Sunday, October 10, 2010
Perry Mason: Memories of a Mystery Addict
Once upon a time there was an attorney named Erle Stanley Gardner who was based in Ventura, California. He got tired of practicing law and started writing pulp mysteries instead. His most famous creation was the crime-solving criminal attorney Perry Mason. Mason, unlike most criminal attorneys, never seems to have a client who is actually guilty; when he takes the case he takes the responsibility of finding the guilty party upon himself. Usually he unmasks the murderer in court during the preliminary hearing, though sometimes the case actually goes to a jury. I've read most of Gardner's books. Though they are pretty much alike, they are as addictive as potato chips and the plots are rather ingenious.
The same can be said for the television adaptations of Gardner's books, starring (of course) Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. The only other time I can recall seeing Mr. Burr was in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window - he turned out to be the murderer in that one. Filmed in glorious black and white, the show premiered in 1957 and ran for a decade. It is still in reruns here and there around the country and spawned multiple TV movies, also starring Burr, in the 1980's. Perry Mason became available on DVD a few years ago; I've been getting the episodes on Netflix and got hooked all over again.
These days I watch the show as a time capsule. The men all wear suits and hats and look like handsome Sherman tanks; the women wear gloves and pearls. The cars are to die for, classic 1950s Cadillacs and Fords. The phones are rotary and in some cases have actual operators plugging in the lines. Here and there we catch glimpses of the Los Angeles of fifty years ago (motel rooms for five dollars a night? Be still, my heart!). Apparently all middle-class homes of the time had overstuffed furniture and huge living rooms with oil paintings crowded together on the walls. Did I mention everyone smokes?
Perry Mason was my gateway drug, so to speak. It hooked my entire family as well: we're all TV mystery addicts. I have fond memories of watching the NBC Mystery Movie back in the 1970's. It was what's known as an "umbrella show," with rotating episodes of Columbo, McMillan and Wife, McCloud and other mysteries. Then came Murder, She Wrote. My sister and I still enjoy watching this show, though it became more and more formulaic as the years went on. (My brother-in-law refers to it as "Murder, She Dorked.") But how can you not love Angela Lansbury and the hammy, we're-supposed-to-be-in-New-England accents of the regular cast? And I really enjoyed In the Heat of the Night, with Carroll O'Connor as the chief of police. Set in a Mississippi town, it was more successful in evoking the atmosphere of the South than many other shows were, and had a great supporting cast to boot.
My dad like myself is a Perry Mason fan. He prefers mysteries with male leads and more action, like Magnum, P.I. He also likes Matlock, which is sort of a male version of Murder, She Wrote starring Andy Griffith and set in Atlanta: I was never a fan of this show. We're both hooked on Law & Order, as long as it's one of the episodes with Jerry Orbach. During a recent visit to my sister's, Dad was flipping channels on the TV and ran across an episode in mid-broadcast. Immediately we found ourselves fixated on the couch, chatting between scene changes (that "ching-ching!" sound is as essential to L&O as Perry Mason's theme song is to that show), and admiring Orbach's performance. Some things never change.
Hi Dr. Alice! I just popped over from Jo's blog, and I feel compelled to comment because (ohmygosh) I've found a kindred spirit in mad love for Perry Mason, though I suspect I may have a more serious case as I am prone to upload screenshots of Perry's various cars to Twitter with such comments as, "would you just LOOK at this car please!?! Is this not breathtakingly cool? Nyah-so? is the disappointing response most times. From the chrome-clad tanks to the blue converible Lincoln Continental featured in the only color episode of Perry (at Angel's Flight!) It makes my heart beat fast.