Erle Stanley Gardner wrote crime fiction, and while many of his 100 or so works are unknown to most of us, he created a character that has become as identified with criminal lawyers as any other in fiction. It was in these crime novels that Perry Mason first faced a courtroom. He developed a style where he would investigate these terrible crimes his clients were on trial for. He would find the real killer, and in what has become a Hollywood cliché, reveal his findings in a crucial moment during the trial. While we may not remember the novels, we all remember the man in the persona of Raymond Burr. Burr had a commanding presence on our screens and enjoyed a well deserved 11 year run as the clever lawyer. What makes this run so amazing is that the show followed pretty much the same pattern the entire time. We always know what’s going to happen, but we wait eagerly for that gotcha moment when Perry faces the witness on the stand. We know when he’s got the guy squarely in his sights, and we can’t sit still waiting for him to pull the trigger. OK. So, maybe that’s a little over the top, but so was Perry Mason. From the moment you heard that distinctive theme, the stage was set. To say that Perry Mason defined the lawyer show for decades would be an understatement. Folks like Matlock and shows like The Practice are strikingly similar to Perry Mason. If you haven’t checked this show out, this is your chance. See where it all began.
Raymond Burr did not carry the show on his own. There was a very fine cast of supporting characters. The most famous has to be his faithful secretary Della Street, played by Barbara Hale. The two were inseparable. Perry had the help of a good private investigator in the Raymond Chandler style. William Hopper played the tough as nails Paul Drake. One of Orson Welles’ famous Mercury Theater Players took on the part of Police Lt. Tragg. Ray Collins starred in Citizen Kane as the political party boss Gettys. He was a fine example of top talent working in television. Mason was often pitted against prosecutor Hamilton Burger, whose name too often reminded me of hamburgers. There wasn’t anything funny about Burger, however. He was a worthy opponent who drew the short straw most of the time because he was up against Perry Mason. The task was accomplished with a lot of style by William Talman, a one time evangelistic preacher.
This collection is the second half of the second season. There were certainly some standout cases. The Case of the Jaded Joker finds Mason defending a client accused of killing a television comedian played by singer Frankie Laine. Bobby Troupe, also a singer and later star in Emergency, also appears. The Case of the Howling Dog involves a mental patient accused of, what else, murder, and the only clue is a dog that won’t stop making a racket. The Case of the Deadly Toy features a character named Dirk Benedict, who original Battlestar Galactica fans know is the actor who plays the real Starbuck. This case is a story of romantic triangles and threats through the mail. There’s a lot to love here.
Each episode of Perry Mason is presented in its original full frame broadcast format. The episodes are in black & white. The picture quality is pretty good when you consider the age. Black levels are completely solid, allowing clean definition in the shading so necessary to a black & white presentation. The brightness is a little low at times, but nothing that muddles or damages an otherwise good looking print.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is basically there to service the dialog, and it does. There is some distortion during the theme when the music is considerably loud. If you keep in mind the source material, you can’t expect anything more than this.
I’m far too young to have watched Perry Mason in its original run. I do recall reading a couple of the novels years ago when I was in a mystery novel phase. I think it would be difficult now for me to visit the written incarnarnation of Perry Mason, because the character has been enshrined in my brain as Raymond Burr. One of the great things about the blossoming home video market is that shows like this get a chance to reach a new audience and find life again. There are shows that might have once appeared great but on later examination come up a bit short. Is Perry Mason one of those examples? I find the defendant: “not guilty”.