Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Happy birthday, Jerry Lee

Happy Birthday to Jerry Lee Lewis, 74 years today!

Lewis has had such an amazing career, more ups than most artists, more downs, too. But for fifty years he's been rocking the joint.

"Whole Lotta Shakin'" and "Great Balls of Fire," his early signature songs, are both early live performances. They show the power of his singing and piano playing and his personal charisma. I remember the "Great Balls of Fire" performance from the Dick Clark Saturday Night Beechnut Show.

Clark later said in his autobiography that he deserted Lewis when Jerry Lee was in a scandal over marrying his teenage cousin. It was after the hoopla died down that Lewis struggled to keep his career afloat. Later he went into country music, his roots. He did one of the top country songs of all time, "What Made Milwaukee Famous," and this video of that song is another outstanding live performance.

I wasn't a country music fan but I bought the single when it came out, just based on Jerry Lee's performance. Some people say it's the perfect drinking song. It's only a couple of minutes long so you'd have to chug pretty fast, but if you want to drink to it that's fine with me.

"High School Confidential" is a jam song with Brian May of Queen. Another amazing performance by Jerry Lee.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

St. James Infirmary

Here's one of those moments of synchronicity. A couple of days ago I commented on British and Australian actors using American accents for American television programs. I mentioned actor Hugh Laurie.

Laurie was on the Jay Leno Show Friday night, using his real accent. Leno has a feature called "Earn That Plug" for actors who are there to plug a movie or TV show. The actor has to do something to pay Leno for letting him advertise his project. Laurie played the piano and sang a shortened version of "St. James Infirmary," an old folk song which morphed into a blues song and then a standard.

Here are three great versions by three different acts. Cab Calloway did a popular version in the 1930s.

A more modern version is by Dr. John and Eric Clapton from the mid-1990s, who give it a treatment with Clapton's smoking guitar work. The New Orleans treatment by Louis Armstrong lifts this version above the others, in my opinion. But it's a great song, and each of these versions is terrific.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is FlashForward a flash forward to disappointment?

I am almost afraid to watch the new series, FlashForward because I know in the end there are more than even odds I'll be disappointed. They've set up a situation in the pilot episode that is attention getting, and now they have to unravel a mystery week by week, the solution of which they promise at the end of the season.

Uh huh. But will it be a solution that is worth the set-up?

The show started with a real bang. Two FBI men, played by Joseph Fiennes and John Cho, are pursuing some terrorist suspects when they, like everyone else in the world, black out. When they awaken their car has rolled and carnage surrounds them.

During the blackout everyone except Cho's character, Demetri Noh, has a vision from the future, April 29, 2010.

The show is told from the viewpoint of the FBI and (in the pilot, at least) Olivia, the physician wife of Mark Benford, the FBI man played by Fiennes.

In tone this show reminds a lot of viewers of Lost, which in my opinion lost its way. The first couple of seasons were great, but in the middle of season three my wife and I gave up because of too many characters, too many things going on, and not enough sense of any of it. If we're wrong I'm sorry...and maybe we can catch it on DVD someday, but right now we don't want to spend any more time on Lost.

I liked Harper's Island, the murder mystery on the Pacific Northwest island, which turned into a slasher flick dragged out week after week. Then it was revealed the one really good guy was also the killer. What the hell...?! I switched it off and didn't watch the final episode because after that revelation I didn't care what happened.

I have a problem with shows that have a very promising beginning, and then let down the audience at the end. We'll see what happens with FlashForward, but what happened in my house is that after about a half hour my wife got up and went in the other room. It didn't hold her interest, and we'll see if it holds mine.
From Wikipedia:

The official cast list for the show, as of July 28, 2009, is:

* Joseph Fiennes as Mark Benford
* John Cho as Demetri Noh
* Jack Davenport as Lloyd Simcoe
* Zachary Knighton as Bryce Varley
* Peyton List as Nicole Kirby
* Dominic Monaghan as Simon
* BrĂ­an F. O'Byrne as Aaron Stark
* Gabrielle Union as Zoey
* Courtney B. Vance as Stan Wedeck
* Sonya Walger as Olivia Benford
* Christine Woods as Janis Hawk
* Adam Tsekhman as Vlad Petrov

Seth MacFarlane, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Alex Kingston have been cast in recurring roles.

Synopsis of pilot episode:

A mysterious global event causes everyone on the planet to simultaneously see, for two minutes and seventeen seconds, his or her life six months in the future. When it is over, many are dead in accidents involving vehicles, aircraft, and any other device needing human control. Everyone who survived is left wondering if what they saw will actually happen.

A Los Angeles FBI agent named Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) tries to figure out what exactly happened and why it happened. Along with his team, he creates a database of people's flash forwards from around the world called the Mosaic Collective (for which a website has been launched). Apart from the various catastrophic visions, people also see themselves engaging in unexpected behavior; for example, Benford sees himself drinking again, and his wife Olivia has a vision of herself with another man.

...and another thing:

What is it with British and Australian actors playing Americans? Joseph Fiennes, who is a great actor, is British. We have House, who is played by Australian actor, Hugh Laurie. The list goes on. Is this a fad, or is this because there aren't any Yanks capable of playing these parts?

Or is it that British and Australians don't ask for as much money? What is the story on this, anyway, and why aren't the immigrant-haters amongst us complaining? It's because these guys are great actors who do a great job with American accents. No one can tell they are actually not Americans. Very clever of these guys to infiltrate us this way. Very clever.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Happy birthday, Gerry Marsden

Gerry Marsden is 67 today. Happy birthday, Gerry!

The first video is from their movie, Ferry Cross the Mersey, from 1965, and the second is a "Beatles giveaway" a song which the Fab Four never officially recorded. It was a big hit for their fellow Liverpublians, Gerry and the Pacemakers.

I'm glad to hear that Gerry is still around.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Brother, can you spare six dimes?

I noticed we don't have any songs for this new Great Depression of ours. No "We're In The Money" for optimism or "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" to make us aware of the plight of those who are struggling in hard times.

We're just too jaded by our distractions, two wars, high def TV, our iPods and our Blackberries to really get into a Depression mood. That's why I, out of the goodness of my heart and my sense of history, have reached back through the ages to bring you not one, but six versions of "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime" by E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and music by Jay Gorney.

I've alternated the old, nearly 80-year-old versions with the newer renditions, ending up with a David Letterman stint by Mandy Patinkin where it's played for laughs. Hey, in good times we could make a joke of the Depression.

Over-the-line Larry

During the season 7 premiere of HBO's hit comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm, I watched Larry David doing his Larry David thing. While simultaneously admiring Larry David the comedian I've come to hate Larry David the character.

David has created a "me first", obnoxious, irresponsible, excuse-making, insulting, pissed-off-at-the-drop-of-a-hat person. I've known people like Larry. Politically Larry (the character, at least) is a liberal Democrat, something I share with him. Everything else, no.

Each season brings its own share of outrages by Larry, but Sunday night's show made me feel like whatever line of propriety there is, Larry David, both the character and comedian, has stepped over it. Larry's reaction to his girlfriend Loretta's cancer passed the point of being funny, even outrageous, just sick. I say that as someone who had cancer this year, attended a funeral of a family member in April after her death from colon cancer, and whose wife's friend and coworker has just been given three months to live after years of fighting cancer. In other words, as a theme for comedy it isn't funny. Not to me, anyway.

David co-created Seinfeld, and the Seinfeld actors were all extensions of Larry David, but those flaws we saw in them were mitigated. Instead of being insulting, we liked them for their human frailties. Until Sunday night's Season 7 opener I thought David's character was annoying and unpleasant, but still likable. Sunday night I thought he was just annoying and unpleasant.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Purrrrrr-fect Julie

Yesterday's post was about Batman so it's only fair to include Catwoman. Especially when the Catwoman I'm thinking of is Julie Newmar.

I saw Newmar for the first time in the 1950s in shows like Love That Bob with Bob Cummings. She was a perennial guest star on many TV shows of the era. At 5'11" with an hourglass shape and those long, long legs she was eye-popping. So eye-popping that she was Stupefyin' Jones in the 1953 Broadway production of Li'l Abner, and reprised the role in the 1959 film. As far as I was concerned in my pre-pubescent days, Julie Newmar was stupefyin' in all the ways I could be stupefied.

It seems unfair for her body (heh-heh) of work to be now remembered by shrinking to one character in one series, but Newmar is probably now best remembered for her turn as Catwoman on Batman. Catwoman was also played by Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt, who were both good in the part, but they just weren't Julie Newmar, who was purrrrr-fect in the part. All you have to do is look at her in the costume and you're glad you haven't been taken to a veterinarian and neutered.

Newmar is now 76-years-old, with a genetic disease that causes weakness in her muscles. It's hard to accept mortality with someone so stunning. We had to do it with perennial pinup Bettie Page, who died last year at an advanced age. Julie Newmar quit acting to care for her son who was born blind and with Down's Syndrome. I give her a great deal of credit for choosing her son over her career.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Happy Batday, Adam West

Yesterday was Adam West's birthday. I forgot to send him a card.

West was born September 19, 1928, which makes it his 81st birthday, although the "Born On This Date" column in my local newspaper said 79. West is still working, still going to conventions, still greeting his adoring fans who have never forgotten his most famous role, Batman, from the 1966-67 ABC television series.

Like Beatlemania before it, Batmania swept the nation. The Batman producers had rightly sensed the comedic possibilities of a grown man and boy dressed in oddball costumes, fighting oddball villains. The force of the show was such that it glowed hot for a time and burned out quickly. But its fans never forgot it, either.

I always thought West played the character perfectly. He had the look of a distinguished gentleman, and as Bruce Wayne was the perfect millionaire, but played it much the same when he donned his costume. He was a fighter, but he was a gentleman fighter. The folks who created the Batman show also realized that instead of the Batman and Robin team being a straightman and funnyman, a la Abbott and Costello, that they would both be played as straightmen to the assortment of villains.

West acted with some of the top character actors of the day, Frank Gorshin as Riddler, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, and my favorite Catwoman amongst a rotating cast for that role, Julie Newmar, whose sexiness was a direct counterpoint to Batman's square and non-sexual demeanor.

And speaking of sex, in the early 1950s when the nationwide anti-comics campaign was going on, in his book, Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D., claimed that Batman and Robin of the comics were living in a homosexual fantasy. In 1966 the network censors would have been all over any references to a gay relationship and none was implied. Burt Ward, who played Robin, was older than Robin in the comic books, who looks more like he's 13 or 14 than Ward's twenty-something. Batman often refers to Robin as "old chum," which is far from an endearment.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer, in his 1965 book, The Great Comic Book Heroes, grew up reading the earliest Batman comics in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He wrote that Batman was who he could grow up to be, but Robin was someone he was supposed to be right now. So he was glad to hear Batman and Robin were "fags." (Feiffer used that disparaging word in a less enlightened time.)

I wonder now, in retrospect, if gay people looked at the TV show as being a gay fantasy.

Batman as a show only lasted a short time, but lasted a long time in reruns. I don't think it's available now or it would be shown. It would still be popular today. It introduced the concept of camp, which is almost indescribable. The nearest I can come is something so bad it's good. I think it's more akin to the famous quote on pornography, "I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it."

For the most part the producers of Batman succeeded in their campy quest, but there were some dud shows. I hated Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze and Vincent Price as Egghead with his awful egg puns, "Egg-zactly, Batman..." On the other hand, I don't know a normal male anywhere who wouldn't want Julie Newmar purring away at him while wearing that skintight costume.

West was able to parlay his stint as Batman into a career of a lifetime, appearing for years with Burt Ward in their costumes at public functions, and even now West appears at conventions or in public appearances and signs pictures of his 38-year-old self as Batman.

For American kids, Baby Boomers especially, no matter who plays Batman in the deadly serious Batman action movies, we'll always think of Adam West bounding into Commissioner Gordon's office like he was stepping onto a tennis court. We remember the "Be here tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel" exhortation of the announcer at the end of each show. We remember Batman doing the dance, the Batusi. We loved to watch Batman and Robin climbing up the side of a building, actually a set lying flat and then set to vertical by the camera, and see who popped out of the window. Every Hollywood type vied to be on Batman.

Adam West entered our consciousness forever as that character. So, even though it's a day late, happy birthday, Adam. Hope to see you next year, same Bat-day, same Bat-month.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Talk like a pirate today

Today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Yarrrr. I'm up for talkin' like Robert Newton as Long John Silver, aren't you?

If you were born in a cave you don't know that Newton, who was a British actor well known for not only chewing the scenery but masticating whole scenes, was cast as pirate Long John in Disney's 1949 Treasure Island. That faithful adaptation was a big hit, and seared Robert Newton into my brain as The Pirate , because he used terms like, "Avast, ye swabs!" and "Arrrrrrr" with such gusto.

In 1990 Long John Silver plundered Treasure Island again, this time in the person of the American actor, Charlton Heston. Heston, who was never accused of subtlety in any of his performances, was a good choice to play (or should I say overplay) Long John, and at times seemed to be channeling Newton.

In these scenes from that movie, the good guys escape to the island and man a stockade, which Long John and his pirates attack. I saw this movie in 1990 and thought it was exciting and well done. Too bad it's not on DVD. You can see the action photography is great and the music by the Irish band, The Chieftains, really sets a mood.

Settle in for about 14 minutes, mateys, and watch a couple of clips from this terrific adaptation.

Stockade 1

Stockade 2


Now, arrrrrrr, Pappy's Golden Age Comics blog has a treasure of a story from a 1950 pirate comic book, starring Captain Daring, looking a lot like Errol Flynn from another great pirate movie, Captain Blood. You can check it out here.

Nowadays when anyone thinks pirate they think Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp based his performance not on Newton, but on Rolling Stone Keith Richards. Excellent choice. But to me The Pirate will always be Robert "Long John Silver" Newton.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

All I Need To Know

You've seen this commercial, the folks at GE Aviation getting emotional over their work and their product.

Here's the commercial:

And here's the 1989 song they're singing, courtesy of Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt.

"Klaatu, borada nikto!"

The 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, was made at a time of great fear and paranoia. We were all wondering if the Russians would fly over and drop atom bombs on us. Flying saucers were in the news. If the Russians weren't going to bomb us maybe little men from outer space would invade us!

As much technology as we have we're scared of people with more and better technology, especially if they threaten to use it against us.

So we were scared. A perfect time for this movie. People like to watch movies of what they're afraid of, as long as they're allegorical. So we had a movie about an emissary from space arriving on Earth to tell us to get our act together or our time was limited. The film shows us fear of the unknown; something so powerful that it can suspend activity on the planet by stopping all technology simultaneously.

They remade The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008, this time with Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, the alien visitor. The message in this movie is much more dire, but the outcome is the same.

Michael Rennie, the tall, distinguished British actor, played the original Klaatu. In both movies Klaatu is played as a Christ figure. Klaatu, who is resurrected, becomes "Mr. Carpenter" in the 1951 version. Keanu Reeves, an actor whose face is permanently frozen into one expression, also plays Klaatu as a Christ figure. Toward the end of the modern version Klaatu is able to resurrect a dead man and save us and our planet from a plague of tiny bugs that eat everything (the biblical plague of locusts). He is our savior, in one scene even taking on the bugs that had entered the body of a young boy, just as Christ took on the sins of mortals.

So how did all this work as a story, as two movies? Well, not bad if you like getting hit over the head with a moral. The problem is that no matter how many times we're presented with this sort of story it doesn't seem to stick with us. That's because it's cloaked as science fiction, and to us science fiction is Star Wars, Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or ET. As thinking person movies they make us think for as long as it takes to get to our car from the theater.

Science fiction trappings of the Day movies include Gort, the robot. In both Gort is shown to react to violence. Someone shoots at him so he answers with a ray beamed out of an eye slot, causing maximum destruction. Nothing gets through to Gort. He is like the Angel of Death, only this time we can't put lamb's blood over our front doors to keep him away.

In the 1951 version Gort is a big guy but in the latest version he is a huge guy, as tall as a building. That's our outlook now. Bigger is better, especially when it's destructive. Look at those flying saucers in Independence Day, each one as big as a large city. No wimpy little 1950s flying saucers for us, no sir. They just don't scare us anymore.

At the end of both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still the alien has come to appreciate humanity, despite our nauseating desire to lay waste to our environment and attempts to kill everyone who isn't us. I guess we have a few good qualities, although it's more a game of half-empty or half-full. You see the worst in humans as overwhelming or the good as being our major qualities.

Being science fiction these are movies featuring our ideas of aliens, movies made by human beings to be viewed by other human beings. Since we can't even understand our neighbors or other cultures it's hard to believe that any alien could come to our planet and we could understand them, or them us. We are wholly inconsistent, country to country, person to person. An alien would have an impossible task trying to understand us without alarm and skepticism, since a major goal since time began is our desire to come up with bigger and newer weapons to wreak destruction and kill.

Here's a pleasant thought. An alien race with the technology might consider humans a cancer, something to be cut out before it infects everything else.

The modern Day the Earth Stood Still credits the screenwriter of the original 1951 movie, but does not credit Harry Bates who wrote the story on which both movies are based. "Farewell To the Master" was published in Astounding Stories in 1940. I re-read the story today and there were small elements the screenwriters picked up on. Except for the robot and the spaceman the story is completely different.

[SPOILER ALERT] The robot is Gnut, not Gort, and Klaatu is not the master, Gnut is. We don't find that out until the last sentence of the story.

Jennifer Connolly plays Helen in the 2008 movie. This picture of Jennifer isn't from the movie, but I just really, really like it...

Monday, September 14, 2009

The original "It" Girl

After my blog about movie stars Amy Adams and Nicole Kidman having "it," I was reminded of the original "It girl," Clara Bow.

Bow has been mostly forgotten. Even when people have heard her name they might know she was a movie star, but don't know what she did that made her famous. While other silent film stars have become legends in American culture, for some reason Clara Bow has been left out.

It wasn't for her sex appeal, which was copious. But it had to do with the movies she was given. She worked into the sound era, retiring in 1933 to be a wife and mother, but she's most remembered for her silent movies.

This biography explains some of the facts and fallacies of Bow's life.

One of the problems with sex appeal is that people can assume all sorts of sordid fantasies on a woman who has it. If a woman projects sexiness people automatically assume she is using it for sexual purposes. It's happened--look at Madonna!--but Bow, born of a mentally ill mother, and who showed signs of mental illness herself in her later life, was probably more of a sex fantasy than sex reality.

In the way of early Hollywood stardom, Bow was huge, but no one can live up to that kind of publicity.

This two-page comic strip about Bow is from The Big Book of Weirdos, published in 1995. Many of the stories told about Clara Bow have been refuted by her fans, those folks who continue to this day to keep her memory alive. But sometimes a good story will trump reality every time.

All you've got to do is click on the pages to make them larger than life, just like Clara in her day.

Friday, September 11, 2009


A couple of days ago Sally and I watched Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson's War. Hanks was smart enough to use Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the best actors of our age, to complement himself. He also used a little known actress to play his assistant. Little known when she was signed for the part, maybe.

Amy Adams is one of those people who walk into a scene and my eyes immediately go to her. There were several beautiful girls in Charlie Wilson's War but none of them had what Amy has, star quality. I've never understood what makes someone a star, but whatever defines star quality, or it, Amy Adams has got it. We all know it when we see it.

In a review of Julie & Julia I opined that Adams is now getting parts Nicole Kidman got when she was Adams' age, like Kidman has somehow moved into the over-the-hill realm of movie parts.

Yesterday I saw the October 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, which featured not only gorgeous photos of Kidman, but also of Adams. I think its fair to say that I underestimated Nicole Kidman when I wrote those words and without salt or butter I now eat them.

I believe the truest test of a star is in their legacy. When I saw these pictures recently on the Life Magazine site, it reminded me that years after their movies were made, years after their deaths, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe are still stars.

I suspect that future generations will still be looking at both Nicole Kidman and Amy Adams and saying, "Those women were movie stars. They had it."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a candlestick

A few years ago, smitten with nostalgia by a display in a game shop, I had my wife, Sally, buy me a Christmas present, a commemorative edition of the original 1949 board game, Clue.

As a kid in the 1950s I played Clue endlessly. My goal was to be a detective in the Sherlock Holmes style, you see. I figured I needed as much practice as possible. I was pretty good at Clue, and just knew I'd make a crackerjack detective. All I needed was a Meerschaum pipe, deerstalker cap and a large magnifying glass. I never got the first two, but I have the magnifier. At my age I need it.

We played our Clue game for the one and only time on a snowy New Year's Eve. I won three games in a row and then we stopped because it wasn't a contest. Poor Sally was up against my Sherlockian logic and could not hope to win.

If you've never played the game, the cards you see in the illustrations, plus the room cards I haven't shown, are shuffled face down. One card is taken from each of the three stacks and put into an envelope unseen by anyone. With dice a player determines how many spaces to move forward, in and out of rooms. At some point when a player has asked questions of other players and amassed enough clues he is allowed to make an accusation: I believe it's Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory, with a candlestick. At that time the cards are taken out of the envelope and if they match that player's deductions he wins.

There is a time to enjoy childish delights and there is a time to put them away, so the game went back into a basement closet where it's been since, undisturbed, until I thought about it today. Parker Bros. did a nice job on this edition, The reproduction of the original board, murder weapons and cards is impeccable. It was just like looking at my original game of 50 years ago.

What struck me this time is that as you can see by the illustrations, the revolver is not a revolver, but an automatic pistol. I was always under the impression that Clue was set in a British house. American houses--at least the ones I knew--didn't have conservatories or libraries as such. But one of the weapons is a wrench, and we know that what we call a wrench of that type in England is called a spanner.

There are a couple of rooms missing, the bathroom and the bedroom. If you think about it, maybe Miss Scarlet was boffing the victim, Mr. Boddy (who is never shown, and like all most old-style murder mysteries, unimportant except for the fact he's dead), in the bedroom and Mrs. Peacock, a socialite widow who had been trying to get Mr. Boddy to marry her, caught them in flagrante delicto.

At the time this game was originally made, bathrooms could be shown in movies, but usually lacked a toilet. Bedrooms could be shown, but usually included double beds lest someone get the idea that a couple were actually sleeping together or...shudder...having sex. Parker Bros. avoided them altogether.

Scarlett O'Hara and Scarlett Johanssen notwithstanding, Miss Scarlet is probably a scarlet woman. Maybe they don't use that term anymore--it's probably gone the way of "soiled dove"--but it means prostitute.

Mr. Green could have killed Mr. Boddy because he's green with envy. Nice house, even without a bathroom or bedroom, and he had his eye on Miss Scarlet.

When you think about it, Clue is about murder. It's not about greed, like Monopoly, or even just getting home, like the Uncle Wiggily Game. It's about a body, Mr. Boddy, who has been slain by one of his guests. It's about murder weapons: a gun, a knife (to be fair, a butter knife), a rope for hanging or garroting, and both a lead pipe and wrench for some good old-fashioned blunt force trauma. In retrospect I'm surprised my parents let me play this game, and play it a lot, too. But then, murder is entertainment. We see it every night on television, we see it in movies, from the deadly serious to lightest comedy.

Entertainment, of course, unless it happens in real life. Or to someone we know.

In that regard, Clue is part of the past. I still love the game, and in the age of violent video games who's to say it's any worse--and it might be a lot better--than what kids use or watch today to entertain themselves. But for me, Clue will just stay in the closet until I decide to pass it on to someone else.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Case of the Prolific Author

When I want to switch off my brain I pick up a mystery novel. I don't have any real favorites, and I've read across a broad spectrum of the mystery field.

For all my mystery reading I'd never read a Perry Mason novel until a couple of years ago when I ran across a used copy of the first Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws. The novel was published in 1933, and at the time author Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the most prolific and well-paid writers of pulp magazine stories. He had created several series characters before Perry Mason.

I found a stack of Perry Mason hardcovers in a thrift store, but it was the one with a dust jacket, The Case of the Calendar Girl, that got me started. I'd bought three of the hardbacks, read them, then went looking for more. I picked up several paperbacks in another thrift store.

Perry Mason novels, like the Perry Mason television series starring Raymond Burr, are formulaic. In the novels Mason is a trickster. He sometimes does something illegal to help his client and trick the police (Lt. Tragg) or the D.A. (Hamilton Burger). The courtroom scenes are usually a highlight and appear toward the end of the books, since the murderer is almost also disclosed in the courtroom.

Gardner was a lawyer, although he didn't go to college for a law degree. He studied and passed the bar exam, then practiced for twenty years. The dialogue is right out of law books, with the lawyers trading lines like, "This is incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial," and, "Objected to. Not responsive to the question which has already been asked and answered." It's what you expect to see in courtroom scenes in movies and on TV. It gives the scene some realism, especially considering the amount of chicanery Perry Mason pulls off.

Gardner used six secretaries to transcribe his books, which he recorded on Dictaphone, the ancestor of wire and tape recorders. He was said to dictate up to 10,000 words a day, which is a lot. Consider the average page of a book is 250 words. Using simple math you can see Gardner could dictate a whole book in a week or so. Gardner worked out his plots in longhand and had everything carefully planned before doing his dictation

Mason usually doesn't discuss money with the clients and you wonder why he's so successful since his clients often don't appear too well heeled. But in the novel I'm currently reading, The Case of the Counterfeit Eye, published in 1935, Mason asks a client for $1500, which was more than a year's salary at the time. The man produces 1,500 one dollar bills.

Huh! I blinked at that. It stretches credulity past the breaking point.

Another time Perry tells Paul Drake, the private detective, to "put your men on it. Put 100 men out there distributing flyers," as if 100 men were sitting around the office waiting for something to do. As a matter of fact, that's the impression the reader gets anyway, that Paul's men have nothing to do but Perry Mason's business.

The Perry Mason books are popcorn. They are light, fun, fast novels. You don't think about them too much or you'll be like me, picking holes in the plots. Despite having lots of those oddball moments where everything just dovetails perfectly (as if we ever doubted it), the Perry Mason novels are really great entertainment.

Also, there is a story between the lines of a love affair between Della Street, Perry's confidential secretary, and Perry. Gardner never writes of it except in the most oblique terms. During the course of the case Mason and Street are strictly business, but in the last paragraphs we get the idea how they're going to celebrate victory.

From The Case of the Cautious Coquette:
Mason nodded. "I thought," he said, "we could arrange for a congratulatory dinner, in celebration of squeezing out of a trap through a darn narrow opening, Della."

She glanced at him demurely. "Then why get rid of Paul Drake?"

"Because I didn't think we needed a chaperon."

"Sounds interesting," Della Street said.
Or from The Case of the Footloose Doll:
Della Street looked up at him with misty eyes.

"Will you please bend over," she said, "so I can kiss you on the forehead?"

Mason regarded her with eyes that were tender. He said gently, "I'm afraid, Della, I can't bend quite that far. You won't mind if I'm a few inches short, will you?"

"Not at all," she told him.
Della gets the last word. Perry and Della, gettin' it on, but not during office hours. What a great boss!