Perry Mason – Like Old Wine – Better With Age

At 9 a.m. every morning my TV automatically snaps awake with the strains of the theme from Perry Mason. I stop whatever I’m doing so I can watch the intro. I love to see Perry turn from the courtroom bench with that mysterious file in hand, smile that enigmatic smile, and turn to Della and Paul, who look at him like he’s a god from Mt. Olympus. Then he turns to L. A. District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman), and Lt. Arthur Tragg (Ray Collins). The D.A. looks at the file with a “that’s interesting” expression, which is misleading. Burger’s usual response to Perry’s one-upmanship is more like he’s seeing the Devil incarnate come to rain fire and brimstone on his parade. Lt. Tragg just seems to take it in stride, smacking his lips and cutting his eyes in his signature droll manner as if to say “here we go again”.

William Talman as Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg.

Perry Mason, for those of you who are under 50 and addicted to the splashy, attention-deficit world of entertainment, is an old black and white murder mystery/courtroom drama you can catch now in syndication or by streaming. Unlike many such programs of bygone eras, Perry Mason, like old wine, gets better with age. And unlike just about anything and everything in today’s world, it’s dependable. Perry always wins — (with one or two strange exceptions). And he does so with such a commanding courtesy and charming panache. Seldom must he raise his voice, but when he does, there’s method to his madness.

There’s a certain charisma that attaches itself to the regular characters in the series. They seem like old friends come to draw you into their black and white world for an hour, where good and evil are defined and intelligence takes precedence over mind-numbing violence. Sure, there are episodes where the plot is so twisted they don’t really get all the knots picked out, but they are few. Sure, most of the women who appear as guest stars come off as inane, vapid airheads, which was the typecasting of the times.

However, the cool and savvy, not to mention lovely, Della Street (Barbara Hale), Perry’s secretary and top girl Friday, more than makes up for the show’s lack of true feminine grit. She not only adds class, charm, and humor to the great man’s office, she trails Perry to crime scenes, skidding down L. A. hillsides in heels and slim skirts, or helping private investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper) and Perry (Raymond Burr) set traps for bad guys (and gals). She won an Emmy for this role. (As did Raymond Burr in his).

[Excuse me. It’s 9 o’clock. My theme music just started. Catch you back here in an hour, different time, same station]. Okay. I’m back. That was a good episode. The butler did it. Just kidding. My how time flies when you just sit back and read something rather than writing it from not-so-simple scratch.

Anyway, my obsession for Perry Mason was a close-kept secret for a long time till I discovered a few other ears perk up at mention of the old show. Now I realize that I’m not alone in my black and white world.

So for all you Perry Mason aficionados out there that I never knew about, there is an excellent book entitled “The Perry Mason TV Show Book: the complete story of America’s favorite television lawyer by two of his greatest fans”, who are Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill.

William Hopper as Paul Drake

The book is comprehensive and well-organized in its thoughtful, detailed, entertaining, and well-written background on the show and its actors, as well as the author of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner. It begins with the failure of early movies to correctly portray the fictional attorney and the author’s endless battle for the integrity of his own creation. From movies to radio, the early Perry Mason attempts never measured up. Finally, just as the television industry got its feet firmly planted, Erle Stanley Gardner cautiously began to test the waters of this new entertainment industry. Because he had been burned so often by other mediums that failed to share his vision, he insisted on control of the lives of his characters. When Raymond Burr read for the part of the lead role, it was said he jumped to his feet and yelled, “That’s Perry Mason!”

The book goes on to describe the battle of the networks and the tug-of-war for coveted time slots, going up against the entrenched Perry Como, and the eventual showdowns with Bonanza. Kelleher and Merrill name those who almost got the role of Perry Mason, and, interestingly, the role that Raymond Burr was originally asked to read, as well as many then-future famous actors who appeared in the show. The behind-the-scenes view of the actors reveal the heart-breaking, real-life tragedies of Raymond Burr, William Hopper’s (Paul Drake) struggle to step out of the shadow of his famous mother, and Barbara Hale’s marriage to the man of her dreams.

The quotes in the book are sharp, lively and well-chosen. But one quote about the series seems to sum up my continuing obsession for the original Perry Mason show —  “Justice will prevail”. And Raymond Burr and his cast of friends make me believe it every day. Absolutely. At least for an hour.

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9 thoughts on “Perry Mason – Like Old Wine – Better With Age

  1. I’ve never watched this in syndication, but I never missed an episode when it aired years ago. My mother loved it, too, and we used to watch it together. We were big “Ironside” fans later as well.

    • So did we. And same with Ironsides. It was something we did together as a family. We got our first television in 1956 when I was 8 yrs old, so Perry Mason was one of the early greats for me. I think my first childish heartthrobs were Raymond Burr and Paul Drake (uh, William Hopper, can’t ever think of him as other than Paul Drake), so they have always held a special place in my “little girl’s” heart.

      • We got our first TV when I was 12 or 13. It was a surprise and I came home from school to find my mother watching “Captain Video.” I was over the moon from excitement. I think the sets for the show included on;y 10 or 12 rocks because when I was older, I realized they were walking around the same rocks all the time regardless of the location in the story. LOL But to a kid with her first TV, it was magical.

  2. I identify so much … the show is timeless and – like you – I love the fact that you know good will triumph in the end. Every time the series was re-run, I found myself wondering whether the times were really so different back then. I finally got a chance to ask Raymond Burr about that when I interviewed him back in the eighties and I just did a brief Kindle book about him. He was one of the nicest actors I ever met. And he had a great sense of humor, even about some of his bad movies. Raymond Burr was a classy guy and Perry Mason was a classic show.
    Brian McFadden

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