“Perry Mason” and its Entertaining Imperfections

Garry Berman
10 min readJun 21, 2024


It has become part of the American subconscious, whenever we find ourselves grasping for the name of a brilliant lawyer on the way to making a point in a discussion. I’d guess we most likely blurt out the fictional Perry Mason as the example (“My lawyer’s okay, but he’s no Perry Mason…”)

Perry Mason, based on the novels by attorney Erle Stanley Gardner, was a series of feature films in the 1930s, and later a radio series. But Gardner wasn’t happy with how his novels had been adapted in either medium, and refused to license the character any further.

Erle Stanley Gardner.

His literary agent, Thomas Cornwall Jackson, was married to actress Gail Patrick, who had been featured in several top films of the 1930s, including My Man Godfrey and Stage Door. After retiring, Patrick kept her ties with Hollywood and began to encourage her friend Gardner to allow for a TV series version of Perry Mason, assuring him that the series would be faithful to the tone of the novels, and that his input would be welcome.

Gail Patrick in the ‘30s.

The author agreed, after which Patrick, Jackson, and Gardner formed the production company Paisan Productions, with Patrick serving as president and executive producer of the program.

The TV series premiered in September of 1957 and ran until May of 1966. Mason (Raymond Burr), assisted by his secretary Della Street (Barbara Hale) and his private investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper), is the attorney every suspect — rich or poor — turns to in order to prove their innocence.

But was Perry Mason as an attorney really so brilliant? This is just one point I’ve asked myself in a personal reassessment of the series (currently airing weeknights at 11:30 p.m. on MeTV).

A few things we can rely on as part of nearly every episode:

Most plots begin basically the same way; A corrupt businessman, or someone’s vindictive relative, manages to infuriate a number of those close to him or her, giving each of them a motive for doing away with the nasty individual.

Alas, the ne’er-do-well is shortly thereafter found murdered. And who arrives moments later to investigate but the gruff, perpetually smirking, and generally infuriating Lt. Tragg (Ray Collins).

Tragg, working about twenty years past retirement age and apparently the only police detective in all of Los Angeles, appears on the crime scene in the majority of episodes, immediately becoming suspicious of — well, everyone. He ambles through the murder scene, perhaps pocketing various knick-knacks that he decides would look nice on his own fireplace mantel (he can because he’s the police), and breaks about a dozen laws, Constitutional protections, and accepted police procedures as he angrily interrogates his prime suspect with insinuations, despite little or no evidence to justify the browbeating. Consequently, the suspect lands in jail, and Mason begins his mission to prove his new client’s innocence.

Paul’s Greeting — In the first season of the show, Paul, summoned by Perry, would often arrive through the back door of Perry’s office and offer Della a hearty “Hello, Beautiful!” before taking a seat on the edge of Perry’s desk, rather than using chair. His greeting to Della must have worn on the nerves of at least some of those in charge, and the greeting was eventually and mercifully dropped.

Once Perry decides to take the case-of-the-week, there is much investigating to do, and often well beyond normal quitting time.

Day-for-night scenes — These are commonplace on the show. Rather than film an episode’s night scenes after sunset, production crews and casts usually preferred to relax at home after a day of shooting, and not continue after dark to film additional scenes. There are also overtime and logistical costs producers and directors considered when a script called for some scenes to be shot at night. So, TV shows (and some movies) back in the day created bogus nighttime scenes by placing filters over the cameras, in an attempt to mask full-on sunshine for scenes set in the evening. More often than not, however, the technique doesn’t fool anyone, especially those noticing the attempted bamboozle on Perry Mason.

Many episodes of the show include a scene or two taking place in the wee hours of the morning, but were obviously shot in the middle of a sunny afternoon. In such scenes, we see cars driving with their headlights on to enhance the illusion, and we even hear crickets added to the soundtrack in post-production. But such tricks don’t prove very effective when we might as well notice a guy sitting on his front porch reading a newspaper, kids in the street playing stickball, etc. Even a full moon doesn’t illuminate the great outdoors as we’re asked to believe on Perry Mason.

L.A. hicks

Every so often Perry finds himself defending a client in some small town, where, although the L.A. skyline is visible in the distance, the locals somehow all take on the accents and speech patterns of Kentucky yokels, warning him, “We in this here town don’t take too kindly to strangers or fancy lawyers.” It’s amazing how driving a few miles off the freeway from one of the country’s biggest metropolitan areas could cause Mason to stumble through some sort of time portal, where he finds himself among the hayseeds in the Appalachian backwoods of the 1930s.

Mason as a fish out of water — or as an unwitting time traveler.

Tragg on witness stand

It never fails. When prosecutor Hamilton Burger (William Talman) introduces a piece of physical evidence related to the crime in question, he unfailingly hands it to Tragg and asks him to identify it. Without exception, Tragg begins with, “Yes, that’s the one. It has my mark on it.”

Your “mark,” Lt. Tragg? How I would love to see the judge interrupt with the admonishment, “Do you make a habit of defacing evidence to be used for a criminal trial, Lieutenant? Can you not use tags, Tragg?”

It hardly matters, since Mason rarely needs more than one or two follow-up questions to totally blow Tragg’s evidence out of the water, thus wiping the smirk from the lieutenant’s face.

Often, when a series of questions during the cross-examination of a witness reaches an intense moment, the shaken witness on the stand suddenly and inexplicably begins addressing someone in the gallery. “I’m sorry, Uncle Preston! But I had to keep the secret!” Or, conversely, a person seated in the gallery angrily jumps up and begins shouting at the witness. “That’s a lie, and you know it!” The judge, meanwhile, calmly sits there and observes the exchange, allowing it to play out.

Now, when would this ever be allowed to happen in a real courtroom? And what is the poor court stenographer supposed to do when the witness begins a conversation with the unknown individual — who hasn’t been sworn in, and who is not testifying, but is merely blurting out as part of some type of emotional collapse?

Throughout the life of the series, poor L.A. prosecutor Hamilton Burger saw defeat snatched from the jaws of victory every week, despite his strenuous objections to Mason’s courtroom tactics on the grounds that his opponent’s line of questioning was “immaterial, irrelevant and incompetent” (not always in that order). One episode does begin with Mason’s client being found guilty — an apparent victory for the prosecution, but, of course, the error is rectified by the closing credits.

Perry and Della’s relationship —

Just what goes on between Perry and Della Street, anyway? By all appearances, she is his office secretary and confidant, but after business hours are over (which tend to drag unnecessarily into the late evening), we often see them on what could be construed as a date; they enter a restaurant or social gathering together, with Perry steering Della around the room by her elbow. However, they never have any kind of romantic exchange (that we see), never display any real personal affection toward each other (that we see), yet they are together in one setting or another almost constantly. Why the mystery? Oh, the sexual tension!

The Case of the Climactic Confession —

Returning to my original hypothesis that Mason has only created the illusion that he’s a brilliant lawyer who can’t be beat: In most episodes, his defendant has been implicated of the crime by a mountain of evidence pointing to his or her guilt (that’s as binary as this column is going to get). It seems as if the electric chair has been reserved to mete out justice to Mason’s client, and that Mason has failed miserably in his task to get an acquittal.

Until…Until… some IDIOT sitting in the back row, whom no one would have ever suspected of the crime, jumps up and proclaims something along the lines of, “Stop! Enough of this! I killed him! And he deserved it. He was ruining my life!” The bailiff then duly grabs the individual by the arm and whisks him (or her) away. No fuss, no muss. At this point, Perry wipes the flop sweat from his brow, relieved that his client has been spared by pure chance.

A few variations of the courtroom confession:

The wrap-up scene —

This final scene, taking place at times in Mason’s office, or at his favorite restaurant, serves to fill in all of the plot holes and unaddressed details that should have been included in the main story.

With the victorious client present or off somewhere else in town to celebrate, Della might kick things off with something like, “What I don’t understand is why Susan would leave her house and drive to San Diego less than an hour after the murder?” This prompts a long-winded explanation from Mason, followed by Paul Drake chiming in with, “…Then, thinking the coast was clear, she returned and arranged to meet Joe Hastings, where one of my men spotted them exchanging briefcases…”

Someone makes a vaguely humorous remark and they all chuckle, as we fade out. Tune in next week for a new episode that will somehow seem vaguely familiar.

Here’s another version of the wrap-up scene, including our dear Lt. Tragg:

The list of guest actors who appeared on the show but who were not well-known at the time includes Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy, Marion Ross, Mike Connors, Cloris Leachman, Adam West, and dozens more. Two actresses known for their supporting roles in ’60s sitcoms, but were allowed to flex their dramatic acting chops on Perry Mason—were Connie Hines (two episodes), stepping out from her role as the clueless wife on Mr. Ed, and Pat Priest, known as (the second) Marilyn on The Munsters. Each demonstrated how their talents were suppressed by their better-known, if vacuous, sitcom characters.

So ends this list of what a casual viewer might take away from viewing one or more episodes of Perry Mason. It is and entertaining classic from decade past, to be sure — and sometimes unintentionally so.

Until next time…

Other television-related articles of mine that might be of interest to you:

“Television Stars Who Went From Hits to Flops” (pt.1): https://medium.com/@garryberman/television-stars-who-went-from-hits-to-flops-c21205caa1bd

“Retro Review: Pan Am” https://medium.com/@garryberman/retro-review-pan-am-2afc7af35905

“Has “Fawlty Towers” Been Overrated?” | by Garry Berman | May, 2024 | Medium

“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525

“A Mother’s Day Tribute to our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/a-mothers-day-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-68f9122538a8

“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://medium.com/@garryberman/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0

“Comedy to Die For: When Death Rears it’s Head in Sitcoms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/comedy-to-die-for-when-death-rears-its-head-in-sitcoms-7a51cb0acc32

“Saying Goodbye to ‘Modern Family’” https://medium.com/@garryberman/saying-good-bye-to-modern-family-73897235416d

“No Laughs, Please: Our Greatest Comedians as Dramatic Actors” https://medium.com/@garryberman/no-laughs-please-37fdf614e85a

“Fifty Years of ‘The Odd Couple’ on TV” https://medium.com/@garryberman/fifty-years-of-the-odd-couple-on-tv-part-i-62a0eac93520

“My Funny Valentine: Comedy’s Real-life Married Couples” https://medium.com/@garryberman/my-funny-valentine-comedys-real-life-married-couples-1f0605e2caca

“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor?” https://medium.com/@garryberman/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1

Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://medium.com/@garryberman/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.