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.

Memorable Finales

For anyone who knows me and anyone who has been following this blog it may be quite apparent: I’m fond of television. I refrain from saying good TV because that certainly lies in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just agree that TV classics have a special place in my heart and probably yours. That they have a quality most modern shows are struggling to repeat. That their appeal grows in proportion to their age, out of nostalgia for our youth or the good old days, I do not know. That will have to be a topic of another post. What I want to talk about today is an integral part of any television series. Finales, those long awaited yet dreaded farewells to our favorite shows. Those final episodes we miss when TV series get canceled on short notice.

Personally, I love a great finale when the audience gets a chance to say goodbye to their favorite characters and the writers get to wrap up their storylines. Some of my favorite examples are M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. All shows that stayed true to their formula and honored their protagonists by creating a melancholy but optimistic end. The West Wing as one of my favorite modern shows on the other hand aimed high but fell strangely flat. Set in a political environment, for me, the last episode was too quixotic to meet my expectations. Although it wasn’t as disappointing as The Wonder Years nor as sobering as The X-Files, it still lacked the critical essence of a program I had thoroughly enjoyed for seven years. It may be a matter of taste, but I like to imagine my favorite shows to continue ad infinitum. “Now it seems to me the place to start is at the beginning” will always be my favorite line to end a show. And who else could have said it but Raymond Burr on Perry Mason, a show that has out-classed many by paying tribute to its crew in the final episode. That’s my preferred way of saying goodbye. To leave the fans with a sense of gratitude, hope and infinity. The characters we’ve come to love over the years continue to exist even if we don’t get to visit them anymore on a weekly basis.

A great exception are finales that offer a conclusion to a finite storyline or explain events that seem to have pushed the boundaries of the original tale. Roseanne is such an example. Although not one of my favorite shows, the explanations the last episode offered to make sense of the exaggerated plot of the final season still resonate with me today. Equally memorable was Six Feet Under, a show I increasingly disliked over the years but always held in high esteem for its stellar cast. The outlook we got on the fate of the main characters met with a sense of closure that pushed the program on an almost ethereal level. The only other comparison that comes to mind is Malcolm in the Middle, a show completely different in style but similar in its ability to complete a given storyline.

With all these good examples, I almost shy away from mentioning the frustrating ones we all know exist. Those let down finales and anticlimactic farewells with the potential to ruin the fun of an entire show in retrospect. Battlestar Galactica is my favorite example. A show that lost its promise in the last season when it was interrupted by the Writer’s Guild strike in 2007. Chopped into two halves, the long awaited revelation failed to address one of the program’s most haunting signature sentences and ultimately revealed that the Cylons (like the writers) never had a plan. Although given the time to bring a complex story to a fruitful end, the final season was dragged out but rushed at the same time. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, ALF and last year’s Alcatraz did not even get a chance to conclude their stories which is probably the most dissatisfying way for a show to say goodbye. With a cliffhanger and many burning questions, fans were denied the satisfaction of a proper conclusion and thus nurtured the reluctance of fans to invest their time in new programs.

The most appealing alternative for anyone who has been left hanging in mid-air more than once may be the great array of mini series TV has spoiled us with over the years. These programs are, after all, thought through from beginning to end and offer a guaranteed conclusion (although not necessarily a happy end). Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House or Angels in America were all equipped with unforgettable finales that live up to the series’ initial promise of quality and entertainment. Each one of them a great treat for TV enthusiasts and a milestone in television history.

Recommendation Time

Every once in a whiletreat yourself it’s important to treat yourself. Good food, some shoe shopping or listening to records in a local store. It’s recommendation time again on Talking Classics. So let’s see what we have:

1) Do you know Caro Emerald?! She’s a Dutch singer whose second album is about to be released in the US on May 14. Mark your calendars, fellow lovers of new vintage, The Shocking Miss Emerald is a real treat.

2) For Perry Mason fans it’s a joy to hear that season 9.1 will soon be available on DVD – on June 11 to be exact. That leaves us with only one half season to complete our collections. Fingers crossed for the TV movies to follow soon.

3) Scarecrow and Mrs. King’s fourth and final season was recently leased on DVD for anyone who has fond memories of a lovely show that sadly lost its heart when its female protagonist, Kate Jackson, fell severely ill.

4) Book-wise, I finally finished reading Eve Arden’s wonderful autobiography. In Three Phases of Eve, the actress takes us on a journey through her life on stage, in movies and beyond. Filled with funny anecdotes, the book is every bit as witty and charming as the woman herself used to be on radio and screen.

5) And last but not least, a new shopping discovery of mine is Unique Vintage. For all you ladies out there who can’t get enough of classy patterns and styles, this site may be a great addition to your favorite retailers. I know it is to mine. ♥

Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, one of my favorite Golden Hollywood Girls is celebrating her 91st birthday. Or her 92nd, depending on the source you believe in. I stick with the younger option because the birth date April 18appearing at the "Hollywood Show", 1922 has such a nice ring to it. Besides, which woman doesn’t like to be younger rather than older?!

In general, 90-something is quite a milestone and (in my humble opinion) deserves a proper celebration – especially if the smile that comes with it is as bubbly and contagious as it always has been. So here’s your party hat, dear Barbara Hale, a big birthday hug and a smooch on your rosy cheeks. I hope you’re having a ball today, are blessed with good health (for many more years to come) and are surrounded by love and cheerful laughter.

Thanks so much for all the joy you have brought to my life as Della Street, on the silver screen and in interviews. Apart from my big love for Perry Mason, I’ve also always relished your on-screen collaborations with your charmingly handsome husband, Bill Williams. So for those of you who haven’t had the chance to see any of those “family projects”, here’s one of my favorite examples, The Clay Pigeon. A classic gem for a joyous day. Enjoy!

TV Intros

As requested by Ben Masters on Facebook, I am following up on my TV themes post and have a look at the visual aspect of TV intros. I don’t know about you, but if an intro is well done, I’m already getting into the mood for a show I want to watch. If the music and visuals match, the better the effect. So when I think about intros without primarily listening to the songs, the shows that have had a lasting effect on me with their introductions are definitely Charlie’s Angels, Bewitched and (you probably guessed it) Perry Mason. Like many other fans (so I’m sure), I’ve always wanted to know what was in that silly script that brought out Raymond Burr’s handsome dimple smile.

Charlie’s Angels, like Hart to Hart or Babylon 5 used narration to add to their pictorial introductions, explaining the background or premise of the show. While Lionel Stander introduced his screen bosses with scenes from the Hart to Hart pilot and only slight textual changes in the five years the show was on TV, Babylon 5 used a different introduction every season. Merging scenes from the show with the voices of lead characters, the season intros offered an outlook on the individual seasons, as well as a quick summary of what you needed to know to follow the plot of this complex show. And since I’m speaking of the 90s, who could forget ER, Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel, The X-Files or Chicago Hope – all equipped with visual intros that made clear what to expect from these specific program. Friends and Mad About You, two sitcom flagships of the era, also put us right into a quirky, urban mood, something Sex and the City would perfect in 1998 by making Manhattan a visual main character.

Looking at the evolution of these TV intros, in the 1980s, Cagney and Lacey and Scarecrow and Mrs. King already used their urban setting (New York City and Washington DC), as well as scenes from episodes to give the audience an idea of the content and nature of each show. The Golden Girls and Who’s the Boss did the same while The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Roseanne or Valerie primarily introduced us to the type of family we were about to visit for half an hour every week. In the 70s, the intros of Happy Days, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Family set the tone for very different shows while the 60s had already distinguished themselves from the often sponsor-laden intros of the 1950s. As the first era to introduce color TV, the 60s loved to use colorful effects and a contemporary style of music that showed a development away from family-friendly entertainment to more adult-oriented shows. While Hazel still proved to be traditional and rather quiet in the early 60s, Ironside‘s intro made clear the show was going to be filled with action, not unlike Adam-12.

In the new millennium, The West Wing tackled the unthinkable and turned politics into popular TV, the show’s intro already setting the mood and quality of a show that had a good run of seven seasons. The original CSI uses a similar pattern, creating a symbiosis of music and images, teasing the audience without giving too much away while the intro to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica did not only set the tone for a dark-edged series, but also treated its audience to a glimpse into each new episode. Whether you enjoy the classic style of merging video material with a catchy tune like Trapper John M.D. did in in the late 70s and early 80s, prefer graphics as used in Cheers or are fond of the genuine way The Closer interlaced its credits with an already commencing episode – TV show intros are a like a good business card. Selling your product without being obtrusive while making a lasting impression on your audience.

Getting in the Mood

TV themes. Do you remember when they lasted longer than only a couple of seconds? When the sound of your favorite show put you in the mood for an episode of fun, suspense or tears? Did you know the lyrics by heart? Did you recite them or sing along? Do you still find yourself humming those songs while you cook, do laundry or are cleaning up? Do they still put you in a good mood like they used to? Bring back memories of characters once dear to you like friends or relatives?

Today, a lot of shows save up time by using trademark teasers rather than songs that last longer than a mere moment. Castle, Malibu Country, The Good Wife are some of my favorite examples. If you sneeze, you may miss the catchy intro. Sad news for anyone who suffers from hay fever or catches a cold. There are exceptions no doubt: Elementary Downton Abbey or Rizzoli & Isles. I enjoy all of these shows once in a while but the less new programs offer a catchy melody or song, the more I miss that positive trigger classic television used to lure me in. Granted, for the sake of commercials, screen time has been cut down over the years. While a Perry Mason episode still lasted an average of 50 minutes and Bewitched an entertaining 25, most shows only get 43 (or 21) minutes today. So while it was great to hum along to Family Affair or Hart to Hart in the past, it makes sense for Go On to save up time and use those theme song seconds for the storyline.

Although I know the reasons and appreciate a couple of contemporary programs for their beautiful tunes, I still miss those beautiful TV songs that used to stick with me all week. Bugs Bunny, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Flintstones. I Love Lucy, The Muppets, Bill Cosby, Growing Pains. Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, The Golden Girls. Love Boat. Cagney and LaceyScarecrow and Mrs. King. Even shows I didn’t like for anything but their catchy themes such as Family Matters or Full House. Do you still remember your favorite melodies?!

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.