It's been almost a year, but CBS DVD and Paramount have come through once again with another season of Perry Mason - for those of you keeping track, we're up to Season 6, Volume 1 with, presumably, seven more half-season sets yet to go, assuming they don't dive straight into the Perry Mason TV movies star Raymond Burr made from the mid-1980s until his death in 1993.
This set, covering the first 14 episodes of the 1962-63 season, offers "The Case of the Bogus Books," "The Case of the Capricious Corpse," as well as cases about playboy pugilists, unsuitable uncles, lurid letters, fickle fillies and, stretching things a bit, one about a polka dot pony. Don't get me wrong, I still find the series enormously entertaining, and to its credit Perry Mason is still the same fine if unwavering show it's always been. The shows are, even by TV standards of the day, slickly produced with excellent production values and top-drawer guest casts. Almost everyone, it seems, longed to be a guest suspect, murderer, or victim on Perry Mason, much as it would later be hip to appear on TV's Batman. That show had more big stars, but Perry Mason was maybe TV's first continuing dramatic series to attract movie stars who'd normally avoided series television. But even shows without, say, Bette Davis, are overrun with character actors familiar as family to anyone who watches a lot of television from this era.
I've yet to see a truly terrible Perry Mason, though the range between the best and worst episodes is so narrow I doubt even fans of the series could point to a particular favorite episode. That is, unless it was one of the very small handful of shows actually deviating from its established format. Though still fun, in this day of more sophisticated legal dramas like Law & Order, The Practice/Boston Legal, and Damages, watching the less believable and more formulaic Perry Mason requires a bit of an adjustment. And as this is my eleventh Perry Mason DVD review, you'll excuse me if I don't have much to add by this point.
Yes, I know this is from an earlier season, but you try coming up with new Perry Mason stills after 10 reviews
Really at the core of Perry Mason's appeal is its cast, and that's hardly changed at all. Besides ingenious, resourceful Perry Mason (Burr), the famous Los Angeles attorney who never loses a case, there's Perry's loyal, tireless personal secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale), and their worldly, slightly cynical pal/colleague, P.I. Paul Drake (William Hopper). Cases usually have them up against easily-aggravated, perennial loser D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman).
Also in the cast, sort of, is actor Ray Collins (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons), a fine actor who in Perry Mason's first five seasons played slippery Lt. Arthur Tragg, Burger's colleague and a veteran cop who derived much pleasure in arresting Perry's distressed clients. Collins was suffering from emphysema around this time, and is visibly thinner and frailer than the robust older man he was when the series debuted. Although credited in each show he's actually only in six of the 14 episodes here, and five of those are at the beginning of the season. After that point, he made only a handful of brief appearances, though he must have been liked because he continued getting screen credit on each episode until the day he died.
Wesley Lau, as Lt. Andy Anderson, took up the slack. He began subbing for Collins near the beginning of season five, and he's in nine of the 14 this time 'round. Just past forty, he was significantly younger than the 72-year-old Collins (Why wasn't Tragg forced to retire?) and he puts a slight spin on things. Where Tragg sort of represented an older-generation, L.A. Confidential-type detective who gleefully arrested people, Anderson was more the by-the-book if slightly generic modern ideal of the LAPD. The Anderson character, coupled with his pathetic batting average, also somehow made Hamilton Burger more sympathetic. He was a formidable, coldly calculating opponent of Perry's in early seasons, but by this point you've really got to feel sorry for the guy.
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 are 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.
It's pretty much business as usual this time around, though "The Case of the Weary Watchdog" offers some variation in that Della becomes personally if tangentially involved in a murder, and later is accused of being an accessory after-the-fact and ends up on the witness stand. Season 6, Volume 1 features one episode also included in the previously released Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition set: "The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe," which guest stars Leonard Nimoy and Margaret O'Brien. 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.
Guest stars include Adam West, John Abbott, H.M. Wynant, Joby Baker, Allison Hayes, Woodrow Parfrey, Michael Fox (a recurring role), John Howard, Teru Shimada, Gary Lockwood, Dianne Foster, Dolores Michaels, Robert Armstrong, Mort Mills, Anthony Caruso, Mae Clarke, Stuart Erwin, Jack Betts, Virginia Christine, Joan Staley, Richard Reeves, Jeanette Nolan, Leonard Stone, Sue England, John Lormer, William Phipps, David Hedison, Jeff Morrow, Ellen Burstyn, Lloyd Corrigan, Robert H. Harris, Eddie Firestone, Herbert Rudley, Rusty Stevens, Sean McClory, Liam Sullivan, Ford Rainey, Howard Smith, Barbara Parkins, Anna Lee, Harvey Korman, R.G. Armstrong, Parley Baer, Steven Geray, Meg Wyllie, Mala Powers, John Dall, Keye Luke, Wesley Addy, Judy Dan, James Hong, Kenneth Tobey, Philip Ahn, Beulah Quo, Seamon Glass, Mona Freeman, Edgar Buchanan, Ann Doran, Chris Alcaide, Jim Davis, Mort Mills, Strother Martin, Bill Quinn, Jesse White, Virginia Field, Burt Metcalfe, Vivi Janiss, Jonathan Hole, Byron Foulger, Bill Williams, Frank Overton, Peter Breck, Antoinette Bower, Mary LaRoche, and Frank Ferguson, with Willis Bouchey, Grandon Rhodes, Morris Ankrum, Frederick Worlock, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, John Gallaudet, Barney Biro, and Charles Irving playing judges. Arthur Marks, Allen H. Miner, Francis D. Lyon, and Jesse Hibbs rotated directing chores.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Season 6, Volume 1 presents 14 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.
Once again, Perry Mason's half-season sets continue chugging along quite nicely, at a reasonable pace 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.