No matter what he does, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants to compete against Hamilton Burger.
Our reviews of Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 1 (published March 14th, 2007), Perry Mason: Season 5, Volume 2 (published December 22nd, 2010), Perry Mason: Season 6, Volume 1 (published October 13th, 2011), Perry Mason: Season 7, Volume 1 (published August 21st, 2012), Perry Mason: Season 8, Volume 1 (published January 9th, 2013), Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 2 (published January 31st, 2007), Perry Mason: Season 6, Volume 2 (published January 22nd, 2012), Perry Mason: Season 7, Volume 2 (published December 16th, 2012), and Perry Mason: Season 8, Volume 2 (published January 16th, 2013) are also available.
"He doesn't put a price tag on his conscience."—Della Street, on her boss Perry Mason
Perry Mason had a 40-year career in print, starting with 1933's The Case of the Velvet Claws and ending with 1973's The Case of the Postponed Murder. He was a creation of lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner, who turned to the pen to finance a life of travel. The character made appearances in B-movies and on radio (John Larkin, who played Mason on the radio, appears in "The Case of the Counterfeit Crank").
Although Perry Mason was a well-established character by 1957, it was the television series that premiered that year that most people remember. The Raymond Burr series lasted nine years and may still be on in your area in syndication. You may also have seen the long-running series of Perry Mason movies in the 1980s and 1990s.
Paramount has been releasing the original 1957-66 show in half-season sets and now offers Perry Mason: 50th Anniversary Edition (slightly late, but the first season ran well into the spring of 1958), with features and 12 episodes from throughout the series.
Facts of the Case
Perry Mason: 50th Anniversary Edition features 12 selected episodes on three discs, plus a disc of bonus features:
"The Case of the Treacherous Toupee": Harley Basset returns after being missing for two years, just in time to stop the disposal of his assets. Mason later finds the man dead. Robert Redford plays Basset's stepson. The original Erle Stanley Gardner story featured a glass eye, Barbara Hale notes in her intro.
"The Case of the Envious Editor": An editor (James Coburn) tarts up the covers of the Aitken magazines to boost circulation and ad sales. When he's killed, suspicion falls on the magazines' owner and his wife.
"The Case of the Barefaced Witness": Gossip linked Paul Drake's client to an embezzler three years ago. Did she kill the man when he got out of prison, and where is the money? Adam West plays a reporter who lends Mason and Drake a hand because he's fallen for the suspect.
"The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe": Mason's on hand when an elderly woman is caught shoplifting in a department store. When she's later accused of diamond theft and murder, Mason steps in. Leonard Nimoy and Margaret O'Brien guest.
"The Case of Constant Doyle": Mason's in the hospital, so Constant Doyle (Bette Davis) defends the young man Paul Drake found at a murder scene. Did her client avenge a scheme to cheat his late father with murder?
"The Case of the Deadly Verdict": The jury finds Mason's client guilty in an episode TV Guide considered one of its "100 Greatest Episodes." Where was she on the night of the murder, anyway?
"The Case of the Twice-Told Twist": A demonstration of how Perry Mason would look in color, this Oliver Twist takeoff finds Mason defending a kid who stripped his car on murder charges. Victor Buono guests.
"The Case of the Dead Ringer": Mason's opponents in a patent case find a doppelganger to impersonate the defender and frame him for misconduct. Mason's still better off than his client, who's found by Drake with a dead body. Raymond Burr plays a dual role.
"The Case of the Final Fade-Out": In the final episode, the Perry Mason crew plays the crew of a fictional series as Mason defends a producer accused of killing his departing star. Dick Clark guests and Erle Stanley Gardner appears as a judge.
Over nine years, Perry Mason boiled down to a successful formula: melodramatic high-decibel arguments establish a lot of motives for the eventual victim's murder, a piece of evidence points to Mason's client, and defender Mason goes on the offensive to make D.A. Hamilton Burger's life miserable—and force the hand of the real killer.
It's not the formula that made Perry Mason such a memorable TV series, though. It's Raymond Burr's performance as the formidable, aggressive defender. What proved that for me was the series of screen tests included as a bonus feature. It starts with Raymond Burr testing for the role of Hamilton Burger in a scene with an unknown Mason. Burr imbues the character with a sense of purpose and honesty that would have made me pay attention to Burger, not Mason, even when Burr was still barely known. Next up, William Hopper, who plays Paul Drake in the series, auditions as Mason. His Mason is lighter than Burr's, played as a more conventional wisecracking leading man role. It's not what you've come to expect, but it looks like he would've gotten the job if Burr hadn't auditioned. The next link in the chain is Burr auditioning as Mason; he takes dialogue that seems written more for Hopper's style than his own, and makes it his.
Burr usually plays Mason as cool and collected, but you'll get to see him haunted and (briefly) disheveled in "The Case of the Deadly Verdict," which finds him losing a case, wandering through a crime scene with the testimony ringing in his head, blowing up at a dishonest witness, falling asleep at his desk, and sending Drake to Brazil (with cheap sets and stock footage). Burr isn't quite as convincing as Barbara Hale says he is when he plays a doppelganger in "The Case of the Dead Ringer," but he's obviously having a lot of fun turning his famous role on its ear; the episode pays off with a great ending.
Burr dominates the show, but you'll also see strong performances from Hopper as Drake; Barbara Hale as Della Street, a loyal secretary who adds just a hint of romantic admiration to her performance; and Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, a police detective who never wavers under Mason's tough questioning. If you watch a few of these in short succession, though, you'll probably get a little annoyed with William Talman's Hamilton Burger, who seems a bit too whiny and weak to be a formidable opponent for Burr's Mason.
The guest stars featured on the set are one of the big draws. "The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe" was my favorite example, with Lorene Tuttle and Margaret O'Brien as an aunt and niece who could drive even the calm, cool Mason to distraction. James Coburn's sleazy turn in "The Case of the Envious Editor" and Bette Davis' compassionate defender in "The Case of Constant Doyle" also were excellent. Oddly, Robert Redford, who guests in "The Case of the Treacherous Toupee," seems over the top; just watch him laugh as Mason checks his stepfather's body. You could blame the melodramatic script, but other actors wring at least a little bit of genuine-sounding emotion from it.
I'll also note something I noticed while I was watching. I remembered several of these episodes, since I did watch Perry Mason in reruns, but I couldn't remember the endings for any of them. It does point to Burr's command of the role, since he kept people watching even when the plot twists were forgettable.
The black-and-white picture and sound quality are decent, as you'd expect from one of the most valuable pieces of Paramount's library, but not perfect. The 1985 movie is in worse shape than the B&W originals, with its fading and scratches. The quality of the extras, of course, is variable. The sound's in good shape, as the extra music on the color episode demonstrates.
Barbara Hale gives a brief intro to each episode, telling you which stars to look for and other tidbits. The ones she does with producer/director Arthur Marks are the best; the pair's rapport brings out more behind-the-scenes stories. There's also a commentary on "The Case of the Dead Ringer" with Hale and Marks swapping stories; you'll learn how the set designers kept sprucing up the same sets to make them look fresh and how to put together an effective process shot, among other tidbits.
Perry Mason Returns, the largest extra in the set, doesn't hold up as well as the original series. The frame-up of Della Street at its start seems a little too obvious, but the movie gets better as it goes along. Even so, it stays too close to old ground, with only silly comic filler bits from William Katt as Paul Drake Jr. adding anything new.
Other extras here include those screen tests; an interesting feature on Erle Stanley Gardner, narrated by Hale, that shows the author dictating an almost-perfect draft of The Case of the Fabulous Fake; two Charlie Rose interviews with Burr from Nightwatch, in which Burr discusses the character development of Mason; episode promos from syndication; a Person to Person interview hosted by Charles Collingwood, which features Burr showing off the animals and antiques he keeps at his home; a William Talman anti-smoking spot; a fun bit with Raymond Burr and his co-stars playing charades on Stump the Stars, and interviews with Barbara Hale, Arthur Marks, and former CBS executive Anne Nelson (who appeared in a cameo in "The Case of the Final Fade-Out"). For the most part, it's all interesting, although the clips from shows like Stump the Stars seem a bit too clipped. The photo gallery of stills from the show has one classic: Burr and William Talman reading a mockup newspaper with the headline: "Burger Defeats Mason."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Will Paramount release the bonus features from this set separately or include them on its half-season boxed sets so that the show's most dedicated viewers don't have to double-dip? Let's hope so. That screen test would be too tempting for a Mason addict.
Although you'll want to see it for its curiosity value, "The Case of the Twice-Told Twist," while not horrible, just doesn't look like Perry Mason. It's not just the color images: the episode emphasizes bright colors and action over plot and features an overdone performance by Victor Buono. It does make me wonder if Perry Mason wrapped up production just in time.
Also, a couple of these episodes run short, apparently because they were taken from syndication prints instead of masters. It doesn't interfere with the plot, but be forewarned.
With Perry Mason: 50th Anniversary Edition, it looks like Paramount tried to distill the best of the long-running series into one DVD set. While there are viewers who will want to collect all 271 episodes, this 12-episode sampler decked out with bonus features will do a darned good job of pleasing the average Mason viewer and introducing the series to a new audience.
These might not be exactly your favorites, but the 12 episodes here are all good choices, with either notable star turns or memorable twists to recommend them. They also show a progression, as Burr gets more screen time and the show's style becomes less melodramatic. This best-of disc ignores the first two seasons completely, another indication that the show improved over time.
Not guilty. Paramount is urged, however, to accommodate fans who want to
collect the whole series with this set's fine assortment of extras.
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• Intros by Barbara Hale
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