Beginning with the release of Perry Mason - Season 7, Volume 1, CBS DVD and Paramount seem to be racing to the finish line with this and other classic television releases. This review covers Perry Mason - Season 7, Volume 2, which comes just two months after its predecessor, while Season 8, Volumes 1 and 2 are already slated for later this month and mid-January, respectively. If DVD is dead no one's bothered to tell CBS DVD and Paramount.
Perry Mason - Season 7, Volume 1, includes the last 15 episodes of the 1963-64 season, with "The Cases of the Fifty Million Frenchmen" (my favorite title), "The Case of the Nervous Neighbor," and other cases involving a Frightened Fireman, an Arrogant Arsonist, a Garrulous Go-Between, a Simple Simon, and so forth. ("The Case of the Bountiful Beauty" previously appeared on Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition. The others are new-to-DVD.) 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 more than 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 fourteenth (!) Perry Mason DVD review, you'll excuse me if I don't have much to add by this point.
Connie Cezon makes three rare appearances as Gertie, Perry's receptionist
(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 advanced emphysema around this time, and in the handful of seventh season episodes in which he appears is notably thinner and frailer than the robust older man he was when the series debuted. Although duly credited in each show he's actually in none of the episodes here, though he would return for a few more brief appearances filmed shortly before his death in July 1965.
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 2: Business as usual, pretty much. Seasons 8 and 9, Perry's final two years, would be much more experimental and playful. The results weren't necessarily good, but they were a refreshing break from the slightly monotonous norm and it's also clear the cast is enjoying themselves in these later episodes. Raymond Burr famously began reading his dialogue off TelePrompTers during Perry Mason's run, a practice he continued on Ironside and the later Perry Mason TV movies, apparently. It was in this batch of shows where I first clearly spot him doing this. He may have been reading his dialogue off television monitors earlier but this was the first time it caught my attention.
In its defense, the practice predates Perry Mason by at least a decade. Producer-director-actor Jack Webb did something similar on the original Dragnet deliberately, for effect, as Webb sought flatter but more realistic and non-actorly line readings. Burr, on the other hand, seems to be using the TelePrompTer simply to get through long stretches of witness testimony, legal jargon, and interrogation. Regardless, he's very good at it; only the occasional awkward camera angle gives away the trick, that Burr often is looking past the actor and reading lines off a nearby monitor.
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. And it's always fun to watch the interaction among Perry, Della, and Paul. In "The Case of the Ice-Cold Hands," for instance, a young woman (Joyce Bulifant) asks Perry to hold on to horse race tickets. The look on Paul's face when Perry's long-shot wins is priceless. (This was one of the few episodes of this period actually based on an Erle Stanley Gardner story.)
Guest stars in this set include Richard Davalos, Dabbs Greer, Phyllis Coates, Ryan O'Neal, Douglas Fowley, Jean Carson, John Zaremba, Fifi D'Orsay, Paul Winchell, Jeanne Cooper, Sheila Bromley, Les Tremayne, Barry Atwater, Booth Coleman, Francis X. Bushman, David McCallum, Jacques Bergerac, Jackie Coogan, Coleen Gray, Don Collier, Arthur Franz, Mala Powers, Connie Gilchrist, Richard Devon, William Smith, Stacy Keach Sr., Tom Tully, Frank Aletter, Jeff York, Sue Randall, Lori March, Anthony Eisley, Jacques Aubuchon, Merry Anders, Jerry Van Dyke, Harry Townes, Nancy Gates, Joyce Meadows, Victor Buono, Virginia Field, Tom Conway, Douglas Lambert, James Stacy, Don "Red" Barry, Malachi Throne, Mona Freeman, Keith Andes, Ron Randell, Norma Varden, Berry Kroeger, Michael Ansara, George Tobias, Peter Breck, Richard Erdman, Billy Halop, Tom Lowell, Burt Metcalfe, Mimsy Farmer, Peter Hobbs, Tudor Owen, Ron Gans, Malcolm Atterbury, Vaughn Taylor, Ted de Corsia Neil Hamilton, Philip Ober, Ann Rutherford, Lonny Chapman, Natalie Trundy, Pat Priest, Constance Towers, Reginald Gardiner, Max Showalter, and Ford Rainey.
Connie Cezon makes three brief final appearances as Perry's rarely-seen receptionist, Gertie.
Willis Bouchey, Morris Ankrum, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, John Gallaudet, and Nelson Leigh are back as judges, joined by an inordinate number of judicial neophytes: Sidney Smith, Kenneth Patterson, Tom Harkness, Harry Stanton, Harry Holcombe, and Barney Biro.
Almost all the shows in this set were directed by Arthur Marks or Jesse Hibbs, though Irving J. Moore helmed a couple of others.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Season 7, 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, and English SDH subtitles are offered. Episodes are not time-compressed, with some running up to 52 minutes. The music does not appear to have been altered, though a disclaimer warns "some episodes may have been edited from their original network versions." If so, I didn't notice any obvious changes.
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.