"And in the end, the law you make is equal to the law you break"
Co-defendants Lennon & McCarthy, "The Case of the Bodacious Beatle"
Well, there you have it. Perry Mason - Final Season - Season 9, Volume 2 completes the entire run of the original Perry Mason (1957-66). Stars Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale would return for a series of TV movies during 1985-1993, but rights to those films are controlled by other parties and may never be released to home video.
In my review of Season 9, Volume 1, I complained that "the show's writing definitely suffered, or maybe Perry Mason was simply played out." But, perhaps aware its days were numbered, the second-half of this final season turns out to be enormously entertaining for the most part, more so in fact that just about anything found in the past several seasons. More on this below.
Season 9, Volume 2, contains the last-ever 15 episodes, from the 1965-66 season, with "The Case of the Midnight Howler," and other cases involving Golfer's Gambits, Sausalito Sunrises, Tsarina's Tiara, the inevitable Final Fadeout and, my favorite title, "The Case of the Positive Negative." (Three Season 9, Volume 2 shows previously appeared on the compilation set from a few years back, Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition. The repeats are "The Case of the Twice-Told Twist," "The Case of the Dead Ringer," and "The Case of the Final Fade-Out.")
As noted in my seventeen (!) 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. 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.
From Perry Mason's only color episode, "The Case of the Twice-Told Twist"
Notes on Volume 2 following this recap:
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 (a fact whomever wrote the DVD's back cover text obviously didn't realize), this time by actor Richard Anderson. Later famous as 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, Anderson plays Lt. Steve Drumm.
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 on Season 9, Volume 2: There's playfulness in these last episodes lacking in the past few seasons. They're more experimental, and the cast seems to be enjoying enormously this last hurrah of shows.
"The Case of the Dead Ringer" is a gimmicky but fun show. Perry loses (!) a civil patent lawsuit after he's discredited by a witness (Arlene Martel - meowww!) who swears the famous attorney tried to bribe her. Actually, as revealed in the episode's opening scene, the opposition has hired a veritable twin of Perry (also played by Burr) to impersonate him.
Obviously, the role afforded Burr a chance to at last do something new after playing Perry Mason exclusively, with just one odd exception, for nearly a decade. It's a little bit disappointing - Burr had been a genuinely harrowing villain in numerous pre-Perry Mason films as varied as Rear Window and They Were So Young, but here he's like Robert Newton impersonating Popeye the Sailor. It's not one of his better performances but Burr is clearly having a ball and on some level that's infectious, plus the episode itself is otherwise fine, especially in scenes where Della and Paul angrily defend Perry's honor to non-believers.
"The Case of the Twice-Told Twist" is another gimmicky show, partly for its clunky reworking of Oliver Twist, but mainly because it's the only Perry Mason show in full color. CBS Chief Executive William S. Paley was ready to axe the series but, 1966-67 being the first all-color season in prime time, he wanted to at least get a look at what a color Perry Mason might be like, and ordered one produced.
Because it was such an anomaly, the episode was withheld from syndication for many years, and it's a real delight to see it here and in such pristine shape. There's definitely a novelty value in seeing Perry's cozy office and the most familiar of courtroom sets in color, and the producers try to add a little flair by including a brief scene where Perry and Della ride the original Angel's Flight in downtown Los Angeles, plus there's a brief scene set in Mexico but probably filmed near Union Station. Victor Buono, then amazingly just 28 years old at the time, plays the Fagin-ish villain (with blazingly red smoking jacket, to show off the color), while Ryan's brother Kevin O'Neal is the wayward, Oliver-like orphan.
Two episodes are actually remakes: "The Case of the Vanishing Victim" is based on a 1958 episode called "The Case of the Fugitive Nurse," while "The Case of the Sausalito Sunrise" is adapted from "The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink." I honestly don't remember the originals but found these remakes, especially the former, to be delightful. (Both are apparently also adapted from Erle Stanley Gardner stories rather than original teleplays, so maybe that's a factor.)
The clever script for "The Case of the Final Fadeout" has a contemptible TV star shot dead with a prop gun right on a soundstage in the middle of the take. The investigation has police Lt. Drumm questioning various grips, hairdressers, costumers - most of whom are played by Perry Mason's real crew - Would Hollywood's unions permit such things today? Perhaps not. Famously, the second judge to appear in the episode (after Kenneth MacDonald's final bow) is none other than Perry's creator, Erle Stanley Gardner himself. And isn't that Barbara Hale, out of character, chatting away briefly in a blonde wig?
The show is crammed with inside jokes, many so inside part of the fun of the episode is guessing which CBS executive, competing show, etc., is being poked fun at. This being the last-ever episode, why not bite the hand that feeds it a bit? Perry's last line is, "It seems to me the place to start is at the beginning,"
Guest stars in this set include Daniel J. Travanti, Ian Wolfe, Jeanne Cooper, Richard Erdman, Nancy Kovack, Harry Townes, Dennis Patrick, Alan Reed Jr., Francine York, Allan Melvin, Elisabeth Fraser, Stanley Clements, Will Hutchins, Gene Evans, Mala Powers, Lloyd Gough, Richard Devon, Victor Buono, Kevin O'Neal, Richard Carlson, Sue Ann Langdon, Lurene Tuttle, Paul Stewart, Patricia Owens, Virginia Field, Leonid Kinskey, Wesley Addy, Pippa Scott, Arch Johnson, Coleen Gray, Wendell Corey, Les Tremayne, James Best, Gloria Talbott, Danielle De Metz, Arlene Martel, Mary Ann Mobley, Paul Lukather, Anthony Eisley, James Griffith, Isabel Randolph, Brian Donlevy, Parley Baer, Dabbs Greer, Ted de Corsia, Gary Collins, Cloris Leachman, Douglas Henderson, Pat Priest, Walter Burke, Estelle Winwood, Jackie Coogan, Denver Pyle, Dick Clark, Gerald Mohr, Marlyn Mason, Gail Patrick
Playing judges are Willis Bouchey, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, John Gallaudet, Grandon Rhodes, Frank Biro, William Keene, Byron Morrow, Harry Holcombe, Douglas Evans, and Erle Stanley Gardner.
Video & Audio
CBS DVD's Perry Mason - Final Season - Season 9, 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.
Oddly, Barbara Hale's introduction to "The Case of the Twice-Told Twist," an extra feature for the 50th Anniversary Boxed set, is included, but not her intros for "The Case of the Dead Ringer" or "The Case of the Final Fade-Out." Perhaps they couldn't get a signed release from Perry Mason producer-writer Arthur Marks, who also appeared in some of those segments?
Highly Recommended, Perry Mason is an immensely fun series, and this set has a lot to offer compared to other recent series. Those new to the show are advised to start at the beginning, wait for a cheaper Complete Series set, or perhaps sample the series beginning with that Anniversary set of DVDs.
Court is adjourned!
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.