In 1965, during the first of my six years studying for a Ph.D. in History at Harvard, I lived in an on-campus residential complex that housed around 600 students. Perhaps one-third of them were at the Law School. I soon noticed that, each weekday evening from 5 to 6 pm, nearly all of the Law students were gathered in the residence hall common rooms to watch the mesmerizing trial lawyer Perry Mason on the small black and white television sets provided there. Then, a few minutes after 6, with Perry Mason’s courtroom legerdemain concluded, the law students proceeded, as in a herd, to the nearby cafeteria for dinner, animatedly discussing the just finished episode as they walked.
In conversations with those students, a large number admitted that Perry Mason was their reason for wanting to become attorneys. From a young age they had watched the TV show and they wanted to pursue careers inspired by his example.
This was the start of my own interest in Perry Mason. I didn’t want to be an attorney, but I was fascinated by the Perry Mason cultural phenomenon.
The creator of Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970), was born in Malden, Massachusetts. At the time of his death he was the best-selling American author of the twentieth century. Gardner is best known for the Perry Mason stories, but he also wrote many other successful crime stories under pseudonyms such as A. A. Fair and Robert Parr, and travel essays about Baja California, a region that fascinated him.
Gardner’s father was a mining engineer who moved the family from place to place as jobs required. Gardner eventually landed in Palo Alto where he graduated high school in 1909. Gardner then enrolled in law study at Valparaiso University in Indiana but left after one month because of poor grades, caused in part by too great an interest in boxing. He moved back to California, got a job as a secretary at a law office in Oxnard, studied at night, passed the state bar exam in 1911, and married in 1912. He opened a law office in Merced in 1917, and then in 1921 joined a law firm in Ventura where he worked until 1933. In 1937 he moved to Temecula where he lived for the rest of his life.
Gardner liked trial work but was otherwise bored by law practice. In his spare time he wrote for the many pulp magazines of the era, such as Black Mask, Argosy, and Dime Detective, publishing his first story in 1927. In the early 1930s, Gardner wrote a series of six stories for Black Mask about a crusading defense attorney; these were probably the basis for the Perry Mason character. The first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, was published in 1933. The Mason series eventually ran to more than 80 novels and gained a very large international readership. Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels enjoyed sales of more than 100 million copies during his lifetime. Gardner wrote with amazing speed. In the early days he typed out his stories using two fingers. Later he dictated to a team of secretaries. He was, nevertheless, a careful author. He worked out every novel in longhand outline before starting to write.
Many authors, including Rex Stout, regarded the Perry Mason stories as hackwork. But some writers disagreed. For example, the English author Evelyn Waugh declared approvingly that Gardner was the best living American writer, and the famed detective story writer H. R. F. Keating thought very highly of Gardner’s work.
The character of Mason has undergone many changes over the years. Mason was hardboiled at first but in some later stories was softened by Gardner so that the novels could appear in serialized form in the family magazine The Saturday Evening Post.
Large modifications occurred when Perry Mason appeared in a series of Hollywood movies produced by Warner Brothers in the 1930s and 1940s. One distracting element was the almost total lack of awareness of a sense of place, noticeable in the first two films, The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) and The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) starring Warren William as Mason.
Weak awareness of place was conspicuous as well in The Case of the Black Cat (1936) with Ricardo Cortez as Mason and in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937) with Donald Woods as Mason. There is very little in the films to convey the fact that Mason operated in Los Angeles. Mason works out of a tall office building that is indeed in downtown Los Angeles, but feels more like an office building in 1920s Manhattan. When scenes shift to more suburban locations, the story feels incoherent, as if it is missing one of its major characters, namely the city of Los Angeles itself.
The films also stray from the novelistic emphasis upon the steadfastness of the Mason character. Warren William seems like a playboy and constantly flirts with his secretary Della Street, who is a girl Friday and good friend in the novels. In one of the films Mason even proposes marriage to Della. Ricardo Cortez coveys too much of an ethereal quality and relies too much on his haunting voice, making Mason overly mysterious and not at all solid or logical. Donald Woods as Mason is overly clerical, hard to distinguish from the bishop mentioned in his film’s title. Given such drawbacks, it is easy to see why Erle Stanley Gardner never liked the way Warner Brothers treated his creation.
Perry Mason was the lead character in a very popular radio program, which ran from 1943 to 1955. Mason also appeared in a popular comic strip from 1950 to 1952. In both formats the character was generally faithful to Gardner’s original conception.
The TV series began in 1955 and continued to 1966. There have been reruns continually ever since, along with expansions into DVD and other formats. Raymond Burr originally auditioned for the role of District Attorney Hamilton Burger in the TV series, but Gardner persuaded producers to cast him as Mason. Burr had begun acting in the 1930s, appearing first in stage roles and then in films ranging from Biblical epics to film noir productions to science fiction offerings. Burr had the stocky body of a Turkish wrestler, haunting eyes, and a deep, resonant voice that could convey both compassion and menace. He also projected a quick, powerful mind. Fans loved him.
The TV series of the Burr years very much conveyed the sense of place that had sometimes been lost in earlier versions of the Mason stories. One knew that one was unmistakably in the Los Angeles of the late 1950s and early and mid-1960s. Mason’s cases take him to aircraft factories in the area, Hollywood-style mansions, the Navy base at nearby Long Beach, small businesses in the downtown area, local restaurants, and cabins and lakes in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains that were known to be frequent weekend getaway spots for Los Angeles residents. In almost every episode there are establishing shots of the Los Angeles County Courthouse, where Mason works his courtroom magic and also sometimes visits his clients in jail. And Mason’s office is definitely in the Los Angeles of the era. We know this because of the view through his office window, which shows a skyline of new, boxy, steel and glass buildings of the kind being hastily constructed all over Southern California at that time. Nor should we forget the buxom women, the hunky men, and the sleek, long cars dripping with chrome that evoke Hollywood as it was back then.
After conclusion of the Burr-based Mason series in 1966, a TV revival, entitled The New Perry Mason, ran from 1973 to 1974, with Monte Markham as the title character. Markham conveyed intellectual penetration but lacked the stolidity that viewers had come to expect from Raymond Burr’s interpretation. His series did not last.
After his first stint in the Mason role, Burr began a new TV show, Ironside, in which he plays a wheelchair-bound detective based in San Francisco who mentors and directs a team of younger assistants. The series ran from 1967 to 1975 and was a hit worldwide.
After Ironside ended, and in response to continuing demand, a series of 26 made for TV movies, beginning with The Return of Perry Mason, and starring Burr in the title role, ran from 1985 until Burr’s death in 1993. For this series the locale was moved from Los Angeles to Denver to save on production costs. The Denver backdrop was scenic but added little to the atmosphere of the stories. Filming the show in color may also have been a problem. The black and white format of the original TV series had a Manichean feel that the Denver stories lacked. The series was successful mainly because of the legendary status by that time of both Burr and his co-star, Barbara Hale, who continued in her role as Della Street. Other major actors from the original TV show (William Talman as Hamilton Burger, Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, and William Hopper as private detective Paul Drake) were by that time deceased.
The Perry Mason novels continue to sell well, and the TV shows are re-played around the world. I do not know if young law students still turn to Perry Mason as their career model. And yet, over the years, every time I have had dealings with an attorney, I have, in the manner of Perry Mason, had my suspicions.