Monday, October 22, 2007

The Case of the Regurgitated Reruns

If you wait long enough, every show that was ever on TV will show up on DVD. (One possible exception: that old standby, "Please Stand By," which unexpectedly popped up on the schedule many times when I was a kid. It never did have much of a plot, but it always offered plenty of nail-biting suspense.)

The people who sell such DVDs are asking you to pay good money for stuff -- good and otherwise -- that you've seen already, perhaps many times.

I admit it: I've taken the bait a number of times. SCTV. Sgt. Bilko. Groucho's quiz show. And some shows I hadn't seen, Sid Caesar, Steve McQueen in "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Wally Cox in "Mr. Peepers" among them.

And I'll confess that I've also been tempted by the Perry Mason DVDs, the ones with early episodes of the original series starring Raymond Burr. But a voice in my head keeps saying to me, "You've seen them. And seen them. And seen them. And seen them...."

Sad but true.

It all began, your honor, when I was a kid. Saturday night at 7:30 was Perry Mason time. I'd watch the first few minutes, and then I would be summoned -- not to superior court, but to the bathtub. I'd usually be bailed out just before the end of the episode, so I could see who did it.

Years later, the episodes were on five days a week in syndication. And years later still, TBS, the Superstation, showed them during the noon hour -- which was when I used to get up after another graveyard shift.

The result of all this -- and I'm not necessarily proud of it -- is that if you show me just a few frames from any Mason episode, I can usually name the episode, who the defendant is, who the killer is, whether it was based on one of the Erle Stanley Gardner books, etc. (Hey, at least I don't show up at Perry Mason fan conventions dressed as Paul Drake. For one thing, they don't have Perry Mason fan conventions, and for another, just try finding one of those hound's-tooth jackets that Paul seemed to love so much.)

I also know that of all the actors who appeared on the show, only two have achieved what I call the Perry Mason Hat Trick, playing, in various episodes, the defendant, the victim and the murderer: the late, lovely Mala Powers and the late and not quite so lovely (though pleasant enough) Denver Pyle. (Update, 11/7/07: It turns out that 11 actors achieved this feat, according to another Web page: So I stand corrected -- not an unusual posture for me....)

Over the years I also read many of the Mason books -- my dad was a member of the Detective Book Club, which usually featured the latest Gardner novel. I've often wondered, by the way, why so many of the TV episodes based on the books stray so far from the original plot. Or in some cases the plot is similar, but the murderer is a different person. Given the caprices of Hollywood, I normally wouldn't wonder about this much, but Gardner had control over the TV show. Unfortunately, most of the people involved in the production of the show don't seem to be around anymore, so this is one mystery that might well go unsolved.

In one of my favorite moments from the show (and oddly enough for once I can't recall which episode), Burr almost certainly comes close to blowing a line but saves himself (and some production costs) at the last moment. It's during a cross-examination, and Perry is really hammering the poor schlub, and Burr comes out with something like: "And when did you see the defendant -- or, better yet, how could you know...." Burr's very smooth as always, but no writer would have written that dialogue that way. (I hope.)

The regulars were particularly well-cast. Barbara Hale was Della Street, smart but discreet; if the director goofed and there was a problem in the cutting room, the editors always seemed to have a fallback: cut to Della and one of her Knowing Glances. Never mind if it was from several episodes ago, or from her days as an ingenue at RKO.

William Hopper was Paul Drake, who always seemed to be described in the books as "dyspeptic." In each file cabinet in each casting office in L.A., there must have been a manila folder labeled "dyspeptic," and it must have contained just one picture, that of Mr. H.

In the 1950s Jimmy Stewart made a big splash as Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder's "The Spirit of St. Louis." William Hopper would have been just as big a star if a director with Wilder's clout had opted to make "The Man Who Invented Maalox."

William Talman was nearly perfect as Hamilton Burger. I say "nearly" because in the Mason books (at least early on) Burger is described as being "barrel-chested." I'm sorry to say that Talman fell somewhat short of a full keg. But this is a small point; Talman more than made up for this as an actor by having a range that no performer before or after him has ever equaled. Like one of those souped-up cars that can go from 0 to 100 mph in 10 seconds, Talman, within the same scene, could go from unctuousness to abject apoplexy at a speed that would have left Chuck Yaeger gasping for breath.

Ray Collins' Lt. Tragg was smart, sly, funny and kind of likable. As Collins got older and more frail, he was replaced by Lt. "Andy" Anderson (Wesley Lau), whose sense of humor wasn't readily apparent and who was fond of saying that someone had "just bought a one-way ticket to the gas chamber!" (As if a round-trip ticket would have done anyone much good.)

I've always remembered the last Mason episode, where, in the last scene, the judge was portrayed by Gardner and the murderer was revealed to be (spoiler alert!) Dick Clark! If America's Oldest Teenager could murder not one but two people (one of them -- whaddya know! -- Denver Pyle) in the course of one hour, it was clear that this country was going to hell in a handbasket. (Wonder where that cliche came from, anyway. And would Yogi Bear go to hell in a pick-a-nick basket?)

Anyway, it was clear that the country's values were changing, and it was time for Perry and Della and Paul to pack up and make way for courtroom dramas with more complex themes, like "Judd for the Defense," in which Carl Betz spent two years in front of juries, trying to prove conclusively that I'm Not Just Donna Reed's Husband, See?

In the 1980s Burr and Hale began a series of Mason TV movies. Hale's real-life son, William Katt, played Paul Drake's make-believe son, with better taste in clothes and vastly improved digestion. But somehow it wasn't the same. (And what was it with that beard, Perry?)

Who knows? Perhaps someday I'll weaken and buy the Mason DVDs. Then again, I haven't begun to watch those "Rockford Files" episodes I got a few months ago...


Al Fasoldt said...

I think I saw "The Man Who Invented Maalox." Gave me an upset stomach.

Cornelia Read said...

I still want to be Della Street when I grow up...

Leo Wong said...

Hi, Mark:

Like your blog posts. Especially enjoy how you end a series of three. Would read you even if you weren't my brother-in-law.