"The premise: inflexible. The first act was devoted to murky upper-middle-class perfidy, a tangled stumble-footed mess that ended with a corpse on the potting shed floor. (Dressed in suit, face down.) This was your chance to pick a horse: was it the earnest plain wife, the scheming sister, the dull-eyed handyman, the oily blackmailer, the strange 'Colonel Mustard' who said he had to fetch a candlestick from the conservatory? You’d never know who made the roscoe bark until the last scene, but one thing was certain: whoever went to Perry first was innocent."
Perry Mason is a hugely successful multimedia franchise of the twentieth century. Beginning as a series of best-selling novels by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930s, it was soon adapted for film, radio, and, in the 1950s, for an iconic and influential TV series on CBS.Mason is a skilled defense attorney who takes on seemingly hopeless cases, and turns them into victories by investigating the mystery, with the help of his secretary, Della Street, and private detective Paul Drake. Then, in a dramatic courtroom scene, Mason's new evidence is introduced, and the real criminal is forced to confess. Usually while on the witness stand.There were eighty novels in the series by the time Gardner died in 1969, and two more were published posthumously. The first was 1933's The Case of the Velvet Claws, and the last was The Case of the Postponed Murder.Seven movies were theatrically released between 1934 and 1940; the first four all starred Warren William as Mason. The final movie retooled the Perry Mason concept beyond all recognition into the western crime comedy Granny Get Your Gun. Yes, really.The radio series began in 1943. It focused more on action than courtroom drama, and Gardner eventually withdrew his support for the show, which then went on to be adapted into the television soap opera, The Edge of Night.The original Perry Mason TV series debuted in 1957, and ran through 1966. It featured Raymond Burr as Mason, Barbara Hale as Della Street, and William Hopper as Paul Drake. It was, at the time, the longest-running, and most successful lawyer show on television, and is still what most people think of when they hear the name.The TV series was revived in 1973 as The New Perry Mason, with a completely different cast, but it only lasted one season. It was then revived again as a made-for-TV movie, Perry Mason Returns in 1985, with the surviving cast of the original show, plus William The Greatest American Hero Katt as Paul Drake Jr. The success of this TV movie spurred the production of twenty-nine more Perry Mason TV movies between 1985 and 1994, with the last installment airing after Raymond Burr's death in 1993. (NBC made a few more TV movies without Raymond Burr before calling it quits.)The series is very popular overseas—a Turkish version (also called Perry Mason) was produced in 1983. It also inspired a song by Ozzy Osbourne.Warner Bros. has announced plans for an upcoming feature film adaptation of the character, to be played by Robert Downey, Jr. The film will reportedly be based on the books and original movies rather than the series, and be set in 1930sLos Angeles.Many episodes of the 1943-1955 radio series have fallen into the public domain in the United States, and can be downloaded courtesy of the Internet Archive.
Age Lift: Della Street is 27 in the first book, she is played in the TV series by Barbara Hale (who was 35 in the first season). Lt. Tragg is stated in the books to be the same age as Perry - he is played by 68-year-old Ray Collins.
Always on Duty: The various homicide lieutenants seemed to turn up at every murder that occurred in L. A., no matter the time of day (or night).
Always Murder: A strong codifier in television - this show quite popularly used the idea that if the initial issue didn't involve murder, the viewer could be sure that only meant there would be a murder later on to thicken the plot.
Amoral Attorney: Very often played straight when an attorney turned up among the murder suspects. Either played straight or averted with District Attorney Hamilton Burger, depending on the writer. Guest prosecutors tended to run the gamut as well.
Asshole Victim: Many of the murder victims were blackmailers, thieves, murderers themselves or just someone so irritating or otherwise evil that absolutely nobody would mind their being dead - and what's more many of the murders are in self-defense. This not only makes many of the murderers sympathetic for dramatic purposes, is also adds to the mystery: in an average Perry Mason story, nearly everyone has a motive. Oddly enough, any crimes that the victims do (including murder) are often not investigated by Tragg and Burger which means they would have likely gotten away with them.
Badass Boast: Perry's first appearance in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933) has him sum up his practice in two short-yet-powerful words:
Mason: People that come to me don't come to me because they like the looks of my eyes, or the way my office is furnished, or because they've known me at a club. They come to me because they need me. They come to me because they want to hire me for what I can do. Eva Griffin (client): Just what is it that you do, Mr. Mason? Mason: I fight.
Bait-and-Switch Credits: The opening credits for the renamed "A Perry Mason Mystery" specials state "Based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner;" at this point, we're down to Della Street and even she's gone in the first five minutes.
Big Good: Perry often plays this role - he not only pledges to defend and clear every client that comes his way no matter what it takes, but he often goes out of his way to help people outside of his cases as well - even if it does ultimately come down to court. He's even gone out of his way to help people who likely would have no way to pay him. He has a very strong reputation for his goodness and skill, which proceeds him greatly: he's not only a trusted source of advice, but nearly all of his clients come to him (rather than the other way around) because they know he can and will help.
Character Outlives Actor: Raymond Burr died of cancer in 1993, but four more made-for-TV movies were made after the fact, all featuring Suspiciously Similar Substitutes standing in for an out-of-town Perry (one of whom, "Wild Bill" McKenzie, even gets a phone call from him in one movie).
Courtroom Antic: Although usually justified either by the Antics being performed at a pre-trial hearingnote For those wondering, in California, at least, the Grand Jury requirement can be waived for a pre-trial hearing in front of a judge, or being explicitly designed to recreate the crime or Pull the Thread.
Bruce Jason (who substituted for Mason in "The Case of the Two-Faced Turnabout") also had one.
Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Every novel's title started with the words "The Case of (the)...", as did every theatrical release, every episode of both TV series, and every TV movie. Often they had an alliterative subject: the Poison Pen, the Dangerous Doll, etc.
Invincible Hero: Perry Mason. Legend has it that the TV writers wanted to do at least one episode where Perry lost, but Erle Stanley Gardner shot them down. Rescuing a client from the electric chair at the last possible moment was as close as it got.
Perry actually lost 3 cases in the Raymond Burr series:
Episode 1.38, "The Case of the Terrified Typist" - the one most people who think "Perry only lost once" think of: the big case of the episode ends in Burger's favor. Too bad they were trying an imposter, invalidating the entire trial.
Episode 6.28, "The Case of the Witless Witness" - this is the easiest to forget, because it's not the main case of the episode, but one which he loses at the beginning.
Episode 7.04, "The Case of the Deadly Verdict" - another where the episode starts with Perry losing, this time because his client lied to him. He spends the rest of the episode setting things right.
Barbara Hale (Della Street), however, said in a relatively recent interview that the cases lost by Perry had been declared mistrials off the air.
Los Angeles: The usual setting. Justified, because Mason's license allows him to practice law only in California.
Averted for the TV movies, which were set in Denver. Mason may have passed the Colorado bar... or Colorado admitted him on motion.note Many US states allow lawyers who have practiced in other states for a certain time (usually 5 of the last 7 years) to practice there without taking the bar exam. Notable exceptions to this rule include California and Florida.
Love Martyr: Many women in numerous cases, towards their boyfriends / husbands.
Male Gaze: Invoked a few times; for example "The Case of the Crimson Kiss" starts out with a man admiring an attractive woman from the legs up.
Married to the Job: Seems to be the case for all of the main characters in the first series.
Mean Character, Nice Actor: William Talman as Burger. In his anti-smoking PSA the first thing he does is show you his beautiful family.
Miscarriage of Justice: Perry's clients are saved from this by the end of the episode, of course, but various persons not represented by him are subjected to this fate.
Mobile Menace: Tragg likes popping up at the worst possible times for Perry and his clients, with no notice and often very improbably.
Moral Dissonance: Sometimes occurred when a novel was adapted into an episode without accounting for the moral differences between the television characters and their literary counterparts.
Plea Bargain: Occasionally one will be offered to Perry's client, but he or she eventually turns it down.
Pose of Supplication: "The Case of the Empty Tin." A wronged woman, sobbing, pleading for understanding, first holds her hands out in supplication and then collapses to her knees, throwing her arms around the man who holds her life in his hands... said man being Hamilton Burger. The woman is a murderess at least twice over.
Protagonist-Centered Morality: Perry clearly oversteps the boundaries of ethical behavior on occasion, but he's neither remorseful nor held accountable. When his opponents bring it up they're portrayed as being petty or malicious.
Punny Name: "Hamilton Burger" minus "-ilton" = "Ham Burger."
Put on a Bus: Paul Drake, Jr. and D.A. Michael Reston after the TV movies switched settings to Colorado.
Real-Life Relative: William Katt, who played Paul Drake, Jr. in the first few TV movies, is the real-life son of Barbara Hale (Della Street).
Real Life Writes the Plot: In the final TV movie Burr filmed (The Case of the Killer's Kiss), his physical weakness (from his inoperable cancer) was becoming obvious; he was apparently unable to stand unassisted, so Mason is always either sitting down or standing up and leaning completely on the defense table. The one scene where he had to be standing only showed a closeup of his head, neck and shoulders, so somebody was probably holding him up.
Reckless Gun Usage: If there was a gun involved in the murder-of-the-week, odds are good that Perry Mason will recklessly wave that gun around. One episode was egregious: The district attorney, Hamilton Burger, fondles the murder weapon (a revolver marked as exhibit whatever) during the trial and rests it casually on the witness box, his finger on the trigger, the barrel aimed directly at the weapons expert's head. After a few questions, he turns it toward the jury, gesturing dramatically. Then, Mason does exactly the same thing when cross-examining.
The final TV movie to feature Burr as Mason, The Case of the Killer Kiss, saw him up against (and resoundingly defeat) a local district attorney referred to only as "Mr. Markham," which was the name of the actor who played Mason in the aforementioned New series (Monte Markham, to be precise). Mr. Markham also appeared in the first post-Burr Perry Mason Mystery movie.
To Be Lawful or Good: Perry sometimes comes up against such a choice, though he barely hesitates (if at all) before choosing "good."
Trickster Archetype: Perry is an interestingly lawful example - he often uses a mix of tricky guile and venerable wisdom to uncover clues and solve mysteries, but rarely actually uses coercion or trickery to make the guilty say something.
For awhile (around season six) there was a string of episodes that followed some associate of Perry's while the man himself was recuperating in a hospital room and was only seen in brief telephone calls. This was because actor Raymond Burr was recovering from surgery and couldn't handle the usual workload.
Burr played the role with one arm in a sling during four season eight episodes
William Talman (Hamilton Burger) showed up first with a leg cast and crutches, then with laryngitis, during season two.
You Look Familiar: Often in the original TV series. Mona Freeman and Patricia Breslin each played three of Perry's clients; Bill Williams (husband of co-star Barbara Hale) appeared in four episodes, in very different roles.