CBS/Paramount's 19 or so DVD releases covering the nine-season (1957-66), 271-episode run of Perry Mason were apparently quite popular among classic television releases, so much so that the same label decided to extend its run of DVDs to the later Perry Mason television movies, also starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, movies that aired between 1985 and 1995. Thirty such films were made, though the last four are without Burr, the actor having died in 1993, shortly before his last one ran. (Paul Sorvino and, later, Hal Holbrook replaced him, playing different characters.)
Perry Mason Movie Collection, Volume 2 comes on the heels of Volume 1, which contained the first six TV movies. This one offers six more: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987), The Case of the Avenging Ace, The Case of the Lady in the Lake (both 1988), The Case of the Lethal Lesson, The Case of the Musical Murder, and The Case of the All-Star Assassin (all 1989).
The movies themselves are just okay, slightly above average by late-1980s telefeature standards. They're worth watching primarily for Burr rather than the mysteries he helps solve. Though he grew a beard and put on additional weight in the 20-plus years since the original series ended, otherwise Burr looks much as he did and his slips back into character effortlessly. Though underemphasized, the relationship between Perry and loyal secretary Della Street (Hale) also sweetly blossoms ever so slightly, adding to the fun.
The scripts for these TV-movies closely follow the spirit of the TV series, but there are numerous other changes that these Perrys struggle with. By 1985, William Hopper (as private investigator Paul Drake), William Talman (as District Attorney Hamilton Burger), and Ray Collins (as Police Lt. Tragg) were long dead, and their absence is keenly felt. Where the original series had the polish of ‘60s-style big studio TV series production, the TV movies were shot on tight budgets, not in Los Angeles (very much a character in its own right on the series) but in Denver, Colorado, apparently to save money. When much of the same team later created the Dick Van Dyke series Diagnosis Murder, its early episodes were filmed there, too. Another Dean Hargrove-created series, Matlock, was filmed in North Carolina.
Perhaps the hardest thing to adjust to in trying to watch these Perry Mason movies has to do with the trend in producing hour-long dramas and TV movies around this time. Both the original series and the later TV movies were shot on 35mm film. However, again to save money, the Perry Mason TV movies transferred everything to videotape during the editing phase, finishing each program on that medium. Thus, even though everything was shot on film, all masters of the finished shows are in now badly dated analog video. Watching them today is akin to looking at them through a dirty goldfish bowl. Ironically, the 55-year-old Perry Mason episodes look far superior to the 20-year-old ones.
(Conversely, the Perry Mason TV movies were among the first programs broadcast in stereo. They sound as great as they look lousy.)
The obvious solution, entirely doable, would be go back to the original film elements and remaster everything that way, as was done for the Blu-rays and high-def redistribution of Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, this is an extremely time-consuming, labor-intensive and thus fiendishly expensive process, far more than a marginal release like these ‘80s Perry Mason shows can afford, especially given their limited commercial viability.
Following Perry Mason Returns in which appellate court judge Perry steps down from the bench to defend Della on a murder charge, subsequent TV movies revert to the tried-and-true Perry Mason formula, playing very much like extended versions of the original series, with some influence derived from the Peter Falk Columbo episodes/TV movies made in the interim, which Hargrove executive-produced and occasionally wrote for.
William Katt, Hale's real-life son and fresh off the series The Greatest American Hero, replaced Hopper as Paul Drake, Jr. in the first nine TV movies, only to be replaced by William R. Moses (Falcon Crest, Mystic Pizza) as law student Ken Malansky. Neither, however, could fully escape Hopper's shadow, so integral to the original series' success was that triumvirate relationship among Perry, Della, and smooth-talking P.I. Paul. David Ogden Stiers, late of M*A*S*H, was Perry's new adversary in the courtroom as D.A. Michael Reston in the eight films following Perry Mason Returns, but's Stiers's approach was subdued compared to Talman's entertainingly irritable Hamilton Burger, and he left at the same time Katt did.
The shows are about as good as late-1980s television would allow. Perry and Della haven't changed, but it's a bit weird to see them in a universe of ‘80s-style big hair (Katt's mane is particularly fulsome) and almost depressing to see Perry and Della tool around in singularly ugly mid-1980s American automobiles versus the cool cars they got to drive on the original show.
For ordinary viewers, watching these would be like a trip to the paleontology museum, though for hard-core Perry Mason fans there's still much to enjoy. The scripts aren't bad, and Burr and Hale are as enjoyable as ever. As with the original show there are some interesting guest stars: Robert Guillaume, Morgan Brittany, George Grizzard, Yaphet Kotto, Larry Wilcox, Erin Gray, Patty Duke, David Hasselhoff, John Ireland, Brian Keith, Debbie Reynolds, Jerry Orbach, Jim Beaver, Bruce Greenwood, Shari Belafonte, and Pernell Roberts among them.
Video & Audio
For reasons noted in far more detail above, Perry Mason Movie Collection, Volume 2 sounds great but looks pretty terrible, especially compared with the crisp black-and-white transfers of the original series. Likewise shot on 35mm film but finished on tape, these 4:3 shows look soft and smeary, visually at odds with their lively and imaginative use of early television stereo sound, presented here in Dolby Digital format, and which holds up very well today. Optional English SDH are included and the discs are region 1 encoded.
The packaging is oddly a throwback of its own, presumably to allow for easy, later rerelease as three double feature DVDs. Here, three separate DVD cases each contains but a single disc with two each of these 95-minute shows. No Extra Features.
For hardcore Perry Mason fans only, but for them this set brings the "saga" one step closer to completion and I, for one, am glad to see these sets released at all. For them it's Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.