It will have taken slightly more than seven years, but before summer's out all nine seasons of Perry Mason (1957-66) will at last be on DVD. (I do hope the owners of the 26 later Perry Mason TV movies of 1985-1993, also starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, rights not controlled by Paramount CBS, but a partnership of NBC, Viacom, and others, will consider releasing those to DVD eventually. Fans of the original series will surely want to have those, too.) By the 1965-66 season, the famous mystery/courtroom drama series starring Raymond Burr was quickly running out of steam after a whopping 250-plus episodes, of which Perry famously won them all. (Well, he sort of lost once, but that was a minor setback in the big scheme of things.)
The series, which had been the No. 5 prime-time series during Perry's fifth year, was not even in the top 30 during seasons eight and nine. Yet Perry Mason chugged along just the same, with no discernable drop in its (by television standards) quite lavish production values or top-flight guest stars. Like the later Batman, Perry Mason was, it seems, a show virtually everyone was eager to do, probably in part because of the camaraderie among Burr and his co-stars made it, by all accounts, a fun set.
But the show's writing definitely suffered, or maybe Perry Mason was simply played out. In the second-half of its final year, there would be an all-color modern retelling of Oliver Twist, and another with Burr doing double duty as Perry's doppelganger. The episodes included in Perry Mason - Final Season - Season 9, Volume 1 have its share of whoppers, too, including the series' equivalent of Jet Pilot, with Perry battling commies in East Berlin.
Season 9, Volume 1, contains the first 15 episodes of the 1965-66 season, with "The Case of the Candy Queen," and other cases involving Cheating Chancellors, Impetuous Imps, Carefree Coronaries, Baffling Bugs, and Bogus Buccaneers. (All Season 9, Volume 1 shows are new to DVD. None appeared on the compilation set from a few years back, Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition.)
As noted in my sixteen (!) previous Perry Mason reviews, 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 (or least-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.
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).
Ray Collins, as doggedly determined Lt. Tragg, was ailing and absent from most of the later-season shows, and died during the summer reruns of 1965. Actor Wesley Lau stepped in to replace him, but without explanation for this final season Lau was himself replaced, this time by actor Richard Anderson. Anderson, later Oscar Goldman on both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman and who'd guest-starred on several Perry Masons prior to this, is introduced as Lt. Steve Drumm in the season-opener, "The Case of the Laughing Lady."
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.
As a series, Perry Mason's decline is most evident in episodes like "The Case of the Fraudulent Fraulein," an absurd show that has Perry negotiating for the release of an expatriate German's heretofore unknown granddaughter. (Chameleon Jeanette Nolan affects a flawless German accent as his wife.) Partly inspired by the mid-â€˜60s spy craze, the episode instead mostly recalls the hysterical anticommunist movies of the late 1940s and early â€˜50s, particularly during its climax, set in a nightmarishly foreboding, utilitarian courtroom emblematic of those earlier movies.
Guest stars in this set include Constance Towers, John Abbott, Bernard Fox, Allison Hayes (in one of her last roles), Julie Adams, Jesse White, Ford Rainey, Nan Martin, Nora Marlowe, John Archer, Kitty Kelly, Louise Latham, Barry Atwater, Peter Hobbs, Lee Meriwether, Stu Erwin, Richard Webb, Michael Fox, Rand Brooks, Robert Emhardt, Bruce Bennett, Whit Bissell, David Lewis, Dan Seymour, William Woodson, Noah Beery Jr., K.T. Stevens, Hugh Marlowe, Cathy Downs, Strother Martin, Robert Colbert, Mona Freeman, Bill Williams, Karl Swenson, Robert Quarry, Roy Roberts, Tommy Farrell, Sue England, Jeanne Bal, Gene Lyons (Burr's later Ironside co-star), Walter Brooke, Robert Easton, Anthony Caruso, Michael Constantine, Gavin MacLeod, Robert H. Harris, Paul Winfield, Skip Homeier, Virginia Gregg, Cyril Delevanti, Susan Cramer, Jeanette Nolan, Kevin Hagen (who'd marry Cramer soon after their appearance together), Grant Williams, Dee Hartford, Victoria Vetri (future Hammer ingÃ©nue), Paula Stewart, Bruce Glover, Rhodes Reason, Patricia Cutts, Richard Jaeckel, Leonard Stone, and Meg Wylie.
Willis Bouchey, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, John Gallaudet, and Grandon Rhodes are back as judges, with Frank Biro, William Keene, Byron Morrow, and Stacey Keach, Sr. new to the bench.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Final Season - Season 9, 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, 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.
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.