Ten months after the release of season six, CBS DVD and Paramount have come through once again with another season of Perry Mason, specifically Season 7, Volume 1, with the first 15 episodes of the 1963-64 season.
This set offers "The Case of the Festive Felon," "The Case of the Accosted Accountant," and cases involving shifty shoeboxes, decadent deans, capering cameras, devious delinquents and, incredibly, bouncing boomerangs. There are few surprises but a lot of entertainment. I still find the series enormous fun, 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.
I've yet to see a truly terrible Perry Mason, though a few have put me to sleep. Nevertheless, 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 thirteenth (!) Perry Mason DVD review, you'll excuse me if I don't have much to add by this point.
It had to happen eventually. Julie Adams as Perry's luckless client, or is she?
(See below for comments relating to this set)
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 three of the 15 episodes here, and usually seated when he's seen at all. Wesley Lau, as Lt. Andy Anderson, took up the slack.
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.
Notes About Season 7, Volume 1: Business as usual, pretty much. Most of the episodes in this set are cut from the same cloth as other seasons' shows, but a few try to break free a bit from the overly familiar mold. Most famous among these is "The Case of the Deadly Verdict," an episode previously released to DVD (the only one in this set) in which Perry actually loses a case. Sort of. Atypically structured, the show opens with the jury bringing in a guilty verdict against Perry's client (Julie Adams), and it's up to Perry, Della, and Paul to exonerate her before she's hauled off to the gas chamber. The highly unusual format generates a surprising level of suspense, making it a shame Perry Mason didn't do more shows like it.
And just when I was starting to get bored a little bit with the show's repetitiveness, along comes season opener "The Case of the Nebulous Nephew," a way-above-average episode about the sudden reappearance, maybe, of a long-lost relative at the home of two wealthy spinsters. The show is actually unpredictable, and hints at a bigger surprise I suspect was planned but altered slightly, lessening its impact.
That episode also features an absurd little mistake: the end credits are from a different show entirely, the eighth season episode "The Case of the Sad Sicilian."
Other episodes try for something offbeat, like "The Case of the Drowsy Mousquito," a near modern-dress Western with Perry, Della, and Perry in a small Western town for a case involving gold mines and murder. Paul's masquerade as a prospector who's struck it rich is especially amusing.
Guest stars in this set include Beulah Bondi, Hugh Marlowe, Ivan Dixon, Meg Wylie, Arthur Space, Irene Tedrow, Constance Ford, Billy Mumy, Denver Pyle, Diane Ladd, Arthur Hunnicutt, Russell Collins, Kathleen Crowley, Robert J. Wilke, Strother Martin, Ann Doran, Woodrow Parfrey (very menacing as Perry's opponent), Richard Derr, Garry Walberg, Erin O'Brien-Moore, Steve Franken (who died recently), Lee Bergere, Mike Mazurki, Olan Soule, Michael Fox, William Woodson, Milton Selzer, Lloyd Corrigan, H.M. Wynant, Eddie Firestone, Paul Lukather, Rand Brooks, Robert Brown, Joanna Moore, John Dall, Pippa Scott, Karl Swenson, Michael Conrad, Allan Melvin, Victor Maddern (!), Irene Tsu, Joyce Jameson, Walter Brooke, Ken Lynch, James Hong, Jon Hall, Sherry Jackson, Kathie Browne, Jeff Morrow, John Howard, Virginia Christine, Otto Kruger, Barton MacLane, Frances Rafferty, Rod Cameron, Paul Picerni, Parley Baer, Alan Hale Jr., Ed Peck, Nancy Kovack, L.Q. Jones, George Petrie, Philip Pine, Marie Windsor, John Hoyt, Michael Pate, Alvy Moore, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Bill Idelson, Dee Hartford, Murray Matheson, Gail Kobe, Richard Anderson, Leonard Stone, Robert Armstrong, Paula Raymond, and John Zaremba, with Willis Bouchey, Grandon Rhodes, Morris Ankrum, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, Lewis Martin, Albert A. Vaill, Bill Zuckert, Nelson Leigh, Frederic Downs, John Gallaudet, and Charles Irving playing judges. Amusingly, James Arness and Milburn Stone, also on CBS, make a kind of cameo in one episode. Arthur Marks, Jesse Hibbs, Earl Bellamy, Don Weis, and Irving J. Moore rotated directing duties.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Season 7, 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.
Once again, Perry Mason's half-season sets continue at a good clip, 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 is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.