I’ve been watching the Perry Mason TV series lately. Not the sad 80s one, when they brought back the surviving members of the cast and ran through the motions. The black and white Perry, with a slimmer Raymond Burr and prettier Barbara Hale. And I’ve noticed several things I hadn’t before, or maybe I would have before, if I wasn’t 3 at the time the show started in 1957. As the show went on, Mason grew further and further away from the books, written, or dictated by, Erle Stanley Gardner over 4 decades and 80 some books. Gardner began this series with The Case of The Velvet Claws, and never looked back. He made a fortune from these slim, often confusing volumes, and although known for Perry, he wrote many other things, some under pseudonyms such as A.A. Fair, others about the California desert he lived in and loved. He also loved one of his long time secretaries, which is why, rumor has it, he put in the contract when the TV show was being filmed, Perry and Della must not seem to have any kind of intimate
relationship. Barely glances and elbow touching did they engage in. I know, I’ve kept an eye on them now for many episodes. If true, it seems a bit silly, considering everyone must have known he was involved with his right hand woman, all those years, despite being estranged from his wife. When his wife finally passed away he married the faithful servant. I would think by then they were doddering around.
So was Perry Mason really Erle Stanley Gardener? If so, then Gardner must have been mighty unethical in his real life legal practice, because the original Mason deceived the police, district attorney, and his own clients habitually, at least in the first volumes. He was called a shyster by some critics, and I have to agree. What he wouldn’t do to save a client wasn’t invented. And they didn’t have to be innocent–although for some reason, they always turned out to be just that. The first episodes of the TV show followed Mason’s character quite nicely. Burr was forceful, determined, and would just as easily slip a suspect out a building with the police within spitting distance, as give a closing statement in court. Actually, in the books I’ve read, Mason really doesn’t spend all that much time in a court of law. He’s the detective of the series, and although he calls in his trusted sidekick, PI Paul Drake, it’s Mason who puts the dubious clues together and finds the murderer. In dramatic fashion, yes, but not necessarily forcing a witness to confess on the stand. Mason is on the go most of each book, following leads, such as driving the mountainside in search of an amnesiac witness, who he tricks into revealing he’s not lost his memory, and yet lets the guy claim he’d miraculously recovered, for Mason’s own devious reasons. The 1957 and 58 seasons, Burr is that Mason, he’s on the scene of the murder, is friends with a suspect, or knows the area where the murder occurs. In one recent episode, he’s in a boat with Drake and fishes out a lovely dame as she swims to safety from an attacking dog. Naturally, her boss was just murdered and although she admits to haven broken in, she claims she never saw a body and isn’t the killer, and is believed instantly by Mason and girl ogler, Drake. Another episode, The Case of The Fan Dancer’s Horse, he and Della just happen to be motoring along when they witness an accident and recover a strippers fan–trying to return the personal article stirs up all sorts of mayhem, until Mason uncovers the naked truth. Ha.
I wasn’t certain if the early episodes were actually based on the titles of the same, but after consulting some synopsis of the books, I think I can say they were. And if that’s true, then maybe he spent more time in court than I remember reading, because every damn episode ends with courtroom drama. I simply don’t remember that in the books–especially the one
where Mason and Della go on a cruise together, and at the end he asks her to marry him. Yes, people, they have an implicit relationship within the first books, and it isn’t platonic. She refuses, telling him that no way would she marry him and become a wife sitting in furs at home while he and his new secretary are off on adventures. It never occurs to either of them that she could marry and still work? Apparently not. Considering these facts, why he wanted the TV characters to refrain from romance, seems strange. The character of Mason isn’t described very clearly in the books, nor do we get any back story regarding the lawyer. Or Della, or Drake or anyone else for that matter. The characters as written by Gardner barely exist. The plot is the pivotal thing, and yet some of these plots are so convoluted and off that suspending disbelief takes on a whole new meaning. The Fan Dancer’s Horse is a perfect example. Turns out there are TWO fan dancers using the same name and they are very similar in, uh, build. Faces, not so much, but body type, yes sirree! Will the real murderer please undress? No, as spicy as some of the titles and covers were, nothing untoward is disclosed in the Mason series–Gardner knew he had to appeal to a very broad reading public. The two fan dancers are seen going in and out of the victim’s hotel room, as is every other suspect–this dead guy was very popular–or unpopular. The solution isn’t all that interesting, but the TV episode goes way out on a limb– one fan dancer kisses Mason–on the lips, with Della as witness! Wow, what excitement!
Why do we still watch and read Perry Mason? Because despite lack of character, silly plots, and over acting, they’re darn fun. Entertainment when one needs it. No psychobabble, no grisly forensics, no sexual deviancy, just good old plain detecting fun. Towards the end of the TV series, Burr as Mason wasn’t as engaged in detecting. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t appear a great deal of the time until after the suspects and murder victim are established. He’s not a mover and shaker any more. He’s Ironside without the wheelchair. He shows up, tricks the murderer into confessing, and the music swells. And what swell music. Sometimes that’s the best part of the show–or was–when shown now, in order to squeeze in 20 minutes of commercials, they have to shave off time. Back then, the commercials didn’t take over the program. So, you see the main actor credits and hear the last crescendo. The end is abbreviated too-the credits run condensed under the promo for the next show, with barely a bar of music floating by. Sad. Still and all, when those black and white figures come on screen, and Raymond Burr speaks in his distinctive voice, and Barbara Hale turns on that Mona Lisa half smile, and Paul Drake pushes back his stripe of black hair, you know that pretty soon, someone will be sobbing, “I didn’t mean to kill him!” as the hapless district attorney’s eyes bug out of his head, for the nth time, and Lt. Trask shakes his head in the gallery, wondering how Mason pulled another one off.
Footnote–in my search on the internet for photos from the show, I read the nauseating news that Robert Downey Jr. may play Perry Mason on film for Warner Brothers. The question is, can he destroy a second iconic figure?
On my travels I found this fun website==http://www.perrymasontvseries.com/wiki/index.php/Main/HomePage