[27 May 2010]
Perry Mason, an attorney who seems expert in all areas of law but excels in publicly unmasking murderers, continues his winning streak in this latest collection.
We reviewed his first three seasons in a previous docket (Perry Mason: Season 3 - Vol. 2). The newest DVD contains the first half of Season Five, 15 cases first tried from September to December 1961. Nothing much has changed. Perry (Raymond Burr) remains a heroic cypher, cool and professional, sometimes jovial but with a cut and thrust when confronting witnesses. Although we glimpsed his house in one or two episodes way back in the first season, he no longer goes home but can be found in his office at all hours. I guess somebody’s being billed. He’s a force not so much of nature but of drama, an instrument for cracking open cases that we witnessed unfolding while he was never there. He usually comes into the episode at least a third of the way through, by which time we’ve seen a confusing series of incidents among various characters.
Secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and detective Paul Drake (William Hopper) are also on the job at all hours. Like Perry, their manner is dry and efficient, as they are continually amused by their jobs. They are pleasant, functional cogs in the machine. If anything is happening to them, it’s a matter of speculation. (In the revival series, it was revealed that they got married.) The most dry and sarcastic character, and the one who most seems to enjoy his work, is Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins). Alas, he’s increasingly absent from this season, replaced by Lt. Andy Anderson (Wesley Lau) and sometimes Sgt. Landro (Mort Mills), who have no discernible personalities. Lt. Brice (Lee Miller) is seen more than any of them, often a silent, uncredited, glowering ghost hovering in the background of crime scenes.
Then of course there’s the eternal sour-pussed loser, District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman), who somehow never gets to the point of cutting his throat or being voted out of office for continually being exposed as a bungler who prosecutes innocent people. Even he fires off a droll zinger now and then. He’s not in every episode either, partly because Perry isn’t always in Los Angeles. Paul Fix, who appeared in a few scattered episodes as small-town D.A. Hale, shows up as a different prosecutor in one of this set. John Gallaudet, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald and Tom Harkness show up multiple times as the nameless judges who are always interested in this line of questioning over the D.A.‘s objections. Unlike Rumpole of the Bailey, Perry’s cases are never presided over by senile or hostile nitwits. Incompetence only rises as high as the D.A.‘s office.
Someone must have decided that the show needed youth appeal, perhaps to echo the token youthful characters on rival crime shows (e.g. Edd Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip), because this season brings in handsome law student David Gideon (Karl Held). Whenever he enters the room with a line of dialogue, everyone seems as surprised as the viewer, as if we’ve all forgotten he’s hanging around.
It’s part of the show’s premise that anyone could be guilty, that evil could lurk beneath any mask of respectability. Still, the truth will out. The show believes in justice and an orderly world where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, notwithstanding the incompetence of the police and D.A. The murder victims deserved it. The killers (who show a moment of pathos while blurting their confession in a crowded courtroom) presumably go to the gas chamber. Perry’s clients, after that spot of bother, find romance, save their marriages, recover their inheritances, patent their inventions, and reap the benefits of being good people.
Aside from the killer and victim, people’s lives aren’t laid waste by this bump in the road, which has been something of a cosmic self-correction. Everyone moves on to a brighter future, and the principals chuckle in the coda on their way to a good dinner. It’s a clean, well-lighted world where murder is a constant presence but the righteous need fear no evil—as long as they have a good lawyer.
The pleasure of following these overplotted puzzles, which usually don’t hold up to careful scrutiny, is mild and temporary. There’s a richer pleasure invested in these old TV shows by time itself, and it goes beyond the nostalgia of seeing Cadillac fins and old skylines and people without cellphones. Deepest of all is the associational pleasure known to film buffs and cultists as episodes become a web of references to past and future careers. It’s a nexus of old Hollywood, or a bag of entrails to be read separately as the story is going on. The process isn’t unlike how auteurists get lost in the personal choices of a movie that strikes the average viewer as a waste of time. It’s very inside baseball, but everyone does it at some level.
“Look, there’s Darren from Bewitched! The first Darren, not the second one.” Then you start thinking how you watched that show as a child, and how the actor died of AIDS and Elizabeth Montgomery had cancer (and remember Agnes Moorehead?), and you’re smiling in a parallel universe that this particular episode had no intention of evoking and which exists apart from its quality. A DVD of an old TV series is a box of madeleines.
Take “The Case of the Injured Innocent”. Dashing, heavily-accented young Alejandro Rey (later of The Flying Nun) plays the bastardly Italian race-car driver who plans to kill some old fool of a millionaire (Jess Barker, a B-film actor briefly married to Susan Hayward). The old fool’s wife is Audrey Dalton, and her rival for the driver’s affection is Linda Lawson. In the same year as this episode, they made outstanding cult films that might have been the highlights of their careers. Lawson played the mermaid in Night Tide and Dalton was the frightened bride of Mr. Sardonicus. For good measure, the episode has a minor role for Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies).
The scripts are mostly the work of staff writers, but a few hardworking pulp novelists are also here. Helen Nielsen contributed “The Case of the Unwanted Bride”, which is most notable for starring DeForest Kelley. Jonathan Latimer, whose novels are marked by a morbid wackiness, reined in his kinks for the cases of the “Left-Handed Liar” and the “Missing Melody”.
The latter is a good example of pleasure by association, and it’s one of several episodes here about show biz or types of performance. It concerns a jazz musician (Bobby Troup, husband of Julie London and writer of the hit song “Route 66”) who is jilted at the altar by Jo Morrow (a debutante in Our Man in Havana, The Three Worlds of Gulliver and 13 Ghosts). We get to hear singing by Constance Towers, probably most famous as the bald prostitute in The Naked Kiss and whose career included Broadway musicals and soap operas. Guitarist Barney Kessel (who accompanied London on some of her best albums) has a minor role.
Did someone mention 13 Ghosts? That and several other William Castle thrillers of the era (Macabre, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and Homicidal) were scripted by Robb White, and here he is cranking out “The Case of the Travelling Treasure”, in which Perry’s fishing trip is interrupted by gold smuggling and homicide.
The wildest writer who contributed scripts is Robert Leslie Bellem, an astonishingly prolific gentleman most famous for inventing Hollywood detective Dan Turner. S.J. Perelman celebrated his endlessly colorful slang in a well-known essay called “Somewhere a Roscoe”. Like Latimer, Bellem had to rein it in for the house style on this show. His cases (“Malicious Mariner” and “Brazen Bequest”) could have been written by anybody, though the latter has a touch of eccentric slang from the drunken old woman who creates a scene. His voluminous output included much TV work (westerns, Superman, The Lone Ranger), which no doubt paid better than his tireless outpouring for magazines like Spicy Detective.
Two of the best episodes here, intrinsically and associationally, are the cases of the “Meddling Medium” and the “Crying Comedian”. The former is by series stalwart Samuel Newman, who must have been turning out convoluted plots in his sleep. He also wrote the films Invisible Invaders and The Giant Claw, which ties in with the point that this Halloween episode is a cultist’s delight. It opens with stock footage of an old dark house perched on the edge of a cliff during a thunderstorm. It starts out as a story of fake spiritualists (again a performance motif), then throws in what seems a real case of possession when Perry’s client predicts a murder. Of course she’s arrested, and Perry must prove that she might have latent psychic powers—which hardly explains anything when you think about it.
The poor lass is Sonya Wilde, star of the B-obscurity I Passed for White. Also on the program is Kent Smith of the original Cat People and Curse of the Cat People; Virginia Field, who played Morgan La Fay in the Bing Crosby version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and was in Terence Fisher’s The Earth Dies Screaming; and Mary LaRoche, who was Ann-Margret’s mom in Bye Bye Birdie and the mom whose child gets the Talky Tina doll in a famous episode of The Twilight Zone. Finally, who shows up as himself but parapsychology researcher Dr. Andrija Puharich, correctly advertised to the presiding judge as a leading authority. The court adjourns to his lab for a few tests and a bit of mad-scientism (one of Perry’s stunts). An inventor and writer, Puharich may be best remembered for promoting Uri Geller. If you say “Who?” get thee to Wikipedia.
“Crying Comedian”, another show biz episode, is by Robert Dennis, an incredibly prolific high-end TV writer from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. Aside from 19 scripts for Perry, his output includes more than 30 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, multiple cases of 77 Sunset Strip, The Outer Limits and The Wild Wild West, the King Tut episodes of Batman, and several episodes of forgotten but good private eye shows like Dan August and Harry O. Oh yes, there was the movie Terror in the Haunted House, advertised with a gimmick of “subliminal communication” called Psycho-Rama.
The titular comedian is Tommy Noonan, who did have a comedy act with future Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall and who played Marilyn Monroe’s boyfriend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Judy Garland’s caustic pianist in A Star Is Born. His manager is played by Jackie Coogan—yes, Uncle Fester on The Addams Family, but more important as a child star who worked with Charlie Chaplin and who ultimately safeguarded the earnings of child stars with the Coogan Law.
Sue Ane Langdon, a comedienne of the ‘60s, plays a dumb blonde. Most notable of all is Gloria Talbott as the basket case over which our comedian is crying. She was a very busy TV actress and this is one of her four Masons, but she’s surely best known for throwing herself into a quartet of theatrical stunners: Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, I Married a Monster From Outer Space, The Leech Woman, and The Cyclops.
In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris notoriously wrote that “anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes 40 minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll”. His point isn’t really that everyone must love this movie, but the idea of finding value in the overlooked and reviled. He was praising director Edgar Ulmer, but actors like Talbott also have the power to redeem a lot of hokum. After we’ve seen her endure the psycho-sexual uncannitude of these B pictures (I Married a Monster is really a classic), she carries their aura even to the bright corners of Perry Mason, just as Isabella Rossellini forever wafts the decay of Blue Velvet, or Charlotte Rampling always brings the buzz of The Night Porter.
This series didn’t waste money on big guest stars; it just wanted us to follow the story, as tricky as that is. Other habitual TV characters who show up, familiar more by face than name, include Denver Pyle, Leslie Parrish, Robert Armstrong, Victor Sen Yung, Percy Helton, Skip Homeier, Frank Cady, George Macready, Dabbs Greer, Elvia Allman, Strother Martin, Dick Foran, Gerald Mohr, Torin Thatcher, Alan Hale Jr., Bruce Bennett, Les Tremayne, Ed Nelson, Philip Ober, and J. Pat O’Malley.
As in other volumes, these remastered episodes look and sound crystal clear. There are no extras.
Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.