Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Very Belated In Memorium: Wesley Lau

This is two months overdue. I felt very bad when I realized that I had completely, inadvertently missed the date of Wesley’s death. I decided to post it now both because it is the 30th (Wesley passed away on August 30th, 1984) and because this coming week is when we think a great deal about the dead. It seems an appropriate time to remember another dear friend long gone.

Quite a few of the cast members died far younger than they should have—both Williams were also cut down in their prime. More information is available on them; by contrast, it is almost impossible to discover anything about Wesley Lau’s death—and his life, for that matter.

I am not happy with changes, particularly changes in the cast of a beloved show. I had long been leery of these other detectives who came in when Ray Collins’ decreasing health forced him to slowly begin to back out. But at the same time I was curious, especially since I knew that at least one of them, Andy, was supposed to be more permissive and genuinely friendly. (I love Tragg so very dearly, but sometimes it’s hard to know when he’s being friendly for real and when it’s just a fa├žade.)

I believe I saw both Andy and Drumm years ago, but the memories had not stayed with me. Recently I “re-met” Andy in, I believe, The Golden Oranges. Aside from being quite an awesome episode in and of itself, I found I liked Andy. It was interesting to see a younger detective, more contemporary with Perry and company. And I was surprised and amused to see him admire a pretty girl with Paul.

While I liked Andy, however, and continued to do so, I had not fully accepted him as one of the regulars. Strangely enough, it was when I saw Wesley Lau portray the troubled Amory Fallon in The Impatient Partner that I realized I liked him and Andy very much, more than I had previously thought. I welcomed Andy with open arms at last and began looking up some of Wesley’s other roles.

It seems that, aside from Perry, he often played villains. I watched an episode of Bonanza entitled Desert Justice, in which he fools the Cartwrights into thinking he is a good person when in actuality he deliberately caused the death of a federal marshal’s wife and quietly taunts him about it when they are alone. It was a very different performance, but very chilling and very effective.

Wesley played other good guys too, however. Twice he played law enforcement officers on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And he starred as a World War II pilot possessed by an Egyptian pharaoh in an episode of One Step Beyond. There are others as well. From all that I’ve seen, he played both good and bad guys marvelously.

Wesley’s Perry character was originally not conceived as being his own person so much as he was a replacement for, or at least assistant to, Lieutenant Tragg. By Wesley’s own admission, many of his early episodes had him speaking dialogue that was written for Tragg. It definitely shows. In The Left-Handed Liar, he has an extended conversation with David in which he parrots Tragg’s speech pattern and words. And at the end of The Melancholy Marksman, when he walks in on Della and Paul role-playing what happened during the murder and Paul says that now Della’s dead, Andy comments, “Aww, what a pity.” I can just hear Tragg saying that. It is not a Lieutenant Anderson statement. Nevertheless, Wesley handled these early episodes well, delivering the material he was given in a professional and realistic way.

By season 6, commonly pinpointed as beginning in The Hateful Hero, Andy is finally being written as his own person, not as Tragg’s surrogate mouthpiece. Though hints of his unique personality came through before, now he is truly allowed to shine. But while perhaps more permissive in some ways, he is still not going to tolerate any bending or breaking of the law. And though the writers were eventually worried that he was too friendly and they needed someone more by-the-book, Lieutenant Drumm in season 9 is honestly just as friendly (even though yes, he’s by-the-book). So with that in mind, I can’t understand why they kicked Wesley Lau off the show. I miss him in season 9, although I’m fond of Drumm too.

According to one article I read, Wesley was married with a small child when he first began playing Andy. He was grateful for the steady work, as the money was certainly needed. He and his wife felt he looked terrible in hats, and he tried to wear one as little as possible. I disagree with them; I think he looked awesome and dashing in that fedora. But then, I'm probably biased. I think everyone looks good in them!

I don’t even know how or why Wesley Lau passed on so young, in his early sixties, in 1984. His gravestone has a beautiful epitaph that reads “Beloved husband, father, actor, writer, friend, soldier, reader of books, and believer in the human race.” And to that, all I can really add is that he is loved and missed by many, including fans old and young.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Case of the Blissful Bachelors: Romance in the Series

She turned back, lightly tapping the brim of his white fedora with the edges of the envelopes. “I can’t see your eyes with that hat’s shadow falling over them,” she complained. “You always did have very nice eyes.” With that and a last smile she turned away, sashaying very deliberately up the hill.
---from The Macabre Mansion, chapter one

One of the most surprising, and dare I say amusing, factors of the series is that none of the main characters appear to be in a romantic relationship with anyone. In a world so seemingly obsessed with romance, this seems quite a unique thing. Of course, Perry and Della have their lovely scenes together, and it’s clear that they care about each other deeply, but even for them it’s never canonically established that they’re in a relationship.

Personally, I feel it’s better that way. It changes shows so much whenever long-time characters pair off, and usually for the worse. Perry and Della’s interaction is quite perfect as it is. Let the shipper fans imagine things going further if they wish, but don’t inflict it on everyone by making it canon.

Hamilton Burger and Lieutenant Tragg only rarely appear to have any inclination towards romance. In season 1’s The Baited Hook, Tragg shows interest in asking a woman on a date. This is a bit of a surprise. If any of the main cast were to be already married, I would most suspect him. But the scene in The Baited Hook convinces me that he is single, at least by the time of the series. It is of course possible that Tragg was married prior to the series and his wife either died or they were divorced.

To my knowledge, the only time Hamilton is ever seen on any semblance of a date is in season 9’s The Golfer’s Gambit. At the country club, he is shown dancing with a woman. They later observe part of the fight between Hamilton’s acquaintance Chick and another man. But it is most unclear whether Hamilton actually brought the woman to the club for a date or if they just met there by accident and did not know each other. I kind of think they were on a real date, however. This entire scene is silent on their parts; we don’t even know what the woman sounds like. And Hamilton never speaks of romance throughout the series, that I’m aware of.

There is at least one woman who is regularly in Hamilton’s life. But Mignon Germaine, from my favorite episode The Fatal Fetish, appears to be a close friend and nothing else. In Hamilton's words, they “have been good friends for a long time.” I never picked up on any hint that there was or had been a romance between them; neither seemed interested in such a thing.

We don’t even really know who Hamilton’s secretary is, to determine what his relationship might be with that person. There is an older Miss Miller in an early episode, but she might be a stenographer. In The Fatal Fetish there is an unseen girl whom Hamilton speaks with over his intercom, but she might be a receptionist. In many episodes Hamilton speaks with someone named Leon. This person seems the most likely candidate to be his secretary. He could be an assistant, but whenever Hamilton is in court a different person is with him. Hence, I don’t think he relies on any one assistant more than another. It’s more likely that Leon is a secretary.

In any case, I would really prefer that Hamilton not have any romantic relations with anyone who works for him. That would just be paralleling Perry and Della too much. One suspected office romance is enough for the series.

Paul is the ladies’ man. Even a show like Perry Mason felt it needed one, and it does add spice and amusing comments to many episodes. Paul often shows interest in various women passing through the cases. Occasionally he is depicted on dates, which usually seem to get interrupted by assignments from Perry. He certainly doesn’t have a steady girl, but I wouldn’t think it of him. He doesn’t seem ready to settle down, although when Perry described a girl he was looking for Paul quipped, “I’ve been looking for one like that for years.” Perhaps, if Paul found that right one, he would indeed settle down.

(I will refrain from even venturing into the territory of the television movies, where it not only is obvious that Paul settled down, but that he died. Too, too depressing. Those movies are not out-and-out canon as far as I’m concerned, but instead just one possibility of the future. I prefer to picture the characters on the original television series, largely unchanged, still having their adventures now as they had then.)

While Paul appears to actively be looking, the other main men seem to be quite content to stay bachelors. When Della makes remarks that sound as though she may want things to get more serious between herself and Perry, Perry worms his way out of it. Once he comments that Della is asking a leading question!

Andy’s feelings on staying single versus getting married are uncertain, although he oogles a pretty girl along with Paul in The Golden Oranges. And for Lieutenant Drumm, I doubt the subject was ever broached.

Of course, it was common for the characters in early crime shows to be devoted to their work and for that to be their life. However, even shows such as Dragnet had characters who were married, and they would sometimes talk about it even if the wives were never seen. Perry doesn’t even feature that. And that says to me that either these guys really like the single life . . . or Erle Stanley Gardner just didn’t want them bogged down with anything else. And either or both could very well be true.

I myself have no intention of straying from the show’s formula on that point. Perry and Della will continue their very close and deep friendship in my stories, and the readers are free to imagine that they’re romantically involved if they wish. Paul will continue to be a ladies’ man and will probably occasionally crush on various girls. Tragg is unmarried, but while I kind of think he probably was married at one time I don’t believe I’ll venture into an explanation of what happened. (Of course, that could change as time goes on. I do have a vague idea that I might expound on if I write a Christmas story.) And Hamilton will not be romantically attached to anyone. He may occasionally take a girl out, as he likely did in The Golfer’s Gambit, but I will likely not depict it, as I prefer to keep the focus on the mystery and the friendships.

The quote I chose to place at the beginning of this entry is in reference to my own character Vivalene, who appears at some point in stories for every one of my major fandoms. Here she is making her Perry Mason debut. As always, she is a criminal. In the story, Hamilton hopes to get her arrested and convicted. She flirts with him, despite the fact that he prosecuted her three years before. He means nothing to her, and since he knows that as well as what she is, he is unmoved by her attempt to soften him.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Shapely Shadow vs. The 12th Wildcat

Season 5’s The Shapely Shadow is an episode that I’ve been both apprehensive and curious about. It’s highly praised, but is also, as is told, one of the episodes where Mr. Burger flips out more than usual.

Now, let it be made clear from the start that whether or not I like that depends entirely on the way it is presented. I absolutely love him losing his patience in The Curious Bride and The Elusive Element. Those episodes, to me, are classic, and I have giggled in amusement over the lawyers’ clashes in them.

On the other hand, I absolutely detest how the clashes were handled in The Final Fade-Out (as I’ve complained about more than once) and The 12th Wildcat. The latter episode repulses me far more than even the scenario in the series finale. In The Final Fade-Out, it seemed more that poor Mr. Burger was humiliated and taking out his feelings on Perry without fully thinking or really believing Perry guilty, since he later calmed down so inexplicably. But in The 12th Wildcat he absolutely without a doubt has a serious chip on his shoulder. He behaves during court in icy, unprofessional ways that are not like him and seems to have something personally against Perry’s client, who is a friend of Perry’s. The judge reprimands Mr. Burger at least half a dozen times. I have never seen him be chastised so often in one episode. Usually it’s once or twice at the most. And Perry was more frustrated in court than I have ever seen him, with the possible runner-up of The Sun-Bather’s Diary. And even that is no comparison for this.

There was a scene missing from the version I saw, a scene that may or may not have explained Mr. Burger’s behavior. So far I haven’t been able to find either confirmation or denial of that. But what I can say is that throughout the series Perry has had many clients who are personal friends of his. I have never seen Mr. Burger behave towards any of them as he behaved towards the client in The 12th Wildcat. As far as I’m concerned, if there was no specific reason given for such outrageous conduct, then it is a clear case of out-of-character behavior and the writers were just being very lax.

And I can fully believe it, as lo and behold, I actually have a problem with that episode that has nothing to do with Mr. Burger. And this is a doosy, folks: The crime is not explained. We are finally shown at the end that the man supposedly killed is not dead at all. We are left to assume that the dead man is someone else who has been missing. But nothing is ever said about that, or about who murdered him! Most likely it was the fellow who is alive but was thought dead. Still, there is no excuse for not explaining it. The way it’s left, there’s no visible reason why it could not be argued that Perry’s client killed the person who really was dead (perhaps by conspiring with the man who wasn’t dead, who is her husband). Instead, in the epilogue, everything is apparently hunky-dory after showing that he is really alive. Everyone is toasting the end of the case and Perry is proclaimed the 12th Wildcat. It’s a cute ending, but it is highly unsatisfactory.

Anyway, after smarting from that trainwreck of an episode, I have been more suspicious of The Shapely Shadow than ever. I wondered if it would be anything like The 12th Wildcat and I was not looking forward to another episode like that.

Well, it aired on my station last night and I finally was able to see for myself.

The plot is amazing. The episode’s status as an above-average venture is well earned. It reminds me of some of the incredible twists in season 1’s episodes, which is not unusual since this one, also, was based upon one of Gardner’s books, as most (if not all) season 1 episodes are.

Mr. Burger’s outbursts and behavior were neither of the Curious Bride variety nor of the 12th Wildcat variety. Instead, it was another category altogether—the category that makes me feel plum sorry for the guy.

This episode is a rare jury trial venture, rather than a preliminary hearing. Mr. Burger presents a very solid-seeming case and then rests. Perry, due to lack of evidence for the defense, rests his own case and moves to go directly to the arguments. Mr. Burger is taken aback. But he consents, and allows Perry to go first (presumably because the prosecution is not ready). Perry’s argument seems very logical. Then he comes to a possibility that had not been considered before. Mr. Burger is not impressed by it. When his turn comes, he repeatedly tries to tear down Perry’s argument, Perry objects, and the judge sustains. Mr. Burger pleads that if the judge will give him an hour, he will bring in evidence to counter Perry’s questions. It’s granted, but in the end Perry’s theory is proven true. Mr. Burger’s reaction to this is not shown.

Was it professional for him to fumble and stammer and end up presenting his own argument to the jury by trying to attack Perry’s argument, rather than to simply present his own, unbiased argument? It was very unprofessional. He had been thrown for a complete loop by Perry’s passing on presenting a case for the defense and determining to move directly to the arguments, but he should always be prepared for anything, especially in his position.

However, he is only human. And oh, how I can relate to his befuddled feelings. Many is the time that I have had something thrown at me that I completely did not expect at all and I reacted by fumbling and stammering and reaching in desperation for an appropriate response. When he was pleading for the judge to hear him out and to allow him time to put together a proper response to Perry’s questions, I didn’t feel the slightest urge to laugh. Nor was I outraged by the writing. I did not proclaim it out-of-character; I felt it was in-character. And I just felt pity.

Without a doubt it was not one of Mr. Burger’s best or most noble days in court, but it was certainly better than the one he had in The 12th Wildcat. The Shapely Shadow, at its heart, showed a sympathetic, endearing flail. He was neither sympathetic nor endearing in The 12th Wildcat. And while he has behaved similar to his desperate behavior in The Shapely Shadow on multiple occasions (just not to the same extent), as far as I can tell there is no precedent for his cold misconduct in The 12th Wildcat.

I wonder if he was still on a high from his third narcotics bust and was feeling a bit prideful when he tried the case in The 12th Wildcat. That would be human behavior, but most unprofessional and unlike him, and I don’t appreciate there not appearing to be an explanation for his actions. Plus, I’m not sure prideful would translate into cold for him. Any way I look at the problem, it does not translate into in-character behavior for me.

I think that Mr. Burger became a better, more open-minded prosecutor over the many seasons of the show because of how Perry was a challenge to him. Perry, although likely not deliberately trying to do so, pushed him to go further. I realize that with the formulaic nature of the show character development opportunities were more limited, but they were there, and they were taken as often as they could be. Mr. Burger changed so much over the seasons that to see something like The 12th Wildcat just makes me cringe. Even in season 1 it would have made me cringe, but to see it in the final season was so much worse.

To me, season 9 is starting to feel like a reboot of the series. It’s common knowledge that the producers were worried that Andy was too friendly and too permissive, so they brought in Lieutenant Drumm (who, honestly enough, is very friendly too, and perhaps the only thing I really like about the final season). After seeing The 12th Wildcat, I started to have the feeling that maybe they felt Mr. Burger had become too friendly as well and that they had to return to season 1’s roots—only they dug a bit too deep and went too far the other direction. I am hoping I am wrong and that The 12th Wildcat is just one terrible flub, instead of one of many flubs.

I have mentioned that William Talman came to have fun with the scenes where Mr. Burger loses it. I’m sure he enjoyed filming scenes in all three of the episodes I’ve been discussing. And I don’t blame him for that one bit. Heck, after nine years of apparently almost always losing to one person, I think just about anyone would be frustrated. I think I myself would have had fun filming a scene similar to the one where Mr. Burger blows his stack in The Final Fade-Out. It would feel wonderful to finally release all of the frustrations the character would likely have by that point.

However! Although William basically implied that he felt Mr. Burger’s behavior in The Final Fade-Out was in-character, and said that Hamilton may have even wanted to hit Perry, I can’t help but feel that he was basing that interpretation of the character on how Mr. Burger would react to the trappings of the formulaic nature of the series. If they had been allowed to branch out a bit more, even show Mr. Burger winning now and then (and to that end, be more realistic), I believe that William might have had a bit of a different view on the character. He admitted that having fun with the losing streak we saw on the show was something that was learned over time, indicating that he was not happy with it when he realized it would always be that way.

Of course, I don’t and would never claim to be able to speak for William or to ever know what he was actually thinking. And I can only base my thoughts on how I myself have felt in similar situations (such as the role-play issues I mentioned in an earlier post).

But I like to hope that he would like what I have done with the character and the series in my stories. I am not restrained by any formula. I am free to branch out, to allow Mr. Burger to win sometimes, and to further develop angles that were introduced in the series—his friendship with Perry, his interest in justice, and his interaction with other characters. I hope that William would understand why I reject an episode such as The 12th Wildcat because of how glaringly it goes against character development and yet how at the same time I can agree that something such as The Final Fade-Out makes sense when considering the formula (even if I personally don’t care for the demonstration).

As for season 5's The Shapely Shadow, I hope it stands as further proof that Mr. Burger did not display drastically out-of-character behavior until season 9. Then there would be a very small amount of such episodes to face. Not to mention that it would further my case that season 9 is different, often unflatteringly so.

(Of course, even season 9 isn’t all bad. I am developing a fondness for the one color episode, The Twice-Told Twist, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Positive Negative. I also seem to remember I enjoyed The Sausalito Sunrise, although I prefer its original, The Moth-Eaten Mink.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Case of the Memento Mori Murderer: Exploring possible interaction between Della Street and Hamilton Burger

Currently I’m in the middle of working on my second multi-chapter Perry mystery, The Case of the Memento Mori Murderer. The plot of this one involves Perry having been abducted by a vengeful madman and the others racing against time to save him, in between scenes of Perry at odds with his abductors. I’m approaching the climax now, and I’m excited to introduce the final, shocking twists.

It’s been quite a bit different working on this story as opposed to its predecessor. For that story, The Persecuted Prosecutor, I had a definite outline and plan all the way along. By contrast, with this story I have a vague outline and am feeling my way in the dark, so to speak. It’s reminiscent of the mystery series I wrote for the anime Yu-Gi-Oh!, the stories of which were generally written on the fly, based on vague concepts in my mind. Sometimes the only things tying the events together were several firm ideas for scenes throughout the story. I don’t particularly like writing that way; I was thrilled when I had a concrete outline for The Persecuted Prosecutor. But when a story comes to me in a particular way, I have to write it in that way. Attempting otherwise only results in forcing it and it doesn’t help.

In this case, the ideas I had for certain points in the story were the basic concept, a scene where Mr. Burger is attacked while investigating, and the importance of a locket found in Perry’s apartment, dropped by one of the abductors. As I’ve felt my way along I’ve connected each element and am now weaving together the solution of the mystery.

I’ll confess, the big draw for me about working on this story was to have the door opened for character interaction the likes of which was rarely seen on the series. Hamilton Burger and Lieutenant Tragg team up with Della and Paul during the search, and there has been some emphasis on Hamilton and Della conversing.

Hamilton, gravely concerned about Perry’s safety, brings in a good number of his staff to work on the case in the middle of the night. He is planning to go out and search on his own, but is intercepted by Della arriving and hoping that there has been some news. Realizing that Hamilton is going to actively investigate in the city, she wants to go along. Of course he protests. But knowing that she will only go off on her own if he refuses, he decides that it would be safer for her to just come with him.

There have been scenes of their interaction since meeting in Perry's apartment in chapter 2. It’s been interesting trying to determine how they will respond to and behave around each other. Such scenes between them were something scarcely seen on the television series. It seems that Hamilton mainly interacted with Della upon the occasional questioning of her as a witness or by calling the office and reaching her, whereupon the conversation would be heard from Della’s point-of-view or told to Perry by her after the fact. Then there is the infamous and intense episode The Weary Watchdog, in which Della is being charged as an accessory. I haven’t seen this episode in years, but I should have the chance in a few weeks. Meanwhile, however, I remember none of the details of what happened. I have been trying to find out if Hamilton showed visible regret about prosecuting Della, as he did Paul Drake, but I haven’t had any success on that front. The characters make brief reference to this disaster during the story, in a way that should not violate whatever exchanges they may have had during the episode.

I am not certain how Hamilton sees Della. Perhaps it’s mainly as Perry’s girl Friday. From what I’ve seen, when speaking with her he is very polite. He almost charges her with a crime in an early episode (#12, I believe), but Perry convinces him not to because she was acting under his orders. Hamilton then wants to charge Perry, and in that instance, if I remember right, he had valid reasons.

Della seems to like him alright, despite displeasure over the times when she was called as a witness. She never gives much indication of her thoughts concerning him, but from her attitude she appears to be somewhat amused and perhaps even gently, platonically fond of him. To my surprise she even referred to him by his first name once (although he wasn’t present at the time). Paul, on the other hand, did not seem to like him in season 1, based on Paul’s attitude and several comments he made, and I am unsure if his opinion ever lightened. (Although he was amused in the final episode when Hamilton was so awkward about the dinner invitation-slash-apology.)

In the story their interaction is polite, with Hamilton switching between addressing her as Della or Miss Street depending on what sort of audience they have. (He would probably call her Miss Street all the time if it were not for him saying Della in the final episode.) She has always called him Mr. Burger. But there is an indication that they are friends on some level, their different positions in the justice system notwithstanding.

I believe the most challenging scene to work out was in chapter 7, where Hamilton has been attacked and Della and the others search for and eventually find him.

Della’s behavior throughout both stories has been an interesting challenge, likely deserving of a post by itself. She manages to keep so calm and collected on the series. I believe we only see her afraid a handful of times. But in my stories she has to be visibly panicked, horrified, and worried at various points while not going out of character. In The Persecuted Prosecutor there is a threat against Perry. In this current story, a different threat is present and Perry is in immediate danger of his life. As she says, it’s something she’s feared for a long time and now it’s actually happening. As time goes on she becomes all the more obviously afraid for Perry’s safety. And then thrown into that is Mr. Burger going missing and being discovered hurt.

Of course Della is horrified by this. Even if she didn’t like Mr. Burger, she would not want him harmed. And I believe she does like him, which the stories reflect. But I was concerned over achieving the proper balance of her concern over Perry and her concern over Hamilton. I didn’t want it to look like she was more worried for Hamilton, yet I also didn’t want it look like she wasn’t worried enough. Not to mention I was wondering (and still am, to be honest) if someone would think that with that scene, and their interaction in the story in general, I was attempting to set them up romantically. I would never do that; Della is meant to be with Perry, as far as I’m concerned—even though I don’t actively ship them as a couple. But I find the idea of her and Mr. Burger interacting to be fascinating and I like the thought that they are friends.

Perry himself also has presented a bit of a challenge in this story, as his abductor taunts and pushes him to the point where he is absolutely outraged at the treatment of his friends. An angry Perry is something only occasionally glimpsed in the series, and when he's mad, watch out! It has been interesting and intense, as well as heart-breaking, to write Perry's fury and his helplessness to stop what's going on outside of his prison.

I am hoping to write more for Paul in the future chapters, and stories. But his dialogue and thoughts don’t come to me as easily as those for Perry, Della, and Hamilton, or even Lieutenant Tragg. For some reason, of the main five, Paul’s mind is the most difficult for me to get into. Nevertheless, I like what I have written for him and feel I’ve done it well.

Another surprise about this story is that Lieutenant Anderson is a supporting character later on. I had nothing against Andy, but I had no desire to write for him because I preferred to keep my stories in an era of the original five. Strangely enough, it was seeing Wesley Lau portray Mr. Fallon in his first Perry appearance that made me fond enough of him and of Andy to fully welcome him as part of the cast. While I don’t want to elevate him to the same status Tragg holds, I decided that I do want him around. (And I feel horribly guilty that I wasn’t aware Wesley Lau also passed away on an August 30th. Expect a belated memorial post for him soon.) It’s possible—probable, honestly—that Lieutenant Drumm will eventually appear in a story as well, although likely not this one. While I’m discovering more and more that I really don’t like season 9, I do like him.

Overall, while this story is more challenging than The Persecuted Prosecutor on a number of levels, I also find it even more rewarding. I have a better handle on the characters and am continuing to learn about them. I’m expanding monologue sections and delving more into their thoughts. And I’m pressing forward to a twist climax that I don’t think the readers have guessed yet. I’m eager to see what will happen next.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Park Avenue Beat: The Iconic Opening Sequences

This may seem perhaps a surprising subject to approach, but it's really rather interesting. And it opens a seeming mystery that I would like solved. Those who have already read this post, please scroll down for an update on said mystery.

Today I am discussing the opening sequences from the various seasons. The opening is the very first thing old and new viewers alike will see concerning the series and the characters, no matter which episode they are watching. Sometimes, whether a newcomer continues watching an episode of any series depends on the quality of the opening. Therefore, I find it quite significant.

The great majority of the openings only feature Perry Mason; however, the original two openings (used for seasons 1-2 and most of 3) feature all five principal cast members.

The first opening was used only for season 1. It features the title in a unique font that I don’t believe was used again. Perry picks up some information of his that he was showing to the judge. (Or is it that week’s script? That would be amusing.) He takes it to a table where the other four main characters are seated. He hands it to Della and Paul, who examine it while Hamilton Burger and Lieutenant Tragg look on. Paul then passes it to Hamilton, who looks it over and hands it to Tragg. The Lieutenant only gives it a cursory look and hands it to Perry.

It’s the same format used for the second opening, but there are key differences. For instance, everyone is at the same table. Why? To save on money and filming time? It’s a fun image, but it doesn’t make much sense for a court of law. Also, the names of the four at the table are superimposed over the center of the picture, largely blocking the people from view. This is annoying and frustrating. We would certainly like to actually see the persons whose names we are being told!

The second opening improves on this scenario. Perry still delivers some information to be examined, but he hands it to Della and Paul at the table for the defense. They look it over, then Perry takes it to the table for the prosecution. Hamilton looks at it, is surprised, and passes it to Tragg, who still gives it just a cursory glance. Throughout, the names of the people and the characters they play are placed at the bottom of the screen, underneath each person. At last we can see!

This opening was used in season 2 and until the last third of season 3, when the disaster happened that resulted in William Talman’s suspension/firing. The next episode aired after that (The Crying Cherub) opened the same way, but then froze on the image of the information in Perry’s possession before showing anyone else. The episode title and the cast were superimposed on top of that image, with one glaring exception.

Season 4 gave us a spanking new opening, which was used for season 5 as well. I confess that the second opening is my favorite, but I believe the one used in seasons 4 and 5 is the most epic.

It opens on an aerial view of the courtroom, depicting Perry approaching the judge’s bench. The scene appears to be made with some sort of figures; all is in shades of gray, as though statues or models. Then a shot is shown of Raymond Burr as Perry, taking up a pad of paper. He looks at it and the image freezes. As the camera pans back, Perry is depicted on the sword held by Lady Justice. The episode title and the cast list appear, sometimes to the side, sometimes in three or four spaces across the screen, with two on top and two on the bottom.

The opening for season 6 abolishes the almost surreal and symbolic nature of the previous theme. It returns us to the courtroom, but still Perry is the only character around. He is shown in an empty courtroom, studying the information he will be presenting when everyone arrives for the day’s case.

Season 7 keeps the same basic idea, but features Perry entering the empty courtroom, thoughtfully looking around, and taking his seat. The themes for seasons 8 and 9 are variations on that of season 6.

Obviously the original change in the opening’s format came about because of the problem concerning William Talman. CBS wanted to be rid of him, so the opening featuring him could no longer be shown. But they had no replacement, so it could not be reshot. They finished season 3 with the chopped-up version of the second opening and then likely opted for the new season 4 theme with only Raymond Burr present because that would solve the issue of not being able to show William.

What I fail to understand is, why didn’t they return to the idea of having all the cast members present in the opening once William Talman was reinstated as a regular by season 5? Did they prefer to keep promoting the show with only Perry at the helm, effectively reducing everyone else to supporting roles? Of course Perry was always the main character, but in the early seasons there were frequent visits to Hamilton’s office and other unique scenes featuring him and the other characters. There were regrettably less of these scenes as the seasons went on—although there are some absolutely wonderful scenes in the later episodes too. The Fatal Fetish, for one, is filled with them.

Could the decision to have Perry-only openings have instead been caused due to further problems with the cast? It was in season 5 when Ray Collins’ health began to seriously deteriorate and they first brought in Wesley Lau to play Lieutenant Andy Anderson. Of course, things never were quite the same after that; Ray began to appear less and less until the latter part of season 7, when he made his final episode.

Also, it seems that even though William Talman was once again a regular cast member, his status among the other regulars had been permanently altered. During the latter part of season 4, when CBS finally allowed him to make occasional appearances, his name appeared only in the episodes in which he appeared. Of course, all the other regulars’ names continued to be listed for every episode, even ones in which one or more of them were not present. This was, and is, standard procedure for all regular cast members in any television series. It should have been the case for William in season 5, as it had been in the first seasons. Instead, for at least most of the rest of the series’ run, his name only appeared when he was actually in an episode. Again, why? The problems had been fixed. As far as I know, there was no danger of him being dropped from the show a second time. So why on earth didn’t he receive on-screen credit for every episode of the series from season 5 through season 9, just as he did in seasons 1, 2, and most of 3?

Whoever designed the openings certainly treated Ray Collins well. He remained in the credits until the end of season 8, although I believe he passed away in the middle of the season and hadn’t even appeared in any season 8 episodes. But he was well-honored, remembered, and loved. Even though Andy was listed under Ray’s name in the ending credits, neither Wesley Lau’s nor Richard Anderson’s names ever appeared in the opening credits, either under or in place of Ray’s name. It was, I believe, the show’s way of saying that Ray could never be replaced. It’s a moving and deserving tribute.

Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering why William Talman didn’t receive that level of consideration and again be credited for every episode once he was restored to his rightful place as a regular. There are others who have voiced their confusion on this matter too, but there seem to be no answers. We are left to our bewilderment and, at least in my case, indignation. To me it feels a grave injustice to a beloved cast member.

EDIT: From what I have since seen following the original publishing of this post, it appears to be only, possibly in season 9 when William was finally restored to full regular cast member status. I stumbled across an episode late in the series' run, The Misguided Model, in which William was credited but did not apparently appear (unless his scenes were cut out during syndication). I wonder if it was when they sadly had to remove Ray Collins from the cast list at the beginning of season 9 that they decided to restore William's privilege of always being listed whether or not he was in an episode. I will continue to look into this. It is certainly good if he finally regained that well-deserved honor, but I am still unhappy if it took them until the final season to set things right.

But there was one thing that thankfully never changed throughout the series’ run. Some shows gain new theme songs with each season or after several seasons. Others always keep their original theme music. Perhaps they would recut the song a few times, but the song would basically remain the same. The strains of Park Avenue Beat, that perfectly ominous, intense, and exciting jazz tune, will forever be associated with the Perry Mason television series. Whenever I hear those first bars, no matter where I am in the house, I know Perry is coming. And, as I often say when I am particularly impressed by something, the person who came up with that concept (in the case of this song, Fred Steiner) was a genius.

Just as it should be.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Further Thoughts on Mr. Burger and the Formulaic Nature of the Series

I imagine it’s obvious by now that this blog, while attempting to be a general interest Perry Mason chronicle, has a definite pro-Hamilton Burger slant. It’s not only that I love the character and want to talk about him, but also that I feel not enough is said about him in the fandom. I know that I myself would love to stumble across a blog in favor of Mr. Burger or any of my favorite characters; hence, I write what I would enjoy reading and am gratified if anyone else enjoys it as well.

Of course, it’s not just Mr. Burger, but also his actor, whom I admire. I love William Talman’s devotion to his family and his sense of humor. I have read several articles both by and about him and have only come to further appreciate him.

From what I have gathered from these articles, William was not happy with the formulaic nature of Perry Mason, which said that his character would always (or almost always) lose the cases. The writers even had several scripts where Mr. Burger won, but Erle Stanley Gardner, who had to approve each script, rejected them all. When William realized it was never going to be different, he determined that he had to learn to be happy with things as they were. He developed a humorous outlook on Mr. Burger’s losing streak and often cracked jokes about it. He also had fun with the scenes where Mr. Burger completely loses it, particularly in The Final Fade-Out.

While it’s not the same situation, I can relate to William having to adapt to an honestly frustrating scenario that will never change. Among my favorite hobbies to take part in is role-playing. And I don’t mean the tabletop games where dice are rolled and people choose their actions based on the dice. With my kind of role-playing, each person takes on one or more characters to portray. They’re brought together on a message board or in a chat room or instant messenger conversation and enact storylines. Sometimes, due to a particular storyline or plot, one is faced with the problem of needing to have their characters react to situations or behave in ways the role-player would not choose to if they had full control over what was going to happen. To be a good sport, all that can be done in such scenarios is often to simply adapt to it and go along with what the game’s moderators or other players want.

Did William want Mr. Burger to almost always lose? No, I don’t think he did. But I admire him all the more for deciding to make the best of it. He, and the writers, did wonders with the character as far as Gardner would let them take him. Mr. Burger developed so very much beyond the blustering antagonist of the books. I can’t praise his portrayal in the series enough.

As has been said before, even though I’m certain Mr. Burger would like to win, he never allows those feelings to get in the way of seeing justice done. He accepts his losses against Perry, and sometimes actively works with Perry to bring the true criminals to light. The Prudent Prosecutor is only one of quite a few episodes where they team up, and in all honesty, some other episodes feature them working more closely together than this one does. The Prudent Prosecutor’s most unique feature is Mr. Burger asking Perry for help for his friend, which will be explored in detail in a future post. A later episode, The Shifty Shoebox, features them trying to solve the case together in the latter moments and also includes another surprise: at one point, Mr. Burger exclaims in dismay to Perry that he made a mistake. Certainly this is a declaration that likely never would have been heard in season 1 and most assuredly would not have appeared in the books.

Some people say that Mr. Burger must be incompetent, to lose so often. I honestly blame it mostly on Gardner’s refusal to even just bend the formula a bit. Mr. Burger is an intelligent man. He runs the D.A.’s office with efficiency and precision. And even though the audience knows Perry’s clients are always (or almost always) going to be innocent, some of them look pretty darn guilty. Mr. Burger does his best to put together his cases against them, investigating all the angles he and the police find. And Mr. Burger is often proving that he’s one step ahead of Perry, surprising him in court by producing a witness that could not be found or bringing evidence for the prosecution that Perry wanted investigated for the defense. Perry is an awesome lawyer, there’s no doubt of that. But if it were not for Gardner’s insistence on the formula, Perry would not win as much as he does. It simply isn’t done; it’s not realistic.

However, Mr. Burger may not actually lose against Perry as much as it might seem when examining the series off-hand. It occurred to me the other day that for every time there is a jury trial, it means Perry lost the preliminary hearing (which we usually see him win). Of course Perry himself says to Paul something to the effect of that not being important compared to the trial’s outcome. Still, when most of the time the series shows us preliminary hearings and not jury trials, it is significant and something to think about.

Upon giving the matter of the formula some serious thought, I am still displeased and stunned by Mr. Burger’s outlandish outburst in The Final Fade-Out. And as I attempted to explain before, it is not really the fact that Mr. Burger accused Perry of having the witness lead him into the trap that appalled me; it’s the fact that Mr. Burger accused Perry of doing so just to make him look ridiculous. I honestly can’t think of any time in the series, except in season 1, when Mr. Burger made such claims. He matured beyond such accusations in the other seasons, only accusing Perry now and then of some sort of “legal tightrope walking” but not suggesting that Perry was deliberately trying to show him up.

I pondered before that perhaps the real reason for Mr. Burger’s outburst in that last episode was that he was so humiliated at being led into the trap by the witness that he lashed out without truly believing that Perry was responsible and wanting to make him look foolish. That would explain why he calmed down for no apparent reason. I will add to this idea now that perhaps in reality, Mr. Burger was really yelling at the writers and Mr. Gardner for being the ones to make him look foolish; a thinly-veiled in-joke at all the years he had endured ridicule from the series’ viewers due to the formula and Mr. Gardner’s insistence that Perry must win.

After all, we know The Final Fade-Out was rife with in-jokes and sly references. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Mr. Burger was finally getting his say.