The first three seasons of the original Perry Mason TV series have now been released on DVD in half-season packages. Let’s pause to consider these early years.
Perry Mason was created in novels by Erle Stanley Gardner and appeared in movies and radio, but no doubt he’s most famous to the general public as Raymond Burr in this first series. (He returned to the role for a revival in the 1980s.) People remember him badgering witnesses until they broke down and confessed on the stand — “All right, I did it! I killed him!” There are variations on this revelation, but that’s basically how it goes.
The show is structured like this. The first 15 or 20 minutes usually focus on some ornery varmint being as objectionable as possible to everyone in the vicinity, the better to multiply enemies for when said varmint turns up dead and also so the viewer and other characters don’t waste time on sympathy or emotional involvement. This isn’t a show about grief or loss, and it’s only incidentally about rage or love or other motives for murder. In short, this isn’t a show about character, but a puzzle to tease the viewer with brisk, complicated stories.
They’re so complicated, in fact, that they frequently don’t make sense if you stop to analyze them after all the secrets have been unraveled. It always turns out that the scene of the crime was like Grand Central Station, with everyone in the cast is just missing each other by moments as they visit the victim or stumble over the body. Only Mason’s defendants are the ones who, after finding the corpse, have helpfully handled the weapon and put their fingerprints all over the place.
The Los Angeles police department and D.A’s office bat a thousand in arresting and prosecuting innocent people, but never fear. Mason’s job includes nothing so paltry as puncturing the evidence or sowing reasonable doubt, but actually unmasking the killer. This happens mostly at preliminary hearings to present evidence, not at jury trials. However, there is one episode among these early ones that goes to trial and Mason’s client is found guilty — and really is guilty! Mason clears his own record by having a mistrial declared on account of a fraudulent identity. Presumably he won’t handle the retrial.
The show’s businesslike approach extends to the regular characters, all likeable automatons with the same dry sense of humor. There’s Mason, a phlegmatic, blocklike figure with heavy bags under his eyes. He has a small array of thoughtful glances which he darts about now and then, occasionally raising an eyebrow. Della Street (Barbara Hale) is his efficient secretary. Neither of them appear to have homes, as they’re in the office at midnight, and although they seem to eat all their meals together at restaurants with or without private detective Paul Drake (William Hopper), there’s no suggestion that anyone is an item. (In the revival series, Della had married Paul.) Sometimes Della will make a comment about a pretty client, as if this is supposed to interest Perry (or is she goading him?), but Burr hardly conveys that kind of wandering eye.
My favorite character is homicide detective Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins), a wily old fox of very wry sarcasm. The D.A. who tries virtually all of Perry’s cases is Hamilton Burger (William Talman), who’s somewhere between dyspeptic and grudgingly upright. Not every case is set in Los Angeles or in the criminal court, so he and Tragg don’t appear in every episode but in most of them. The latter half of the third season marks a period when Talman was fired from the show for having been arrested at a party where narcotics were present and everyone was naked (that’s what the police reports said). He was acquitted at a hearing (Mason must have been his attorney) but it took a while for CBS to reinstate him after many letters of public support. At last viewers knew that someone on the show had an interesting private life.
Don’t take our own wry comments to imply that the show isn’t entertaining. It is; it’s just never great drama or even great mystery writing. Some episodes are based on Gardner novels; many aren’t. The most important writers during these seasons were Seeleg Lester and Jackson Gillis, who also worked as associate producers or script editors, though many episodes were penned by a cult novelist named Jonathan Latimer whose books have a somewhat madcap reputation. He wrote two brilliant screenplays in 1948: The Big Clock and Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and his penchant for comedy extended to Topper Returns. He also wrote a slyly subversive episode for the second season of Columbo called “The Greenhouse Jungle”, starring Ray Milland of The Big Clock. Although nobody in the episode points it out, Columbo is indirectly responsible for the week’s murder because he failed to prevent it when he had the chance, as opposed to coming on the scene after it was committed.
I can’t say Latimer’s Perry Mason episodes so far are better than other writers’, though he sometimes throws in a curious detail as seen in the titles “The Case of the Mythical Monkeys”, “The Case of the Bashful Burro” or “The Case of the Crying Cherub”. Actually these stories aren’t bad; he would contribute many more episodes later in the series, so perhaps we can look forward to his getting in the swing.
The show’s visual style is direct, flat and as bright as if the truth were shining from every corner. Directors during these seasons include Arthur Marks (the most prolific), William D. Russell, Christian Nyby, Arthur Hiller, Laslo Benedek, Andrew V. McLaglen, and Anton Leader, but the directorial star for my money is a man who only directed four second-episodes and apparently was never invited back, perhaps because his style was too noticeable.
He’s Gerd Oswald, a former child actor in Germany and son of important silent director Richard Oswald; they’re more of the German refugee community’s gifts to Hollywood, courtesy of Hitler. But while the father didn’t have much of a Hollywood career, the son did a lot of TV. His work includes “The Forms of Things Unknown”, an episode of The Outer Limits that’s one of the most outstanding fantasies in TV history. Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema classed him under “Expressive Esoterica” because of a few interesting crime features such as The Screaming Mimi and A Kiss Before Dying.
At least one of his Masons is easily among the best and most unusual, though perhaps you’d have to sit through a lot of episodes to understand why. “The Case of the Jaded Joker”, set in the world of Hollywood’s busted dreams, stresses mood and personality to an unusual extent (usual: never). Whole scenes are just atmosphere that don’t move the plot forward. It also engages in a couple of gratuitously stylish zooms, and it also happens to be the first episode to highlight a “special guest star”: Frankie Laine as a has-been comic who used to have a hot TV show.
Not only does this guy exhibit no romantic history, but he lives with two guys in his mansion and they all come down to breakfast in their jammies. This point is neither underlined nor avoided. One hanger-on is a little pug whom Paul Drake says he “can’t figure out” because the guy used to be a nobody ‘til a few years ago when he landed this plush gig as the comic’s — what? He’s an assistant or gofer, also the Fool or truth-sayer who can puncture the star’s ego. They’re willing to do anything for each other, and they are allowed moments of real emotion, such as when Laine wants to kill himself.
The third guy in the house is a beatnik pianist (Bobby Troup, aka Julie London’s husband) who, when he talks at all, does so only in strained hipster jargon. Lt. Tragg has an unusual scene with him where he sniffs his cigarette and says “I thought I smelled tea” (they’re talking about maryjane, man!). The episode’s coda has Tragg spouting more “daddy-o” jargon to Della’s amazement, which is one of Tragg’s best-remembered scenes in the entire series.
Two of Oswald’s other episodes are about the peculiar world of art and artists. “The Case of the Lost Last Act” is about the theatre and playwrights. “The Case of the Purple Woman”, by novelist Philip MacDonald, stars George Macready as a prominent art dealer who gets murdered over a forgery. This has more gratuitous zooms and gives a lot of scene-stealing business to a puffed-up little failure of a man who feels his work isn’t properly respected.
Then there’s the zoom-happy “The Case of the Glittering Goldfish”, in which this ordinarily plain show opens with silhouettes and chiaroscuro and aquariums and distortions, and it avoids the characters’ faces until a series of expressionistic close-ups. A later character is introduced on the phone via off-screen space until the camera finally turns to look at her. You don’t expect Perry Mason suddenly to come on like The Lady from Shanghai. And once again we have a little scene-stealer (Cecil Kellaway) pitching his arias between comedy and pathos, and spending his whole role drunk although nothing in the script apparently required it. It’s funny how you can come to recognize one director’s touches within a routine series.
A note of background regulars and semi-regulars, who are crucial to a show’s world. Although Burger is usually the DA, the judges rotate among a handful of faces who are almost never given character names. S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, Willis Bouchey, Morris Ankrum, John Gaulladet and Grandon Rhodes are seen most often. Little bespectacled George E. Stone is the most regular court clerk, though he’s only credited when he speaks lines. Charles Stroud and Jack Gargan also play this role frequently. The same is true of the court reporter, which is how Paul B. Kennedy got three credits in the third season when he’s asked to read back some testimony. Conne Cezan appears a few times as Perry’s receptionist Gertie, who’s kind of a dizzy Brooklyn gal.
A person seen in many episodes, but usually without opening his mouth to receive a credit, is Lee Miller as Tragg’s right-hand man Sgt. Brice, though there are a very few episodes where a different actor plays Brice. Various coroners give medical testimony, and the most frequently seen is Michael Fox, whose character is often referred to in dialogue as Dr. Hoxie even though the credits often list him generically as Autopsy Surgeon or something similar. Perhaps they didn’t always know at the script stage which actor would be used, for other actors do show up for medical testimony, such as the older Pitt Herbert. Such is the elusive world of these backgrounders, and of course there are bailiffs and matrons and assistant DA’s who are very lucky ever to have a line and a credit, even though they may be in many episodes. They’re only furniture.
The show had large guest casts but avoided big names; it didn’t take (and couldn’t afford) the all-star calling-card route of, say, Murder She Wrote. What we get is a parade of character actors, second-stringers and future players. A very partial list of guests in these three seasons: Angie Dickinson, Darryl Hickman, William Schallert, Cyril Delevanti, Barbara Eden, Malcolm Atterbury, Francis Bavier, Sarah Selby, Nancy Gates, Whit Bissell, Doris Singleton, Minerva Urecal, Carl Betz, L.Q. Jones, Carl Benton Reid, Shepperd Strudwick, Dabbs Greer, Jeanette Nolan, Denver Pyle, Claude Akins, Werner Klemperer, Marie Windsor, Johnny Mack Brown, Ruta Lee, Charles Lane, Yvonne Craig (Batgirl? Batgirl!), Fay Wray, Ann Doran, Nancy Kulp, Bruce Bennett, Heather Angel, Eduardo Ciannelli, Nita Talbot, Elisha Cook Jr., Barbara Luna, Max Showalter, Jesse White, Edgar Buchanan, Mel Blanc (the voice of a parrot!), Barton MacLane, Hugh Marlowe, Marion Ross, Benson Fong, John Agar, Raymond Bailey, Dick Foran, R.G. Armstrong, Ellen Corby, Mala Powers, Betsy Jones-Moreland, George Takei, Arthur Franz, Jacqueline Scott, Madlyn Rhue, Simon Oakland, Bethel Leslie, Jeanne Cooper, Marshall Thompson, Dennis Patrick, J. Pat O’Malley, Barbara Bain, Beverly Garland, Louise Fletcher, Norman Fell, Allison Hayes, H.M. Wynant, Elvia Allman, Bert Convy, Edward Platt, and Francis X. Bushman. You could spend half the episode wondering who that person is before skipping to the credits.
All these filmed episodes are so crystal-clear (presumably from digital restoration), they look better than they probably did on most people’s 1960 TV’s. There are no extras.