Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Movies

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2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Raymond Burr, and Barbara Hale passed away a year ago this month.  This blog post pays tribute to them in an examination of the Perry Mason movies made between 1985 and 1993.

People tend to look at you kind of funny when you tell them that you prefer the Perry Mason TV movies of 1985 to 1993 to the original series that ran for nine seasons from 1957 to 1966.  Raymond Burr, forever associated with the role, stated in interviews to promote Perry Mason Returns (1985), the first of the TV movies, that he thought the first run of the series should have stopped after five seasons, and that he wanted to call it a day after seven.  He also said that he had been keen to make the occasional two-hour episode during that initial run in order to do Erle Stanley Gardner’s often complicated books more justice (excuse the pun) as well as to give more backstory to the main characters of Perry, Della Street (his secretary), and Paul Drake (his private investigator).  The TV movies that began in 1985 didn’t adapt any of Erle Standley Gardner’s original stories, but they did give the chance to give more development to the main characters that Burr had been so keen to do.

As a twelve-year-old back in 1986 when Perry Mason Returns was first shown on the BBC in the UK, I was entranced from the very beginning.  I caught most of the other TV movies featuring Burr over the next ten years or so, and have been revisiting them all again over the last few months after purchasing The Complete Movie Collection, which pulls together Burr’s 26 Mason TV movies as well as the four that were made directly after his death with other lawyer characters standing in for Mason who was always “out of town.”  It was a sad way for the films to limp to their inevitable conclusion, but Burr was apparently keen that the movies continue without him – although why investigator/lawyer Ken Malansky (played by William R. Moses) wasn’t “promoted” to the running of the cases after Burr’s passing is something of a mystery.  This, at least, would have given the series at least a chance of working.

There are some significant differences between the TV movies and the original series, most notably that they are considerably more predictable.  The cases that Perry takes on nearly always involve a celebrity of some sort, working for a radio or TV station, or a stage production, or in film, or a politician, or even a notorious mobster.  This means that they often go over the same ground, which is a shame, but as with so many popular programmes on TV, it is the formulaic nature of the series that people love so much, and glitz and glamour was very much a staple of American TV dramas during this period.  Ironically, though, it is those stories that break away from the formula that are most memorable.

Take, for example, the Case of the Lost Love (1987), featuring Jean Simmons as guest star as one of Perry’s old flames.  The episode is particularly well-written and, for the first time, the writers start to feed in elements of Perry’s life away from the courtroom, and even touches on a subject such as mental health – and deals with it in a responsible and subtle way (especially considering this was three decades ago).  Moving even further away from the formula is The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990) which, along with the Lost Love episode, rates as the best of the movies.  Here we don’t have the killing of a loud-mouth TV presenter, or the writer of a tell-all book, but, instead, that of a Nazi SS Officer.  Mostly set in France, this tale also features one of the best casts assembled for the later Mason mysteries, with Ian Bannen, Ian McShane, Yvette Mimieux, and a wonderful turn from Theresa Wright.

Even the most run-of-the-mill of the movies are worth a watch, however, most notably because of the touching chemistry between Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, with more hints about their characters’ relationship over the years being revealed in some of the movies.  We learn, for example, in one episode (the title of which I shall not reveal in order to avoid giving spoilers) that Mason has a daughter (who doesn’t know he is her father).  In another, The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993), Burr’s penultimate appearance, Mason and Della finally share an intimate kiss just prior to the closing credits.  In a talk show appearance of his own in 1993, Burr offers the information that they had just filmed that scene in what now appears to be an obvious deflection of a question put to him about whether he and Barbara Hale had ever been romantically involved – Burr liked his private life to remain that way, and it was only after his death that it became public knowledge that he had been in a relationship for over three decades with actor Robert Benevedo, who he had met on the set of Perry Mason in the late 1950s.  He even went out of his way to make up stories of having previously been married, with children, for reporters – saying that both his wife and children had died.  But what seems clear from the Telltale Talk Show Host is that the Mason/Della romance might have been developed in the films that would have been made had Burr not passed away, and there is little doubt that such a move would have pleased fans.

Some twenty-five years after Burr made his last appearance (in The Case of the Killer Kiss, 1993), the Mason TV movies remain staples of various cable television channels, and hold up as surprisingly entertaining ways to pass ninety minutes.  There is something remarkably comforting, even heartwarming, in Burr’s portrayal of the ageing Perry Mason – something grandfatherly, even.   There is also a certain reassurance here, too, that Perry Mason, striding along majestically in his fetching big black coat and hat, will provide us with adult entertainment that is still suitable for all, with a surprising lack of gore or violence considering the subject of murder.  This, too, was something that Burr spoke proudly of in promotional interviews when Perry Mason Returns was about to air.

There is more humour here than in the original TV series, and certainly Mason comes across as more human.  The relationship with Della Street is also different, and perhaps reflects more than ever the genuine affection that Burr and Hale clearly had for each other, as well as hinting that there was something more going on between Mason and Della than we were being told about.

All of this doesn’t mean that these are better than the classic TV series of the 1950s and 1960s – I doubt anyone would argue that – but there is still something very special about them and, unlike so many TV programmes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is far more to enjoy here than giant shoulder-pads and dodgy hair-dos.

Perry Mason: The Complete Movie Collection (a 15-disc set) is available from Amazon for approximately £25.