RICARDO CORTEZ, PERRY MASON, AND A SHREIKING BLACK CAT THAT WASN'T BLACK: THE STORY OF THE MAKI
Long before actor Raymond Burr put his indelible stamp on the character of the crusading attorney Perry Mason in the long running, extremely successful TV series, writer Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular novels were brought to life on the big screen by Warner Brothers. Between 1934 and 1937, the studio produced a half dozen Mason films based on Gardner’s stories. They tapped talented Warren William to play the lead, and cast the studio’s always dependable stock players in support. The result were four murder mysteries of somewhat varying quality. Although all were extremely entertaining, and popular minor motion pictures, lifted by Mr. William and the supporting casts, the studio couldn’t seem to decide how to portray their hero in the initial films. Eventually, they opted to make Gardner’s serious-minded Mason into a humorous “man about town” ala Nick Charles of THIN MAN fame. They even had him marrying his trusty secretary Della Street in the fourth film, THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1936), (apparently to make him more like Nick and Nora).
When William decided to leave Warners in 1936, the studio was faced with the problem of replacing him. They considered a number of actors, but in the end, decided they wanted the versatile, dependable Ricardo Cortez. There was a problem, however. Although they’d had Cortez under contract from 1933-36, the tight-fisted studio had recently let him go, not because they didn’t like his work, but because he was making a large salary. Cortez had signed an agreement with a minor studio, when he got a call from his old golfing buddy, Jack Warner. Warner was persuasive, and convinced his former contract player to sign another studio pact and become Perry Mason.
Cortez now faced a problem of his own -- how best to portray a character which had become associated with another actor, one whom he admired. He watched the films and consulted with the scriptwriters and director, William McGann. He even attempted to solicit opinions from the pubic, ( with mixed results), but in the end, decided to trust his own instincts and make his own imprint on the character. Luckily, the scenarists also wanted to change the emphasis as well, and make Mason more like Gardner’s Perry: dedicated, serious minded, relentless and yes, single. (His marriage to Della was abandoned!). The result was the fifth film of the series, THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT (1936). All about an old man’s fortune, missing jewels, suspicious heirs, and a shrieking cat (who is not actually black but grey and white), the film netted excellent reviews and better than average box office receipts. Warners was so pleased by Cortez’s Mason, they immediately began planning the next series film, CASE OF THE STUTTERING BISHOP. As fate would have it, that film did materialize, but minus the presence of Ric Cortez. If you can believe it, there’s a lot more to the story of BLACK CAT. For the rest of it, I hope you will consult my biography of Cortez, “The Magnificent Heel, The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez” (BearManor Media) available in multiple versions from all major retailers. This original photo shows Cortez as Mason with Della (now portrayed by June Travis).