After eight half-season sets of Perry Mason so far, plus a 50th Anniversary Edition crammed with extra features and memorable episodes, I confess a certain weariness trying to assess Perry Mason - Season 5, Volume 1 a set of 15 one-hour shows from the 1961-62 season.
It's not that Perry Mason was sliding into mediocrity - far from it. During this period of television history shows routinely "jumped the shark" after just a season or two (or less), gradually becoming unwatchable. But the 271st episode of Perry Mason is pretty much as good as the very first one from nine years before, and therein lies what's good and bad about the program. It's extremely well-produced with good acting and atmosphere but after a while it all becomes a murky, indistinguishable blur, especially by this point, with the same guest stars coming back season after season, often filling the same function (as red herring, the unjustly accused, the surprise murderer, etc.) in show after show.
Fans of classic television all have their favorite Twilight Zone or Gunsmoke episodes, and can tell a great Star Trek episode from as lousy one, but even die-hard Perry Mason fans would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite episode of that series. While a number of shows are memorable for their unusualness (Perry's single color episode, the handful where guest stars pinch-hit for an ailing Raymond Burr, or the one where Perry "loses" a case), no one remembers a particular Perry because of its great, innovative script.
All that said, Perry Mason is still a lot of fun precisely because of its reliability, its impressive line-up of character actors in guest parts, and especially the amused performances of its stars: ingenious, resourceful Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), the famous Los Angeles attorney who never loses a case; easily aggravated D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman) and slippery Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins); the warmth and humor of tireless secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale); and their worldly, slightly cynical pal-colleague, P.I. Paul Drake (William Hopper). They're like old friends, and their charm along with the production polish and guest casts carry the show, more so than the mysteries, which for the viewer are virtually unsolvable.
Something different for a change: That's not Perry Mason, but his arch-nemesis, D.A. Hamilton Burger, marvelously played by William Talman
For those wanting general impressions of the show, this review incorporates elements from previous Perry Mason reviews penned by this writer. Below that are some comments particular to this edition.
Essentially a mystery show with a courtroom setting for its climax, Perry Mason's single flaw is that as a mystery it doesn't really play fair with its audience, though the same could be said for B-movie mysteries of the 1930s and '40s, radio mystery shows, and virtually all other TV whodunits. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot (to name two examples) faced seemingly irresolvable cases with bizarre, inexplicable clues - yet the solutions were always quite simple and logical. The great literary detectives simply had powers of observation lost on us mere mortals, even though we're armed with the same information as those protagonists.
On the other hand, Perry Mason, the Charlie Chan movies, Murder, She Wrote, etc. operate under a different set of rules. The resolutions to the mysteries don't always make sense and audiences often don't have access to the same clues the protagonists do, and they often leap to conclusions and solve crimes in ways that don't hold up to scrutiny. Instead, these kinds of movies, TV and radio shows rely heavily on atmosphere, characterization and star power to entertain their audiences. One might guess who the real murderer is, but in most cases you won't be able to solve the mystery on your own.
Fortunately Burr, Hale, and Hopper and just wonderful in their roles. Apparently they became close friends in real life, and this camaraderie very much extends to their scenes together on the show. About the middle of season two, Talman's Hamilton Burger started getting more shading, a welcome addition. Often regarded as television's most thankless role, Hamilton Burger this season still is Perry's weekly nemesis but now he's more affable outside the courtroom and flexible in, especially when new evidence casts a shadow of a doubt over the guilt of Perry's client.
Notes on Season 5, Volume 1
Though credited through the end of Perry's eighth (and penultimate) season, actor Ray Collins suffered from emphysema in later years, and beginning at about this point he began cutting back on his appearances; over the next four seasons he'd appear in just 25 shows, each time looking a bit weaker than the last. The slack was taken up by actor Wesley Lau, who debuted as Lt. Andy Anderson in "The Case of the Impatient Partner," the second episode of the fifth season. He'd go on to appear in about half of the fifth season episodes.
Unlike a few earlier editions, Season 5, Volume 1 has no material that appeared previously in the Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition set. CBS/Paramount have managed to cram four single-sided DVDs comfortably into a case that's the same size as a normal DVD, and which makes the episode descriptions and airdates inside easy to read.
Otherwise, it's business as usual. Perry defends colorful comedians, racecar drivers, deep-sea skippers, in settings typical of B-level mysteries. As stated above, many guest stars had already played similar characters on the show before: Denver Pyle (twice within a few months!), Mary LaRoche, Max Showalter, Vaughn Taylor, Walter Burke, Wally Brown, Robert Armstrong, Gloria Talbott, etc. But the guest cast line-up is still most impressive - among those appearing in this batch of episodes: Leslie Parrish (also twice within three months!), Dan Seymour, James Drury, Andrea King, Jo Morrow, Constance Towers, Bobby Troup, Edward Binns, Robert Foulk, Sean McClory, Tudor Owen, Victor Sen Yung, Jackie Coogan, Sue Ann Langdon, Tommy Noonan, Nestor Paiva, Liam Sullivan, Virginia Field, Bill Erwin, Virginia Gregg, Frank Cady, Percy Helton, Skip Homeier, H.M. Wynant, Jason Evers, James Griffith, George Macready, Carol Rossen, Raymond Bailey, Audrey Dalton, Linda Lawson, Frank Maxwell, Dabbs Greer, Richard Derr, Ed Nelson, Cynthia Patrick, Barbara Pepper, Les Tremayne, Strother Martin, James Millhollin, Frank Overton, Torin Thatcher, Gerald Mohr, DeForest Kelley, Alan Hale Jr., Bruce Bennett, Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix, Robert Lowery, Philip Ober, and J. Pat O'Malley, with Frederick Worlock, Kenneth MacDonald, and S. John Launer playing judges. Bernard L. Kowalski, Christian Nyby, Arthur Marks, and Jerry Hopper rotated directing chores.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Season 5, Volume 1 presents 15 terrific-looking episodes spread over four single-sided, dual-layered DVDs. The black and white full-frame image is very sharp and detailed with strong blacks. The Dolby Digital English mono is generally quite good, too. Episodes are not time-compressed, with some running up to 52 minutes. The music does not appear to have been altered. The discs are closed-captioned, though no other subtitle option is offered.
Perry Mason's half-season sets continue chugging along quite nicely, at a good clip and with high quality transfers always. It's a terrific show and if you've been buying them all along you won't be disappointed here. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.