Perry Mason

The Case of the Perry Mason TV Project

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason

In September of 1957, CBS television began broadcasting Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr. The title character was a fictional lawyer made popular by author Erle Stanley Gardner in a series of novels in the 1930s. There had been a half-dozen Perry Mason films and a long-running radio program. Gardner hated them. But he had signed away creative control on the lure of a barrel full of money, and which of us hasn’t done that?

Twenty years later, a new medium, television, allowed new contracts and terms. Now Gardner could show Mason the way he wanted – a bold knight of the courtroom, defeating the foes of honest men and women, his only weapon a sharp mind, his only shield, the law.

Perry Mason was an immediate hit. It had stylish sets, expensive out-of-studio production costs, solid acting, writing, directing, and, best of all, a steady stream of beautiful Hollywood handsome actors and actresses. It set a high standard for all the legal American television shows to follow, from Burr’s own Ironsides in the 1970s to today’s fifteen or so Law and Order franchises.

While the show’s black-and-white format might turn off some whelps, most viewers appreciate the noir flavor of bygone Hollywood glamour.

But why write about a TV show that stopped broadcasting 50 years ago? Because Perry Mason is an icon both national and personal. This show has been on in the background of my life for over five decades. Yet until last year (pause for honesty) I’d never watched a single complete episode.

It was always a show I meant to watch, but because it was always there, what’s the hurry? It was background video for most of my life, the way Friends is for another generation. Perry Mason, along with Gilligan’s Island, was one of the great “filler shows” for early cable television. When 24-hour cable television debuted in the late 70s, programmers had a dilemma: There just wasn’t enough programming to fill all the time. One hour-long Perry Mason reruns helped fill the void.

Unfortunately, Perry Mason’s popularity also made it a victim. The original programs ran a fat 52-53 minutes, leaving a scant seven to eight minutes for commercials. Cable advertisers demand more time to sell more junk. So the shows were sliced, chopped and time-compressed to fit a new market. I recently used my DVR to diagnose a PM on the Hallmark Mystery channel. The autopsy revealed a whopping 20-22 minutes of advertising. Whole scenes and characters were snipped out.

But today’s DVDs can rescue yesterday’s content. The DVDs have been available for almost 20 years. The whole nine seasons, 72 disks, set me back a mere $150. If you don’t care to spend that much, there are a couple of alternatives.

First, there’s a stream available on CBS Online for about $7 a month. I tried that for a while but I didn’t like it. Here on the Montana range, my internet speed via Spectrum is about 62 mbps, apparently not enough to prevent image buffering, so  the shows flicker and repeat like old film. Moreover, CBS only offers the first five seasons, and not even all episodes. That seems odd.

Some of the DVDs, the first half of seasons four and five, were available at the local Public Library, and you could probably inter-library loan more. That’s a bother.

Better to possess them. That’s nine-tenths of Masonic law. And now, some results of my investigation

 

55. The Case of the Fraudulent Foto

IMDb Title: Nice and Big and Fat and Clear

Season 2, Episode 16

(IMDb auto-corrected my title to “Photo” but that isn’t right. Foto is old newspaper slang. The more you know…)

Opening shot gives us a busy hotel lobby in Waring City, about 45 minutes from Los Angeles as we later learn. I think this is where wares come from, like Waring blenders. They’re gone now.

In skulks a Man In Hat (MIH) who sneaks up the stairs. Why it’s our old chum Hugh Marlowe. He meets and greets Babe 1, Leora Mathews, played by Carole Mathews, so her name is her role, kinda. The Babe gives him a packet of pictures to peruse, and as he innocently gloms them up, she’s behind a curtain taking it off. She slips out of her dress into a silky robe, plops down beside Brander Harris (Hugh) on the couch and smooches him a good one. He doesn’t seem to mind. Just then the door bursts open and there’s Weegee the 1940s flashbulb photographer. Say cheese and blackmail Hugh! It’s the old badger game, again.

After Hugh hightails it out of there, we cut to Villain 1, Mr. Marshall Scott, a mustachioed fink who coos and bills with the Babe over the phone even as his roosterpecked wife glumly looks on. Good job baby, he snorts,  thanks for the photos. I’ll see to it they get to the newspaper, talk to ya later, baby, I gotta drop outta sight for a while.

Scott was the foreman for building the New Hospital in town, the one that mysteriously fell down, a habit to be discouraged for buildings that have people inside them. Harris is the nosy district attorney, who’s looking into the graft that was grifted around town. He’s a crusading young prosecutor at 48.

Next we move to a swanky L.A. restaurant. Head swanker is Cleveland Blake, innocent big businessman and a champion of progress for the Waring City community.

Why look at these dirty photos I’ve got of you and some hussy he tells Harris. It’s a good thing the newspaper didn’t get them. Say, Harris says, isn’t the newpaper editor your pal? He’s the one I’m thinking engineered the graft.

Too bad says Blake, but the paper needs some pepper and your spicy photos are the meatball to put on the platter. And he sends his flunky off to deliver the foto. Say goodbye to your career Mr District Attorney!

On his way out the devastated Harris meets Della and Perry. Help me Mason he says. So Perry helps out a D.A. You know how all those lawyers stick together.

Mason grabs Paul Drake and he confronts the hussy in her hotel room.

“What is this, a badger game?” sneers the Babe, which is ironic since she’s the playa.

Perry puts her on notice then leaves. Now she must alert her sweet baboo, the villainous Scott, but her phone doesn’t work. Drake has bribed the hotel operator to unplug it. She goes downstairs to a pay phone and dials his number – while Drake watches. Pretty slick. It’s a good thing nobody talks over their phone in public anymore.

Now that he knows who the schemer is, Perry heads out to cut him off at the pass, but who does he find instead but Lieutenant Tragg of Homicide. He’s toweling off Scott, who has passed from being the episode’s head villain to its Dead Body.

Are Harris’s fingerprints on the murder weapon?

“Nice and big and fat and clear.”

A warrant is out for Harris’s arrest and where is he? He’s hiding in Perry Mason’s car, that’s where! Look at the fins on that thing, a 1959 Caddy convertible.

You gotta give up and trust me Perry says as he drives Harris to the police department. As Hamilton Burger mocks his defense of a DA, Perry defends the Brotherhood of the Law. Even prosecutors have the right not to be persecuted declaims Mason. Nevertheless, “It embarrasses me that I have to pull your chestnuts out of the fire.” Ouch!

There are several other fun factors in this episode. Three Stooges foil Kenneth MacDonald does the judging. It’s always fun to hear him issue commands that don’t involve a guy in a gorilla costume.

As he defends his client, Mason brings up the legal concept of “res gestae,” things done, which allows evidence that might otherwise be dismissed as hearsay. Watching Perry Mason is not for sissies folks. I was flabbergasted by this show’s final confession and I don’t flab my gast easily.

 

126. The Case of the Missing Melody

IMDb Title: The Scourge of Bongo Music Foretold

Season 5 episode 3

Once again a Perry Mason episode leads the charge in the cultural wars, warning of the perils of bongo music to our Youth.

This episode features another PM appearance by jazzman Bobby Troup, this time playing a Beatnik character named “Bongo” and he smokes cigarettes too, letting them dangle suggestively from his lips. I wonder what that means? And he calls everybody “baby.” Ugh.

Anyway, our heroine, innocent, pure Polly Courtland, played by the luscious Jo Morrow, is beguiled into trying to marry one Eddie King (James Drury, shortly before his ramrod ride as The Virginian). She wisely dodges him, only to be later entangled in the murder of a degenerate musician, one George Sherwin.  What music do we hear in the background as Polly flees the murder scene? Bongo music of course! Do you need it spelled out for you?

The forces of law and order, in the person of Lt. Tragg, arrest Eddie, who then becomes Perry’s client. There is some confusion as to who was trying to blackmail Polly’s father, a wealthy businessman as always. That should be a warning to you too. You never read about anybody blackmailing poor people.

Perry uses one of his favorite tricks on the prosecution by sending a similar, but different, young lady to “test the recollection of a witness.”

“A typical attempt to throw dust in the prosecution’s eyes,” thunders Hamilton Burger. But the liberal judge lets it slide. Why does Mason always get away with this?

There are several traps laid bare for our youth to see in this show. French cigarettes. Young ladies with uncovered heads tossing ‘bones’ with gamblers. Photographs. Fins on automobiles. Walter Burke.

But in the end, the murderer is exactly who you think it should be- someone degraded by years of listening to bongo music. There’s no melody to such trash, hence our episode’s title. If only we had listened, the Vietnam War could have been avoided. We need a president like Perry Mason who will build a wall between decent Americans and bongo music. And he’ll make the Beatniks pay for it!

 

204. The Case of the Woeful Widower

IMDb Title:A Name with No Street

Original Air Date: 26 March 1964 (Season 7, Episode 23)

Last of four episodes without Barbara Hale as Della Street. Why was she gone? That’s irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial. Plus I haven’t found out yet.

A couple of intriguing look-alike character actors in this one. The scary housemaid Nellie Conway is played by the multi-named Joan Banks (Lovejoy). She plays it like a haunted Virginia Christie, who later boldly proclaimed herself the Folgers Coffee Lady.

I yearn tragically across the decades for the stunning Ann(a Lee) Carroll, playing Georgiana Douglas. She’s a belle ringer for Arlene Martel. These women are so beautiful they can only exist in Hollywood.

I like this episode. I don’t mind that they picked the ubiquitous Harry Townes to play Newton Bain, a middle-aged Lothario. Most Perry Mason episodes involve old geezers lusting after ladies young enough to be their granddaughters. That was the way they played it back then. Good thing that doesn’t happen nowadays.

And lay off Jerry van Dyke. Tell me how the final laugh-with-a-fade-out wouldn’t have benefited by 100 percent more banjo?

 

252. The Case of the Silent Six

IMDb Title: What kind of an Animal are You?

Original Air Date: 21 November 1965 (Season 9, Episode 11)

This story was loosely inspired by the infamous Kitty Genovese murder in New York City in 1963. But it’s a feeble allusion, as Kitty was brutally stabbed to death and here, the girl lives and a man dies instead, shot by a gun. If you’ve ever met anyone who’s been shot to death six times with a gun, they will tell you it’s not so bad as being stabbed. Anyway, the story zips from caring less who beat up the living girl to who killed the dead guy.

The girl is played by the beautiful Chris Noel, who, even with bruise makeup on her face, still looks gorgeous. You should look up her bio in IMDb, what a life of public service she’s had.

There are no less than four possible ways the killing could have gone down, we find out in scene two or three maybe, and Paul Drake is just the sleuth who can suss them out, after he receives his clever instructions from Perry.

Do we spot a hint at a gay relationship between Ron and Hamp Fisher? These two hunky good- looking males were “just driving around” together when the attack on the Babe and the killing took place. Homosexuality was dangerous in 1965, as Raymond Burr and everyone who cared for him knew. Perhaps the characters are just gay for the slay?

Luckily we have Good Old Judge Kenneth MacDonald on bench to keep Perry and Hamilton in check with his best “see here” arguments. There’ll be no stoogery in this courtroom!

In the end the Guilty Killer’s dramatic confession speech tries to tie it all back to Kitty by blaming big city fears and inhumanity as the cause for his actions. I guess that works, even if the “38 passive observers” in the Kitty Genovese story was debunked in a 2016 film made by her brother.

 

267. The Case of the Dead Ringer

IMDb Title: This is the Droid We Were All Looking For

Season 9, Episode 26

This show is remarkable because it stars not only Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, but a controversial ‘actor’ who is the spitting image of Burr as Mason. The person playing ‘Grimes,’ the false Mason, is not listed on the program’s 1966 credits.

There have been a number of popular yet groundless speculations, including by the IMDb, that Grimes is simply Burr in a dual role. But by 1966 Burr or his agents would have had enough ‘star power’ to demand double billing so why not take on-screen credit?

No, the more logical solution is that this unique role is actually essayed by an android, a half-man mechanical apparatus NASA was experimenting on the 1960s. This was just before the Moon landing was faked, so the American government’s skill with electronic tomfoolery was well advanced.  Just check out the opening of a show called “Mission Impossible” – it proves that by 1965 American technocrats had developed self-destructing tape recorders.

The android Grimes is programmed to speak in a voice that sounds vaguely British, like Popeye pretending to be a Beatle. He presents himself as a salty old sea dog looking for his white whale, but willing to settle for a snog with the Blue Nun instead. Grimes habituates seedy waterfront bars, the type like the T-shirted toughs from Batman might hang out. Soon he is shanghaied by villains out to frame Perry Mason over a patent fight. All sorts of hijinks happen after that I don’t have to tell you.

In the end Mason proves his client is innocent, even though no one cares by then. It doesn’t matter as the real star of this show is America’s lead in the Space Race. You kids should go read up on that.