Perry Mason has been a constant presence - its 271 hour-long episodes from 1957-1966 and ten years worth of TV movies that began in 1985 and ended only with the death of star Raymond Burr, have been in continuous re-runs - yet this reviewer generally steered clear of the series on the assumption that it was a rigidly formula-bound mystery show / courtroom drama overflowing with the kind of genre cliches spoofed so uncannily in The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). That may be true of the series' later seasons, but Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 1 is a winner all the way, an enormously fun show that's surprisingly strong on many levels.
Writer Erle Stanley Gardner created famous Angelino investigative lawyer Perry Mason in the early 1930s, and soon thereafter several alarmingly ill-conceived movie versions were produced, none of which were successful. A subsequent radio show did somewhat better, but it too struggled to find the proper tone for the show and its main character. Gardner was more careful when he licensed his stories to television, and the series eventually came under the care of actress-turned-executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson and line producer Ben Brady.
The very first Perry Mason, "The Case of the Restless Redhead," is fascinating in the way it gradually, shrewdly introduces one-by-one the characters already familiar to fans of Gardner's books and the radio series. Perry Mason (Burr) works out of a downtown Los Angeles office with loyal assistant Della Street (Barbara Hale), with Paul Drake (William Hopper), a private detective under perpetual retainer by Perry. Forever determined but never successful in convicting Perry's clients are District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman) and wily Police Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins). (The actors are awkwardly seated over the opening titles so that their positions correspond to the actors' billing, even though their characters would never be seated that way in a real courtroom.)
The first thing that stands out about the series is just how well it's produced. Perry Mason is a direct descendent of the B-mysteries of the 1930s and '40s featuring sleuths like Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes. These were relatively inexpensive films with running times of about 70 minutes. Perry Mason was quite expensive by 1950s television standards - each episode cost about $100,000 - but comparable in terms of production values to the better B-mysteries of that earlier era. (The series does liberally raid the CBS stock music library, however, in lieu of original scores. Fans of shows like Twilight Zone and Have Gun Will Travel will recognize many familiar cues.)
What's surprising about this first half-season set is the variety of storylines and, in turn, locations. Instead of limiting the action to the same few sets - Perry's office, the courtroom and a few generic homes and offices that could be redressed and recycled - the kind of thing found in other one-camera shows like Adventures of Superman, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, etc., Perry Mason was shot on location all over Southern California: downtown Los Angeles, in the Valley, the high desert, out at Big Bear Mountain. Interiors (during season one anyway) were shot at Fox's old Western Avenue Studios. (Those living in Los Angeles will be amused by the constant references to real streets, neighborhoods, buildings, etc.)
More importantly, episodes avoid falling into a rigid formula of first act murder, second act investigation, third act trial. (Actually, most episodes feature a preliminary hearing, not a jury trial. Partly this was done to keep the show realistic, but mainly to avoid the cost of hiring extras to play the jury.) Instead, there's actually a lot of variation. Some shows concentrate mainly on Perry's (and Paul's) investigation of the crime, with courtroom scenes limited to just a few minutes; other episodes are predominantly courtroom shows. Some are old-fashioned whodunits, others are unexpectedly modern teleplays concerned with the particulars of the legal system.
Indeed, another impressive facet of the show is how much of it is rooted in actual law, which gets pretty complex for an era in which simple, uncluttered melodrama was the rule for series television. Perhaps unintentionally, Perry's crafty theatrics, his use of legal loopholes and procedures to his own (client's) ends by today's standards frequently come awfully close to crossing ethical boundaries. At times Perry Mason comes off a little like an Eisenhower-era Johnnie Cochran.
Then again, perhaps this moral ambiguity was intentional, given the casting of Raymond Burr, an actor who until 1957 had almost exclusively played especially ruthless villains, most famously the grim murderer in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. Almost shocking is how much weight Burr took off in the three short years since that film. Though still quite fleshy and big-boned, Burr in Season One is about as slim as he'd ever get, but even fat Burr was an inspired choice to play Perry. Towering over those he cross-examines in the witness box, his authoritative voice and glowering, expressive eyes could still be intimidating, yet his easy-going manner (and apparently in real life Burr was highly sociable, extremely generous, and sweet-natured) was a heretofore untapped quality of the actor that really shines here.
His onscreen chemistry with Hale and Hopper is especially strong. The three apparently became quite close off-camera and this is carried over into the show. In these earliest episodes, Burr is still finding his way: he smiles awkwardly in many episodes, later on he'd come off less forced.
The supporting cast is excellent. As Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill argue in their book about Perry Mason, "Perry was the brains, Paul the brawn, and Della had the legs." Though Hopper was famously bland playing supporting parts in big pictures and leading roles in lesser films (including several sci-fi movies), his chemistry with Burr and Hale and breezy manner, in contrast to Perry Mason's quiet intensity, works quite well. (In one episode an autographed Dick Tracy cartoon is awkwardly displayed on Paul's desk. Chester Gould must have been a Perry Mason fan.)
The well-cast Talman, in the unenviable role of Hamilton Burger, like Raymond Burr was best-known for playing heavies prior to Perry Mason; he made an especially creepy villain in the noir classic The Hitch-Hiker (especially in one scene where Talman's psychopath sleeps his eyes wide open). Collins, so good in Citizen Kane and especially The Magnificent Ambersons avoids the usual cliches as Perry's other chief adversary who, unlike the often exasperated Burger, clearly relishes his cat-and-mouse relationship with the famous lawyer.
Fans of character actors from the era will find a veritable goldmine in every episode of Perry Mason. In just "The Case of the Angry Mourner," for example, Dorothy Adams, Malcolm Atterbury, (a very young) Barbara Eden, Sylvia Field, Paul Fix, Joan Weldon, and James Westerfield all appear. Other actors appearing in these first nineteen shows: Vaughn Taylor, Hillary Brooke, Greta Thyssen, Robert Cornthwaite, William Schallert, Frances Bavier, Joi Lansing, Michael Fox, Virginia Gregg, Brett Halsey, and many others. Three Stooges fans will delight in seeing perennial villain Kenneth MacDonald turn up frequently as a judge and late-era Stooge bad girl Connie Cezon as Perry's largely unseen secretary. Fans of '50s science fiction will note appearances by such genre stalwarts as Morris Ankrum (another semi-regular judge), Thomas Browne Henry, Whit Bissell and Robert Clarke.
Video & Audio
Episodes included in Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 1 are presented in their original full frame format in excellent black and white transfers that are uncut (running about 52 minutes apiece) and which are not time-compressed. The image is sharp with little signs of wear, and at times the show almost looks brand-new. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options, though the show is closed-captioned. The series' first 19 episodes are spread over five single-sided DVDs packaged in three slim cases that, all-told, is about the size of one of Gardner's paperbacks.
A company called Purex sponsored Perry Mason on alternate weeks, and the end credits of those episodes amusingly include the original product placements for such items as New Blue Dutch Cleanser and Beads-o'-Bleach. Regrettably, there are no Extra Features, even though the series cries out for commentary tracks and other extras along the lines of Image's Twilight Zone discs. Perhaps if these sell well....
Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 1 is a delightful surprise, a consistently fun DVD set that's like getting 19 strong mini-B-mysteries, and at about $30 after standard discounts, quite a deal.
Note: This reviewer is indebted to The Perry Mason TV Show Book, an informative website devoted to all things Perry.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.