Erle Stanley Gardner and the Many Cases of Perry Mason

Looks like a barrel of monkeys!

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was one productive S.O.B. Originally a practicing lawyer, he went on to write hundreds of legal dramas and mystery novels and short stories, as well as travel books, and even founded an organization to help people in legal trouble called The Court of Last Resort. Gardner was a self-taught lawyer, who passed the California Bar and began practicing in 1911. He began writing for pulp magazines in 1923. His most famous character, Perry Mason, was introduced a decade later, but he also created numerous other series (sometimes under pen names) featuring such heroes as Lester Leith, Ken Corning, Doug Selby, Terry Clane, Speed Dash, Ed Jenkins, Dred Bart, Bob Larkin, Sidney Zoom, Paul Pry, the partnership of Cool and Lam, and several others. He also created some characters especially for radio, such as Christopher London, played by Glenn Ford.

But Perry Mason was by far the most successful and influential. Not only has the character remained in circulation for close to 90 years, but the formula Gardner established, of a defense attorney and his assistants investigating the facts of their case, then finally absolving their client at the last moment in a harrowing courtoom climax, became an entire genre into itself. Mason’s main assistants were his secretary Della Street and his private investigator Paul Drake. Their foils (of varying degrees of friendliness) were of course various policemen and district attorneys. Gardner introduced the characters with The Case of the Velvet Claw (1933). The last couple of Perry Mason novels were brought out posthumously in the early ’70s. Interestingly, Gardner derived the name “Perry Mason” from a publishing house, but it also inadvertently happens to evoke that of one of America’s founding legal minds, George Mason.

Here are the adaptations:

People loved the Perry Mason novels so much that they became a Warner Brothers film series only year after being introduced. Interestingly they launched the movies with the fourth novel (the most recent) The Case of the Howling Dog and then went back for some of the others. There were six in total, between 1934 and 1937. The first four starred the impeccable Warren William, later also famous for the playing “The Lone Wolf” and for playing Philo Vance on a couple of occasions. Ricardo Cortez portrayed Mason in the fifth film; Donald Woods in the sixth. Della Street was played by Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, June Travis, and Ann Dvorak. Other stars who appeared in the films in this series included Allen Jenkins, Mary Astor, Wini Shaw, Russell Hicks, Clara Blandick, and (in a non-speaking role) a young Errol Flynn.

Perry Mason next became a long running 15 minute radio series, which was on the air from 1943 through 1955. This incarnation deviated more from Gardner’s own formula than any other. When the producers wanted to adapt it for TV, Gardner refused permission, and it became — wait for it — the soap opera The Edge of Night. If that is what they were intending for Perry Mason, it would have been a very different show indeed.

Most Americans of a certain age know the hit TV verison best. The original one-hour series ran from 1957 through 1966 and then in syndication, with a 1985 revival of TV movies than were produced over the next decade. Movie star Raymond Burr played the crusading attorney (it was his the role he was most closely associated with), and Barbara Hale was Della in both iterations. His tricky brow-beating of witnesses on the stand became a mini-pop culture trope. When Burr died in 1993, the TV movies continued for two additional years with Hal Holbrook and Paul Sorvino as colleagues of Mason taking over his cases. By the way, CBS All Access (Paramount +) currently has the first several seasons of the classic series available; smart in light of the current revival (below).

If you don’t know the name Monte Markham, I hope you at least recognize the face. He’s been a ubiquitous television actor since the late 1960s and is in fact sill working, though he’s now in his late 80s. Markham was very aptly cast as the title character in a show called The New Perry Mason in 1973, though the show did not click with the public and only lasted a single season. The reason will probably be obvious to anyone of my age or older. Good as Markham was and is, for the television public Raymond Burr WAS Perry Mason, still, even though he was also Ironside at the time. Furthermore, in the 1970s, I’m sure that viewers thought “What could be less ‘new’ than Perry Mason?”

Rolin Jones’s and Ron Fitzgerald’s 2020 revival of Perry Mason very intelligently goes back to the original wellspring. Rather than attempt to update it, it’s a period piece set in the Depression Era milieu of the novels and early movies (but especially the novels). Rather than the dashing, good looking defense attorney played by previous actors, Matthew Rhys is more of a haggard, hangdog martyr to his calling. I’m so glad it’s him in the role. Originally it was to star Robert Downey Jr, who I think would have come across as entirely too fippant and jocose for this most deadly earnest of characters. (Haha, and may I say, Burr could be particularly deadly). Making it a period piece also eliminates the challenges of the franchise’s dated architecture. There is no need to “update” anything. It presents a world consistent with that of the man who first drew the character. Downey remains connected to the show as executive producer. And after all, he is already Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. That is more than enough. HBO’s Perry Mason has been renewed for a second season, though with different showrunners. We look forward to putting it on trial!