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A famous fictional attorney.

Perry Mason is best known through the TV series of the same name, but the character was a household word long before the show began its ten year run.

He began his career in the 1930's as the protagonist in a series of books by Erle Stanley Gardner. The books were very successful, and were soon snapped up by Hollywood. There were a half-dozen Perry Mason movies made by Warner Brothers in the thirties. The movies were not very good. Warner took increasingly ample liberties with the books, culminating at last with a rewrite of The Case of the Dangerous Dowager that became a western with no Perry Mason character at all. Gardner cut his ties with Hollywood, not without bitterness.

Mason's next incarnation was on radio. Gardner sold the production rights to Procter and Gamble, who sponsored Perry as a daytime soap opera that began in 1943 and ran for twelve years - over 3000 episodes.

Gardner was never very happy with the radio show either, but it was very popular, and it propelled the sales of Gardner's books to a sufficient level that by the mid fifties, he was able to launch his own production company, Paisano Productions. When he pulled out of radio, Procter & Gamble metamorphosed the stranded Perry Mason cast and crew into a new soap, The Edge of Night, which went on to become a TV classic in its own right.

CBS bought Gardner's product, and in 1957, the Raymond Burr Perry Mason debuted.

The early TV episodes were adaptations of Gardner's books, and the Mason they portrayed was, as Perry Mason always was, Good, and Strong in Honesty, but his legal ethics were rough. He was not above breaking and entering, concealing evidence, or even hiding his clients from the police. As the series wore on over its 217 episodes (all but one in black and white), the character mellowed into the straight arrow most of us remember.

The show was dominated by Burr, but its long success was truly an ensemble effort. Though the characters in Erle Stanley Gardner's books were not strongly drawn, it would be the rare individual who could read one without picturing Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, William Talman as Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as Lieutenant Tragg.

There have been other manifestations of the Perry Mason character, including a series of made-for-TV movies with some of the original TV cast, but for most people, the B&W TV show defines him. People of a certain age, (or anyone with cable TV), can nail the theme song of that show in under one second...

Perry Mason is best known to most people (including myself), through the 1950s/60s television program. I have heard that the original stories were more nuanced, but the show is known for having a formulaic structure, with a melodramatic ending. The typical Perry Mason story could be broken down into four parts, each roughly a quarter-hour long:

  1. The introduction: Someone, usually a fairly middle American person, sees a legal problem on the horizon, and consults with Perry Mason over it. This problem often involves gambling debts, blackmail, love affairs, or something else that is nefarious but still non violent. This usually also introduces us to a group of characters who will become suspects. This usually takes place in Los Angeles, although sometimes Perry Mason is on vacation to another town.
  2. The crime: One of the players is murdered, and Lieutenant Tragg (apparently the only homicide detective in LA) shows up and arrests Perry's client.
  3. Usually around the half-hour mark, the trial (actually a type of Grand Jury hearing) begins. The first half of the trial usually has mounting tension, as Hamilton Burger and Lt. Tragg seem to prove an almost airtight case against Perry, until:
  4. The trial, concluded: sometimes with a phone call to Paul Drake, and sometimes with a brief trip to gather new evidence, Perry finds a way to save his client. He does this by questioning someone in the courtroom until someone, either a witness or a spectator, stands up and confesses. The show then has a brief denouement where Perry, Paul and Della reveal how they realized the true criminal.

As mentioned, this is rather formulaic and improbable: most murder trials don't end with a confession. However, given the technical limitations of television at the time, and the need to fit every program into around 50 minutes, it is probably a necessary break from reality. The first half of the program, where Mason questions his client and provides legal advice, usually comes across as quite realistic compared to the dramatic endings. Also, within the formula, there is quite a bit of diversity in Perry Mason stories: some are tension action stories, others are soap operas, and some are vaguely farcical.

Someone watching Perry Mason will know what they are getting, but that isn't always a bad thing.

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