Friday, May 6, 2022

Perry Mason: "The Case of the Final Fade-Out"

This blog post is part of the Caftan Woman Blogathon Honoring Patricia Nolan-Hall, hosted by Jacqueline of Another Old Movie Blog and Patty of Lady Eve's Reel Life. For that reason I feel as if I should say something about Patricia Nolan-Hall, Paddy Lee to her many friends, before going onto the blog post proper. Paddy was author of the blog Caftan Woman. Paddy blogged for literally years. She launched Caftan Woman in 2008. She was also prolific. What is more, Paddy not only wrote her own blog, she also read many, many blogs and often left comments on them as well. Paddy had an enthusiasm for classic film and television that was unmatched by anyone. She had a sunny disposition and an uncanny knack for brightening anyone's day. She could also see the humour in most situations. Paddy had a very funny story about the time she was nearly run over by a garbage truck. I know it couldn't have been funny to her at the time, but Paddy told it in such a way that it was.With her positivity, her enthusiasm for classic film and television, and her devotion to her fellow bloggers, she was well loved in the classic film and television community,  I don't believe Paddy ever said so, but I have to think her favourite shows were Maverick and Perry Mason, as she wrote about those shows more than any other. For that reason, I chose to write about a Perry Mason episode for this blogathon. This one's for you, Paddy.
Today it seems as if every single television show has a series finale, but there was a time when they were relatively uncommon. Even when it was known ahead of time that a show was ending production, as when the producers of a show simply decided to bring it to a close, that show usually would not have a proper series finale. For example, the final episode of I Love Lucy differed little from other episodes of the show. That final episode, "The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue," centred on Ricky being chosen to dedicate statue that Lucy has inadvertently destroyed. That having been said, there were shows in the Fifties and Sixties that had proper series finales: The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Leave It To Beaver, and Route 66 being examples. Among those shows was Perry Mason.

Perry Mason centred on the defence attorney of that name and was based on the series of successful novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. It starred Raymond Burr in the title role, with Barbara Hale as his secretary Della Street and William Hopper as detective Paul Drake. Perry Mason was brought to television by Gail Patrick Jackson. If the name "Gail Patrick" sounds familiar, it is because she was an actress known for such movies as Death Takes a Holiday (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937), and My Favorite Wife (1940). She was also a friend of Erle Stanley Gardner and she had a law degree from the University of Alabama to boot. As the executive producer on Perry Mason, she was one of the first women to work as a producer in American television.

Perry Mason
debuted on CBS on September 21 1957 and it proved to be a huge hit. It always beat its competition, including a brand new Western on NBC titled Bonanza in its first two seasons. While Perry Mason was a ratings behemoth in its early years, its ratings would decline over time. Ranking no. 5 for the year in its fifth season, by its eighth season it had tumbled to a still respectable no. 38 for the year. In the meantime, Bonanza had moved from Saturday night to Sunday night, where its ratings grew until by 1964 it was the no. 1 show on the air. It was then for the 1965-1966 season that CBS decided to move Perry Mason to Sunday night in hopes of demolishing Bonanza. The show's lead, Raymond Burr, had wanted to leave the show since its fifth season, but CBS kept persuading him to remain with it. During the ninth season he once more expressed his desire to leave the show. CBS persuaded him to stay for one more season, which would be shot entirely in colour. It was only three weeks after CBS had persuaded him to stay with Perry Mason that he read in the trade papers that it had been cancelled.

Fortunately, the producers of Perry Mason had enough time to fashion a series finale for the show. Even had "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" not been the series finale, it would have been far from a typical episode of Perry Mason. Indeed, in "The Case of the Final Fade-Out," Perry finds himself dealing with two murder cases, one after the other. What is more, his client in the first case is the murder victim in the second case. In the first case the victim is Barry Conrad (James Stacy), the arrogant and self-centred star of a television series who will back stab anyone to further his career. When he winds up dead, television producer Jackson Sidemark (Denver Pyle) finds himself accused of murder. In the second case, it is Jackson Sidemark who winds up murdered. Perry's client is elderly actress Winifred Glover (Estelle Winwood). "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" also features one of the show's most interesting guest casts. In addition to James Stacy, Denver Pyle, and Estelle Winwood, other guest stars are Jackie Coogan, Gerald Mohr, and, in a rare dramatic role, Dick Clark.

One has to think "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" was meant as a love letter to the show's fans, and as a result many of the show's crew appear in the episode. The murder of Barry Conrad having taken place on a television set, the witnesses on that set were naturally the crew working on that set. Many of the witnesses questioned regarding Barry Conrad's murder were  then actual members of the crew, including cameraman Dennis Dalzell, set decorator Carl Biddiscombe, costume supervisor Evelyn Carruth, and hairdresser Annabell Levy, among others. Gail Patrick Jackson even makes an appearance in the episode. At the bar in a restaurant, she is commenting, "I wouldn't want to go up against Bonanza (as mentioned earlier, Perry Mason was scheduled against Bonanza in its final season)." An actress who looks suspiciously like Barbara Hale also appears in the scene in the restaurant, playing a blonde starlet from the South. As if all of this was not enough, Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason himself, appears as the judge in the second trial in the episode.

"The Case of the Final Fade-Out" was set at a television studio. Serving as the studio lot was none other other than the Chaplin Studios on N. La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. This is where many of Charlie Chaplin's classic movies were filmed, including The Kid, which starred a young Jackie Coogan. For Jackie Coogan, then, "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" must have seemed like old home week.

Many season finales, even those in the Sixties, offered, for lack of a better phrase, a note of finality to the particular series. In the series finale of Route 66, Tod Stiles gets married and gives up the open road. In the series finale of The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble finally catches up with the One Armed Man and clears his name. This is not the case with "The Case of the Final Fade-Out." At the end of the episode, it finds Perry, Della, and Paul about to embark on their next case. Indeed, Perry has the last words in the episode (and the series, for that matter), "Now, it seems to me the place to start is at the beginning." At the same time, while "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" ends with life going on for Perry, Della, and Paul, one cannot mistake the episode as anything but a series finale, or at the very least a season finale. Made at a time when series finales were rare, "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" remains one of the best.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

What a great post! A fantastic episode. I love the Perry Mason series, too, and I know Paddy was a big fan of the show. Her encyclopedic knowledge of movies transferred to TV, too, as we all well know. (I also remember the getting run over by a garbage truck story!) Thanks, Terrance, for taking part in this tribute to Paddy. I know she would have loved your essay.

FlickChick said...

If Paddy is with the angels reading your post, you know she has to be smiling. She loved her detectives to be no nonsense and no frills and Perry Mason certainly fits the description. She and I had such opposite tastes, but I learned so much from her.

Rich said...

I didn’t think old TV shows like PERRY MASON had finales. Interesting.

Karen said...

I loved your write-up, Terence -- I suspect that Paddy would cheer. I've never been a huge Perry Mason watcher (although I have a neighbor who watches it every day!). Still, I am so intrigued by your description of this episode -- it sounds like a really good one, and so inventive. I would love to check it out!

The Lady Eve said...

I - with my family - faithfully watched Perry Mason from childhood on - but I don't remember seeing the finale. How cool that the crew and producer and source material author were included in the cast. I'm sure your post would tickle Paddy, who most definitely must've seen it. Nicely done, and such a good pick for the Paddy blogathon.

The Classic Movie Muse said...

I have never seen a Perry Mason episode, but you are tempting me with that guest cast list, wow! Wonderful post and tribute to Paddy, Terence.

Silver Screenings said...

This sounds like an excellent episode – I love the way you described the conclusion. I also like that it's set in a studio, and that it's a love letter to fans, in a way. I've not seen many Perry Mason episodes, but I do want to track this one down.

Marianne said...

Another great tribute to Paddy Lee. Lots of really great background information. It's really hard to believe that Raymond Burr was the heavy in one film noir after another. He could be so menacing, but he pulls off Perry Mason just as effortlessly.


I have only watched the new iteration of Perry Mason on HBO, but I've read so many of Paddy's posts on the show that I feel that I know the original version as well. I'm glad you highlighted Gail Patrick's trailblazing role as a producer.
I'm sure Paddy would love this tribute in Perry Mason style.

Rebecca Deniston said...

Great post! That's a really good point about finales, too--I guess a lot depends on whether or not the producers know the show's days are numbered.