September 10, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #6: Perry Mason

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.

James Lileks once wrote that it was the secret dream of every lawyer to have the theme to Perry Mason played at his funeral, and a lawyer friend of mine later acknowledged it was probably true.

Few television shows have had an opening title sequence more representative of its content than the one used for the third season of Perry Mason.* It starts with the camera looking down on a stylized figure standing in front of the judge’s bench. There are no walls in the animation, no courtroom to be seen; just a still white image of a man, isolated and alone, open and vulnerable, before the bar of justice. It is the lawyer, engaged in single-warrior combat, the only man standing between an innocent client and the gas chamber. And that lawyer, we see when the camera returns to eye level, is Perry Mason.

*Along with the original opening of The FBI, it’s my favorite series opening of all time.

It’s not only stylish but gripping, telling us everything we would ever want to know about the character of Perry Mason. For Mason is a loner; we never see him out socially with anyone other than Della Street, his devoted secretary, and Paul Drake, his stalwart private investigator; we never see the inside of his apartment unless it’s to establish the setting when he receives an emergency phone call in the middle of the night. Mason's life is the law - you get the idea he reads law books for relaxation - and he’s chosen to pursue that profession by putting himself in the most vulnerable position available to him: that of a trial lawyer committed to seeking justice for his client.

The odds are always against him: the evidence of his client’s guilt is usually considerable, the DA and police are confident of victory, even Paul Drake has his doubts. His reputation and his undefeated record probably put even more pressure on him, what with everyone expecting him to pull another rabbit out of his bottomless hat - not only getting his client off, but identifying the true killer. That’s more than most people would ever want to deal with, and yet by all evidence, Perry thrives on it. What an interesting character!

Some people say that Perry Mason is formulaic, that the plots are often preposterously complicated, that Perry often functions more like a detective than an attorney, that he never seems to have more than one client at a time, that anyone seems able to walk in and see him without an appointment.

To such people, this is what I have to say: So what?

Burger about to snap his pencil after yet another airtight
case crashes in flames
Yes, it’s formulaic, as most series are. When you watch an episode of Perry Mason you know exactly what you’re getting: several characters are introduced, with one of them generally in some kind of untenable situation. Often, that person starts out consulting Mason about this situation, which suddenly fades into the background with the appearance of a dead body. The evidence usually puts Perry’s client at the scene of the crime at roughly the same time as the commission of the murder, and the client has ample motive for committing the crime. The client complicates matters by lying to Perry, or at least withholding the entire truth. The District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, and the homicide detective, Lt. Arthur Tragg, are obsessed with the idea of defeating Mason.*

*Burger more than Tragg; the good lieutenant occasionally acquiesces to one of Mason's far-fetched schemes, in the pursuit of truth. Burger, on the other hand, sometimes seems as if he doesn't much care whether the accused is guilty or innocent as long as he can beat Mason.

In the pre-trial hearing* Burger’s evidence seems unassailable, until Paul comes into the courtroom with a vital piece of evidence. Perry’s frowning visage fades, replaced by a steely determination as he launches into a withering cross-examination, punctuated with one rapid-fire question after another, always starting with “Isn’t it true,” at which point either the witness or someone in the packed gallery blurts out an admission of guilt (frequently without remorse). Before the final credits run, the gang gathers, usually either in Perry’s office or a restaurant, where he regales them with an explanation of just how he figured out the identity of the guilty party. Fade to black, and the theme music reappears. All you have to do is change the names of the actors and their characters, and you’ve pretty much got 90% of the stories right there.

*A cost-saving method; by staging the action in a pre-trial hearing, the producers didn’t have to cast – or pay for – a jury.

"Isn't it true?"
But it’s precisely this formula that makes the story so enjoyable. It shares the same qualities as a Three Stooges short or a Road Runner cartoon – you can see the punch line coming, which is half the fun. We salivate waiting for the key moment when Perry gets the guilty party on the stand, and with the first “Isn’t it true” question, we grin knowingly, because that’s the sign that the jig is up, that it’s just a matter of time before the truth comes out. From the moment Perry Mason stands up to start the fateful cross-examination (and he can get wonderfully contemptuous), these people have had it – they just don’t know it yet.

True, there are some questions. For example, the office of District Attorney is an elected one in many cities, including Los Angeles (where the show is set), and it’s hard to see how Burger* keeps getting voted in when he loses every high-profile case he tries. And what about that police department? They seem to constantly be arresting the wrong person, after little more than a cursory investigation which suggests they already have their minds up before they even start. Tragg’s just lucky he isn’t back to walking a beat. In that sense one might see a fairly subversive undercurrent to this series.

*I wonder if anyone ever calls him "Ham"?  As in Ham Burger?

There’s never much of a passage of time between the commission of the crime and the pre-trial hearing, either – usually a matter of days, seldom more than a few weeks. Even if we’re looking at a significant period between the hearing and the actual trial (which we hardly ever get to), that’s still justice moving at the speed of light compared to what we have nowadays. And, even considering the judge’s desire to provide the defense with the greatest amount of leeway, Perry seems to get away with a lot.

And to all this, my answer remains: So what? There are few series that have been as much fun to watch as Perry Mason. Raymond Burr, simply put, is Mason; he embodies the role so much that it’s no surprise in real life Burr made many speeches before bar associations. Burr radiates a an overpowering presence, a confidence that most lawyers – or just about anyone else, for that matter – would kill for.*  If I were in serious trouble, I cannot imagine just how comforting it would be to have Perry Mason out there fighting for me. I'd probably figure that if he couldn't get me off, I must be guilty. It is rare that any actor can project that kind of power, but Burr does it week after week.

*And smooth, too.  When a fan once confronted Burr demanding to know how it was that Mason won every case, he replied, "But madam, you only see the cases I try on Saturdays."

And Perry’s surrounded by a great supporting cast: Della (Barbara Hale), the absolutely perfect confidential secretary; Paul (William Hopper), the private detective who, although he’s sometimes a step or two behind Perry, always delivers the key information in the nick of time.* Burger (William Talman) is properly villainous; seeing his smug face fall when he realizes that Perry has outwitted him yet again, is one of life’s simpler pleasures. And the performance of old pro Ray Collins as Tragg is almost always scene-stealing – it’s a shame that Collins died during the sixth (of nine) seasons.

*One of the things the series does quite well is portray Drake as the head of a large and successful business, the Drake Detective Agency. Contrary to the typical lone-wolf PI, Drake employs a number of good detectives, and has contacts in cities all over the world. He also knows how to throw his weight around.

As was the case with Nero Wolfe, about which I wrote last time, watching Perry Mason led me to pick up the Mason books, written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner wrote over 80 of them, many of which were adapted for the series. They’re not great art, but they’re great fun. In those books, even more than in the series, Mason comes across as a man dedicated to seeing that his client gets a fair break: he’s suspicious of authority, determined to prevent the police from rushing to judgment, willing to bend the rules to the breaking point in pursuit of the truth, and unwilling to rest until that truth is uncovered.

I wrote some time ago about the prevalence of police procedurals on TV today, and wondered if this in some way had the subliminal effect of reinforcing the public’s acceptance of police and governmental authority. If that is the case, it’s also interesting that there’s nothing like Perry Mason on TV anymore, a series built around a trial lawyer defending the innocent, taking on the state and its authorities, and winning. It’s our loss, in more ways than one.

Next week: The game show that was the most sophisticated half-hour on television
Last week: Nero Wolfe


  1. I grew up watching Perry Mason. I have watched Mason in reruns. I have watched him on DVD. The formula is always enjoyable just because of the astounding acting talent. Though I wouldn't call Burger villianous, more like clueless. I like it when Burger is shown up by Mason. Talman has a deer caught in a headlight look that is amazing. I think that Perry Mason led people to understand that they might need a defense lawyer.


    1. That's very good, Joseph - deer in the headlights is right!

      Also a good point about how it might have helped people understand they might need a lawyer. It does show just how easily an innocent person can be implicated for a crime, and how hard it would be to get anyone to believe in their innocence.

  2. A few Fun Facts for you:

    - The 50th anniversary DVD set of Perry Mason includes a screen test Raymond Burr made - for the role of Hamilton Burger.
    It's on kinescope; Mason is played by Tod Andrews, a character actor who's there to fill the space (at this point Fred MacMurray was still the front-runner for the Mason role).
    At this point in his carrer, Burr was mainly playing smooth boss-villains, and that's how he plays Burger here.
    Burr agreed to do this test provided he be allowed to also test as Mason.
    That test isn't included in the DVD; I don't know which test is the one that caused Erle Stanley Gardner to stand up in the screening room and shout "That's Perry Mason!"
    The DVD also includes William Hopper's test for the Mason role - one he didn't really want; Hopper's acting career was something he did mainly to please his mother Hedda.

    - That Anniversary DVD set also has a mini-documantary about Erle Stanley Gardner that includes an excerpt from one of his dictabelts, composing a Mason story for one of his army of secretaries (his friend Raymond Chandler described ESG's voice as having "the delicate chiaroscuro of a French taxi horn.").

    - Also there's an excerpt of Burr, Hopper, Barbara Hale, and Bill Talman appearing on Stump The Stars: this you've gotta see for yourself.

    I'd go on, but I just learned (the hard way) that you've got a 4096 character limit on replies here, and since there's no character clock to tell me how much I have left, I guess I can't take chances.

    'Til next time ...

  3. Correcting a couple of errors from yesterday:

    At home I took another look at the Perry Mason 50th Anniversary DVD.
    Turns ot that it does include Raymond Burr's tests for the Mason role.
    In fact, the tests include Burr and Bill Hopper performing the same scenes, so we may compare the two approaches.
    These tests were all made in early 1956, about a year before Mason began full-time production.
    One of the Hopper tests pairs him with Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg: apparently Collins was one of the first hires for the series.

    Like you, I only started reading the Mason books long after I'd grown to be a fan of the TV show.
    Erle Stanley Gardner didn't go into great detail as far as describing the characters, but one thing I noticed was that Lt. Tragg (at least in the early books) was described as being about Mason's age and build.
    Quite a contrast from the short and stocky (and old - 70 when the show started) Ray Collins.
    I've long had the idea that Collins got the part because he bore a slight resemblance to Erle Stanley Gardner (whose friends called him Uncle Erle).

    Fun Fact:
    The actual pilot for Perry Mason, filmed in 1956, was "The Case Of The Moth-Eaten Mink", which ran as the 10th episode of the series.
    If you watch the episodes in broadcast order, you might notice that Raymond Burr's hair is closely cropped (almost a crewcut), unlike the bushy pompadour of the other episodes.

    This is starting to get like all the stuff I threw at you on the Nero Wolfe post. I kinda thought for a while that I might have scared you off with all that lore.
    And here I am again with more of the same ...
    ... and believe me, there's lots more where this is coming from ...

    1. No, you don't have to worry about scaring me off! Sometimes I'm slower at answering my mail than others, but sometimes I enjoy reading your comments more than reading my own pieces!

      Although I've got the Mason season DVDs, I don't have the anniversary one; didn't really want to double-dip. Now that I see some of the great stuff on it, though, I may have to look for it on ebay or half.

      I also noted the difference between Tragg in the books and on the show (I always envisioned the book Tragg as someone more like a young Jose Ferrer, perhaps) but I'm glad they went with Ray Collins - he's just great at stealing a scene. Never thought of the connection with Gardner, though.

      Mike, I might have to tap you for a guest-blogging stint sometime when I need to take a week or two off (project-related, might be coming up in the next couple of months). I've no doubt you'd be great at it!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!