Perry Mason: Season 5 vol 1
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Perry Mason: Season 5 vol 1

One of the first genres to catch on with television back in those dim times when owning a TV set was something special is the legal drama. Just about every programming season has contained at least one or two series depicting the legal battles of lawyers and the requisite courtroom drama. One of the most popular lawyer series was the grand daddy of them all ‘Perry Mason. For nine seasons starting in 1957 this series dominated its time slot. I remember that when I was a small child it was on past my bed time and considered too mature for one of my then tender years. My parents were, like millions of others, big fans of the show so as I lay in bed in could hear the five notes of the most recognizable TV theme in history. Back then television was still fairly new so there was an extraordinary amount of innovation going on. This was frequently contrasted with the need for the American audience for the familiar. The people behind the scenes were frequent from radio or movies and reveled in the experimentation the new media offered but the typical person watching preferred the comfort of a firmly regulated format. Few series of this pioneering period exemplified the duality of this trend as well as ‘Perry Mason’. Every courtroom series that has followed owes much of its existence to this seminal show. Thankfully CBS Paramount has the series within their vaults and has been releasing it half a season at a time. Part of the reason for the volume approach is certainly profits but back then a season typically consisted of 26 episodes each about 54 minutes long instead of only thirteen 44 minute episodes. In any case what you get with these DVD collections is a commitment to excellence rarely seen in today’s broadcast television. The set under consideration here is the first half of the fifth season and it is representative of drama of the highest standards.

Even before the first episode aired the name ‘Perry Mason’ was already extremely well established in literary circles thanks to the series of novels by master of mystery Erle Stanley Gardner. Few roles in entertainment are as closely associated with a single actor as Mason is for Raymond Burr. Even after the weekly series ended the popularity was still more than sufficient to engender over two dozen made for television movies. Long before taking on this defining role Burr was an accomplished character actor including his part as the nefarious neighbor in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece ‘Rear Window’. Okay, he was also in the Americanized version of ‘Godzilla’ but a man does have to eat. In less capable hands playing the same character for almost 300 episodes and actor would be hard pressed to keep his role fresh. Perhaps some might make a case, so to speak, that the role of Perry Mason offered little challenge but Burr made each appearance fascinating to watch. He owned the courtroom set better than any TV or movie lawyer to follow. I have wanted to see a fantasy matchup between Perry Mason and ‘Law & Order’s favorite prosecutor, Jack McCoy. Now that would be something to see. Mason’s perennial opponent was the Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman). I don’t know how he kept his job considering his record was three wins to about three hundreds losses.

For such a successful attorney Mason had a very small staff. His Gal Friday was the ever faithful Della Street (Barbara Hale). She did much more than taking the minutes of Mason’s meetings and answers the phones. Mason would use her as a sounding board to talk out his theories. There was a hint of something between them but unlike modern lawyer shows this one didn’t drag the personal lives of the main characters into the fray. This also goes for the main investigator on Mason’s payroll, private detective Paul Drake (William Hopper). It was up to him to track down leads; find witnesses and pretty much gather the clues that Mason would use to uncover the real killer. On the other side of the investigative coin was the lead police detective Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins) who would charge the inevitably innocent client for murder. It is very evident that many of the production crew came from film. Each episode has more of a feel of a short mystery movie than a television series. Perhaps this was due to it competing with things like ‘Playhouse 90’ but I just feel that audiences had different expectations back then. Each episode typically remained true to the general format. The first few scenes introduced the principle characters for the episode laying the ground work for the frequently complex interpersonal relationships and potential motive. In the first episode of this set we get to see that Mason’s legal practice extended beyond just taking on murder cases. In one episode he handles a family trust and acts as an executor for the victim’s estate. Naturally it doesn’t take all that long before Tragg saunters in arresting his client for murder most foul. Watching these episodes again after so many years I couldn’t help but to notice the remarkable technical superiority of this series. Close ups were the bread and butter shot and was frequent used here particularly when a witness takes the stand. If you pay careful attention though you will witness some pretty sophisticated camera angles such as a panning shot pulling back from the close-up to a widening shot moving over the prosecutor’s shoulder resting in a point of view from the rear of the courtroom. The direction and cinematography is much better than much of what is on now. this may be in mono and full frame black and white but it remains superior entertainment.

Posted 04/11/2010

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