Friday, March 20, 2009

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #9

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Series Title: Perry Mason | Years: 1957-1966, CBS | Starring: Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, Ray Collins | Theme Music: Fred Steiner

I can already imagine the disappointed and disgusted e-mail notes I’ll receive after choosing this classic TV main title sequence as one of the best ever produced. Those communications are sure to be filled with adjectives synonymous with “boring” and sent by otherwise upstanding folk who prefer the more action-oriented introductions to, say, Magnum, P.I., The Equalizer, Simon & Simon, Starsky & Hutch, and Riptide. How could I choose the opening of Perry Mason, the writers will ask, from among so many other options?

Well, we’ve already written on this page about some of those other openers, and there are still eight more specimens to be analyzed. However, none of them rivals this black-and-white Perry Mason introduction when it comes to subtlety, clarity, and elegant simplicity. All you have here is lawyer Mason (played by Burr), seated at the defense counsel’s table in what’s supposed to be a Los Angeles courtroom (but is undoubtedly just a stage set), apparently going through a brief on his latest murder case. Suddenly, he stops reading and looks up as if considering whatever he’s just discovered, his eyes shifting back and forth as he ponders the implications. He doesn’t make a big deal of his find, but a knowing smile lifts his lips just a little bit. You can tell he’s realized something that no one else has--not his client, not the local constabulary, not his usual antagonist, District Attorney Hamilton Burger (Talman), and not even his essential sideman, hard-boiled yet boyish private eye Paul Drake (Hopper). Mason has unearthed the key to his client’s release. It’s why they pay him the big bucks.

Accompanying this restrained mini-drama is one of the most recognizable TV themes ever created. It actually has a name--“Park Avenue Beat”--and was the work of Fred Steiner, a New York-born composer and arranger, who, believe it or not, also created the theme for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. (Steiner, who celebrated his 86th birthday last month, has contributed his talents as well to Hawaii Five-O, Star Trek, Lost in Space, Gunsmoke, Have Gun--Will Travel, and the Hec Ramsey pilot film.) Together, this opener’s music and message set the stage for what Richard Meyers, in TV Detectives (1981), called the “most influential, most entertaining, and most popular judicial series ever made, Perry Mason.”

As most everybody must know by now, Mason was the creation of Erle Stanley Gardner. Born in Massachusetts in 1889, at age 10 Gardner relocated with his family to California. He went on to leave college before graduating, and later apprenticed in a law firm in order to pass the California bar exam. He married in 1912, became a successful attorney in Ventura, California, but wasn’t satisfied, so he began writing short stories at night.

In The Perry Mason TV Show Book: The Complete Story of America’s Favorite Television Lawyer (1987)--thankfully, available online--authors Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill explained how Gardner broke into print:
The first worthwhile piece of fiction that Erle Stanley Gardner ever sold was published, indirectly, as a result of a cruel inside joke. It happened in 1923. Writing under the pen name Charles M. Green, the California-based lawyer-writer submitted a novelette titled “The Shrieking Skeleton” to a pulp magazine called Black Mask. The story was so bad the magazine’s staff sent it to their circulation director as a joke, pretending that the piece was going to be the lead featured in their next issue and asking him to work up some publicity ideas to promote it. The circulation director read the story and, thinking the editorial staff had taken leave of its collective senses, fired it back to them with comments such as “this plot has whiskers like Spanish moss,” and “the characters talk like dictionaries.”

With the gag played out, the staff returned the story to Gardner accompanied by the usual form-letter rejection slip. However, perhaps fatefully, the circulation director’s note blasting the story was mistakenly sent to Gardner as well. Gardner found the note and read the brutal, uncensored criticism. It may have been the best thing that ever happened to him.

Gardner took the story apart and, in three days, put it back together again. He worked so hard on it that his fingertips bled onto his typewriter keys. He resubmitted it to Black Mask with a letter explaining that he had seen the circulation director’s comments and had taken the criticism to heart. The magazine bought the revised version of “The Shrieking Skeleton” for $160.
After that, there seemed to be no stopping him. “In his first year of writing, he earned less than he made in a month as a lawyer,” fellow novelist Dorothy B. Hughes explained in her 1978 biography, Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. “In his fifth year, his earnings had risen to $6,627. By the early thirties, his sales from writing had mounted to more than $20,000 yearly, a sizable income any day and particularly so in those depression times. At the pulp payment of a few cents a word, this meant a tremendous number of words pounded out on his typewriter night after night. He was prodigiously productive. The quota he set for himself was 1,200,000 words a year, or a 10,000-word novelette every three days, 365 days a year.”

Gardner developed “at least three dozen characters for the pulps,” according to The Thrilling Detective Web Site, among them con artist Ed Jenkins, gentleman thief Lester Leith, and his early model of a crusading attorney, Ken Corning. Perry Mason never made an entrance in the pulp magazines; his first outing was in the author’s debut novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), which Hughes said he “wrote” by dictation, just as he might have composed a letter or a legal brief. “It took three and a half days. He admitted freely and frequently that it would be more accurate to say four days, as he spent an initial half day ‘thinking up the plot.’”

Over the next 37 years, until his death on March 11, 1970, Gardner turned out 81 more full-length novels starring his rugged-jawed, gimlet-eyed, and seemingly infallible advocate--a character that Hughes said was based on the author himself, only “dramatized and glamorized a bit.” (That this wasn’t even Gardner’s total creative output; that he also wrote, or at least dictated, many other books--most notably his Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series--simply boggles the mind.) Sales of his work skyrocketed, no doubt goaded upward by Mason’s appearances in more than half a dozen motion pictures (beginning with 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog) as well as the 12-year run of a Perry Mason radio series.

But it was Mason’s transference to television that sealed his fame for generations. As National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg recalled in a 2002 retrospective, Gardner was disappointed in his protagonist’s adventures in films and on the “wireless.” So, she explained, “when TV came calling, Gardner decided to form his own production company--almost unheard of at the time. He picked the cast, reviewed all the scripts, hired lawyers as writers, and split the profits with the [CBS] network.”

Perry Mason debuted on September 21, 1957, with British Columbia-born actor Raymond Burr leading the cast. “In retrospect,” critic Richard Meyers wrote, Burr “was the perfect choice [to portray Mason], but at the time the various network and studio executives must have been aghast that the Mason role was not to be played by a handsome leading man. In fact, in many of the films Burr appeared in before taking on Perry Mason, he embodied villains beautifully. ... His hulking form and prominent brow made him a fine bad guy, but his famous portrayal of reporter Steve Martin under trying circumstances (both on screen and behind the scenes) in Godzilla (1955) and his performance as [a] fiery district attorney in A Place in the Sun (1951) may have helped him win the Mason role.”

Of course, Burr wasn’t the only one who made Perry Mason a crowd-pleaser. The cast also included Barbara Hale as Della Street, the lawyer’s bright, trusty secretary and never-quite-realized love interest (a funny circumstance, when you consider that Gardner himself married his longtime secretary, Agnes Jean Bethell, after his estranged wife’s demise). William Hopper, the only son of notorious Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played Mason’s thoroughly capable but drolly humorous private eye associate, Paul Drake, who had an office down the hall from his most frequent employer. William Talman, who’d played a ruthless killer in the noir film The Hitch-Hiker (1953) signed on to the thankless task of portraying D.A. Burger, destined to lose his cases to Mason on every Saturday night’s broadcast, while radio and stage actor Ray Collins took the role of dogged police lieutenant and Burger ally Arthur Tragg.

When I was a boy, watching Perry Mason with my beloved grandfather--a loyal fan of the show--I didn’t recognize how formulaic its episodes were. But the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Web site spells things out succinctly:
Most episodes follow this simple formula: the guest characters are introduced and their situation shows that at least one of them is capable of murder. When the murder happens, an innocent person (most often a woman) is accused, and Mason takes the case. As evidence mounts against his client, Mason pulls out a legal maneuver involving some courtroom “pyrotechnics.” This not only proves his client innocent, but identifies the real culprit. These scenes are easily the best and most memorable. It is not because they are realistic. On the contrary, they are hardly that. What is so engaging about them is the combination of Mason’s efforts to free his client, perhaps a surprise witness brought in by Drake in the closing courtroom scene, and a dramatic courtroom confession. The murderer being in the courtroom during the trial and not hiding out in the Bahamas provides the single most important image of each episode. The murderer forgoes the Fifth Amendment and admits his/her guilt in an often tearful outburst of “I did it! And I’m glad I did!” This happens under the shocked, amazed eyes of district attorney Burger and the stoic, sure face of defense attorney Mason.
“It made no difference if the solution did not make sense or was impossible to follow,” remarked Meyers. “As long as Mason sounded convincing and the perpetrator admitted his or her culpability, the viewers swallowed anything. As a change of pace, Perry actually lost a case during the 1963 season [‘The Case of the Deadly Verdict’], but it was because the client was covering for someone else and allowed herself to be found guilty. Perry discovered the true villain anyway and got the stubborn victim out of jail.”

Raymond Burr won two Best Actor Emmy Awards for his work on Perry Mason, while Barbara Hale picked up her own Emmy for Best Supporting Actress. Over the course of this series’ nine seasons and amazing 271 episodes, it hosted an abundance of screen legends (Bette Davis and Walter Pidgeon among them), in addition to numerous rising talents (Burt Reynolds, Barbara Eden, Dick Clark, Robert Redford, Adam West, Angie Dickinson, Daniel Travanti, and others). What’s more, Perry Mason provided work for such recognizable writers as Jonathan Latimer (Solomon’s Vineyard) and Stirling Silliphant (who later created the James Franciscus private detective series Longstreet and put together the screenplay for In the Heat of the Night).

Although fans like my grandfather never tired of seeing Perry Mason wipe the courtroom floor with Hamilton Burger, CBS’s decision to move this show around on its prime-time schedule undermined its popularity. With Burr growing tired of the program’s pace, and with its ratings finally declining, the network announced that it would drop Perry Mason after the 1965-66 season. Meyers notes that the final episode, shown on May 22, 1966, “was a family affair in that the line producer had a bit part, the stage hands made up a crowd scene, and the presiding judge of the last courtroom battle was played by none other than Erle Stanley Gardner himself.”

However, Los Angeles’ best-recognized attorney would not go quietly into the night. In the fall of 1973, CBS sought to reawaken the magic with a show called The New Perry Mason. The cast was led by Monte Markham, whose face was familiar from many guest-starring roles, with the blond Sharon Acker appearing as Della Street and the much-better-than-serviceable Harry Guardino stepping into Burger’s shoes. The Museum of Broadcast Communications contends that “Markham’s Mason was closer to the one featured in the original novels. Both were brash, elegant and coolly businesslike in their dealings with clients, something Burr never was.” Yet this new TV version ran just 15 episodes before being yanked off the air, never to be seen again, I fear. (It would be awfully nice if Paramount Home Video, which is in the midst of issuing DVD compilations of the original Perry Mason series, would include those “lost” Markham Masons as extras in one of its sets; however, I won’t hold my breath in anticipation of such a thing happening.)

Not until TV producer Dean Hargrove took on the task was Perry Mason successfully resurrected. By that time, Collins had died of emphysema, William Talman had succumbed to lung cancer (after filming landmark anti-smoking commercials), and William Hopper had perished of pneumonia at age 55. However, Burr (who’d gone on to star in the also-memorable Ironside) was still around, and so was Barbara Hale. After dusting off Fred Steiner’s iconic “Park Avenue Beat” theme (which had been replaced with a much less distinctive tune on The New Perry Mason) and giving it a slightly bouncier beat, the two-hour made-for-TV movie Perry Mason Returns was broadcast on NBC in December 1985. It was the first of 26 Mason teleflicks shown over the next eight years, all with Burr and Hale. After Burr died in 1993, four more “Perry Mason Mysteries” were made, most of them featuring Hal Holbrook as a cunning country lawyer. But without Burr’s presence, those films seemed flaccid.

Fortunately, the original black-and-white Perry Mason episodes continue to be shown many places in reruns. If you can’t catch them that way, a number are available via the Fancast site--complete, of course, with one of the best main title sequences ever.

If I do say so myself.

READ MORE:Noir’s Goon Squad: Raymond Burr,” by Jake Hinkson (Criminal Element).

5 comments:

Keith Raffel said...

Two things.

The posted opening is the one I remember from the reruns, but there was an opening to the earliest Perry Mason shows (1st year?)where Perry looks over a dcoument and hands it over to Paul and Della (and Tragg?)

Also, a point of personal pride. Erle Stanley Gardner is a fellow alum of Palo Alto High School.

Max Allan Collins said...

The classic opening has Perry passing "evidence" (actually an episode script) from Della to Burger to Tragg.

The show at its best is hard to beat. For the first two seasons, most episodes were adapted from Gardner books, and every season featured such adaptations. The Gardner episodes are unmistakable -- they are tougher, sexier, and frequently Perry does something really, really sleazy...plus there is no formula to the mystery. Non-Gardner episodes are good but formulaic. Many strong episodes (both adapted and original) were written by Jonathan Latimer of the Bill Crane series and many top Hollywood films.

What a great box set a complete collection of the Gardner adaptations would make....

Picks By Pat said...

I like the opening to those Perry Mason episodes as well. That knowing look on Raymond Burr's face has no equal in television! It's good to see them finally coming to DVD.

mike doran said...

What I'd like to see are the network promos that CBS did during the early 60s. One I can almost reconstruct from memory: Mason in closeup, giving us The Look. Cut to Drake and Della. DELLA: "Look out, Paul. That look means something unexpected came up, and Perry's trying to work out how he's going to spring it on Burger." DRAKE: "No, Della. If I know that look, something Perry expected didn't turn up, and now he's thinking of changing his tactics at this late date." Cut to Burger and Tragg. TRAGG: "Watch him,Burger. He found a loophole..." BURGER: "You should have played more poker, Tragg. This time we've got the pat hand; Mason's got nothing. THa look is just to make us do some thinking... the wrong kind of thinking." Back to MASON: :I hope you'll join us for our next PERRY MASON case. You'll find it exciting... and unusual." I can't remember the second part of what Tragg said, but it was about The Look. They did a couple of others like that, but that's the one I'd really love to see again. CBS Video, take note.

Quinny said...

I've just been watching the DVD of the first Perry Mason series - fabulous. But I'm surprised how many of the episodes are filmed at night. They seem to interview and investigate at midnight and in the early hours of the morning. Does anyone know why this is?