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Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition

Paramount // Unrated // April 8, 2008
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 10, 2008 | E-mail the Author
News that CBS DVD/Paramount would be releasing Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition - a Best-Of set featuring 12 episodes from the classic 1957-66 series plus an entire disc of supplements - was to the label's surprise met with a preponderance of anger and suspicion by fans of the mystery/courtroom drama. They worry, and not without precedent, that after four half-season releases covering the program's first two years CBS/Paramount was throwing in the towel, essentially wrapping things up with this compilation of memorable post-1959 episodes. As this review "went to press," an announcement for a Season Three (Volume One) has yet to be made and may never happen. Back in January, TV Shows on quoted an official spokesperson saying only, "While there are no additional announcements at this time, the Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary release in April does not at all change the potential [my italics] for releases of subsequent seasons." In other words, they're not committed either way.

All this has cast a dark cloud over what otherwise is a great introductory package for more casual fans of Perry Mason. As with the label's first two years' worth of shows, Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition offers absolutely pristine presentations, and the fourth disc of supplements, compiled by Paul Brownstein (You Bet Your Life, The Dick Van Dyke Show) are absolutely phenomenal. Even if all the remaining episodes make it to DVD, this set is worth it for the extra features alone.

The twelve one-hour episodes, four on each of the first three discs, all date from seasons 3 through 9, so none are repeats from the first two seasons/four-volume sets. Episodes are a mix of offbeat shows and those featuring stars-to-be in early roles. Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible, Space: 1999) guest-stars in "The Case of the Wary Wildcatter" (airdate: 2/20/60), while a young Robert Redford appears in "The Case of the Treacherous Toupee" (9/17/60). Look for James Coburn, Adam West, Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy, and Ryan O'Neal in other shows. Of course, all were working pretty regularly on network dramas and anthologies at the time so their appearances aren't that unusual, but still fun to see them turn up as various murder suspects and victims.

Of greater interest is "The Case of the Deadly Verdict" (10/17/63), remembered as the one show (but-but-but! - see below) where Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) actually loses a case, although that's a bit misleading. Atypically structured, the show opens with the jury bringing in a guilty verdict against Perry's client (Julie Adams), and it's up to Perry, loyal secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale), and Private Detective and friend Paul Drake (William Hopper) to exonerate her before she's hauled off to the gas chamber. The highly unusual format generates a surprisingly high level of suspense, making it a shame Perry Mason didn't do more shows like it.

Actually, Perry did lose at least once more, as seen at the beginning of "The Case of the Dead Ringer" (4/17/66), a gimmicky show from the final season when Burr was really itching to move on to new characters. (He felt the show ran three seasons too long.) 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" (2/27/66) 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. Produced during the second-half of the show's ninth and final season, 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, while Ryan's brother Kevin O'Neal is the wayward, Oliver-like orphan.

At the end of 1962, Burr had to be hospitalized for a month and rather than shut down production the producers opted to have "guest defense attorneys" fill in for Perry, among them Walter Pidgeon, Hugh O'Brian, and Mike Connors, but best-remembered by far was Bette Davis, who guests on "The Case of the Constant Doyle" (1/31/63).

Prior to Mary Tyler Moore's famous last episode, final shows acknowledging the end of a long and successful run were quite rare. There were no final, curtain call episodes of I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, or Dragnet; like old soldiers they just faded away. But the team behind Perry Mason decided to turn their last show, by the looks of things, into one big party.

The clever script for "The Case of the Final Fadeout" (5/22/66) 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 (Richard Anderson, taking over for Ray Collins after the latter's death) 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 - in and around the old Chaplin Studios on La Brea just south of Sunset where the show's last seasons were filmed. 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," but the rest of us would be perfectly happy with Season 3 / Volume 1.

Video & Audio

  As with CBS/Paramount's other classic television shows on DVD, Perry Mason is a knockout. The crisp black and white photography is beautifully transferred, with strong blacks, great contrast and such fine detail one can make out the lines in Richard Anderson's hairpiece. (Viewers can also spot the border of William Shatner's toupee quite clearly throughout CBS/Paramount's HD DVD of Star Trek; one wonders whether Hollywood's stars are really looking forward to all these new, revealing technological innovations?)

The discs are in Dolby Digital English mono only but the tracks are strong and the discs are closed-captioned, though no other subtitle option is offered.

Extra Features

Each episode includes a new, on-camera introduction by Barbara Hale, an optional feature for those worried about spoilers. I wondered whether this was such a good idea considering Hale is turning 86 this month - but happily she's just great, full of energy and warmth, with the same laid-back wit and charm as Della Street herself. Producer-director Arthur Marks is also on-hand for of these, with some great anecdotes and his memories are detailed and specific. (For instance, he remembers that the series was budgeted at $172,000/episode, and that guest stars were paid the princely sum of $750/week!)

It's mentioned nowhere on the packaging, but "The Case of the Dead Ringer" includes a nice little audio commentary with Hale and Marks, both of whom have nothing but admiration for Burr's skills as an actor and his boundless energy. (The courtroom scenes gave him so much dialogue that, in the last three years, Burr finally began using a TelePrompTer, but did so with such skill few in the audience suspected as much.)

Disc 4 is where you'll find most of the extra features. Perry Mason Returns (1985) was the first of 30 - count 'em, 30! - TV movies produced over the next ten years (the last four were without star Raymond Burr, however; he died immediately after shooting the 26th one). Writer Dean Hargrove (Columbo, Matlock, Diagnosis Murder) obviously studied the series carefully and understood what made it work; unlike many reunion shows, this one really captures the essence of Perry Mason's appeal, especially the not-quite-a-love relationship between Perry and Della, while the courtroom scenes and the general atmosphere comes reasonably close to the noirish feel of the original show.

The TV movie finds Perry an appellate court judge who steps down from the bench so he can defend Della, who's been accused of murdering a multi-millionaire businessman (Patrick O'Neal), for whom Della was employed as his executive assistant. Though William Talman (as District Attorney Hamilton Burger), Ray Collins (wily Lt. Tragg), and especially William Hopper are sorely missed, the teleplay has nice touches throughout. Taking note of changing times, the prosecuting attorney this time out is an ambitious woman, while Paul Drake, Jr., having taking over his father's business, is played by William Katt, Hale's real-life son.

There's a bit too much of Katt when more scenes of Burr and Hale would have been preferable, and Perry's terse relationship with the budding P.I. is more like something out of Ironside. But the genuine warmth between the two leads is irresistible and Perry's sacrifice, resigning his position to be able to defend his trusted secretary, is actually quite touching.

Perry Mason Talent Tests is a remarkable piece of film, with Burr and Hopper's first tests (Kinescoped) as both Hamilton Burger and Perry Mason miraculously surviving and unearthed here for the first time in fifty years. Hopper is okay as Perry and Burr's just fine as Burger, but whoever did the final casting made all the right choices.

The Case of Erle Stanley Gardner is a neat little featurette, composed mainly of archival photographs, home movies, and old TV interviews with the Perry Mason author and his Della Street-like secretary. One amazing highlight is a long, uninterrupted take of Gardner talking non-stop into a Dictaphone, smoothly dictating the first couple of pages for what would be his last Perry Mason novel.

Charles Collingwood interviews Burr in excerpts from a 1958 episode of Person to Person. In a live feed to Burr's luxurious yet tasteful Malibu compound, the interview amusingly dances around Burr's "confirmed bachelor" status. New on-camera interviews with Hale, Nelson, and Marks expand upon those short introductions. Hale's tribute to Burr at the end of her segment, pouring a glass of wine from Burr's own vineyard, a bottle he apparently gave her specifically to open on the show's Golden Anniversary, is another genuinely moving moment.

Burr, Hale, Hopper, and Talman all appear on an undated episode of Stump the Stars, a celebrity game show variation on charades. Amusingly, while Talman and Hale do okay, Hopper does less well and Burr totally blows it, losing the game for their team! An entire episode was included on, I think, The Dick Van Dyke Show DVDs, but for some reason only the Perry Mason cast is ever shown in these excerpts - not once do we see who they're playing against. Maybe it was thought viewers wouldn't be interested in watching the whole game show, or maybe there were licensing issues, but I would have preferred to see the whole episode.

Also in there are two brief, totally awful syndication promos probably dating from the late-1970s or early-'80s. If I saw those ads, I'd have never watched the show. Included, too, is a good photo gallery with some particularly nice color stills near the end of the batch.

At the request of William Talman's estate, the actor's devastating Anti-Smoking Message is included. Filmed in color just a few weeks before his death from lung cancer, Talman was heavily sedated because of the severe pain he was in those final days, but on-camera he's extraordinarily articulate and personable, not so much D.A. Hamilton Burger as much as anyone's uncle, brother, father, or grandfather. If you're a fan of Perry Mason or of Talman's many wonderful pre-Burger film roles, this intensely personal plea on behalf of the American Cancer Society will likely leave you more than a little choked up. Hamilton Burger may have had the worst record in the L.A County Court system, but William Talman went out a winner of immense class and bravery.

Two short late-career interviews with Burr are excerpted from CBS News Nightwatch, hosted by Charlie Rose. Filmed immediately before and soon after the first of the Perry Mason reunion movies (and about the time he reprised another famous character, reporter Steve Martin from Godzilla), Burr talks about the TV attorney and his impact on popular culture.

Parting Thoughts

Perry Mason was a great show; along with the original Dragnet, virtually all American crime/mystery/courtroom dramas owe it an enormous debt. As detailed in my reviews of Season 1/Volume 1, Season 1/Volume 2, and Season 2/Volume 2, the extreme good production values, fine guest casts, and especially the character relationships among the regular cast, make even weaker Perrys passable entertainment, while the best shows rank among the best ever done for American television.

Perry Mason - 50th Anniversary Edition is a must-have for its best episodes and especially for its extra features, only let's hope this doesn't become Perry's final verdict, "The Case of the Missing Seasons."

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.

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