With a show as well-produced and flat-out fun as Perry Mason, the hard part of working one's way through these boxed sets is restraint. Sometimes you want to gorge yourself on at least one show a day (a tempting indulgence for many right now with another CBS/Paramount title, Mission: Impossible), instead of pacing yourself at about one a week, so that by the time you've finished one boxed set the next season or half-season is hitting store shelves. Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 2 offers another 20 episodes from the latter-half of the program's first (1957-58) year, and they're just as enjoyable as the first 19. That they're as good a they are is surprising: current hour dramas like ER and C.S.I. now shoot just twenty-two to twenty-four episodes per year (each running less than 45-minutes), but the cast and crew on Perry Mason and other '50s dramas shot thirty-nine 52-minute shows annually.
For DVD reviewers, sometimes there's not a lot to add when talking about a packaging of random shows (like Image's Naked City DVDs) or half-season sets like these. Honestly, there's not a whole lot of difference in content, tone, or style between the first 19 Perry Masons and the second 20, and the quality remains consistently high.
The big difference - one that's genuinely noticeable - is the increasingly relaxed, confident performances of its regular cast. The grueling schedule and number of scenes between celebrity attorney Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), loyal assistant Della Street (Barbara Hale), and private detective Paul Drake (William Hopper) meant that the actors spent innumerable hours on the set together, and by all accounts they became very close friends. This, in turn, had a positive impact with regard to their onscreen camaraderie - rarely have TV drama colleagues been so believably, naturally friendly around one another, and this congenial atmosphere is passed along to the TV audience. All three come off not only as extremely, adeptly professional, but also quite likeable. (However, in keeping with Earl Stanley Gardner's literary character, Perry's methods still frequently border precipitously toward the unethical.)
This is all the more impressive when one considers that Burr up to that point had usually played either brooding thug-type or smooth-talking villains, each capable of bursts of psychotic violence. Indeed, he had been so typecast that early in the first season, Burr seemed to struggle with scenes that required him to be gregarious or amused, attributes he had rarely shown onscreen before. Similarly, Hopper had been a pretty bad actor who by the mid-1950s had been relegated to leading roles in sci-fi pictures like The Deadly Mantis (1957) or supporting parts in big movies like Rebel without a Cause (1955), and in each capacity his performances tended to be stiff and one-dimensional. On Perry Mason however, Hopper is utterly at ease, smooth and eminently agreeable. He's almost like an entirely different actor.
Because Perry Mason was as much a detective/mystery show as it was a courtroom melodrama, at least for the time being it avoided the kind of repetition or scripting desperation of later series it helped inspire, like L.A. Law and The Practice. And by generally setting up the mystery via its guest actors/suspects, murderers, etc. in first acts, a format later adopted on shows like Columbo, there's a surprisingly degree of narrative variety.
This also allowed for a wide range of settings for its stories, from Skid Row hotels to Bel-Air mansions. Though parts of every show have scenes in Perry's office and the same courtroom over-and-over, the use of myriad location shooting, backlot streets, etc. keep the show from becoming stale visually.
Among the great line-up of rising young talent and established character players that appear in these episodes: L.Q. Jones, Gail Kobe, Shepperd Strudwick, Dabbs Greer, Jeanette Nolan, Angie Dickinson, Murray Hamilton, Warren Stevens, Claude Akins, Werner Klemperer, Karen Sharpe, Les Tremayne, Charles Lane, Bill Quinn, Neil Hamilton, Fay Wray, Michael Fox, R.G. Armstrong, Hank Patterson, Phyllis Coates, as well as two less expected names: comedian Joe E. Brown and B-Western star Johnny Mack Brown.
Though not a director's show, among the regular helmers were better-than-traffic cop names like Laszlo Benedek, Christian Nyby, Andrew V. McLaglen, and Arthur Hiller.
Video & Audio
Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 2 is presented in its original full frame format in excellent black and white transfers that are uncut (running about 52 minutes apiece) and which are not time-compressed. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options, though the show is closed-captioned. The 20 shows are spread over five single-sided, dual-layered DVDs packaged in three slim cases. The Dolby Digital mono is adequate.
Those who've enjoyed the first volume of this series will not be disappointed with the second. Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 2 is still a lot of fun a half-century after it was made.
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.