The show started airing when I was in third grade, but I’m not sure just when I began watching it. It’s all sort of confused with the Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason whodunits, which were among the best-selling paperbacks in those days.
My mother was a big fan of the books, and there were always a few Perry Mason paperbacks lying around the house. At some point I began to read them as well, but whether it was before or after I started watching the TV show, I don’t know.
I do know that by fifth grade I was an avid reader of the Mason whodunits, because of an incident that occurred on a class trip to the Capitol in Harrisburg. During a visit to a gift shop, I spied the rack of paperbacks and discovered a Perry Mason novel that we did not yet have, but when I tried to buy it, the sales clerk turned to our teacher, Miss Klopp (that would be Miss Irene Klopp) to see if it would be all right to sell it to me. You see, the Mason paperbacks invariably featured an illustration of a woman in a provocative pose, which generally promised a much more salacious read than was actually delivered. Miss Klopp sharply questioned me, and once I understood that they thought the book was too adult for me, I explained that my mother always read the books first and only allowed me to read them if she thought they were suitable. There was a kernel of truth in that. Anyway, they allowed me to make the purchase.
The Perry Mason whodunits first appeared in the 1930s, and I don’t think they ever lost the 30s atmosphere. They were filled with foot-loose dolls, negligent nymphs, and spurious spinsters, and the characters uttered epithets like “Hell’s bells!”
I learned lots of useful things from the Mason novels, as Gardner tried to keep the forensic science and legal gymnastics as accurate as possible within the confines of his twisty, turny plots. So I became quite an expert on rigor mortis, how long after death it would take to manifest, how long it would last, and various techniques for delaying or extending it. Sticking the corpse into a freezer was a good one.
And there were lots of legal terms to learn like habeas corpus, corpus delecti, and the differences between the various types of murder: 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, premeditated, etc. And many very useful phrases such as “I object, your honor. That question is incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial and not proper cross-examination.” I used that on my teachers a lot. (Not.)
I probably started watching the TV series around the same time that I started reading the novels. For me Raymond Burr is Perry Mason, Barbara Hale is Della Street, William Hopper is Paul Drake, and William Talman is Hamilton Burger. Only Ray Collins fails as Lt. Tragg; he’s too old compared to the character in the books although otherwise he’s perfectly fine.
Anyway, I was curious to see how the Perry Mason shows would stand up after all this time, and to my delight, they hold up quite well. Erle Stanley Gardner maintained tight control over the scripts, and he was adamant about keeping the characters true to the spirit of the books and keeping the courtroom and other legal procedures accurate. He went through a dozen writers before he settled on a group that could give him what he wanted, thus delaying the show for a year. So the shows are reasonably faithful to the books; the main problem is fitting so much plot into 53 minutes (TV shows didn’t have so many commercials in those days).
Oh, and I’ve also found The Perry Mason Book: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s Favorite Defender of Justice to be an invaluable resource. It has detailed information on Erle Stanley Gardner, the Perry Mason novels, comics, movies, radio shows, as well as the TV series (all of them) with interesting info about each episode. And no spoilers.
My only beef: With all that data (the print edition runs over a thousand pages) there’s nary a word about the Perry Mason theme music or how it came to be written. That jazzy theme (actual title “Park Avenue Beat”) by Fred Steiner is one of the all time top themes ever created for a TV series. There’s got to be a story behind it!
Update: I just realized that I wanted to name this “The Case of the Improper Cross-Examination” not “Incompetent”, but as my mother used to say, I schussled.