Positive Perry meets Laughing Latimer in ‘Perry Mason: Season 7, Volume 1’

Our PopMatters review of Perry Mason: Season Six declared that this series was really hitting stride, and the first half of Season Seven (1963-64) seems even better, if possible. At this point, novelist Jonathan Latimer is the busiest and arguably best writer on the series. The set kicks off with two unusual cases from his hand.

“The Case of the Nebulous Nephew”, directed by Arthur Marks, is partly an old-dark-house mystery involving slight-of-hand with a young man who claims not to be the missing heir, while the relatives insist he is. Latimer’s brand of macabre humor comes through in the two spinster aunts, one of whom beams with delight when someone turns up dead. It’s a perverse pleasure to see Hugh Beaumont (Ward Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver) as an unmitigated slimeball, but all this is nothing to a genuinely surprising twist. One surprise is that this escapist series avoided topical issues, yet here it touches on one. For some reason, the print on this copy has the wrong closing credits.

Even more unusual is “The Case of the Deadly Verdict”, directed by Jesse Hibbs, which begins with Perry’s client (Julie Adams) being found guilty and sentenced to death! Later, Latimer comes up with a doozy of an ethical twist for Perry in “The Case of the Capering Camera”, in which the police think a murder is suicide. If Perry does nothing, his client won’t even be arrested, and yet he can’t reveal confidential information.

Two Latimers exhibit his penchant for animals, real or phony. “The Case of the Reluctant Model”, based directly on one of Earle Stanley Gardner’s novels, involves a canary; this is one of the show’s jaundiced outings with the art crowd and includes a bohemian huckster of fake Gaugins. The welcome victim is the masterfully slippery John Dall, who gets a shower scene. Dall, best known for the films Rope and Gun Crazy, eternally alternated with Murray Matheson as effete, supercilious snobs. (Sure enough, Matheson can be spied getting his comeuppance a few episodes later in “The Case of the Accosted Accountant”.)

Latimer’s other animal affair is the Hibbs-directed “The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito” (not a real mosquito), one of Perry’s out-of-towners. Set in a dying miners’ town, this is an all-star wing-ding for fans of 1960s whatsis-name character actors: perpetual old-timer Arthur Hunnicutt, perpetual purse-mouthed Clinton Sundberg, perpetually put-upon Russell Collins, perpetual scumbag Strother Martin, perpetual tall sheriff (or villain) Robert J. Wilke, perpetual debutante Kathleen Crowley, perpetual angry matron Ann Doran, perpetual shady dealer Woodrow Parfrey, plus Garry Walberg (a regular on The Odd Couple and Quincy), and Archie Moore, who played Jim so excellently in the 1960 film of Huckleberry Finn and was promptly forgotten.

Sometimes the show tries to fool us by appearing to depict the crime being committed and the person responsible. An excellent example is “The Case of the Shifty Shoebox,” scripted by series vet Jackson Gillis and directed by Marks. This one is most interesting today for its central role of young Billy Mumy, who spends much of it playing with a loaded gun, as he’d done in a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Although not Perry client, he’s one of the most sympathetic figures of the season, reminding us that this year has deeper characterizations than normal.

A more brazen fake-out occurs in “The Case of the Decadent Dean”, which clearly depicts said dean (Milton Selzer), whose decadence consists of teaching Walt Whitman, pushing a scoundrel off a cliff and turning himself in. Perry gets him off quick as a wink, after a stern lecture about signing confessions before talking to an attorney (remember that), and that’s only the first half.

The series still stars Raymond Burr as the phlegmatic, inscrutable Mr. Mason of Los Angeles; Barbara Hale as his dapper, unflappable secretary Della Street; William Drake as insouciant, loud-jacketed investigator Paul Drake; William Talman as the miserable failure of a district attorney, Hamilton Burger (although he briefly wins one); and Wesley Lau as the unmemorable Lt. Anderson of the LAPD.

There are only a handful of appearances by Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, although he’s always listed in the credits, front and back, presumably to keep paying him through the health issues that were slowing him down. Seen hovering now and then are the impassive Lt. Brice (Lee Miller), Dr. Hoxie (Michael Fox) of the furrowed brow, a baggy-eyed medical examiner (Jon Lormer) who looks like he should be whittling on a front porch, a pint-sized court clerk (Olan Soule), and the cycle of fuddy-duddy judges (Kenneth MacDonald, Morris Ankrum, Charles Irving, John Gallaudet, Willis Bouchey, S. John Launer).

Among the guests: Richard Anderson, Robert Armstrong, Parley Baer, Lynn Bari, Beulah Bondi, Kathie Browne, Virginia Christine, Michael Conrad, Lloyd Corrigan, Ivan Dixon, Constance Ford, Steve Franken, Elisabeth Fraser, Alan Hale Jr., Jon Hall, James Hong, John Howard, John Hoyt, L.Q. Jones, Gail Kobe, Nancy Kovack, Otto Kruger, Diane Ladd, John Larkin, Barton MacLane, Mike Mazurki, Diana Millay, Joanna Moore, Jeff Morrow, Michael Pate, Denver Pyle, Pippa Scott, Karl Swenson, Marie Windsor, Patrice Wymore, and H.M. Wynant.

RATING 7 / 10