Perry Mason: A True TV Classic

Perry Mason:

Cast: Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, Ray Collins.

Plot summary: Perry Mason, attorney-at-law, Della Street, his confidential secretary, and Paul Drake, private detective, are working on a new case each week to defend their innocent clients. The charge is murder and the cases often come with a twist, helping Mason to never lose a case.

Review: Perry Mason is a procedural show. Every episode is about a case. The characters move along with it, but there is not a lot of screen time left for their private lives, thus Mason does not have time for a love interest other than an occasional flirt with a guest star or his confidential secretary Della, who always finds a way to sneak in a question, comment or a smile. Perry lives for his job. He is the unquestioned hero, not a but the attorney-at-law, the man everybody wants to turn to in times of trouble. Mind you, he tampers with evidence every once in a while and could get away with murder, but he’s an honest character who bends the law to get an acquittal for his not-always-truthful but always-innocent clients.

Perry Mason is loyal to his clients and he is surrounded by a loyal supporting cast. Della Street runs his office and always stands by her boss, even if that gets her in a jam. Paul Drake is the private eye who always investigates the cases Perry takes on. Although he doesn’t get much more time to pursue a private life, he is the only character who has frequent dates. One may feel inclined to think so, but that lack of private character development is not a weakness. The beautiful thing about this show is its witty dialogue, the sense of humor and its cast. The chemistry they have on-screen. The fun that comes across, although with 39 episodes in season one and six working days a week, the production must have been much more exhausting to shoot than today’s standard weeklies. A striking factor is how the actors bounce off each other with their lines, their actions. Barbara Hale, for example, was often praised by her co-stars for being the epitome of a supporting actress, something she was rewarded for with a lot of brotherly on-set pranks (predominantly masterminded by Raymond Burr) and two Emmy nominations, including one win in 1959.

Burr was nominated in three consecutive years and won his first Emmy the same year his co-star and friend Hale walked home with an award in her hands. He won again in 1961, when Barbara received her second nomination. William Hopper, as Paul Drake, was nominated once in 1959, which was the most popular year of Perry Mason in respect to acting awards. The series itself also received a nomination in 1958. Those three main characters aside, William Talman as courtroom foe Hamilton Burger and Ray Collins as police Lt. Tragg did as convincing a job as the show’s antagonist(s). A mere adversary in the beginning of the drama’s run, Burger becomes a fleshed out district attorney who may at times despair of Mason‘s methods, but also respects him. Ray Collins is a pleasure to watch, barging in a little too early on Perry’s cases and–like the rest of the male cast–flattering Della, but never too much.

 All in all, Perry Mason is a fun show to watch for those who enjoy classic whodunits and old-school, plot-driven stories. The twists may be surprising at times, the murderers more obvious to some or impossible to guess for others, but the way Perry Mason goes about solving his cases, his attitude, his quest for truth and justice is addicting. Never mind that the show is in black-and-white, that only adds to its appeal. The music, Della Street‘s attire, the genuine 1950s style and Los Angeles as a supporting character in a way. It’s the entire package. It works – did so for nine seasons till 1966 and does so on DVD today.

Melanie Simone is a writer with a degree in American Studies and English. On Talking Classics, she savors her love for vintage Hollywood.

   

  • Pamhandle

    Not only did I enjoy the show, but I loved the movies. Raymond Burr worked untill he could hardly walk. There were movies where he used a cane and some where you saw him mainly sitting. When he started a movie, he worked until it was finished no matter how he felt. I will always respect the actor and Perry Mason.

    • apskimom

      I agree — I love the show, but I also love the movies they did when Perry and Della were older.  Raymond Burr just kept getting better and better as he got older!!

  • Tony Payne

    In UK we used to be glued to Perry Mason show during the 50′s, as with all the other great imports from over the pond. O’Henry Playhouse, Alfred Hitchcock presents, Riverboat, Cheenne et al. They were great. With the marvellous invention of DVD we can now revisit these classic shows which in many respects are a breath of fresh air to what codswallop is served up today.

    • JackJones

      Codswallop?

      • Bruce Reber

        I’ve never heard that one! Must be a synonym for b***s***!

        • hupto

          More like “rubbish.”

  • Wayne P.

    And, not only on DVD, but on Antenna TV too now!  Great piece about a wonderful show that still holds up very well for today’s audiences!  Its right up there with The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza and all the rest of the classic oldies that are never moldies…:)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/C4KFLYMH5VO5O4MGU4QESEDZ24 capnralls

    When they started the Perry Mason movies with William Katt as Paul Drake Jr it seemed that Della Street was very protective of him as a mother would be. Could it be that after Perry Mason left to become a judge that Della married Paul Drake? They always seemed to be flirting with one another during the original show. This just a supposition but it fits.

    • Wayne P.

      Whomever would be getting married to Della in whatever screen adaptation it would have to be Paul (Jr. or Sr.) before Perry…unless they got another actor to play PM instead of Raymond Burr!   On the original TV series, Ive always thought Paul flirted with Della but Perry never did even though they were obviously very close friends ;) 

    • Galfridus

      Since William Katt really is Barbara Hale’s son, the notion of Paul Jr. being Della’s son is very hard to keep out of one’s mind!

  • http://twitter.com/Bryankr Bryan Ruffin

    I have, and still do, enjoy a good Perry Mason mystery! I never really know just what has happened, and then when I do, I am surprised! I love that!! I grew up watching Perry and Della, I have seen all of the movies.

  • Juanita

    Perry Mason was one of my favourite shows when I was growing up in the 60′s – Raymond Burr was so believable. Later I saw him in Rear Window and his character was the polar opposite to Perry Mason . He started his career playing heavies but is best remembered for playing the good guy.

    • Pamhandle

      I also later saw him in “Rear Window” and was soooo surprised.

    • Bruce Reber

      Check out Raymond Burr in the 1954 B-movie “Bride Of The Gorilla” – he’s totally hilarious as a South American plantation owner! He also appeared in “The Blue Gardenia”, “Crime Of Passion”, and of course the Htichcock classic “Rear Window”, as murderous traveling salesman Lars Thorwald.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/WP2I6RZT7I4QQOUS7TKDPVLLIY Frank S

    A great series that is timeless today as it was when it first aired. The original series was much better than the ones in the 1980 it was good but the 1950-1960 were excellent. Mr. Burr was excellent in Rear Window and I agree with the other readers.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/5DFFPSBIWRLNFHYHQASXYFEEJQ Red

    I still watch it on MeTV when its on.    The later years after Ray Collins left weren’t as good as the first couple of years but still watchable. 

  • Wlannon

    Had the writers remained faithful to the ERS original, I doubt the show would have lasted. Gardner’s Mason was a much sketchier attorney. 

    • GrizzledGeezer

      Gardner’s Mason was indeed shiftier, and more likely to skirt the law — possibly even break it. The first season occasionally showed this, but it eventually stopped.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OC6SKJLQDZEY674X7VRYBWH6AI Tom

    My wonderful Grandma intruduced me to the Perry Mason TV shows when I was quite young, but I thought those programs were great.  My Grandma, a widow, thought Raymond Burr was a ” hunk ” ! And posted Juanita is correct, Burr was the exact opposite characterization in “Rear Window”; what a creep.  ( Exactly how does one even begin cutting up a body ? )  I even liked him in the TV show ” Ironside “. 

  • Bobby Laguardia

    always loved Perry!

  • Trunfalo

    Music really adds to the drama and ambiance.  The music CBS used during the mid 1950s for Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The Twilight Zone etc. was excellent.  Much of it was stock music composed by the great Bernard Herrmann.

  • GrizzledGeezer

    As entertaining as “Perry Mason” was — and remains — it presented a distorted view of what lawyers actually do. Mason wouldn’t defend someone who he did not believe to be innocent — but a lawyer’s job is to defend their client as vigorously as possible — not to “get them off”, by any means fair or foul.

    One of the series’ weaknesses was that the murderer was more-likely (though not always) to be played by a familiar character actor. This often spoiled the fun.

    There have been attempts to copy “Perry Mason” (eg, “Matlock”), but none has come close. The perfect casting was a major factor in its success. No one has mentioned that Erle Stanley Gardner (who actually was a lawyer) thought Raymond Burr was the perfect embodiment of Mason.

    PS: We now know why Perry never showed much interest in Della. He was gay.

  • Stewart

    Ray Collins was one of the most underrated actors in television history.

    • th13500

      He was also a film actor with stars like Clark Gable.

      • College Professor

        Homecoming (1948).

      • Bruce Reber

        Who can forget his great performance as corrupt politico Big Jim Gettys in “Citizen Kane”? “You need more than one lesson, Mr. Kane, and your gonna get more than one!”

  • Cbeledw

    I love Perry Mason.  The episodes are sort of like comfort food.  You KNOW Perry will sort everything out by the end of the hour.

    A footnote.  The author of the Perry Mason mysteries, Earl Stanley Gardner, had a longtime affair with his female assistant.  In an attempt to keep that affair from becoming common knowledge, Gardner stipulated that there should be no hint of dalliance between Perry and Della.  Throughout the 50s series, they were permitted only an occasional exchange that subtly hinted at intimacy.  True, Raymond Burr was gay, but as a competent actor, (think Rock Hudson) he could have had a credible romance going with Della.  It was Gardner who dictated the terms of Perry and Della’s relationship.  I think I remember that Gardner’s wife had a say in this too.

  • Roger Lynn

    this is my all time favorite television show,,Raymond Burr was such a great actor Ironside is my top 10 1-Perry Mason
    1-Lost in Space
    3-Ironside
    4-The Big Valley
    5-Hogan’s Heroes
    6-The Invaders
    7-Sanford and Son
    8-Gunsmoke-Bonanza
    9-The High Chaperral-Lancer
    10- The Night Stalker_great Darrin McGavin

  • Ganderson

    I’ve been more than a little twitchy about Perry Mason’s depiction of the legal system, though I’ve always enjoyed the series and Raymond Burr’s portrayal of the ace defense counsel.  Over the years legal commentators have expressed concern that the show created two big problems that have had real-world effect on actual trials.  Both revolve around the concept that criminal defendents are actually innocent, essential to the Perry Mason plot line.  One problem that harms defendants is the idea that the way to be found ‘not guilty’ is to have the real killer confess, preferrably on the witness stand.  Unfortunately (or not) that never happens in real life and there are legends in the legal profession that defendants have been found guilty because the defense council never produced the real killer, as does Mason.  (I’ve wondered if Mason would ever consent to defend such a person in his or her own trial.) Second is the depiction of the prosecutor and his police witnesses and investigators as doing their very darndest to convict an innocent person and their disappointment at Mason getting his clients “off.”  We of the Perry Mason generation may be actually surprised that no prosecutor would willingly or happily see an innocent person wrongfully convicted.  As a last aside, there are also legends about defendants choosing to represent themselves, to their great peril and disadvantage in serious and complex litigation, because Mason made it all seem so simple.  Now I don’t prescribe to the notion that movies and television have to be technically and historically accurate or they’re no good — rather, I believe that the entertainment industry’s purpose is to entertain and one should leave accuracy to the historians and technicians.  However, I’d be interested to find out if Perry Mason really did have any real-time ill effects on anyone’s legal rights.

    • Markht

      You’re not the only person to comment on the fact that the real bad guy was almost always in the court, not “as far away from the court as possible.”  
      I’ve always thought of this show, really, more as a “locked room mystery” than anything else.
      I understand today, lawyers are concerned over TV programs like C.S.I. who lead people to think  you can deduce a person’s guilt from a strand of hair and get DNA from it in five minutes.
      Tv is FICTION.  Maybe fun, but it isn’t real.

  • Richsass

    The quality of the Perry Mason series has no equal.  Even today the courtroom scenes are outstanding compared to much of the trash we are watching.  The amount of actors and actresses who got a start in the business from Perry Mason is outstanding.

  • Finn24

    Perry Mason was a great series.  Did it ever go to color during the later years?  I was in medical training then and didn’t get to enjoy TV very often.  It was said that when Raymond Burr gave a try out for the part, Erle S. Gardner was observing the tryouts.  It was said after Burr’s performance, Gardner got up and said, “That’s Perry Mason!”   This great series was done in a 30 minute time slot.  Of course ads were much shorter and a single company ran the ads for the entire show.

    • Markht

      IIRC they made one episode in color — the last episode they made before they were canceled.

    • Bruce Reber

      Correction – “Perry Mason” was an hour-long show.

  • T L Miller

    Okay, now you’re talkin’ my language!!! I absolutely LOVE Perry Mason!!! I’m a collector of the Erle Stanley Gardner novels, featuring our battling barrister (need about 4 more to complete), and that just adds to my OCD! Perry may not be quite the same as in print (they were written in the 30s-40s after all), and in earlier episodes of the show, he was just this side of shady (but who wouldn’t want a lawyer to go all in for them when they’re in deep?). Yeah, the melodramatic breakdowns on the stand don’t happen in a real courtroom, and how much hubris does a murderer have to have to be out in the open? Nevertheless, I have been a fan as long as I can remember, and since it’s been in re-runs forever, I may get around to finally seeing all 271: they’re irresistible! It’s on ME TV where I live, and our library has purchased the series on DVD: I’m THRILLED. I bought several when Columbia House offered them, but the set is incomplete. This, too, will change! :-D The cast was wonderful, the guest stars — and who didn’t guest star? — hell, the COSTUMES (the women were always stylish), keep me coming back time after time. I love the way Perry ‘thinks with his eyes’ — you can see he’s cracked it just by his expressions. Paul, Della, Burger, Tragg, even the judges, were all worth watching. This is in the top five of my all-time favorite shows (w/Twilight Zone, Mission Impossible, Designing Women, Living Single), and I’m a junkie for life!

  • Johny2291

    Perry Mason is more like an Agatha Christie mystery. A group of people, of which any one of them could be the killer. Then trying to figure out which one did it. Love this type of plotting! The ensemble cast was great. Even though each week’s episode unfolded and ended in the same basic way, I never got tired of it. One of the true television classics and my favorite courtroom drama of all time!

  • Ellen Urie

    Perry Mason was one of the best shows on tv. We looked forward to it every Saturday night. Just to hear that theme song start!! Then I think Gunsmoke came on after that. I love shows about trials. Every show was interesting. To me the ending was always a surprise. The rapport between the characters was so good. They always had good guest stars, too. Talking about how things were done in the courtroom we have to remember this was like 60 years ago! We’re looking at it from today’s point of view. We never knew that Raymond Burr was gay. Those things were all kept secret back then. He was perfect for the part. His show & so many others of that time had “class.” Not like today’s sitcoms etc. Thank goodness for the channels that show re-runs!

     hat was kept secret 

  • lobsterboyoboy

    Have never been able to follow the plots past the first 15 minutes but what a fun show to watch just to see how many characters actors you can recognize. 

    During recent DVD binge viewing, I actually “solved” two cases (or at least guess the murderer–still can’t understand exactly why they did it) because it was clear producers wouldn’t hire relatively high profile character actor to skulk around in background serving tea as maid or noodling on piano as beatnik if they’re weren’t culprit. 

  • Tiffany

    A friend (also an actress, but much too young to have ever appeared on the show!) turned me on to this series, and I am addicted!  Interesting that only once or twice do any of the characters refer to a private life (the episode withGeorge Takai has Della buying a necklace for her aunt, and Perry once mentions growing up on a chicken ranch) but it never seems to matter.  This show is consistantly excellent, even if I wsometimes have tow atch episodes more than once to figure it out!  And great glimpses of actors who go on to become quite famous (the other night was James Coburn – then known as “James H. Coburn.”  really, does it get much better than this show?

  • Big Fun

    “You’re what’s the nemesis!!!”

  • Dweizel

    I was first introduced to Perry Mason when I was a small kid.  I remember half watching the show while my parents were getting ready to go out dancing- was it shown on Saturday evenings?  I rediscovered the program as an adult and it became my all time favorite t v show.  I’ve watched every episode many times and when it came out on DVD, my family knew what to get me for an X-mas gift for several years running.  The show was formula, but that’s what made it so perfect.  Perry, Paul, Della, Burger, and Tragg are like dear friends to me.  I too have read all of E.S. Gardner’s books.  They led me to a life long live of “classic” mystery fiction and eventually to a near obsession with film noir.  Thanks Melanie Simone for a joyous read.

  • College Professor

    It only took a few shows before Raymond Burr really did become Perry Mason. Can’t think of anyone back then who could have played him so well. And as an actor, he was often cast as a “heavy” in the movies. It took a tv show to bring forth his considerable talents

  • rudoski

    Perry mason

     Was one of my verry favorite TVshows  but they did make some movies for tv that are almost impossible to find on dvd i would like to know why

  • Gord Jackson

    Thanks Melanie for jogging ye ole memory.  I love those old Perry Mason shows but I must admit I am even more fond of Ironside probably because that latter character was not as predictable.  He could be ornery, impatient, sensitive (like Mason) or just plain miserable.  And, in the first season or two, his verbal punch-ups with caregiver Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) were riveting.

    Sadly, Burr’s very last tv movie was a full-length Ironside which did, happily include the characters of both policewomen Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson, whom I adored) and Fran Belding (Elizabeth Bauer) in the same story.  I have episodes of both in my collection and intend to keep on collecting them because they are two of the finest television series ever produced.  

       

  • asha iyer

    Read all the comments and decided to add mine too! Mason and Della along with Paul were initially adult role models for me when I was a teenager and now when I have access to their TV episodes I find myself thinking of them as my closely acquainted people whom I have missed these last few years! I have read almost all of Gardener’s Perry Mason novels and have spent many nights imagining Della and Perry out of there office , somewhere in the desert enjoying their solitude but never butting in in their privacy! The dignity and grace maintained by these two(Of course designed by ESG!) should be respected,the speculations about their romance and Raymond being a Gay or Perry too being a gay leaves a nasty taste.Why can’t we let things be as they were projected by the author?

  • Joseph23006

    We always watched ‘Perry Mason’ and occassionally I do on the Hallmark Movie chanel, they still hold up as well as the first time. It wasn’t so much about the plot, he always found the murderer, but the process which led him to the conclusion that was most intriguing. Later versions without William Hopper, William Talman, and Ray Collins were never as good, it was the perfect cast that after 50 years still holds my interest, even in black and white.

  • Kenneth Morgan

    Good review, but there were at least two cases where Perry didn’t win (at least, not outright). The most famous of these was “Case of the Deadly Verdict”, which opens with Perry’s client being sentenced to death.
    And, for a real treat, watch the episode of “The Jack Benny Program” guest-starring Raymond Burr, where Perry has to defend Jack in court. The ending is hilarious.

  • Gerald

    You forgot to mention that the last TV episode in1966 had Earl Stanley Gardner in it! He played the judge.

  • Jeff Baucom Speaks the Truth

    The one thing that I always wondered about Perry Mason—in about the second or third season, there is an elderly woman actress who shows up in every episode and never has a line of dialogue. Sometimes she is in the audience during a trial, sometimes she is in the jury, sometimes she is in the hallway. She is even in the opening footage for one season, when Perry Mason is passing out papers to the other principal characters. No one has ever said who she is. Guessing that she is the show’s costume designer, or set decorator, or hairdresser ???

  • roger lynn

    ,my favorite show this and LOST IN SPACE ARE TIED,,,just the best

  • http://www.arealnurse.net Jessie Dodson

    Watching Perry Mason reruns is like visiting old friend and “catching up” Some episodes I have seen so often I can recite the dialogue. It is also fun to see very young future stars. Some of the character actors that appear frequently in various roles are comforting in their own right. The review by Ms Simone is quite good. She does forget one policeman named Steve who was in when Ray Collins could not.

    • Bruce Reber

      That would be Lt. Steve Drumm, played by Richard Anderson for the final two seasons, if I remember correctly.

  • Tom

    Also fun to see some of the guest “stars” in the early episodes – who often went on to become BIG NAMES on their own! Well, bette Davis was a big name on her own already – the other thing I love about this show, which I am buying disc by disc, is they never ever “jumped the shark!”
    This was justa really good show!

  • jumbybird

    I never saw Perry Mason until the 80′s movies, but recently MeTV has been showing the old shows and I’m lapping them up.
    They are also quite different from the movies in the ’30s

  • Greg Milhoan

    I’m Currently watching the Perry Mason series, because it was one of my favorite shows while growing up. What I enjoy the most is seeing some of the guest stars that appeared before they ma it big. Actors like James Coburn, George Kennedy, Diane Ladd, John Marley, and belive it or not Robert Redford.

  • Bruce Reber

    Truly a classic TV series! I watched “Perry Mason” reruns late weeknights on WTTG Channel 5 (Metro DC Area’s then independent station, now Fox 5) during the 70′s and into the mid 80′s. Loved watching Perry’s interraction with his secretary Della Street and PI Paul Drake, and the sometimes questionable tactics he used to exonerate his clients. I also like the vibrant “Perry Mason” theme by Fred Steiner.There was an attempt to revive the series in 1973 (“The New Perry Mason”) which lasted only half a season. Now, whenever I can I catch episodes of PM on MeTV.

  • Bruce Reber

    Actor John Dall (“Rope”, “The Corn Is Green” and “Gun Crazy”) appeared in an episode of “Perry Mason” called “The Case Of The Weary Watchdog” (season 1 or 2).