplay between Mason and Spudsy-- while cute-- sometimes gets bizarre. Did we need to see Warren William tickling Allen Jenkins several times? I'm not so sure, even if it does add the film's madhouse aura.

Fans of serious detective films need not apply. Lucky Legs is a minor screwball classic with insanity to spare.


[Lantern is down right now, will add more reviews when I can]

Cliff at Immortal Ephemera (who will presumably have to knife fight me later over Goodbye Again) notes:
In my Case of the Curious Bride review I referred to Claire Dodd, a personal favorite, as the best of William’s Della Street’s. Well, my memory may have failed me as I really loved Genevieve Tobin, who’s usually anything but a personal favorite, as Della in Lucky Legs. At the least I’d call the Dodd vs. Tobin match-up a draw. Tobin, who’s previously driven me crazy in Goodbye Again (1933), a pre-code Warren William title I’ve yet to cover, among a handful of other films, takes the patrician accent that usually just kills her presence for me and spins it as naturally as possible throughout Lucky Legs where she finally seems down to earth. Whether alone in a shot, as she often is during periodic phone calls from Perry, or sharing the scene with Warren William and others, she’s intelligent, witty, and funny and even tossed out a few lines in reference to encounters with Perry which left me wondering how they flew past the Production Code. Tobin has great chemistry with William and just does a wonderful job throughout Lucky Legs.

Other Notes

When Mason pops in to bug Dr. Doray, he asks where the 'curious bride' is. The joke being that the previous entry in the series was The Case of the Curious Bride. 

The same story would later be dramatized in an episode of the "Perry Mason" TV show.

You can pick up the original story for the Kindle over here.



Thanks to Warner Archive, you can find this one in their six film Perry Mason collection; all of the films are a lot of fun if you like zippy murder mysteries, and even the change in leading men doesn't distract from things too bad. You can find it at Amazon.
"On account of certain people that have been hanging out there lately,
we're fumigating."