"You better get over here right away, Perry. The party died and so did the host." - Paul Drake (William Hopper)
Seven months after the release of Perry Mason - Season 5, Volume 1 comes Season 5, Volume 2, with the remaining episodes of the 1961-62 season. There's "The Case of the Crippled Cougar," "The Case of the Poison Pen-Pal" and 13 other cases about shapely shadows, glamorous ghosts, melancholy marksmen, angry astronauts, and borrowed babies, among others. Though a perennial presence in syndication, I had never seen a single episode of Perry Mason until I reviewed the first half-season set way back in July 2006. I still enjoy the show enormously and even set aside time late Wednesday nights to watch it. But as stated previously, after reviewing nine half-season sets thus far, plus a 50th Anniversary Edition crammed with extra features and memorable episodes, I confess that it's getting mighty difficult to find anything new to say.
Though Perry Mason never lost its edge it was, to continue the metaphor, never a particularly sharp blade to begin with. It's a well-produced series with hugely likeable performances from its five regular cast members, and each show is positively packed with familiar character actors and television anthology-type stars fans of classical Hollywood movies and early television will enjoy seeing. But the last, 271st episode of Perry Mason is pretty much cut from the same cloth as first one, and out of all the ones in between only a tiny handful are unusual - and most of those were already included on the 50th Anniversary Edition set. Unlike, say, Twilight Zone, Have Gun - Will Travel, or Star Trek, there are few distinctive, outstanding Perry Mason episodes - but also very few lousy ones.
This eventually contributed to the series' demise. More innovative courtroom dramas like The Defenders (1961-65) weren't so rigidly formula-driven and in fact eager to break from the form to grapple with topical social issues like abortion, pornography, and civil rights. Perry Mason, conversely, was a throwback to the theatrical mystery series of the 1930s and '40s.
That said, Perry Mason is still a lot of fun precisely because of its reliability as escapist entertainment, especially the warm and amused performances of its stars who by this point have become something like old friends: 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).
Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) and Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) taking a coffee break in Perry's office.
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 2
Both Rays have lost a lot of weight. For Raymond Burr this is a good thing; he looks healthier and thinner than he's been in years, perhaps since about midway through the first season. Ray Collins, on the other hand, is alarmingly emaciated, the result of emphysema. He's still the same slippery character, but sharp-eyed viewers will notice that he struggles to get those long passages of dialogue out and is rarely asked to take more than a few steps in any particular scene. In some shows he makes just a token appearance, often yielding the legwork (and courtroom testimony) to Lt. Andy Anderson (Wesley Lau). A Kenneth Tobey type with a softer edge, Lau is a likeable actor playing a younger character that eases unobtrusively into Tragg's shoes.
Season 5, Volume 2 features one episode also included in the previously released Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition set: "The Case of the Counterfeit Crank," which guest stars Burt Reynolds in an early TV appearance. 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 the same old stuff. A few episodes that stand out a bit are "The Case of the Angry Astronaut," featuring James Coburn as the murder victim; classic sci-fi fans will enjoy "The Case of the Ancient Romeo" as its cast includes Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow (from This Island Earth), Robert Cornthwaite (The Thing), plus Burr (Godzilla) and Hopper (The Deadly Mantis). "The Case of the Promoter's Pillbox," about a dishonest television producer's murder, includes excellent footage of the studio and stages where Perry Mason was shot and even references Rod Serling, whose Twilight Zone aired on the same network.
My favorite episode of the set is the season-closer "The Case of the Lonely Eloper," which has an unusually strong mystery story and lavish, movie-like production values.
Guest stars include Olan Soule, John Zaremba, Parley Baer, Don Beddoe, Arthur Franz, Allison Hayes, Jay Novello, Malcom Atterbury, Robert Ball, Osa Massen, Stafford Repp, Karl Swenson, Marie Windsor, Merry Anders, Jeanne Cooper, Coleen Gray, Jon Lormer, Judee Morton, Patricia Breslin, Bert Freed, Douglas Henderson, Everett Sloane, Kathie Browne, Josephine Hutchinson, Carlos Rivas, John Howard, Bill Williams, Victor Buono, Richard Erdman, Arlene Martel, Barney Phillips, Zasu Pitts (in one of her last roles), Jeff Donnell, Paul Richards, Ann Rutherford, William Schallert, Mari Blanchard, Jesse White, Jeanne Bal, Patricia Donahue, Paula Raymond, John Marley, Steve Brodie, Hugh Marlowe, Otto Kruger, Jeanette Nolan, Don Dubbins, Connie Hines, John Hubbard, Ivan Dixon, Michael Fox, Kitty Kelly, Dan Seymour, John Dall, and Joan Staley, with Willis Bouchey, Morris Ankrum, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, John Gallaudet, Bill Zuckert, and John Litel playing judges. Christian Nyby, Arthur Marks, Francis D. Lyon, Jesse Hibbs, and Jerry Hopper rotated directing chores.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Season 5, Volume 2 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.