The World According to Perry Mason

We are trying to power-watch eight seasons of the old Perry Mason show (with Raymond Burr), which is from a far-off time and retro (and sometimes comic) compelling.

Perry and Paul Drake. Perry could probably get your Pet Rock to confess.

1)The Police and District Attorney are Always Wrong. This is part of what makes the show entertaining and campy. Week after week, Hamilton Burger and Lt. Tragg smugly think they’ve got the best of Perry Mason, yet inevitably they are trying to convict the wrong person. This is a bit more disturbing though, when you realize that in real life the police and D.A. really DO try to convict the wrong person (sometimes with the help of biased and overzealous police who may have planted evidence), and the average person gets an attorney who is NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING PERRY MASON!!!

2) The People that are Being Set up for a Crime are Almost Always White. This part may be somewhat true, as in Los Angeles in the 30s to the 60s, many white people were convicted for crimes they did not commit. But it rather hides the thing that we probably also know to be true, that a DISPROPORTIONAL NUMBER OF BLACKS, HISPANICS, and NATIVE AMERICANS WERE ALSO SET UP FOR CRIMES THEY DIDN”T COMMIT, and that their likely court appointed attorneys were also NOT EVEN CLOSE TO BEING PERRY MASON!!!

3) Perry Mason and Superman May be the Same Person. We just happened to start streaming the old Perry Mason shows about the same time that we began streaming the old “Adventures of Superman” (with George Reeves). Each typically shows a large-city underworld that is usually out of control, and which is often adept at SETTING UP THE WRONG PEOPLE. Fortunately and miraculously, Superman and Perry Mason always use their superpowers to find the right criminals in a nick of time, much to the amazement of the faithful female assistant Lois Lane (Della Street), the crusty and doubting authority figure Perry White (Lt. Tragg), the loyal male assistant Jimmy Olson (Paul Drake), and the guy who can’t keep up, Lt Henderson (Hamilton Burger). Neither ever makes a mistake, are always on task yet manage to smile a bit, and crack a small joke at the end (usually not that funny) while never losing their temper. Neither seem to have much of a sex-life, but then this was the 50’s and for all we know that was against the TV code or forbidden by the sponsors including Lucky Strike Cigarettes and Wonder Bread (maybe they figured if people were busy wondering if Superman was boning Della…oops! Lois, they wouldn’t focus on the compromised life-expectancies of those using the advertised product).

4) Superman May Have Loaned his Muscle/Girdle to Perry Mason. I forgot to mention that the previously huge Raymond Burr seems light-footed and svelte during early “Perry Mason” episodes. I am thinking that he may have been loaned George Reeves upper-body device that pads the shoulders and abs while sucking in the midriff. However, I’d hate to be standing near Perry if the elastic were to suddenly snap.

Though using alternate means, Superman gets bad guys too, even while loaning his sauna slim suit to Mason

5) The Truth Serum and Lie Detectors ALWAYS Work. I guess this was back in the day when they didn’t realize that truth serum and lie detectors didn’t always work, but perhaps those devices were always a myth created by Noir scriptwriters to advance the plot.

6) The Good Guys Drive Convertibles, the Bad Guys Drive Clunky Old Buicks or Nashes. Paul Drake gets to drive a Corvette convertible, and even Perry Mason gets to drive a Ford convertible. The bad guys don’t make enough money, apparently, to afford a convertible and have to shoot through the front and back windows of an auto make that has long since gone out of business.

7) Perry Mason always looks you soberly straight in the eye, even if you have low-cut jiggledy-boobs (often) and say “gee Mr. Mason, how will I ever repay you?”

8) Even innocent people seem guilty when being interrogated by Perry Mason. I know that this is probably a device to keep the audience guessing, but I’m even ready sometimes to jump out of my chair and say “You’re right Mr. Mason! I did it! I’m guilty! I couldn’t take it anymore! Don’t you understand!?”

Della and Perry-was there really a sexual tension there, or simply a pretext to sell Lucky Strikes and booze?

9) Perry and Della clearly have something going on, yet sometimes Della takes a separate vacation and seems to also be flirting with Paul Drake. You don’t think…nahhhhh!!

10) Perry and Della sometimes work late, apparently at Perry’s place. This may very likely go beyond “so suppose Della that I’m the jealous husband and I tear off my ex-wife’s blouse like this, and before you know it, they’re both standing there sweaty and in their underwear…like this…”

11) There’s usually some country hick who stumbles upon the murder scene. And in a folksy way, explains how they innocently discovered the body or are doing everything possible to assist Mr. Burger, and yet often Perry Mason fingers them for the murder! Is this the television forerunner of the “Real McCoys”, “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” franchises?

12) Gosh, there was sure a lot of blackmail in the old days. Blackmail ALMOST ALWAYS PRECEDES THE MURDER in a Perry Mason episode. It makes you wonder also, how the one that pays off the blackmailer for the papers/photos doesn’t know that the blackmailer made copies. These days, there would be many better ways for the blackmailer to retain copies, or even fabricate evidence, but you don’t hear about blackmail much anymore (it doesn’t work because there are too many shameless Donald Trumps running around)

Poor bastards Burger (DA) and Lt. Tragg have never prosecuted the right person, which may be art imitating life. Though they are snide and smug, they are “vulnerable” (incompetent?) so you end up sorta liking them

13) People sure smoked and drank hard liquor a lot more back then I know that there was some kind of cigarette sponsor product placement thing going on, but still, everyone seems to be smoking and making a “high ball” behind their ubiquitous home bars. Often, these two things figure into the evidence in the form of lipstick marks or glasses used as murder weapons, or melted ice/ashes that determine the murder timeline. These days, you wouldn’t see anyone smoke or drink on TV (more likely doing pot, beer, or wine in the background). Maybe a detective of today would examine the murder scene and say something like “judging from the drool on this joint, and the snot on this coke mirror, I’d say the murderer is 25-yr old Uber driver with rich parents, while the victim has been dead for about 15 minutes”

14) Most of the women have coiffed hair/lipstick, the men wear suits/hats, and many drive convertibles It was a more elegant world back then…even the criminals wear suits, ties and hats while even the gangster molls have permanents and wear make-up. Just about all the cars are convertibles and couples often go to stylish “clubs” with elegant entertainment while dancing like our parents did. What happened? Did we all turn into slobs? I realize that hippiedom made us less formal (much for the better), but did we go too far? Would it kill Detroit to make a few convertibles?

15) People in the show that are supposed to be 40 look 50, those supposed to be 50 look 60, etc. See #13 for more information, plus they probably ate too much Crisco too, and may have carried lingering effects of the 1918 influenza.

16) Perry’s clients must always be cute, nice, and innocent. Apparently, he refers the not so cute/nice/innocent ones like Scott Peterson/Phil Spector/OJ Simpson to the “Avenati, Dershowitz, Geragos, Cochrane, and Bailey, LLP” firm down the street. He is too principled to give a “Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe” referral.

17) Perry must not only solve the murder, but also the extensive web of embezzlement/extortion/jealousy/international intrigue accompanying the murder, which is presumably left to mop up by lower courts and assistant D.A.s. Also, there are some Perry Mason rules: a) See #16 b) The client’s spouse, child, or parent cannot be implicated so as to spoil a happy ending c) Unlike other crime shows, YOU HAVE NO WAY OF CORRECTLY GUESSING WHO DID IT, unless you rate the smirks and arched eyebrows of various people in court in minutes 40–45 d) Whomever is on the witness stand at the 46th minute of the show is the guilty party and e) That guilty party has to spill their guts, in a kind of 30 second feverish, drooling Freudian confession that they think is somehow impressing the court and yet changes their plea odds from 3rd to 1st degree murder.

“New” Della and Perry-she’s as likely to kick him in the nuts as to make coffee for him or laugh at his jokes

18) When the rich guy gets murdered, there is a veritable parade of people visiting him just prior So that Perry’s cute or nice client can easily get set up. If the makers of “Airplane!” made a parody of the murder, they’d include a marching band and hot dog stand within the victim’s apartment. Lt Tragg and DA Burger always dutifully and snidely take the framer’s bait, and accuse Mason/Drake/Street of “harboring the guilty party” (for which they could “lose their license”). What license Della Street carries is not clear, unless it is the license to make coffee and laugh at all of Perry and Paul’s lame jokes at the end. The new Perry Mason with Matthew Rhys has by necessity an edgier Noir Della, who swings both ways and could easily be an attorney herself, would probably dump hot coffee in your lap after you told her to make it, and doesn’t laugh at anybody’s jokes, but oddly new Perry/Della can’t get anyone to confess at the witness stand. How far we’ve come as a society.

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Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health