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, Sanots 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.
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.
Review: 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.
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 screenadaptations 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.
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.
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!
In 1916, my grandma was born. August 18th was her birthday. Gregory Peck was born that year, so were Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. WWI was haunting Europe, leaving an entire generation lost and scarred. Radio was the connection to the world and newspapers the main source of information. Irving Berlin was a big name in music and Cole Porter presented his debut, See America First, on Broadway. Al Jolson was big in show business, as well as movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while Claude Monet and Henri Matisse created some of their most beautiful paintings.
The world my grandmother grew up in seems so different now from ours and yet I always felt our souls were one and the same.When she entered her teens, she was affected by the Great Depression like everybody else. Those years shaped her understanding of money and security, and made her frugal despite her generosity. When she was barely of age, the world was shaken by another World War, a catastrophe that shaped her decisions about marriage, family and friendship. When the war was over, the world changed yet again, with women (despite their inferior legal status) struggling to juggle their jobs, children and returning soldier men. In the 50s, my grandma couldn’t afford to live the dream of a housewife, she had to work to support her two children because her husband’s salary alone didn’t suffice. She worked in a field she had been trained in with her father’s permission before the war and stayed with the same company until she finally retired at sixty. It took her years to afford a washing machine or other amenities, her household eating up much more time, without the help of her husband. I don’t know how she did it, but she cooked every day and created delicious meals on a tighter budget than I am scraping by today. She was a beloved host and as a child I always aspired to get as much praise for my cooking as she did.
It is her discipline, warmth and love I remember the most, the everyday routine she kept even after she had long stopped working. Her closet always looked impeccable, with neatly folded sheets and her well-groomed wardrobe. Her clothes were ladylike, her hair curly and naturally gray. When I close my eyes, I immediately see her in the kitchen, an apron safely tugged around her waist and her glasses steamed up from adding a secret ingredient to my favorite dishes. I often wonder how she would feel about my vintage life today and remember the feeling of reaching for the phone to ask her for a recipe or some advice long after she had already passed away. Sometimes I hear her voice in my dreams and I see her face smiling at me. When I wake up, I always feel blessed but also lonely for her presence, then I realize how many of the things I love were cherished and celebrated by her in a humble way. She read whodunits, loved music, embraced solitude as well as company and liked to talk to me at least an hour every day. Like me, she also loved Perry Mason and when I look at Della Street in her senior years, I always feel reminded of my grandma and what a gift it was to have been loved by her.
Everyone who grew up with a TV set knows his brooding face, his kind blue eyes and dimple smile. Raymond Burr, star of two consecutive hit shows, Perry Mason and Ironside, is still a household name due to his haunting qualities as an actor who started as a villain and would become America’s favorite lawyer.
Career: Born on May 21, 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia, Raymond Burr came of age in the Great Depression and worked a variety of jobs before he finally broke into acting. Starting out on the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1937, he starred on Broadway in Crazy with the Heat and landed his first movie contract with RKO in the 1940s. Soon typecast as a villain in film noir and other genres due to his broad frame and impressive figure, Raymond Burr appeared in over sixty movies before he finally found fame on television as Erle Stanley Gardner’s courtroom hero Perry Mason.
Originally auditioning for the part of district attorney Hamilton Burger, Raymond was the author’s own first choice for the famous lawyer who had already appeared in books, on the silver screen and radio since the 1930s. With its hour-long format, the TV show was a new attempt of using Gardner’s original characters in a suspenseful and entertaining way. Joined by Barbara Hale as Mason‘s girl Friday Della Street and Hedda Hopper’s son as private eye Paul Drake, Raymond Burr started a journey of unprecedented nature when he shot the pilot in 1956. Although starving for success after his bumpy relationship with big screen Hollywood, the actor was soon exhausted from the six day weeks and long hours on set, the whole production relying on a main character he breathed life into by reciting endless monologues. While enjoying and enforcing the cordial atmosphere on the Perry Mason set, Raymond Burr’s lack of breaks soon resulted in him living in a studio apartment in order to get some rest. As a pastime, Raymond loved playing pranks on his dearly beloved cast members, Bill Talman and Barbara Hale especially – her high-pitched screams, predictable schedule (as an actress, wife and mother of three) and eagerness to respond to his endless list of jokes making her his favorite target. It was the heavy schedule however, his lack of time and variety in acting that ultimately brought Raymond to enjoy Perry Mason less and less. After nine years of rewarding team play on “the happiest set in town” yet grueling working conditions for its star, the show was finally axed in 1966 by CBS. Sad to part from his cast and crew but eager to explore new territory, Raymond Burr soon found himself another show to star on, a show that would allow him more downtime and more right to a say in the matter of storytelling.
As Robert T. Ironside, he re-entered American living rooms in 1967 and managed to repeat his previous success. As an ex-police chief tied to a wheel chair, his new character was different from Perry Mason. A hero by his own means, Ironside and his team conquered the hearts of their audience for a good eight years before its cancellation, releasing its star into a decade of fading fame.
In 1985, Raymond Burr accepted an offer to return as Perry Mason but insisted on Barbara Hale reprising her role as Della Street as well. As the only surviving cast members of the original show, they were joined by Barbara’s son Billy Katt who starred as Paul Drake Jr. in the first nine out of twenty-six common TV movies. In 1993, Raymond Burr also returned as Ironside for one TV movie and then made his last appearance in Perry Mason and The Case of the Killer Kiss. Already tied to a wheel chair on set, Raymond said a long goodbye to his friends before he lost his battle against cancer in the privacy of his home in California, only weeks after wrapping his last project.
Characters: Although he started out as a villain in films like Raw Deal, Borderline or M, it was Raymond Burr’s portrayal of idiosyncratic heroes like Perry Mason and Robert T. Ironside that brought him lasting fame beyond the days of his original success.
Convincing as ruthless characters, as well as disturbed, aggressive or lion-hearted ones, it was his sense of vulnerability, his brooding expression, his kind yet piercing eyes that added depth and realism to his performances. Versatile, tall, broad-shouldered, handsome and blessed with an expressive voice, Raymond Burr’s characters may have been disreputable at the beginning of his career, his screen presence however made it impossible for them to be ignored. After all, who could forget his haunting appearance in Hitchcock’s Rear Window – his eyes intense and full of threat? Or his portrayal of Barney, the cursed murderer in Bride of the Gorilla, an excellent B movie that lives from his no-nonsense performance. Godzilla‘s Steve Martin is another example or Please Murder Me – two films that show the complexity of an actor who defined his characters by making them unique.
Perry Mason then brought on the change he had been hoping for in film. As a righteous guy it was finally him who was chasing the villains and his credibility was so acute, his audience soon started mistaking the actor for the character whenever they met or wrote to him. Adding to his authenticity was the chemistry he had with his co-stars, first and foremost Barbara Hale, Perry Mason‘s highly valued Della Street. Building up a system of non-verbal communication with his partner-in-crime, he soaked up what his co-star offered and allowed her to shine even without any lines.
As Ironside, he managed to create a character who was not limited to his disability but who coped with the restrictions of a wheelchair without allowing his situation to define his abilities. When he returned to his most defining parts in the 1980s and 90s, Raymond Burr added further depth to his portrayal of his two alter egos, especially to Perry Mason whose twenty-six new adventures finally allowed him to suggest a romance between him and Della Street.
Charity and Hobbies: Once described as an oversize personality inside and out, Raymond Burr was a strong believer in giving rather than taking, a humanist at heart, warm and wicked. He excelled as a cook who loved to invite friends to elaborate dinners at his Malibu home, was a distinguished gardener who grew numerous new orchids he named after his friends, including his Perry Mason co-star Barbara Hale, and was interested in art and antiques. A co-owner of a gallery in Beverly Hills and a Hans Erni enthusiast, Raymond Burr was also a man of vast reading and an actor who went at great lengths for his characters and colleagues.
Recognized for his engaging portrayal as Perry Mason, Raymond often attended lawyers gatherings and received an honorary doctorate from two different universities. At the height of his fame, he fostered several children around the world and donated most of his money to institutions and educational programs in the US and Fiji where he also owned an island. He toured Korea and Vietnam to support the troops by sitting down with soldiers in remote areas of the war zones, cultivated wine and refused to have his property named after himself. The Raymond Burr Vineyards didn’t get their name until after his passing, when his business partner decided to honor him posthumously and still continues his work today.
Private Life: Reserved and cautious about sharing his private life, Raymond Burr had a difficult relationship with the press throughout his career. Though repeatedly praised by critics for his work, he was often misquoted in papers and thus grew weary of the coverage that came with his many years of television success. Always outspoken and silver-tongued, he circumnavigated questions about his bachelordom and refrained from commenting gossip about seeing Barbara Stanwyck or Natalie Wood. Never reluctant to discuss the long hours on set as Perry Mason however, he focused on answering questions about his work without presenting himself as the center of attention. Eager to highlight the qualities of his fellow cast members and crew, Raymond Burr made sure to find a balance between describing his workload and the bond he shared with his set family.
As a habit, he never commented on wrongful insinuations about his cordial friendship with his Della Street or his changing weight, nor did he respond to rumors about his supposed homosexuality. Staying true to his convictions of living the kind of life he wished others would live, he made no secret of how much he disliked the press for trying to expose what shouldn’t concern them in the first place. Unfortunately, he did not get around to writing his planned autobiography before he died on September 12, 1993. It would have been a pleasure to read about his career from his own point of view. I’m sure he would have surprised a lot of people with a book filled with a myriad of stories but only little information about himself.
- 1994 Perry Mason: The Case of the Killer Kiss (TV movie)
- 1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (TV movie)
- 1993 The Return of Ironside (TV movie)
- 1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Skin-Deep Scandal (TV movie)
- 1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (TV movie)
- 1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo (TV movie)
- 1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing (TV movie)
- 1992 Grass Roots (TV movie)
- 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion (TV movie)
- 1991 Delirious
- 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin (TV movie)
- 1991 Showdown at Williams Creek
- 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster (TV movie)
- 1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (TV movie)
- 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter (TV movie)
- 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer (TV movie)
- 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception (TV movie)
- 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Poisoned Pen (TV movie)
- 1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin (TV movie)
- 1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder (TV movie)
- 1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson (TV movie)
- 1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake (TV movie)
- 1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace (TV movie)
- 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (TV movie)
- 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam (TV movie)
- 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Sinister Spirit (TV movie)
- 1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love (TV movie)
- 1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star (TV movie)
- 1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun (TV movie)
- 1985 Perry Mason Returns (TV movie)
- 1984 Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn
- 1982 Airplane II: The Sequel
- 1981 Peter and Paul (TV movie)
- 1980 The Night the City Screamed (TV movie)
- 1980 Out of the Blue
- 1980 The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (TV movie)
- 1980 The Return
- 1979 The Thirteenth Day: The Story of Esther (TV movie)
- 1979 Disaster on the Coastliner (TV movie)
- 1979 The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (TV series) – The Mob Comes to Orly (1979)
- 1979 Eischied (TV series) – Only the Pretty Girls Die: Parts 1+2 (1979)
- 1979 Love’s Savage Fury (TV movie)
- 1979 Centennial (TV mini-series), 12 episodes
- 1979 The Love Boat (TV series) – Alas, Poor Dwyer/After the War/Itsy Bitsy/Ticket to Ride/Disco Baby: Parts 1+2 (1979)
- 1978 The Jordan Chance (TV movie)
- 1978 The Bastard (TV movie)
- 1978 Tomorrow Never Comes
- 1977 Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue (TV mini-series)
- 1976-1977 Kingston: Confidential (TV series), 14 episodes
- 1977 Godzilla
- 1976 Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence (TV movie)
- 1967-1975 Ironside (TV series), 196 episodes
- 1973 Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John (TV movie)
- 1972 The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (TV series) – Five Days in the Death of Sgt. Brown: Part II (1972)
- 1963-1970 The Red Skelton Hour (TV series) – Freddie’s Desperate Hour (1970), The Magic Act (1970), Appleby’s Soul (1965), Disorder in the Court (1964), Episode #13.10 (1963)
- 1968 P.J.
- 1968 It Takes a Thief (TV series) – A Thief Is a Thief (1968)
- 1957-1966 Perry Mason (TV series), 271 episodes
- 1961 The Jack Benny Program (TV series) – Jack on Trial for Murder (1961)
- 1960 Joyful Hour (TV movie)
- 1960 Desire in the Dust
- 1960 The Christophers (TV series) – Joyful Hour (1960)
- 1957 Playhouse 90 (TV series) – Lone Woman (1957), The Greer Case (1957)
- 1957 Affair in Havana
- 1957 The Web (TV series) – No Escape (1957)
- 1957 Undercurrent (TV series) – No Escape (1957)
- 1957 Crime of Passion
- 1956 Ride the High Iron (TV movie)
- 1956 The Brass Legend
- 1956 Climax! (TV series) – Savage Portrait (1956), The Shadow of Evil (1956), The Sound of Silence (1956)
- 1954-1956 Lux Video Theatre (TV series) – Flamingo Road (1956), The Web (1955), Shall Not Perish (1954), A Place in the Sun (1954)
- 1956 A Cry in the Night
- 1956 Secret of Treasure Mountain
- 1956 Great Day in the Morning
- 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
- 1956 Celebrity Playhouse (TV series) – No Escape (1956)
- 1956 Please Murder Me
- 1956 The Star and the Story (TV series) – The Force of Circumstance (1956)
- 1954-1956 The Ford Television Theatre (TV series) – Man Without a Fear (1956), The Fugitives (1954)
- 1956 Chevron Hall of Stars (TV series) – The Lone Hand (1956)
- 1955 The 20th Century-Fox Hour (TV series) – The Ox-Bow Incident (1955)
- 1955 Count Three and Pray
- 1955 A Man Alone
- 1955 You’re Never Too Young
- 1955 Schlitz Playhouse (TV series) – The Ordeal of Dr. Sutton (1955)
- 1954 They Were So Young
- 1954 Passion
- 1954 Thunder Pass
- 1954 Khyber Patrol
- 1954 Rear Window
- 1954 Gorilla at Large
- 1954 Mr. & Mrs. North (TV series) – Murder for Sale (1954)
- 1954 Casanova’s Big Night
- 1953 Four Star Playhouse (TV series) – The Room (1953)
- 1953 Fort Algiers
- 1953 Tarzan and the She-Devil
- 1953 Serpent of the Nile
- 1953 The Blue Gardenia
- 1953 The Bandits of Corsica
- 1953 Your Favorite Story (TV series) – How Much Land Does a Man Need? (1953)
- 1953 Tales of Tomorrow (TV series) – The Mask of Medusa (1953)
- 1951-1952 Family Theatre (TV series) – A Star Shall Rise (1952), That I May See (1951), Triumphant Hour
- 1952 Horizons West
- 1952 Gruen Guild Theater (TV series) – Face Value (1952), The Leather Coat (1952), The Tiger (1952)
- 1952 The Unexpected (TV series) – The Magnificent Lie (1952)
- 1952 Mara Maru
- 1952 Rebound (TV series) – The Wreck (1952), Joker’s Wild (1952)
- 1951 Meet Danny Wilson
- 1951 Chesterfield Sound Off Time (TV series) – Dragnet: The Human Bomb (1951)
- 1951 Dragnet (TV series) – The Human Bomb (1951)
- 1951 FBI Girl
- 1951 Bride of the Gorilla
- 1951 The Magic Carpet
- 1951 The Whip Hand
- 1951 His Kind of Woman
- 1951 A Place in the Sun
- 1951 New Mexico
- 1951 Stars Over Hollywood (TV series) – Pearls from Paris (1951), Prison Doctor (1951)
- 1951 M
- 1951 The Amazing Mr. Malone (TV series) – Premiere (1951)
- 1951 The Bigelow Theatre (TV series) – Big Hello (1951)
- 1950 Borderline
- 1950 Key to the City
- 1950 Unmasked
- 1949 Love Happy
- 1949 Abandoned
- 1949 Red Light
- 1949 Black Magic
- 1949 Criss Cross
- 1949 Bride of Vengeance
- 1948 Adventures of Don Juan
- 1948 Walk a Crooked Mile
- 1948 Station West
- 1948 Pitfall
- 1948 Raw Deal
- 1948 Fighting Father Dunne
- 1948 Ruthless
- 1948 Sleep, My Love
- 1948 I Love Trouble
- 1947 Desperate
- 1947 Code of the West
- 1946 San Quentin
- 1946 Without Reservations
- 1940 Earl of Puddlestone
- DVD: Airplane II, Borderline, The Brass Legend, Bride of the Gorilla, Centennial, Crime of Passion, Fort Algiers, Godzilla, Ironside, Ironside TV movie, M, Passion, Perry Mason TV series, Perry Mason Returns, Pitfall, A Place in the Sun, Please Murder Me, Rear Window
- VHS: Jack Benny Program, Perry Mason TV series, Perry Mason TV movies
- Internet: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, I Love Trouble, Please Murder Me
Personal recommendations (in alphabetical order):
- Bride of the Gorilla, 1951
- The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, 1980
- Dragnet (TV series) – The Human Bomb (1951)
- The Ford Television Theatre (TV series) – Man Without a Fear (1956), The Fugitives (1954)
- Ironside (TV series), 1967-75
- Perry Mason (TV series), 1957-66
- Perry Mason (TV movies), 1985-94
- Please Murder Me, 1956
- Rear Window, 1954
Sources for more on Raymond Burr:
Everyone who knows me is aware of this: I’m a big fan of Della Street. I have been for many years, ever since I was a kid and watched the Perry Mason TV movies until my grandma introduced me to the original show from the 1950s and 60s. That’s when I liked her even more, for her skills, her style, her elegance. She’s the epitomized girl Friday who was brought to life by Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, June Travis and Ann Dvorak in the 1930s, by Gertrude Warner, Jan Miner and Joan Alexander from the mid 40s to 50s, and ultimately by my favorite, Barbara Hale, in the classic TV show and movies.
Created by Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933, Della Street entered the scene along with her famous boss, attorney-at-law Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws. Included from the first novel on, Della was a little feistier upon introduction, but every bit as skillful and loyal as in the following eighty-one whodunits. It was made clear from the start that Della had quite an influence on Perry, that their relationship ran a little deeper than that of an employer and his confidential secretary. Always supported by their friend, private eye Paul Drake, their cases took center stage however and the couple never went beyond an ardent kiss. Proposing to her a couple of times, Perry Mason was generally turned down by his irreplaceable office pearl who understood that he wasn’t the type to settle down, nor was she willing to spend her life without him in a large home as a housewife and mother. So she stuck it out with him through hundreds of cases in the books and movies, on radio and finally on TV.
Always a little altered in the adaptations, Della remained steadfast, pretty and faithful to her boss and got marry to him once in Warner Brother’s very free version of The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1936. In general, Della Street was quite sassy in the Perry Mason films of the 1930s and frequently involved in taking flight from the police on radio a decade later. With television being a more conservative medium in the late 1950s, Barbara Hale did not get to flirt with Raymond Burr’s Perry as much as her predecessors, but thanks to their on screen chemistry and her intuitive acting, the seething romance between Della and Perry continued in the hearts and heads of many Perry Mason fans until a kiss in 1993′s The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host finally confirmed their relationship.
Never described as anything but beautiful in Gardner’s original books, Della Street donned platinum hair and brunette curls, as well as alluring outfits that were appropriate for the office. As the Della Street who’s left a lasting impression on her audience, Barbara Hale wore outfits that were typical of the time between 1957 and 66: figure-hugging, feminine and always covering her knees. Upon the insistence of executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, Della did not follow every trend when the 60s introduced new hemlines every year and thus stressed the classy elegance Ms. Hale had established for her TV alias. With her limited collection of clothes, Della often changed her outfits by combining her blouse or sweater with another skirt. Her trademark look can be pinned down to waist shirt dresses (including one with her embroidered initials), pencil skirts, cardigans and blouses that embellished her neck with a bow. In the first season, Della was also constantly running around on mules which she later replaced with a classy pair of heels. As an accessory, Della often wore a pearl necklace or a charm bracelet on her left wrist while her little finger frequently showed the presence of a simple ring, matching her boss’ on his own hand. From time to time, Della was also seen wearing a necklace with a pendant showing her initials, long before Carrie Bradshaw made it fashionable for a whole new generation.
In the 1980s, Barbara Hale returned to TV with her longtime screen partner Raymond Burr and continued the tradition of presenting Della as efficient, warmhearted and dressed to the nines. Again, following contemporary but conservative fashion, Della combined over-knee skirts with stylish boots, turtleneck sweaters, blazer jackets and two layers of pearls. Without changing her hair as much as on the original show (while avoiding the beehive), Della Street kept her cropped, practical curls which added credibility to the on-screen depiction of Perry Mason’s tireless associate.
Today, Della’s look can be re-examined on DVD and copied thanks to the many vintage stores and new designs that are inspired by more graceful times. With a circle skirt and scarf, a classy faux vintage suit or classy heels, it’s easy to feel as sophisticated and charming as Della Street. Add a full head of curls, matching intimates and a petticoat to your outfit and you’ll perfect the sentiment. From where I’m standing it is worth the effort, paying tribute to a character many real life secretaries still love to look at for inspiration.
TV classics: Perry Mason TV movies
USA 1985-95, 30 episodes, 90 minutes each, NBC. Based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels and the Perry Mason TV series. Cast: Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Katt, William R. Moses, Recurring Guest Stars: James McEachin, David Odgen Stiers, Guest Stars: Barbara Babcock, Scott Baio, Polly Bergen, Gene Barry, Angela Bassett, Shari Belafonte, Tom Bosley, Diahann Carroll, Dixie Carter, Morgan Fairchild, Genie Francis, Robert Guillaume, Hal Holbrook, Brian Keith, Diana Muldaur, Patrick O’Neil, Regis Philbin, Davis Rasche, Debbie Reynolds, John Rhys-Davies, Jerry Orbach, Anne Schedeen, Dwight Schultz, Jean Simmons, Paul Sorvino, John Spencer, Susan Sullivan, Holland Taylor, Alan Thicke, Vanessa Williams et al.
Plot summary: Perry Mason returns to Los Angeles to defend his former secretary Della Street and opens up shop with her again after he gets her acquitted.
Review: It was nineteen years after the last episode of the original Perry Mason series that the famous lawyer gone judge reunited with his loyal secretary in Perry Mason Returns: facing murder charges in L.A., Della Street calls her former boss who steps down from his duties in San Francisco to rush to her aid like he used to when a damsel was in distress back in the days. Fitting right back in with Della who easily switches into her secretarial mode during her own trial, Perry immerses himself in saving his friend and contacts Paul Drake Jr. to get on the case. Skeptical about Junior’s attitude at first, he hires young Paul upon his client’s request and asks him to investigate the murder victim and his family. Like in the classic show, justice prevails in the end and Perry wins his case with his usual theatrics and courtroom charm.
Although Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale were the only members of the original Mason cast who were able to reprise their iconic parts in 1985, the fate of their characters’ friends remained open. Paul Drake Jr.’s existence was never explained in the nine episodes William Katt played the charismatic detective, but it was clear that he had grown up in the presence of Perry and Della. Profiting from his natural chemistry with his mother Barbara Hale, Billy Katt added a spark of energy to the rejuvenated investigation scenes, reminding fans of Bill Hopper’s original Paul Drake whenever he started flirting with the ladies. In 1989, he was replaced by William R. Moses as Ken Malansky, a young lawyer Perry defends and later takes in as his associate. Ray Burr and his longtime leading lady picked up where they had left off at the end of the Perry Mason series in 1966. As experienced performers in their golden sixties, they returned to their congenial dynamic and used their sparkle to remind the audience of the lingering attraction between Perry Mason and Della Street. Although never openly expressed on the original show but always sizzling in the air, the famous lawyer finally got to kiss his loyal secretary in 1993, confirming the romance Erle Stanley Gardner himself had established in his early Mason novels.
In general, the TV movies gave Della and Perry more time for having a private life, as well as a past. Although still underused as faithful Miss Street, Barbara Hale got more screen time in most of the ninety minute episodes which were produced on an irregular basis. Moving production to Denver to cut down the costs, Perry Mason eventually moved his practice to the Colorado capital, too, which didn’t stop him from traveling to New York or Paris, something he had rarely done on the original show.
Successful from the first reunion movie on, the re-imagined franchise lasted another ten years and welcomed a variety of top notch guest stars who were eager to be on the stand for Perry Mason. Some of these stars were former colleagues of Raymond Burr or Barbara Hale, others merely impressed by the TV lawyer and his suspenseful cases. There were two actors who stepped into Perry Mason’s shoes without impersonating him after Raymond Burr’s untimely death in 1993 – Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook. Both played lawyers who replaced Perry on a case while he was busy otherwise in the Perry Mason Mysteries. Perry Mason himself never died and was ultimately entangled in court in Europe where Della joined him when Barbara Hale bowed out of her contract for personal reasons in 1994. The series ended with her departure and the movies are still frequently shown on different channels. Perry Mason Returns was published on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD in 2008 and with the original show still being released in its entirety, fan hopes are high that the complete movie collection will also be available eventually.
The Perry Mason TV movies:
- Perry Mason Returns (1985)
- The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986)
- The Case of the Shooting Star (1986)
- The Case of the Lost Love (1987)
- The Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)
- The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987)
- The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987)
- The Case of the Avenging Ace (1988)
- The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)
- The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)
- The Case of the Musical Murder (1989)
- The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989)
- The Case of the Poisoned Pen (1990)
- The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)
- The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990)
- The Case of the Defiant Daughter (1990)
- The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)
- The Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)
- The Case of the Glass Coffin (1991)
- The Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991)
- The Case of the Fatal Framing (1992)
- The Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)
- The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (1992)
- The Case of the Skin-Deep Scandal (1993)
- The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993)
- The Case of the Killer Kiss (1993)
The Perry Mason Mysteries:
- The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993), starring Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso
- The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994), starring Hal Holbrook as “Wild Bill” McKenzie
- The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1994), again starring Holbrook in the same role
- The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995), again starring Holbrook
Today, the lovely Barbara Hale celebrates her 90th birthday and this post is my way of wishing her well. So please feel invited to walk down memory lane with me through her career on screen and her public life which started in the funny papers when she was modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill and ended when she retired from acting in 1994 to fully commit herself to her beloved family.
Born on April 18th, 1922*, in DeKalb, Barbara Hale grew up as the second of two daughters of Ezra and Willa Hale in Rockford, Illinois. Interested in art early on, Barbara was encouraged by her mother to pursue her goal of becoming a commercial artist. Working after school to show her dedication to her craft, her father gave his consent for her to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts after her high school graduation. Living at the YWCA where she shared a room with a friend, Barbara was soon asked to model for fellow students and finally landed a job posing for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. She was a fashion model when a talent scout spotted her and offered her a chance for a trial contract with RKO in Hollywood. Young, ambitious and thrilled about acting, Barbara hopped on the train out West and landed her first job as the replacement of a sick extra in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day on her day of arrival in 1943.
Getting her education on the studio lot, Barbara immersed herself in her new profession, eagerly embracing singing, horseback riding, voice and dance lessons while continuing to work as a model for a variety of products. Prone to being sociable and charming, it didn’t take her long to meet fellow contract player Bill Williams with whom she fell in love on studio grounds. Working together on West of the Pecos in 1944, her first big part after debuting on Higher and Higher alongside Frank Sinatra, she soon knew she wanted to marry her “Ramblin’ Bill”. Although committed to founding a family while missing her own, Barbara kept working hard for her career and landed strong parts in First Yank into Tokyo and Lady Luck.
In 1946, Barbara and Bill got married and started working on A Likely Story. In 1947, a little more than a year after taking their vows, their first child was born, daughter Jody. Two more children followed in 1951 and 1953, son Billy and another daughter, Juanita. While being a dedicated mother and wife, Barbara kept working on movies such as The Boy with Green Hair, The Clay Pigeon and The Window until she left RKO when her contract ended with the studio. She started working for Columbia and secured herself a part in Jolson Sings Again, then also worked for other studios before tackling television. The Jackpot with Jimmy Stewart, Lorna Doone, A Lion is in the Streets with James Cagney and The Houston Story were some of her memorable films, as well as a number of Westerns such as The Oklahoman with Joel McCrea.
In 1956, Barbara was approached by Gail Patrick Jackson who urged her to join the cast of a new show called Perry Mason. Skeptical at first due to the young age of her three children, Barbara finally accepted the promising offer and became TV’s most famous secretary when the show went on the air in 1957. Rewarded with a congenial atmosphere on set, lasting friendships, two Emmy nominations and one win, Barbara soon had a reputation of being everyone’s favorite cast member. Adored by fans and press alike, coverage on the Perry Mason family and “Della Street” in her private life returned to an old-time high. Although strenuous at times, being on set six days a week (even when she didn’t have any lines) and leading a rich family life, Barbara embraced her part with full abandon and was grateful for the steady work.
In 1966, after nine years of television fame, Perry Mason was discontinued and Barbara took a well-deserved break from acting to unwind and enjoy more time with her family – her husband and their three children, then nineteen, fifteen and thirteen. In 1967, Barbara made her big screen comeback in a Western called Buckskin, continuing the family tradition of working with her husband on the same film. More common projects followed, including guest stints on Insight and Adam-12, as well as movies such as The Giant Spider Invasion and The Flight of the Grey Wolf.
After numerous guest stints on popular shows like Ironside, The Doris Day Show and Marcus Welby M.D. and supporting parts on movies such as Airport in 1970, Barbara also returned to making a living with commercials when she became the Amana spokesperson for Radar Range microwave ovens in the 70s. She also starred in two of her son Billy Katt’s projects, Big Wednesday and The Greatest American Hero before he joined her on the reprise of her career’s biggest success. In 1985, Barbara was asked to reunite with her longtime co-star and friend Raymond Burr for Perry Mason Returns, a TV movie that launched another ten years of steady work. After the death of her husband of forty-six years in 1992 and the passing of Raymond Burr only one year later, Barbara Hale continued her performance as Della Street in another four Perry Mason Mysteries before she retired from acting in 1994 for personal reasons. She has led a private life with her family in the Los Angeles area since but given occasional interviews. Some of her latest interviews are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD which was released in 2008.
After this sketchy introduction to a very rich life and a darling lady what else is left to say but this: Bless your heart, dear Barbara Hale, for being such an inspiration, and best of wishes on your special day.
* Author’s note: There’s some confusion about Barbara Hale’s actual birthday. While most sources list April 18, 1922 as her day of birth, others say she was already born in 1921. I decided to stick with the most commonly used date. Should that be wrong, I’ll gladly make the necessary changes here on Talking Classics.