Perry Mason and Ironside. Both were hit shows starring Raymond Burr; Perry Mason ran for nine seasons, Ironside a more than respectable eight. But where Perry Mason is a good show that still entertains, Ironside is pretty dreadful, at times close to unbearably so. I was disappointed with both the show and Shout! Factory's transfers for Ironside: Season 1, soft and murky compared to CBS's pristine Perry Mason releases, but hoped that the weaknesses were in both cases simple growing pains, that the show might get better as it went along, and that Shout!'s transfers would improve with time. Neither has happened.
Despite a socko main title design and memorable title theme (by Quincy Jones), Ironside compares unfavorably to other contemporary crime-solving shows. And despite the novelty of restricting its title character to a wheelchair - he was television's first disabled protagonist* - Ironside is cliché-ridden and ordinary in the extreme.
It's too bad the series was never ever ever as amusing as this still would suggest
Perry Mason ended its long run on CBS in May 1966, but star Raymond Burr wasn't out of work for very long. Ironside debuted on rival NBC as a TV movie produced by Universal the following March, and began airing as a weekly series later that fall. In the pilot movie, a sniper's bullet paralyzed San Francisco's Chief of Detectives Robert "Bob" T. Ironside (Burr) from the waist down, but after pitying himself for about three seconds the indefatigable policeman found a new way to fight crime. In the original TV movie, Ironside sets up shop, a utilitarian nerve center complete with living quarters for himself and one-time delinquent-turned-faithful assistant Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) in an unused space at SFPD Headquarters. Appointed "special department consultant" by Police Commissioner Randall (Gene Lyons), Ironside gets more fulltime support from plainclothes Detective Sgt. Ed Brown (the late Don Galloway) and Officer Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson).
In its first season, the show's writers weakly attempted to distinguish Ironside from Perry Mason by making Ironside a Lionel Barrymore-esque curmudgeon, barking orders to his underlings and generally acting disagreeable. This was gradually dropped probably because it was never very appealing nor believable in the first place; though a good actor, Burr just couldn't sell that aspect of the character. By season three Ironside is basically Perry in a chair, though the famous attorney's charm is strangely absent.
What's sorely lacking in Ironside is any sense of humor or camaraderie among the principals. That was Perry Mason's greatest asset: he and secretary Della Street and P.I. Paul Drake were all pals as well as colleagues. The actors really seemed to enjoy each other's company and there's a relaxed charm in Perry Mason that's completely absent in Ironside. Indeed, the three supporting characters in this are often like holes in the screen, in some episodes doing little more than fetching Ironside his doughnuts and coffee, doing literally Ironside's legwork for his investigations. Anderson's performance as Eve Whitfield is a perfect example: on Ironside she's generic and unmemorable, and yet not long after she left the series following a contract dispute she appeared in a series of Mission: Impossible shows playing almost exactly the same character. And yet on M:I her rapport with that show's established regulars (Peter Graves, et. al.) was instantaneously genuine - and Anderson is a delight to watch, where here she's like a stick figure.
It's also ironic to consider that where in the movies he made immediately prior to Perry Mason Burr's co-star William Hopper (as Paul Drake) had been unusually stiff and inexpressive, once on the series he was smooth, entertaining and engagingly sardonic. On Perry Mason Burr, who before had almost exclusively played heavies, was charming, thoughtful, and assertive, and yet on Ironside he's none of these things. Instead, he's like a cigar store Indian, giving performances as if on autopilot. (And perhaps he was: by this time Burr was known to rely on Teleprompters in lieu of memorizing dialogue.)
After a weak but curious season opener - "Alias Mrs. Braithwaite," a show that amusingly has Ironside using precisely the same con on guest star Joseph Campanella that Paul Newman and Robert Redford would pull on Robert Shaw in The Sting just a few years later - Ironside's weaknesses are underscored in the dreary but unintentionally hilarious two-parter that immediately followed, "Goodbye to Yesterday."
Channeling Douglas Sirk's worst excesses, writer Sy Salkowitz revisits Barbara Richards (Vera Miles), a victim of amnesia Ironside had fallen madly in love with in a first season show called "Barbara Who?" That episode ended with Barbara tearfully reunited with husband Vic (Philip Carey), but who in this seeks Ironside's help once again after her daughter is kidnapped. Ironside's old romance seems ready to re-ignite, especially after Barbara and Vic talk about their plans to divorce, but then during the payoff (for the kidnapping, remember?) Barbara falls off a cliff, landing with a thump worthy of Wile E. Coyote, and suffers amnesia - again! And so yes, a hopeful Ironside wheels into her hospital room only to hear, "Ironside who?" from Barbara, now bandaged from head-to-toe. (I confess being disappointed that a colossal cocoanut, falling from a tree, didn't trigger the recurrence.)
Through it all, Burr's performance consists of a single expression: a furrowed brow. The phone rings and it's his old flame - furrowed brow. Ironside watches Barbara fall to her apparent death (THUMP!) - furrowed brow. Barbara says, "Ironside who?" - furrowed brow. The viewer can read none of the clockwork-like strategic calculating in Burr's eyes that was a hallmark of Perry Mason. Here Burr's stoicism instead becomes highly comical.
And this in spite of an impressive slate of guest stars. That show alone features Cloris Leachman, Dane Clark, Slim Pickens, George Murdock, John Zaremba, and busy Eddie Firestone in addition to Miles and Carey. Other guest stars this season include Phillip Pine, Pat Priest, Steve Forrest, Clu Gulager, William Smith, Louise Latham, Johnny Seven, Arthur Space, Dana Elcar, Virginia Gregg, John S. Ragin, Myron Healey, Robert Alda, Don Barry, John Archer, James Shigeta, Khigh Dhiegh, Bo Svenson, Philip Ahn, Norman Fell, Audrey Totter, Vito Scotti, Anne Baxter, Herbert Anderson, Milton Selzer, Donald Opatoshu, Greg Mullavey, Dana Wynter, Mort Sahl, David Cassidy, Alan Oppenheimer, Ann Doran, Barbara Rhodes, Walter Brooke, Bruce Kirby, Tina Louise, Charles Aidman, John Ericson, John Marley, Sandy Kenyon, Ruth McDevitt, George Petrie, Frank Maxwell, Bernard Fox, Larry D. Mann, Alan Napier, John Saxon, Fritz Weaver, DeForest Kelley, Dabbs Greer, William Shatner, Kenneth Tobey, Bradford Dillman, Wesley Addy, Marsha Hunt, Leo G. Carroll, Bill Bixby and, this being Universal, Lorraine Gary.
Video & Audio
Like many other Shout! Factory TV releases, Ironside does not look good. Licensed from Universal, the set utilizes obviously old transfers, from the looks of things transfers perhaps 15-20 years old. Or more. The image is soft and muddy with much video noise and other problems. Contrast is poor and day-for-night scenes come out so murky it's hard to tell what's going on. Considering the show is being marketed internationally and with the move toward all high-def programming in full-swing, such presentations are pretty inexcusable. Universal should be providing Shout! Factory with better masters, but it's also up to Shout! to demand better. It's not like they're getting these shows for free. As with Shout!'s Room 222 - Season Two, Ironside - Season 3 is a direct-to-consumer offering, officially available only via Shout!'s website. At least these are mass-produced DVDs and not DVD-Rs; except for the poor quality of the outdated masters the set looks like any other classic TV season set. Episode titles and original airdates are included. The set has 26 episodes on seven single-sided, Region 1-encoded discs. The mono audio (English only) is okay. There are no subtitle options, the discs are not closed-captioned, and there are also no Extra Features
As much of a fan as I am of Perry Mason and Raymond Burr generally, I can't work up much enthusiasm for Ironside. It's a decidedly lesser crime show, hardly up to the level of classics like Columbo and The Rockford Files yet even well below modest contemporary titles (also out on DVD) like Cannon and Barnaby Jones. The poor transfers don't help. Rent It.
* "No, he wasn't," says reader Sergei Hasenecz. "There was a a short-lived (June - Sept. 1960) TV western called Tate, which featured David MacLean as a wandering fast gun who had lost the use of his arm in the Civil War. He was trying to earn money to get his arm fixed surgically. Healthcare hasn't changed much in America, has it? He wore his bad arm in black leather held by a sling, with a gloved hand."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.