Court is back in session. Again. Hot on the heels of Perry Mason - Season 8, Volume 1, released barely two months back, comes Volume 2 of the long-running courtroom-mystery-thriller in its penultimate season. At the rate CBS/Paramount is cranking these out, I would expect Season 9 no later than August, quite possibly even sooner than that. (And I do hope they're also planning on some release of the 26 later Perry Mason TV movies of 1985-1993, also starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, with the last one airing a few months after Burr's death.
Perry Mason - Season 8, Volume 2, includes the final 15 episodes of the 1964-65 season, with "The Case of the Telltale Tap," "The Case of the Fatal Fetish," and other cases involving Sad Sicilians, Murderous Mermaids, Careless Kittens, Wrongful Writs, and, yes, even Grinning Gorillas. (All Season 8 shows are new to DVD. None appeared on the compilation set from a few years back, Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition.) As before, there are few surprises but a fair amount of entertainment. Burr later singled out Season 8 as "a bad year" because of the overly complicated plots, stories so absurdly complex even he couldn't follow them. But the truth is Perry Mason's stories were pretty much always unsolvable puzzles to begin with and never key to its appeal. I still find the series enormous fun, and to its credit Perry Mason is still the same breezy if rarely-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 sixteenth (!) Perry Mason DVD review, you'll excuse me if I don't have much to add by this point.
(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, in name only, 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. But Collins was suffering from advanced emphysema around this time, and the IMDb credits him with just three Season 8 appearances, concluding with Volume 1's "The Case of the Latent Lover," supposedly his final onscreen appearance anywhere. However, I didn't spot Collins there, or in any of the three episodes listed, so it appears the IMDb is wrong. Some sources insist Collins's last appearance was on a Season 7 episode that aired the previous January, while others insist he appears, albeit very briefly, in the Season 8 finale. However, he's clearly not on that show, either, even as an extra in the courtroom. Calling Paul Drake! Wesley Lau took over Collins's duties otherwise through the end of Season 8, before being replaced, without explanation, by Richard Anderson.
Regardless, and probably in a kind gesture to insure the actor income through his illness, he's duly credited in each show regardless, an accommodation not made for actor Talman, who's not credited on those episodes in which he doesn't appear.
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. They liked to joke around, and at least one of these is visible to sharp-eyed viewers. Apparently over the course of the show's run the three would occasionally make little changes to the abstract painting in Perry's office. I've never compared the painting from the first show to its appearance in the last episode of the series, but supposedly it changes quite a bit over time.
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 8, Volume 2: Business as usual, pretty much. Seasons 8 and 9, Perry's final two years, were more experimental and playful script-wise, though less so here. More and more the show moves away from the tired structure of setting up the story minus Perry, Della, and Paul in the first act, introducing them to their client/murder suspect around 20 minutes in, and then it's to the courtroom for the last act. Others are set away from Los Angeles, such as one show here set in Hawaii.
In some ways the show became more outrageous and less realistic, even by Perry Mason standards. If Burr was dismayed by some of Season 8's episodes, look no further than "The Case of the Grinning Gorilla."
That episode's bizarre and byzantine plot has Della buying a scrapbook belonging to a supposedly dead model. When the representative of an eccentric, secretive millionaire and amateur paleontologist unsuccessfully tries to buy the scrapbook from Perry and later threatens him, the star attorney investigates. In one incredible scene, Mason discovers the dead body of the millionaire, seconds before a gorilla bursts into the room, ready to charge at the attorney. Perhaps recalling Burr's man-into-gorilla transformation in Bride of the Gorilla (1951), the big ape sizes him up while Perry pretends to play a card game with the primate in order to calm him down.
Inside the Gorilla suit was Janos Prohaska, who often played gorillas, bears, and various monsters on episodes of The Outer Limits, Lost in Space and the like. But Prohaska's ape suit was just awful, and the actor's undarkened features are clearly visible through the eye holes. (Prohaska and his same shabby suit turns up, to detrimental effect, in 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes as well.) It's not much better than the suit pictured above. Amazingly, this was one of Season Eight's few stories adapted from an actual Erle Stanley Gardner novel.
Eagle-eyed viewer Larry M. Heard first noticed that while Volume 2's episode titles are correct, their plot descriptions are not, and obviously were accidentally cut-and-pasted from some earlier release. "The Case of the Grinning Gorilla," for instance, is described thusly: "A wife, convinced that her husband was wrongly convicted of murder, tries to line up a job for him after his parole. But a stolen diamond and a dead private investigator leave her husband accused of a new crime." Needless to say, nothing at all like this happens during "Grinning Gorilla."
Guest stars in this set include Barry Sullivan, Kathie Browne, Robert Strauss, Richard Erdman, Joyce Van Patten, Noah Beery, Jr., Linden Chiles, Roland Winters, Jeanne Bal, H. M. Wynant, Jon Hall, David Opatoshu, Joyce Jameson, Keye Luke, Harold Peary, Margaret Blye, Fay Wray, Karen Steele, Alan Hewitt, Gary Collins, Lynn Bari, Douglas Kennedy, Bill Williams, Allan Melvin, Alan Reed, Jr., Robert Quarry, Allison Hayes, Peter Breck, Jesse White, Ruta Lee, Don Dubbins, Steve Ihnat, Douglass Dumbrille, Victor Buono, Robert Colbert, Gavin MacLeod, James Shigeta, Philip Abbott, Bobby Troup, Nobu McCarthy, Francine York, and Mary Mitchel.
Willis Bouchey, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, Arthur Wong, John Gallaudet, and Grandon Rhodes are back as judges.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Season 8, 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 the usual disclaimer warns, "some episodes may have been edited from their original network versions." If so, I didn't notice any obvious changes.
There's a supplement this time out, albeit one lasting all of 30 seconds. Looking directly into the camera Burr, seated in Perry's office set, urges viewers to take time out to celebrate "Law Day, U.S.A." on May 1st, a holiday created by the Eisenhower Adminsitration to counter May Day.
Once again, Perry Mason's half-season sets continue at a brisk pace, and with high quality transfers always. It's a fun 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.