I was well into my thirties when my parents acquired a television set, for no good reason that I could discern after they’d gone so many years without one without obvious damage to their health or intellects. Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, my sister and I were permitted to watch two television shows while visiting with relatives. One was Topper. The other was Perry Mason, which they occasionally joined us for: a small family grouping that was the closest thing the Williamsons ever came to resembling a painting by Norman Rockwell.
Over the past year and a half, I have been re-watching episodes of the original show starring Raymond Burr as Mason, Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, Ray Collins as Lieutenant Tragg and William Talman as Hamilton Burger. As with so many good things, I found that they had improved with age — not only theirs but my own as well. Several months ago, the discovery that Evelyn Waugh had been a great admirer of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, from which the series was adapted, further increased my appreciation and respect for the films. So did learning that Raymond Chandler — a good friend of the author’s — also appreciated the books for their tight structure and for ingenuity of their plots. Having since read three of the Mason books, I understand what Waugh saw in them; also why Chandler privately described Gardner as someone who could be called a writer ‘only by courtesy’.
Gardner, unlike Chandler, was not a descriptive author, nor had he the ability to create mood and atmosphere. Indeed, he was hardly more than a writer of screenplays, which explains in part why the translation of his novels from paper to celluloid was such a brilliant success. Gardner invented the principal characters (Chandler considered Perry Mason a just-about-perfect creation) and the story lines, while the artistes of the Hollywood movie lots supplied the actors, the settings, the backgrounds and interiors, the décor, the clothes and the cars. The result was a precise image of America in the 1950s that seems almost as distant from America in the 21st century as the antebellum era.
My parents considered the United States of the period hopelessly and unspeakably vulgar, shallow, trivial, ugly and uncivilized. Viewed from the perspective of 2021, it appears more like Athens in her Golden Age. Watching Perry Mason is a comforting experience today precisely because America in the Fifties was a comfortable place, and Americans were comfortable with themselves. Gardner’s Mason was perfect for his time: tall, broad-shouldered, and masculine; confident, competent, generous, chivalrous, and — above all — reassuring. He is solid rather than stolid, always in perfect self-control, even-tempered and imperturbable: the personification of the country that had recently won its second world war and was enjoying the ensuing and well-deserved prosperity, and the superior type of American who is wholly representative of his country without standing above it.
Mason’s America retained something of the social formality of a former time, and a recognizable class structure whose social demarcations were principally in speech, in accent and in clothing (business suits, neckties and fedoras for the men, and wide hats, white gloves and expensive jewelry for the women of the haute bourgeoisie that the inferior classes aped as best they could in formal situations like court trials). Though the screenplay writers chose not to follow Gardner in his frequent use of British colloquialisms— ‘ring up’, ‘I daresay’, etc. — the directors have coached actors playing upper-middle class roles in a weird cross between an upper-class English and a cultivated American accent that I imagine sounded not just pretentious but somewhat unreal even in the Fifties and Sixties. (It is, I suppose, possible that Hollywood people at the time spoke that way, but I doubt it.)
As in the novels the dialogue is scrupulously free of indecency, and the text of sex. There is an emphasis everywhere on good taste and discretion, including on the part of the lower-middle and lower-class characters, whose speech and vocabulary are vulgar only in the etymological sense of being common. The principals, most of whom stuck with the show throughout its nine seasons (Talman was forced to vanish from it for some months owing to scandal), are superior and perfectly suited to their roles; the minor ones competent and on the whole convincing. The formal elegance and compactness of the stories, based for the most part on Gardner’s own, are carried over from the novels, thus preserving the craftsmanship, professionalism and structural balance that doubtless explains Evelyn Waugh’s appreciation of the novels; the soundtrack and musical scoring are as discreetly suited to the whole as are the other elements.
In 1966, Perry Mason was edged out in the ratings by Gunsmoke and discontinued. Seven years later, CBS introduced ‘the new Perry Mason’. It flopped after a year, allegedly owing to miscasting (I never watched the series myself), and folded in 1974. Twelve years later, NBC brought Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale together again for a series of films and added William Katt (Hale’s son with the actor Bill Williams) as Paul Drake, Jr, while transferring the setting from Los Angeles to Denver.
Perry Mason in this later iteration was, unhappily, a relative failure. Removing the show to Denver was a mistake. Los Angeles and Hollywood, despite the ugliness of the former and the cheapness of the latter, have historically possessed a unique aura, best realized and exploited by Raymond Chandler, and an interesting cultural history — unlike Denver, which has neither and never did. And the city’s geographical location 1,000 miles northeast of LA suggests a metaphorical retreat, a reverse migration from the continental limits of America’s expansion in the 19th century to the Pacific.
More importantly, America in the nearly two decades between 1966 and 1985 had lost her postwar confidence and what vulgar brio American culture had possessed. Perhaps unconsciously on Burr’s part, Perry Mason’s good-natured and cheerful optimism were replaced by a sourness verging at times on nastiness, as if both the character and man who plays him resent the loss of their youth and robust health. The screenplays, no longer based on Gardner’s novels, are less interesting and inventive. William Hopper’s laconic Paul Drake was superb; William Katt’s Drake Jr is callow and lackluster, the 1970s personified. The music is strident and cheap in a way the scoring for the original Mason never was, and the silly acrobatics on Katt’s part and the imposition of modern Hollywood’s silly special effects (which the Fifties and Sixties show lacked entirely) otiose. Political correctness has crept in, and with it a quiet but perceptibly condescending attitude toward Denver’s original cowboy culture.
Beyond all that, the calm assurance that distinguished the CBS shows — the sense that, despite the crime and violence for which the United States has been infamous abroad since the opening of the West, justice and good order are ultimately in control and will prevail, that American society is fundamentally solid and secure — seems absent. Ultimately, the trouble with the series as resurrected by NBC is that while Burr and Hale are still recognizably Perry Mason and Della Street, this Perry Mason is all too plainly a show removed from the time and place naturally and artistically proper to it. The 1970s are neither Mason’s nor Gardner’s period, and Denver is not the natural habitat of either man. The result is what the studio should have expected: similar to what transferring Sherlock Holmes to Manchester or Birmingham, Poirot to New York, or Philip Marlowe to Chicago would have produced.
I am no television critic, and my rather philistine taste in film runs chiefly to foreign detective shows: Lewis, the Poirot movies (with David Suchet, of course), Il Commissario Montalbano, Le Sang du Vigne, Maigret (with Bruno Cremer), Meurtres and so forth. Nevertheless, I feel confident in judging the first Perry Mason series to be a true work of art, probably the best thing ever accomplished by the American television industry. I doubt Evelyn Waugh ever watched an episode. That is a pity. He would have loved everything about it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2021 World edition.