Inside the Archive: Perry Mason in the Post

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For decades, the Post was considered the pinnacle of the magazine-fiction market. Authors knew if their story or serialized novel appeared in the magazine, they’d reached the big point in their career.

The Post had introduced G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown to America, as well as Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot. And in 1937, the Post brought millions of readers Perry Mason in Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lame Canary.

Mason wasn’t a complete unknown. He’d first appeared in The Case of the Velvet Claws with the words, “Perry Mason sat at the big desk. There was about him the attitude of one who is waiting. His face in repose was the like the face of a chess player who is studying the board. That face seldom changed expression. Only the eyes changed expression.”

The Mason of this early work showed the pulp-fiction roots of his author, Erle Stanley Gardner. He has none of the smoothly polished manner of his TV persona. The character is a little rough around the edges, but so is the writing. At this point in his career — 1933 — Gardner was a long way from becoming the country’s most popular mystery narrator.

But the story has many redeeming qualities, particularly Mason’s ability to see motive behind lies, which enabled Gardner to sell his next Mason novel: The Case of the Sulky Girl.

By his tenth Perry Mason novel, Gardner’s work met with the approval from the Post’s fiction editors. And so The Case of the Lame Canary was serialized across eight issues beginning May 29, 1937.

Mason returned in 1942 in The Case of the Careless Kitten, which ran in the Post May 23̶July 11, 1952, a mystery that featured, according to one critic, “a well constructed mystery plot with an ingenious solution.”

The Post can’t take credit for establishing Gardner’s reputation, but we did help get Perry Mason ready for television. According to one source, Gardner dropped some of Mason’s pulp-fiction characteristics for the Post readership. He also added more love interest and made Mason less willing to bend the law to help clients.

Gardner’s Mason novels appeared frequently through the 1950s and early 1960s. Overall, the Post serialized 16 of his cases.

Perry Mason in the Post

Saturday Evening Post members can read these and other stories from our complete archives. Subscribe today.

Just as Gardner reshaped Perry Mason for the Post readership, the Post re-imaged Mason to reflect his more familiar incarnation: TV’s Raymond Burr. The Post’s story illustrations show a strong TV influence.

Perry Mason was far from Gardner’s only character. He wrote stories with a number of protagonists. One the less famous is Peter Quint, who stars in three stories about a salesman who is fast witted and imaginative (though he’s no Alexander Botts). All three Quint stories appeared in the Post.

Peter Quint in the Post

Gardner also offered the view from the prosecution table with a character named Doug Selby. He’s a District Attorney elected on a reform platform. He solves mysteries in a rural California county while fighting political corruption. His nemesis is a ruthless, crooked defense attorney. Two Selby stories ran in the Post.

Doug Selby in the Post

Featured image: Illustration by James R. Bingham for “The Case of the Greedy Grandpa” by Earle Stanley Gardner, from the October 25, 1958, issue of the Post (© SEPS).

The Case of the Return of Perry Mason

“The Case of the Return of Perry Mason” instantly seemed the obvious and appropriate title for this feature. After all, this coming Sunday sees the return to television of one of the longest-standing characters in modern American media in a brand-new HBO series. And “The Case of”? Well, that’s obvious, too; all of the Perry Mason novels and films and TV episodes began with that. Here’s where it seems kind of funny, though: Perry Mason would have had to have gone away to return. As it stands, the character and his supporting cast have been part of American popular culture for nearly a century. It would seem that this makes this “The Case of Perry Mason and How He Became an Icon.”

The author of the Perry Mason books, Erle Stanley Gardner, published his first story in 1923. His original vocation, that of a trial lawyer, had started to bore him. Nevertheless, his predilection for defending immigrants and others at the mercy of the system would certainly inform his work in his second field. The prolific Gardner established a number of pseudonyms so that he could contribute more stories to various outlets; among his regular markets were Argosy, Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly, and, later on, The Saturday Evening Post. Gardner would eventually leave his law firm in 1933 upon the publication of his novel The Case of the Velvet Claws.

That novel is notable as the first appearance of defense lawyer Perry Mason, his assistant, Della Street, and his good friend and private investigator, Paul Drake. In that first book, Mason outlines his mission statement, describing himself as “a specialist on getting people out of trouble.” Outside of Mason’s legal brilliance and propensity for clearing his clients by producing a confession from the guilty party, you don’t learn a whole lot of Mason’s private life at all. That doesn’t change much over the course of the 80 Mason novels that Gardner wrote between 1933 and 1970. It may also be part of his appeal; his forthright protection of his client and his investigations with his two dedicated partners are backstory enough.

Still from the film, "The Case of the Lucky Legs"
A promotional image from the film The Case of the Lucky Legs, starring Genevieve Tobin as Della Street, Warren William as Perry Mason, and Patricia Ellis. (Warner Bros.; no photographer credited / Public domain)

Mason proved instantly popular — enough for Hollywood to come calling. Warner Bros. knocked out six Mason films between 1934 and 1937, four of which starred Warren William in the lead. Claire Dodd played Della twice; in a strange divergence from novel continuity, the film series saw Mason and Della get married. Weirdly enough, another Mason novel was adapted in 1940 under a different title. The Case of the Dangerous Dowager was adapted as Granny Get Your Gun, but the film discards Mason and his regulars in favor of being a wacky comedy.

Radio beckoned, so the stories were adapted into the CBS Radio series Perry Mason. Each episode was 15 minutes long; the hugely popular show ran from 1943 to 1955. By 1956, CBS wanted to transition the show to television. When they pitched Gardner on the idea of making it a daytime serial that he would write, he balked, particularly at the network notion of giving Mason love interests. He withdrew from the idea, taking Mason with him. However, Mason radio writer Irving Vendig wrote a pitch that starred basically a copy of Mason, and that became The Edge of Night. The mystery flavored soap was popular in its own right and ran from 1956 to 1975 on CBS; in 1975, it jumped over to ABC and ran until 1984, 28 years in all.

CBS wasn’t quite done with Mason, so they went back to Gardner with the idea of doing a prime-time series that retained the original flavor of the character. Gardner agreed, and the Perry Mason TV series was born. The executive producer was Gardner’s friend, Gail Patrick Jackson; she, her husband Thomas Cornwall Jackson (Gardner’s agent), and Gardner formed the production company Paisano Productions. Gardner sold an option to CBS on 272 of his stories and a dozen major Mason characters through the production company; the deal provided that the partners own 60 percent of the show. Casting was laborious, but Gardner loved the guy chosen for Mason, actor Raymond Burr; the other lead roles were filled out by Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, and William Talman as Mason’s frequent courtroom antagonist, L.A. D.A. Hamilton Burger.

The show was a massive success. During its 1957 to 1966 run, it was one of the most popular shows on TV. It won an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series in its first season, and would net two for Burr and one for Hale over its run. Its theme by Fred Steiner is one of the most familiar on television. 67 of the 69 Mason novels that Gardner wrote before 1963 were adapted into episodes of the show. Gardner had daily involvement with the show, reading and approving scripts and showing particular interest that matters of law were represented with accuracy; he also played a judge in the final episode of the series, “The Case of the Final Fade-Out.” The show was cancelled by CBS in 1966, despite its ongoing popularity.

CBS tried to reboot the series in 1973 with a new cast, but it flamed out after half a season. Fortunately, Gardner didn’t see it. The incredibly prolific writer and staunch defender of his characters had died in 1970.

In 1985, producer Dean Hargrove took on the task of bringing Mason back to TV in a series of TV movies for NBC. At the time, he was known for his work on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., McCloud, and Columbo. Hargrove managed to get Burr and Hale back as Mason and Street; unfortunately, William Hopper had passed away in interim. Hargrove had the inspiration to cast Hale’s real-life son, William Katt (best known for The Greatest American Hero) as Paul Drake Jr., carrying on his dad’s role as Mason’s right-hand man. Burr and Hale made 26 TV movies between 1985 and 1993; Katt stuck around for nine, and was replaced by new character Ken Malansky, played by William R. Moses. Burr died in 1993, but they retitled the films as A Perry Mason Mystery and had guest actors like Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook play fill-in characters alongside Hale, under the pretense that Mason was out of town. The series ended in 1995.

Mason stories haven’t been confined to TV. The character and his cast have appeared in comic books and were featured in a newspaper strip from 1950 to 1952. The Colonial Radio Theater on the Air started adapting Mason novels into full-cast audio dramas in 2008. For decades, the Burr series has been a staple of syndication and has been widely available on DVD. When the streaming age began, the show found new interest; the first seven seasons currently stream on CBS All Access.

The trailer for HBO’s Perry Mason. (Uploaded to YouTube by HBO)

Stamp featuring a screenshot from the vintage television drama Perry Mason.
(catwalker /

That brings us to today, and the all-new version hitting HBO. The new series boasts all-star producers, including Team Downey (the production company of Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan), and Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald, who are known for Friday Night Lights and other programs. The show is set in 1932, the year before the first novel was released. Matthew Rhys (The Americans) stars as Mason, while Chris Chalk plays Paul Drake and Juliet Rylance is the new Della Street. Breaking convention, the episodes are listed by chapter titles (“Chapter One,” for example), rather than “The Case of . . .” The handful of critics who have filed reviews, including Dan Fienberg from The Hollywood Reporter, Judy Berman from Time, and Alan Sepinwall from Rolling Stone, have given high praise to the cast and the look of the show. It remains to be seen if America will embrace this new Perry Mason. Based on nearly a century’s worth of evidence, it’s probably safe to bet on a favorable verdict.

Featured image: Raymond Burr as Perry Mason from the 1961 CBS series (Cowles Communications, Inc.; photograph by Robert Vose / Public domain)

News of the Week: Super Paper, Super Bald Men, and Super Bowl Recipes for Sunday 

Paper Rules

Someone once asked me what my favorite app was, and I told them pen and paper. It’s true. I don’t use a smartphone, and I don’t 100 percent trust “the cloud,” so I’m very old school when it comes to taking notes and keeping things organized. I can’t live without my Moleskine and Field Notes notebooks and my Uni-ball 307 pens. I love the Kindle but I prefer print books. I’m a paper guy.

This BBC article about the joys of paper and the resurgence that it’s having made me smile (a real smile, not an emoji). And it’s not just older people clinging to nostalgia; it’s also millennials and younger people who grew up as digital-first natives. Studies show that people who actually write things down remember them better. There’s something about paper that is vital, necessary, something that will make it last, even if we constantly hear that print books and newspapers are going away and everything is digital digital digital. Or, as my friend William Powers puts it, paper is eternal. [PDF]

How important is paper? Try going to the restroom without it next time. There’s no app for that.

Yul Brynner
Professional actor (and bald guy) Yul Brynner
By CBS Television (eBay itemfrontback) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hair Is Overrated

I’m not saying this because I’m bald, even though I am, well, bald. I’m saying it because it’s science!

According to a University of Pennsylvania study, bald men are seen as more dominant, stronger, and even taller. Considering my height, I don’t really understand the “taller” part of that study, but I’ll take dominant and stronger.

The study also showed that men who are balding should just go ahead and shave off what hair they have left instead of using hair restoration products or doing that horrifying comb-over that isn’t fooling anybody.

The Best Airport in the World Is In…

Come on, guess! Is it in England, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, China? Nope, the best airport in the world is right here in the United States (and no, it’s not in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles).

It’s in Pittsburgh! It’s Pittsburgh International Airport. This is according to Air Transport World magazine, a publication that has been picking the best airport for the past four years. Previous winners are London’s Heathrow, Hong Kong International, and Singapore’s Changi.

I think airports instantly sound more important if they have “international” in their title.

RIP John Hurt, Barbara Hale, John Wetton, Mary Webster, Harold Hayes

John Hurt was an acclaimed veteran actor who appeared in such classic movies as The Elephant Man, Alien, Midnight Express, A Man for All Seasons, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Osterman Weekend, Watership Down, Rob Roy, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, plus several Harry Potter films. On TV he had roles in I, Claudius, The Storyteller, and Doctor Who. He will be seen in four movies later this year. Hurt passed away from cancer last Friday at the age of 77.

Barbara Hale was best known as Perry Mason’s assistant Della Street on the classic series Perry Mason and dozens of TV movies. She also had roles in movies like Airport, Gildersleeve’s Bad Day, The Boy with Green Hair, and The Window, as well as TV shows like Adam-12, Ironside, Playhouse 90, Lassie, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Her death at age 94 was first reported by her son, actor William Katt, star of The Greatest American Hero.

Musician and producer John Wetton was the lead singer and bassist for the supergroup Asia, who had hits like “Heat of the Moment,” “Don’t Cry,” and “Only Time Will Tell.” He was also in the bands UK and King Crimson and had stints in Roxy Music and Uriah Heep. He also released several solo albums over the years. He passed away after a long battle with cancer at the age of 67.

Mary Webster co-starred in one of my favorite movies, the 1957 Anthony Perkins/Henry Fonda western The Tin Star, as well as Jerry Lewis’s first film without Dean Martin, The Delicate Delinquent. She was also in the Vincent Price sci-fi adventure Master of the World and TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, Father Knows Best, Route 66, and The George Burns and Grace Allen Show. She passed away Monday at the age of 81.

Harold Hayes, a true American hero, was the last surviving member of a group of Army medics and nurses who escaped from Nazis during World War II. He was on a plane with 29 others when it was hampered by bad weather and German attacks, forcing it to land in Albania. All 30 of them — one with a badly injured knee — survived the 600-mile trek through hostile territory to freedom. Hayes passed away at the age of 94.

One Last Thing about Mary Tyler Moore

Did you see CBS’s hour-long tribute to Mary Tyler Moore? No? Good. You didn’t miss much. The show was all about Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, as the two talked and talked about how The Mary Tyler Moore Show affected them and how Moore went on Oprah’s show that time and how she empowered women. It looks like it was put together too quickly by someone who learned about Moore by reading Wikipedia. I thought it was more like The Oprah Winfrey Show than a real tribute to Moore, and when I checked Twitter, someone else thought the same thing:


That’s officially my favorite tweet of all time.

Earlier, Van Dyke was interviewed on CBS This Morning, and it’s better than that special, even if Charlie Rose does pronounce the character’s name wrong (it’s PET-rie, Charlie, not PEET-rie):

This Week in History

Prohibition Begins (January 29, 1919)

It lasted until December 5, 1933. Maybe you can remember Prohibition by making some moonshine.

Black Student Sit-In at Woolworth’s (February 1, 1960)

Four students sat in the whites-only section of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and were refused service. They came back later with more protestors, and the sit-in eventually grew to 300 people, which forced Woolworth’s to change its policy.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Norman Rockwell Born (February 3, 1894)

When you think of The Saturday Evening Post, you also think of artist Norman Rockwell. Here’s a look back at our Rockwell birthday issue from 1984, and here’s a terrific remembrance from his granddaughter Abigail, which includes a gallery of classic Rockwell Post covers.

Super Bowl Recipes

Super Bowl LI is this Sunday. It airs on Fox and starts at 6:30 p.m. ET. Believe it or not, the pre-game starts at 1 p.m., so you have approximately 5 1/2 hours to “get ready” to root for the New England Patriots or the Atlanta Falcons (as a Bay Stater, I have to put the Pats first in this sentence).

One of the things you can do during the afternoon is make food for the big game. Now, I’m going to assume that because this is the Super Bowl, you’re not going to want Beef Wellington or ceviche or a big plate of Papparelle with Sea Urchin and Cauliflower. You want football food. Stuff that’s probably not that great for you and requires a bunch of napkins.

How about these classic chili recipes from Emeril Lagasse? Chips and dips are big on Super Bowl Sunday, so how about this recipe for guacamole? And for drinks and dessert, go on over to the Today show website and get some recipes for root beer floats and Rice Krispies treats that look like football jerseys.

Me? I’ll be watching the game, but only for the commercials.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events​

National Weatherperson’s Day (February 5)

Four days ago the local meteorologists here said we were only going to get a dusting of snow today. Then, suddenly, yesterday’s forecast changed to 3 to 5 inches and I had to shovel. Maybe this is why we shouldn’t have 5- or 7- or 10-day forecasts. They’re never right.

But people dump on meteorologists all the time, so maybe this is one day we can send them a box of chocolates or an umbrella instead.

Safer Internet Day (February 7)

The safest internet is the one you never log on to, but if that’s not an option for you, you can read our tips for being a smart cyber citizen, learn how to prevent identity theft, and learn how to keep your kids safe when they’re online.