6 September 2005 | silverscreen888
Engaging Narratives, About Characters and Courtroom Battles; a Classic
The "Perry Mason" character, as developed by Erle Stanley Gardner in the early 1930s, was a "fighter", in the author's words; like Gardner himself, a successful and ingenious lawyer, the fictional lawyer-detective enjoyed seeking out the truth in the field--whether he was finding a body, bending a law in order to fight for his client or testing an hypothesis--as much as he enjoyed arguing a case within the arena of a courtroom. Immensely popular from the beginning, the character was never changed by Gardner. And although the series on television was subtly altered in many ways, and enjoyed format alterations, I assert that nothing essential was ever altered about Mason nor his main "foils". At the beginning, the cast consisted of Raymond Burr as Mason, William Hopper as his detective pal Paul Drake, pretty Barbara Hale as his right-hand girl and secretary Della Street, William Talman as Hamilton Burger his chief courtroom enemy, and Ray Collins as Lt. Arthur Tragg of Homicide. Cases began in many different ways; chiefly with a future accused murderer being victimized by someone else, or with a client coming to ask Mason's help. Had the show's writers found a way to state a categorical purpose for Mason to explain why he was taking each case, the fine power of these dramatic stories could have been increased. But the chief quality of the interesting narratives I suggest was rather, usually, watching Mason trying many ways to find out the truth about what had been done in some situation in order to prove the innocence of his client of a murder; that, plus the many characters who people over 250 separate episodes. Many fine writers and directors created stories for "Perry Mason"; some episodes were adaptations of Mason novels. And with Gardner working closely with executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, the original entries were held strictly and successfully to the author's conception of the character. Talents as famous as Jack Arnold, Earl Bellamy, László Benedek, script consultant Arthur Marks, Arthur Hiller, Ted Post, Vincent Mceveety, Robert Sparr, Gerd Oswald, Andrew Mclaglen and Christian Nyby were in charge of the "Mason" cameras; writers for the series included True Boardman, Robert C. Dennis, John Elliotte, Jackson Gillis, Laurence Louis Goldman, Seeleg Lester, Orville H, Hampton, Laurence Marks, Bob and Esther Mitchell Jonathan Latimer, Samuel Newman, Helen Nielsen, Mann Rubin, Sy Salkowitz, Stirling Silliphant, Barry Trivers, Al C. Ward, Maurice Zimm and Gene Wang, among others. Mason employed a young lawyer, played by Karl Held, for one season; Richard Anderson, Wesley Lau, Dan Tobin and Lee Miller were regulars for varying lengths of time. But the glory of the series, i assert, was its guest stars. Apart from younger actors chosen for their looks, almost every other part was well-cast and the enactors successful in creating a character. The producers also used only about ten judges, notably S. John Launder, Willis Bouchey, John Gallaudet, Kenneth Macdonald and one female jurist. But the courtrooms in which Mason appeared ranged all over the state of California, from a military tribunal to small town courts to the great Los Angeles arena. Almost as numerous were the sites where Mason and Drake discovered clues, bodies and trouble; because Mason was a fighting man at heart, his favorite ploy was to plant false evidence to force overworked police to investigate some aspect of the case, to meet with someone in order to goad them into revealing something and to dispatch Drake or other operatives to expand his power of search and investigation. For me as a writer and viewer, the fun lay not so much in solving the crime along with Mason--although guessing the murderer's identity was enjoyable--but in watching the fine actors hired to don hats (as devices of characterization) and to take part in an interesting ethical exercise. Mason's ingenuity and lack of pretension endeared him to me, and to millions of viewers. Fine composers such as Jerry Goldsmith and Fred Steiner, who created the show's them, worked for the producers; and the cinematography and lighting was always above average for B/W television. But guest stars such as Keith Andes, Walter Pigeon, Whitney Blake, Pippa Scott, Cecil Kellaway, Gail Kobe, Paul Cavanagh, Benson Fong, Stacy Graham, Douglas Kennedy and Vaughn Taylor at last were who kept me, and other viewers, coming back every week. This is a most watchable narrative program; one-of-a-kind and still very enjoyable.