Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Perry Mason Primer

Warren William as Perry.
Raymond Burr will always be Perry Mason for millions of mystery fans, but Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer hit the big screen twenty years before the long-running TV series.

Warren William was a sharp-witted, gourmet-minded Mason in four Warner Bros. films, beginning with 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog. William seemed a natural for the part, having already played that urbane sleuth Philo Vance and destined to play the Lone Wolf, a jewel thief and detective. In fact, William’s Mason did so much detection that it was easy to forget he was a lawyer and some entries were devoid of courtroom scenes. Two of William’s films are of special interest. The Case of the Curious Bride featured superstar-to-be Errol Flynn as a murder victim and Donald Woods, a future Perry Mason, in another supporting role. Meanwhile, The Case of the Velvet Claws found Mason and secretary Della Street (Claire Dodd) married and trying to take a honeymoon! Comic actor Allen Jenkins played Perry’s detective assistant Spudsy (not Paul) Drake in some of the films.

In 1936, former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez replaced William in The Case of the Black Cat and Donald Woods finished the Warner series with 1937’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.

Raymond Burr.
The Perry Mason TV series debuted in 1957 and enjoyed a nine-year run on CBS. Burr played the lead, of course, with Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as detective Paul Drake, William Talman as prosecuting attorney Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg (Collins died prior to the 1965-66 season). Interestingly, William Hopper also auditioned for the part of Perry (you can probably find his screen test on YouTube).

In 1973, CBS revived the show as The New Perry Mason starring Monte Markham, but it folded after half a season. It co-starred Sharon Acker as Della, Albert Stratton as Paul, Dane Clark as Tragg, and Harry Guardino as Burger. It has never been released on video, but you still might find a few episodes on the video website Daily Motion.

Burr's return as Perry.
Then, in 1985, NBC brought back Raymond Burr in the TV-movie Perry Mason Returns, reuniting him with Hale and introducing William Katt (Hale’s real-life son) as Paul Drake’s son. The premise had a bearded Perry resigning as appellate court judge to defend Della when she is accused of murder. The film’s ratings went through the roof and a series of equally high-rated made-for-TV movies quickly evolved. NBC showed two to four Mason films annually for the next eight years. William Katt bowed out after the 1988 season, with William R. Moses coming aboard as new private eye Ken Malansky. Following Burr’s death from kidney cancer in 1993, NBC produced four Perry Mason Mysteries that starred either Paul Sorvino or Hal Holbrook as Mason-like lawyers.  Barbara Hale and William R. Moses continued as series regulars. With a total of 29 films, the NBC Perry Mason films reign as the longest TV-movie series in broadcast history.

Finally, HBO revived Gardner's sleuth for television in 2020--but with some substantial changes. This new Perry Mason takes place in 1932 with Perry (Matthew Rhys) as a small-time private investigator. Intended as a "origin" series--but with no relation to the books--it also features Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) as a beat cop and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) as the legal secretary to Perry's mentor. The first season earned generally positive reviews.

Here's a list of Perry Mason movies:

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)  (Warren William)
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)  (William)
The Case of the Black Cat (1936)  (Ricardo Cortez)
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937)  (Donald Woods)

Raymond Burr TV-Movies:
Perry Mason Returns (1985)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star (1986)
Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Poison Pen (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of Skin Deep Scandal (1993)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Tell-Tale Talk Show Host (1993)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993)  (Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994)  (Hal Holbrook as “Wild Bill” McKenzie)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1995)  (Holbrook)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995)  (Holbrook)


  1. I enjoyed The New Perry Mason but it was probably too soon, and with the original series in syndication it didn't have much of a chance.

    I was hoping that when Perry was rebooted this time around that they would go back to the 1930s, but was hoping for the novels of that time. I am put in mind of Gardner's problem with the Warner Brothers movies in that they strayed from an already popular template. If the new series has strayed so far from the original then why not simply create your own original program without tying it to the popular pageturners.

    1. That last sentence is what Christie fans have been saying for several years, too!

    2. Point to ponder:
      If the HBOties had gone back to '30s Gardner, they would NOT have had a show with Gore, Angst, and Grossness (note the acronym).
      Here's a quote from ESG himself, from a '60s reprint of a very early Mason novel:
      … fame has its disadvantages …
      … a young, relatively unknown fighting criminal lawyer could get into a series of most attractive escapades with skeleton keys and an impulsive disregard for the finer points of legal ethics …
      … After all, who dared to keep a locked door between a Perry Mason reader and the mystery on the other side? Certainly not the author!

      That's a condensation of a slightly longer foreword written by ESG to introduce '60s readers to the '30s world they'd be entering in the accompanying book.

      What the HBOniks fail to get is that Uncle Erle was writing entertainment; he wasn't trying to save the world or society or anything like that.
      Erle Stanley Gardner (aka A.A. Fair) wrote murder mysteries - that's what his readers (and later viewers) expected, and that's what he delivered.
      And his fans were fine with that:
      … if I have half a dozen books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have a quality …

      That quote is from a longer letter that ESG received from a fan and friend - Raymond Chandler.

  2. As a casual fan of the TV show, I loved how early in the series, Burr's Mason was not averse to ethically shady means of defending his clients (I take it that was more in line with the original novels?) By the end of the series he was the symbol of rectitude. The TV movies are variable in quality, but I still keep an eye out for them. How did I not know that William Katt is Barbara Hale's son? :)

  3. I had no idea SO many Perry Mason movies were made. I need to see the earlier versions, especially the ones starring that slick Warren William.

  4. Isn't Columbo a series of TV movies? (There were 69 of them).

    1. Technology calmly, COLUMBO was a TV series under the NBC MYSTERY MOVIE umbrella for many years.