‘Perry Mason’ Resonates from Decades Past

[8 October 2013]

By Michael Barrett

As Perry Mason wraps up the second half of its penultimate season in early 1965, we see increasingly odd characters and unusual situations. It feels like a long-running show trying to keep the magic alive with novelty, and not always succeeding.

Curiously, the first episode in this set doesn’t have Perry Mason in it, as he’s in Europe on a case. The spotlight is taken by another attorney (played by Barry Sullivan). It’s one of two episodes in this series directed by Jack Arnold, a specialist in ‘50s sci-fi classics, and he indulges in a few flashy zooms and transitions, like the gimmick of cutting to someone’s back walking away from the camera. It’s also one of two episodes this season without Mason (the other is in the previous set). Evidently Burr’s absence relates to the run of episodes where Perry’s right arm is in a sling; dialogue refers briefly to a car accident.

Under primary writers Jackson Gillis (the associate producer) and Samuel Newman (story consultant), many episodes seek an unusual angle to refresh the series’ formula of Perry’s client being accused of murder until he unmasks the killer in court. For example, with the cooperation of eternal nemesis D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman), Perry defends one of his assistant district attorneys in Newman’s “The Case of the Fatal Fetish”, which juices up the story with a voodoo angle provided by none other than Fay Wray (King Kong’s old flame) as an imperious nightclub performer.

“The Case of the Feather Cloak” finds Perry in Hawaii, where he shouldn’t be able to practice if not for a convenient reference to the state bar’s kindness. Alas, his trusty secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) must have been left in L.A., unless she spends the whole episode on the beach where we never see her. Jon Hall, leading man of many a ‘40s South Sea Island trifle, lands a guest spot as the local cop, his shirt on at all times, and Charlie Chan’s Number One Son, Keye Luke, is also hanging around. Jonathan Latimer’s script includes his penchant for animal characters, in this case a cockatoo. Latimer’s other script here is “The Case of the Gambling Lady”, notable only as an early assignment for future action director Richard Donner, and you’d never guess that.

Their titles make you think Latimer should have scripted them, but “The Case of the Careless Kitten” and “The Case of the Grinning Gorilla” come from Gillis, and are based directly on novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. Intriguingly, both stories avoid having Perry step into a courtroom. In the first one, his client (Julie Sommars) is never even a suspect. This puts it among the more refreshing outings, along with Louise Latham’s performance as a hateful harridan, Lloyd Corrigan as the nervous nebbish of an uncle, and the gothic atmosphere and slinky cat’s-eye views directed by Vincent McEveety. A key role belongs to Allan Melvin, best known for comic support around Sgt. Bilko and Archie Bunker (and the voice of Magilla Gorilla), and there’s even a nice appearance by breathy pint-sized pipsqueak Percy Helton, who always sounds like Winnie the Pooh with laryngitis.

The latter episode, with guests Victor Buono and Gavin MacLeod, indulges the broad, overstated humor of several of this year’s cases. Instead of having a young, good-looking client, Perry defends a batty old lady (radio queen Lurene Tuttle) accused of putting the scissors to her ex-employer, which seems manifestly unlikely. Appearing in that gorilla suit is Janos Prohaska, who made a career of playing animals like Andy Williams’ Cookie Bear and the Horta on Star Trek. No matter how consummate he was, it’s never clear if the gorilla is grinning. Maybe it should have been Buono grinning in that suit, but it’s too small for him.

Prolific TV writer Mann Rubin, who began in science fiction (especially the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow) and at this time wrote a terrific feature thriller called Brainstorm, contributed only two episodes to Perry Mason, both this season. The first was in the previous volume, and the other is here: “The Case of the Murderous Mermaid”, one of the more involving entries. Both stories are about Hollywood has-beens who concoct publicity stunts around a naive young ingenue who gets arrested for killing them. The only real difference is that the unscrupulous corpse was male in the first story and female in this one.

Jesse Hibbs, who made good westerns with Audie Murphy in the ‘50s, deserves credit as the dominant director of this series’ final seasons. Although he’s restricted to the same handful of sets in episode after episode (everybody’s mansion has the same staircase and narrow foyer) and the action consists largely of people talking, he uses clever set-ups and smooth movements to keep undue claustrophobia at bay. He must also be responsible for the tendency to heighten (or overplay) performances to near-hysterical levels in this period, which lends an unreal theatrical quality to these complicated playlets.

Other guests include Bettye Ackerman, Joyce Van Patten, Kathie Browne, Robert Strauss, Noah Beery Jr., Frances Reid, Frank Ferguson, Linden Chiles, Roland Winters, Parley Baer, H.M. Wynant, John Van Dreelen, David Opatoshu, Hal Peary, Minerva Urecal, Gary Collins, Lynn Bari, Dabbs Greer, Patrice Wymore, Bill Williams (Barbara Hale’s husband), Lee Bergere, Allison Hayes, Robert Quarry, Max Showalter, Peter Breck, Jesse White, Ruta Lee, Don Dubbins, Steve Ihnat, James Shigeta, Philip Abbott, Nobu McCarthy, Bobby Troup, Francine York, Henry Beckman, and Marge Redmond.

All the episodes are in terrific shape visually and sonically. There are packing issues in that the plot descriptions on the DVD liner notes are wrong, but that doesn’t effect the contents of the discs.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/175617-perry-mason-season-8-volume-2/