Sunday, October 2, 2011

I'll Call My Operatives

I never watched Perry Mason much, even though I liked Raymond Burr and nursed a secret crush on Barbara Hale (or vice versa), and used to buy my coffee and hardbacks at a book store across the street from Erle Stanley Gardner's old law office in Ventura.  But the other day, Ivan mentioned over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear that the sixth season of the show is (just now?  Really?) being released to DVD, and then -- seemingly out of the blue -- our pal Chris Vosburg sent me an email permeated with Perry (actually, dripping with Drake), so I figure I'd better ride this wave while I can.  I asked Chris for permission to reprint his pensées du Perry, and he granted it with a gracious wave of his hand, or perhaps he was just trying to shoo me out of his way because I was blocking the door to the Prime Time saloon on Santa Monica Boulevard.  In either case, please enjoy his report...

In conversation with my sister Stef, I mentioned that a sports jacket my Dad left to me suffers from the Paul Drake Effect, which term many video engineers use to refer to the tendency of small-check black and white fabric to create an iridescent pattern of color striping when viewed on a color video monitor or television. Perry Mason was always shot in black and white (yes, I know, save the one ep), and Paul Drake's snazzy jackets were disquieting to the color TV owner of the sixties, so they toned down his wardrobe in deference to this.

"Okay, so my sport coat's making your eyes bleed.  It's houndstooth.  The very name suggests...there will be blood!"

Which of course led to a discussion of Bill Hopper, the reluctant actor. A natural, and I'm convinced that if he had given a shit, he'd have greatly improved movies that, say, Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum slept through (though don't get me wrong, I like 'em both).

A few random ruminations on Perry and Paul, and only a few-- I could go on and on.

The show reran merrily along in syndication since 1988 on OC independent channel KDOC for years, and I caught episodes whenever I could. It ran weekdays at noon, which of course led to the conversion of the warehouse staff at 24frame to love the show as well. Serious, we watched Perry Mason on the big-ass HP Plasma TV in the lunchroom every day for years, and I was the Master of Ceremonies, sort of, because I knew all the episodes, and was able to add bits of movie-lore to each ep ("ah, this is the one with Robert Redford," or "check out Indus Arthur, starred in Angel's Flight", or "yep, that's Burt Reynolds (or Dick Clark, or whoever), or "Paul Drake delivers the best line ever, coming up").

Sadly, KDOC moved Perry to 5AM (!) a few months ago, and finally pounded the last nail in the coffin all the way in by dropping the show altogether a couple weeks ago, which means that Perry is for the first time since it began in 1957 not shown anywhere in the Los Angeles TV market.

I'm also, as you know, a great fan of 50s Sci-Fi B-movie schlock, which made Perry all the more enjoyable, as many of the cast (both regular and guest) in Perry were recognizable from the SFB movie genre, and Bill Hopper himself was no exception (The Deadly Mantis, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Conquest of Space).

I mentioned above a "best line ever" for Paul Drake, which was in a show in which the beat coffeehouse culture of the late fifties is confronted. Paul investigates a club called "The Purple Wall" and reports back to Perry: "typical beat joint: no life, no liquor, no laughs, just people sitting around hating themselves." BEST LINE EVER! I gotta tell ya, it's everything that was silly about the beats in 25 words or less, and God, how I laughed when I first heard the line.

Curiously, Paul seemed to have an abiding dislike for "kids these days," as evidenced in several episodes, which I always thought was a little odd given the character's supposed ability to fit into and glean information from any societal subset, but Hopper delivered lines like this with extra gusto, so I kinda got the sense he shared the sentiment. I guess we can be glad the show didn't survive long enough to encounter hippies. Neither did Hopper.

There's a second complaint I have about the character developed later in the show's life-- he became a sort of buffoon, which violated the original character. I'm thinking of a scene in a Mexican (which I suspect was referred to then as "Spanish") restaurant where Paul is overwhelmed by salsa muy picante, to the laughter of Perry and Della. It just doesn't fit-- Paul is LA born and bred, after all, and again, fits in like an old shoe wherever he goes-- it's his business. It's reminiscent of the offense done to the Dr Watson character by Nigel Bruce in Universal's Sherlock Holmes movies-- in each case, comic relief is provided in the original by the police, and the films don't seem to think that this is enough, to my irritation.

Second best line: Paul is hired by a shady asshole who tries to set him up for a murder rap. Paul gets wise, and confronts the asshole, who takes a swing (and a miss) at him. "I was hoping you'd try something like that," bristles Paul, eyes lighting up, as he punches him in the nose.

Hopper himself, well, he retired to Palm Springs after the show folded, and gave it up at the ripe old age of 55 in 1970 to Pneumonia, which is I think another way of saying "complications arising from emphysemic pulmonary crash and burn" as a result of all those fucking Chesterfields he chain-smoked on the set of Perry Mason.

Scott again:  I wrote back to say that while I've only seen a few complete Perry Mason episodes, if ever I come across the end of one I'm compelled to watch, because that's when the entire cast is gathered in the court room, and the camera starts cross-cutting between all the aged, but indelible character actors from the Golden Age that cycled endlessly through that show.  I remember one in particular that featured -- to my astonishment -- Edmon Ryan and George Matthews, reunited 18 years after playing incompetent motorist Joe Doakes and his equally inept Guardian Angel in the classic short film for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, X Marks the Spot (as seen on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, King Dinosaur).
Chris immediately fingered the show in question ("The Case of the Promoter's Pillbox"), and went on to talk about how indispensable Paul was to the "classic Perry setup":

The decedent is portrayed in the first act as the biggest asshole on two legs, and he is hated by all, so pretty much everyone is a suspect when he finally turns up dead. Again we know enough to watch for the mild-mannered fellow with apparently nothing to gain by killing the dude-- until Paul strides into court with a message for Perry in the last act which reveals the man with the motive. Priceless.

And Paul buttons it up in the last scene (in Perry's office or over dinner with Della): "All right Perry, but would you mind telling me how you knew where to look for the [whatever]?"

"Simple, Paul," says Perry...
RIP, and as you can see from this early photo, he was not blond, ever. Just prematurely gray.


Li'l Innocent said...

We got off the cable TV tumbrel, for $$ reasons (Yay, Roku!) a while back, and had ceased watching standard teevee fare a long while before that, so my observations may be worthless - but and still, bet I'd be correct in saying that Barbara Hale was portraying a female character whose like is scarcely to be seen on the home screen. That combo of extreme competence, mature affect, knowing humor and crisp, self-contained sexiness disappeared a long time ago as a female type. I think it was really a holdover from the 1940s.

Anonymous said...

That was my favorite line as well, reflective of television's perpetual cluelessness with regards to youth culture, though I remember it slightly differently, and no doubt wrongly, as "no booze, no broads, no fun, you just sit in a corner and hate yourself".


M. Bouffant said...

P.M. is now available weekdays at 1000 & 2330 on MeTV Los Angeles, over-the-air digital channel 56.3. (Yes, KDOC.) Not on TWCable yet.

I'm a big Mason fan too. Favorite line, from "Restless Redhead:" "Check into a motel in Hollywood. And bring that gun w/ you."

Further cud-chewing:

I've seen every episode at least twice, but can almost never remember whodunnit, even though I've been obsessive enough to follow along w/ this obsessive's synopses, mostly to determine what's been cut.

It's basically Law & Order for the defense. Half an hour of investigation, half an hour of courtroom high-jinks.

Very successful syndication for a b&w show, esp. an hour drama. What other monochromatic show besides I Love Lucy has been w/ us this long?

And Barbara Hale: Watch her when she's not speaking. Always acting, always doing something, not just thinking No lines, why bother.

M. Bouffant said...

The truly obsessed will enjoy scrolling through this collection of bite-sized nuggets.

Anntichrist S. Coulter said...

Ahhhh, Perry Mason... I became addicted when I was home from school for a month after the 13 days in ICU, 1986 (yup, when my brakes were cut)... it and other ancient fare were on every day at our newly-acquired (sooooo not kidding, we were THAT far out in the fucking STICKS) cable, and I quickly developed a viewing routine. PM was the first show of the day, @ noon, and it continued on from there... can't really remember the other shows right this second, though I think that "The Big Valley" was one of the stalwarts.

Always enjoyed grumpy ol'Paul, as his sarcasm was acidic enough to make Perry look like the creative director for "Up With People!". Didn't know until now that he'd died that young, was just always perturbed when they'd rerun one of those horrendous '80s "movie of the week" PM episodes, as nobody on the show seemed to have ANY sense of humor any more.
And oh mah fuck the horrid makeup! Small wonder that the '80s were the last time that anybody did anything NEW, creatively/fashionable-speaking --- we burned-out our retinas by 1987, and have been doing it in braille ever since.

But amen to the sentiments about Barbara/Della --- the one TV secretary who wasn't in heat for a mayunnn or a mere dorky comic foil. While some people might've wanted to see more of her "life" on the show and, inferred, outside of the office/courtroom, I always liked that PM never bent to idiot-think and never turned into a fucking soap opera. Y'all know what I mean --- the Rupert Murdoch Method: create a really cool, original, creative show, let it run unhindered for the first season, THEN fuck it into the ground with "romantic"/soap-opera bullshit. The only one that he HASN'T "ruined" is "American Idol," and THAT shit doesn't qualify as a "show." Ever since the '88 Writers' Guild strike, that's all that the nematodic "producers" want to do --- eradicate the "need" for WRITERS.
And people wonder why this country is so fucking illiterate...

Carl said...

"typical beat joint: no life, no liquor, no laughs, just people sitting around hating themselves."

Ah, he went to the CPAC convention by mistake.

Anonymous said...

Ah yassss ... Perry with the world's most laserlike j'accuse eyes ... and lest we forget, that graceful prototypical loser with the Mad Magazine moniker, my favorite character Ham Burger.

Plus of course, Bill was Hedda Hopper's boy, so his worldly-wise atty musta come naturally.


Brian Schlosser said...

"It's basically Law & Order for the defense"

I always wondered what would happen if Perry Mason was defending a client who was being prosecuted by Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy.

Presumably it would involve a sword, a beheading and The Quickening...

Jay Schaivone said...

"...nursed a secret crush on Barbara Hale (or vice versa)..."
Vice versa? Does that mean you crushed a secret nurse?

Scott said...

Ah, I see someone else is a fan of the classic radio soap opera, Barbara Hale, Secret Nurse, which ran for years on the Mutual Network, right after Mary Noble, Backstage Wife.

M. Bouffant said...

Oh ho, Bob & Ray reference!

Dark Avenger said...

That's Mary Backstage, Noble Wife:

Spoofs and parodies

Spoofs of other radio programs were another staple, including the continuing soap operas "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife", "One Fella's Family", and "Aunt Penny's Sunlit Kitchen" (which spoofed Backstage Wife, One Man's Family, and Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories, respectively). "Mary Backstayge" was serialized for such a long period of time that it became better known to many listeners than the show it lampooned. Another soap opera spoof, "Garish Summit" (which Bob and Ray performed during their stint on National Public Radio in the 1980s), recounts the petty squabbles for power among the family members who own a lead mine. They also satirized Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons with the continuing parody, "Mr. Trace, Keener than Most Persons," which began with a simple plot that soon degenerated into total gibberish where the dialogue was concerned ("Mister Treat, Chaser of Lost Persons," "Thanks for the vote of treedle, Pete") and gunplay ("You... You've shot me!... I'm... dead."). The quiz show "Dr. I.Q., the Mental Banker" was parodied as "Dr. O.K., the Sentimental Banker". Whereas Dr. I.Q. had several assistants with remote microphones scattered through the audience to select contestants, Dr. O.K. (Bob) had to make do with a single assistant (Ed Sturdley, played by Ray), who eventually became exhausted from running around the theater.

Chris Vosburg said...

Thanks for all the comments-- I knew you all were the best and your shared love of Perry makes it a cinch.

Thanks especially to M Bouffant for the info on Perry's new home at 56.3, the MeTV subchannel of KDOC. I should have guessed, really, that they wouldn't let Perry die like that.

Anntichrist S. Coulter said...

I saw something last night about somebody making Perry Mason into a theatrical film, but now I can't remember who the fuck it was... Senility happens to everybody, dammit, just wait your turns!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I found Scott and Annti's comments about Perry Mason and soap operas interesting because when the Mason character was first presented on radio it was as a soap opera. And when it came time to take Perry and Company to TV, that radio soap opera morphed into The Edge of Night while the more straightforward version with Burr, et al. was slotted for prime time.

M. Bouffant said...

Mighty late, but Annti, there were several Perry Mason movies made in the '30s.

Ivan G. just might know more about them.

Chris Vosburg said...

Mighty late and then some, I can tell you this about the Perry Mason movies of the 30s: Erle Stanley Gardner hated them. He didn't really pay any attention to the radio show, having resigned himself to the reality that it was a nifty way to pump his book sales.

It was when he started to get television offers that he decided to do it right, by which I mean do it himself, creating "Paisano Productions," which name every Perry fan recognizes from the end credit plates.

The TV show was the first time he asserted any sort of creative control over the character and content, and it shows-- Gardner was about the law, and so were his books, and he correctly deduced that if done right, it was possible to intrigue viewers with not only the investigative nature of the character, but his courtroom doings as well.

Thankfully, Gardner didn't live long enough to see any of the resoundingly stupid Dean Hargrove made-for-TV movies, which insulted the character, the law, reality, and the intelligence of the viewer. Hargrove, who I bet congratulates himself for creating shows that go over nobody's head, also brought us "Matlock," and would probably cite Fred Silverman as his personal God.

Unknown said...

I loved that houndstoothooth jacket. Sure wish I could get one just like it.