Screen Couples

We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.

Della and Perry1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.

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The Edge of Night

TV classics

USA 1956-84,  7,420 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS and ABC, black & white and color. Sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Created by Irving Vendig. Announced by Bob Dixon, Herbert Duncan and Harry Kramer Cast: John Larkin, Teal Ames, Ann Flood, Laurence Hugo, Forrest Compton, Lois Kibbee and many others.

Plot summary: In Monticello, life is an endless cycle of personal drama, occasional laughter and crime.

Edge56Review: It is the dream of any author to create a character who resonates with a growing audience. As common as this dream may be, it rarely becomes reality. For Erle Stanley Gardner, that dream came true. The character he introduced in 1933 took America by storm: Perry Mason, the attorney who never loses a case. Accompanied by two faithful companions, Della Street and Paul Drake, Gardner’s hero soon tried his cases on paper and screen. First adapted for a movie audience in the 1930s, Perry Mason became truly successful on CBS Radio in 1943. Presented as a daily broadcast, the show was destined to also try its luck on television. Although originally endorsed by Erle Stanley Gardner, the program was ultimately created by Irving Vendig, the mastermind behind Mason’s radio success and renamed The Edge of Night. Following up on twelve years on radio, the television show was presented in daily cliffhanger installments which remained true to their roots of drama and crime. Only loosely based on Gardner’s original concept, The Edge of Night introduced Mike Karr as its central crime-fighting character who was supported by his love interest Sara Lane. Designed as a soap opera, the show was broadcast live on CBS from 1956 until its cancellation in 1975. It was then picked up on ABC for another nine years where it finally ended in 1984 without ever becoming untrue to its open end narrative.

As one of the first two half hour dailies of its genre it may be astonishing to hear that The Edge of Night first drew in a large male audience. At second glance, however, the afternoon time slot as well as the whodunit format are explanation enough. Although first perceived as TV’s daytime Perry Mason, the show soon grew into its own and attracted viewers from all backgrounds and age groups. Set in the fictional town of Monticello, the program did not focus on a single family or institution but rather on the entangled lives of a populace somewhere in the Midwest. John Larkin starred as one of the narrative connectors, an actor then still widely identified as the voice of CBS Radio’s Perry Mason. His Mike Karr was joined by Teal Ames as Sara Lane who met with a tragic and untimely death in 1961. Larkin himself was replaced by Laurence Hugo in 1962 who was then succeeded by Forrest Compton for the remainder of the show’s run. Not uncommon for its genre, The Edge of Night underwent many such character deaths and cast changes in its twenty-eight years on the air, none of which resulted in a fatal decline in ratings. What led to a drop in approval, however, was the unfortunate combination of network policy and Procter & Gambles’ influence on time slot changes.

Today, only a fourth of the original 7,400 episodes are available for syndication. Due to an unfortunate habit of erasing classic recordings, especially the early black and white episodes are a rare treat. For anyone who is familiar with the Perry Mason radio program from the 1940s and 50s, the quality of those few preserved episodes serves as a beautiful continuation of the suspense of once live recorded material. For soap opera fans, the show is also a true classic that deserves to be revisited where possible. Treat yourself to an early episode of The Edge of Night here, Tide commercials, announcer and original score included for the real experience.

The Perry Mason Radio Show

In 1943, after having published some twenty odd successful whodunits, Erle Stanley Gardner signed a contract with Procter & Gamble to bring his fictional lawyer and his team to America’s living rooms. Although scarred by his experiences with Hollywood and Warner Bros’ six reluctantly successful screen adaptations, he agreed to broadcast Perry Mason as an afternoon program to entertain his target group and thus promote his books. Despite Gardner’s own deficiencies to turn his narratives into suspenseful scripts, Perry Mason premiered in the fall of 1943 and underwent several revisions until the author finally came to like the radio version of his famous character three years later. Improved by writer Irving Vendig in 1946, Perry Mason was brought to life by several actors, among them Donald Briggs, John Larkin, SanotsJohn Larkin & Joan Alexander Ortega and Bartlett Robinson. They presented a sophisticated, multifaceted lawyer who was in the habit of defending friends and enjoyed good food. He was supported by an ever-loyal and savvy Della Street, played by Joan Alexander, Jan Miner an Gertrude Warner. Their relationship, like in the books, remained a riddle: close-knit and intimate, yet respectful and professional, they shared a kiss more than once. Paul Drake, the smart-mouthed, brisk detective, was played by Matt Crowley and Charles Webster. Always kept on his toes by Perry’s cases and eager to banter with Della, he was an important ingredient to the slowly blooming success of a soapy yet suspenseful show. Broadcast five days a week in fifteen minute segments, Perry Mason solved his cases with the help of recurring guest characters such as Helen and Jake Jacobson, two news reporters who helped fool suspects or the prosecution more than once. Designed as a suspense program with melodramatic elements, the show lasted twelve consecutive seasons and was finally terminated in 1955. Followed by the still popular Perry Mason TV show (CBS 1957-66, NBC 1985-95) and The Edge of Night (CBS 1956-75, ABC 1975-84), selected episodes of the Perry Mason radio program are now available on The Internet Archive and Old Time Radio. Although incomplete and rather different in quality, the episodes are a wonderful treat for any Perry Mason fan, novice or seasoned, and a great addition to any radio detective collection.

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

USA 1937, 70 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William Clemens, Written by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan, Based on The Case of the Stuttering Bishop by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Donald Woods, Ann Dvorak, Anne Nagel, Linda Perry, Craig Reynolds, Gordon Oliver, Joseph Crehan, Helen MacKellar, Edward McWade, Tom Kennedy, Mira McKinney, Frank Faylen, Douglas Wood, Veda Ann Borg, George Lloyd, Selmer Jackson and Charles Wilson.

Plot summary: Perry Mason gets involved in a case of identity theft and ends up defending the possible heir to a murder victim’s fortune.

TCOT Stuttering Bisop 1937Review: As the sixth and last adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular whodunits, Warner Brothers released The Case of the Stuttering Bishop in 1937 with Donald Woods as famed lawyer Perry Mason and Ann Dvorak as his faithful girl Friday Della Street. Based on Gardner’s ninth book, the film tried to turn a difficult plot into seventy minutes of entertaining noir, unfortunately another failed attempt at the box office. For Mason fans, the film may now be a gem to complete their collection, for a general audience, however, the film did not manage to live up to Gardner’s original story.

Although blessed with Donald Woods as yet another Mason, the film, once again, lacked the enticing chemistry between Perry and and his savvy secretary, an element the radio and TV show would get down to a T in the 1940s through 60s. Ann Dvorak, despite her decent lines, brief (book-inspired) action scene and physical presence, did not manage to shine as Della Street and Joseph Crehan did not get enough screen time to actually flesh out another pivotal character from the original books, private detective Paul Drake. Charles Wilson, though, as district attorney Hamilton Burger, met the rather unlikeable persona from Gardner’s novels and Edward McWade was a charming stuttering bishop Mallory. Together, they made the film an enjoyable hour of entertainment without living up to the story’s full potential.

Despite my bias for Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and their smash hit show from the 50s and 60s, I must admit, however, that Donald Woods did a fine job at breathing life into his very own Perry Mason. Of all the adaptations from the 1930s, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop may even qualify as my favorite, although each of the six films had its beauty and strengths. As a Mason fan, I’m grateful either way for Warner’s decision to release all of the first Mason films in one boxset on DVD – it sure made the best early Christmas gift I gave myself this year.

The Case of the Black Cat

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Black Cat

USA 1936, 66 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William C. McGann, Written by F. Hugh Herbert, Based on The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Jane Bryan, Craig Reynolds, Carlyle Moore Jr., Gordon Elliot, Nedda Harrigan, Garry Owen, Harry Davenport, George Rosener, Gordon Hart, Clarence Wilson, Guy Usher, Lottie Williams and Harry Hayden.

Plot summary: When Peter Laxter calls Perry Mason to change his will in order to test the loyalty of his granddaughter’s fiancé, his actions result in a series of sudden deaths the prosecution investigates as murders.

Review: Following four silver screenTCOT Black Catadaptations with Warren William starring as Perry Mason, Warner Brothers took another shot at success in 1936 by releasing The Case of the Black Cat based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s seventh whodunit, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Introducing Ricardo Cortez as the famous attorney-at-law and June Travis as his irreplaceable Della Street, that new production did not follow up on previously disappointing attempts of turning Mason into a Nick Charles but rather tried to soak up the essence of Gardner’s original novel. Featuring Garry Owen as private eye Paul Drake, an important asset to Mason’s law practice, and Guy Usher as district attorney Hamilton Burger, The Case of the Black Cat was suspenseful and noir right from the start. What the film lacked, however, was that kind of enticing chemistry between the story’s main characters, an ingredient Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, Bill Hopper (as well as William Talman and Ray Collins) would so easily create on the small screen two decades later.

Although hard to compare to the smashing TV show of the 1950s and 60s, this adaptation from 1936 already took a step into the right direction. Regardless of his excellent performance skills and gentlemanly quality, Warren William did not get to leave a lasting mark as Perry Mason and unfortunately, nor did Ricardo Cortez with his one-time chance at proving himself. June Travis, as the fourth actress to breathe life into Mason’s skillful girl Friday, also didn’t make a big enough difference to win the hearts of Gardner’s fans. Just like her predecessors, she was pretty and useful but never as distinctive as the character in the original books.

In general, The Case of the Black Cat offered a calmer version of Gardner’s crafty lawyer, especially when compared to the screwball-induced The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Velvet Claws, the improved take on the novels still did not stand out enough, however, to attract a larger audience. Today, The Case of the Black Cat is a great little film for anyone who loves Perry Mason. Although for most, Raymond Burr will always be the perfect Perry and Barbara Hale his unrivaled Della, this film is a great example of how Hollywood has always tried to tell stories the audience has already embraced. It is also a treat for anyone who is enamored with the 1930s, the slang, movies and fashion of those troubled days.

Available on the Perry Mason Mysteries DVD boxset.

America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

On A Personal Note

I’m happy to share a link with you today, a link to a wonderful magazine I’ve mentioned to you before, Queens of Vintage. As their most recent story, they are running an article of mine, “Sharpen Your Pencil, Beautiful: The Style and Fashion of Della Street”.

This publication coincides with the release of the new edition of Vintage Life, issue #22, which includes a review I had such a good time writing for them.

It comes from the heart when I say, August 30 has been a good day. ♥ Thanks a million to both magazines!