Ah, HumanityPostsTelevision

March 4, 2011


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Perry Mason. It was the Law and Order of its day.  It ran from 1957 to 1966 with a dramatic theme song by Fred Steiner.

It’s a world of pre-furnished apartments and twin beds.  Everyone has a little drinks cart or bar in their front room.  Everyone drinks martinis or highballs. Men and women meet in public ballrooms.  There is no need for lessons half an hour before the band plays because everyone knows how to ballroom dance.

It’s a world of hats, gloves, pearls, and clothing with asymmetrical collars, imaginative yoke fronts, funky buttons.  Women use compacts to powder their noses and refresh their lipstick.

My neighbor Gwen who knows something about just about everything, including how to take apart and put together a vintage car, speaks more intelligently than I can about the cars.  I told her I thought the convertibles were Cadillacs and the two- toned bodies with the wing-tipped designs were Chevys.  Gwen said, “If somebody knows it’s a fin, not a wing, you’re screwed.”  She sounded like someone right out of Perry Mason.

The attorney Perry Mason is squeaky clean and has enough moral integrity to fill the entire Brent Building in Los Angeles where he practices law.

“C’mon Mason make this deal and we can get out of this rat race,” says a scummy attorney skilled in the art of the double-cross.

Perry looks grave and stern. “It’s only a rat race if you Run. With.  .  .  . Rats.”

Almost every episode features some trampy glamor-puss named Inez in a tight, low-cut cocktail dress, diamond earrings dripping from her ears to her shoulders, and a mink stole.  If she is a secretary to some slick high-flyer, she shows up for work dressed that way.  Otherwise, she drapes herself around her apartment with nothing to do but her nails.   We know her type by the silky saxophone that introduces her scenes and by the amount of cleavage she reveals.

A fugitive heiress named Vera trails silk dressing gowns around her secret apartment and glamour smokes from a long cigarette holder.  A waster named Johnny who sneers things like “Hey wait a minute, I’m not gonna take that rap!” is hiding out in her bedroom.  He’ll exit down the fire escape after establishing his alibi which Vera isn’t anxious to corroborate because she doesn’t want her step- father to find out where she is.

The attorney Perry Mason communicates with his side-kick, detective Paul Drake, through big black phones usually dialed by Della Street, Perry’s lovely confidential secretary.  Paul hangs out in hotel lobbies and bribes switchboard operators to cut off the phone line of the gentlemen in 308 in order to flush him downstairs so Paul can see the number he dials from the public pay phone booth.

It’s almost always the same plot. The second half of the show is the courtroom scene.  Perry either wrings a surprise confession out of Johnny or Inez or else someone named Doris jumps up in the middle of proceedings and screams, “I can’t take it anymore!  I did it! I killed him because.  .  . because I loved him!”

Perry Mason must be the inspiration for the Gary Larson cartoon where a cow jumps up in the middle of the gallery and blurts, “All right!  All right! I confess!  I did it! Yes! That’s right! The cow! Ha ha ha!  And I feel great!”

I was three years old when Perry Mason started its TV run.  My parents loved the show.  When I was older, the whole family watched it.  It was the only thing we could do together without fighting.  My mother was completely pre-occupied with the cleavages, tight pants and what she called Bedroom Eyes.

My father pointed out what he called the Significant Looks that went on in the courtroom.  “Now watch Burger and Tragg give each other a Significant Look,” he would say.

Burger is Hamilton Burger, the prosecuting attorney who only won one case against Perry Mason in nine years.  Apparently fans just howled when Perry lost a case so it never happened again.  Lt Tragg, is the aging homicide detective who always seemed to be chewing his own teeth.

When Lt. Tragg examined People’s Exhibit A on the witness stand, my father would pipe up, “It has your mark on it” seconds before Lt. Tragg would say, “Yes, it has my mark on it.”  I would look at my father who would snap his emery board against his hand and continue his nail filing with a small smile on his face.

Twenty-five years ago, Perry Mason was in syndication about six hours a day on several different channels. More recently he is out on DVD.  I am neither proud nor ashamed to say I can quote from episodes.  These are brain wrinkles I can’t iron out.

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