Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Ides of Perry Mason 23

The 15th of every month until I don't know when I will post a review of a Perry Mason mystery. For the hell of it.

Note. This is yet another tribute to the actresses of Perry Mason. Previous entries covered Patricia Barry; Lisa Gaye; and Anna Navarro & Arlene Martel.

Elaine Devry & Karen Steele

In two Mason episodes, red-haired, green-eyed Elaine Devry played small parts. In The Case of the Elusive Element (1963) her secretary role is overshadowed by another familiar face Gloria Talbott, as Erle Stanley Gardner himself would say, “a well-upholstered woman.” In The Case of the Arrogant Arsonist (1964) she plays a book-keeper that knows an employee is stealing but she's too tender-hearted to bust him. She has an aura of gentle caring that is irresistible. It makes a guy want to come down with flu to activate all her nurturing instincts.

In The Case of the Shapely Shadow (1962) although she plays – you guessed it in one – a secretary, she is also the eponymous shadow. And what a shadow. It’s not only the red hair and green eyes. Not only the smart-girl glasses and clothes from Très Wallflowers so wrong they’re attractive. Not only the make-over that transforms her to va-voom. But her warm, sympathetic manner is so feminine, so compassionate that she approaches the archetypal. I mean, we’re talking Kitty Shcherbatsky in Anna Karenina here. We’re talking Bronwen in How Green Was My Valley.

And from her tender, good-hearted willingness to help her worthless supervisor, where does she end up? Being defended by Perry Mason, though one has to admit she was economical with the truth. And in the end she ensures that we readers quit viewing ourselves as unworthy when she throws over our pal Paul Drake for some goddamn cowboy.

Cover girl Karen Steele played a small role in The Case of the Fatal Fetish (1965) as victim Carina Wileen. Blonde, blue-eyed Steele gets a nice melodramatic scene bemoaning her fate as a good girl brought low by drinking, partying, and loving the wrong kind of man.  But by season eight, Perry writers were flailing. So nobody walks away from this mess unbespattered. With no explanation Perry walks around with his right arm under his coat, like Napoleon XIV. As an unethical chemist, the volatile Douglas Kennedy doesn’t have much room to assert his considerable presence. Gary Collins runs around making the wrong decisions, not served by the writers who have him getting into conflicts of interest any government employee would smell a mile off. Poor Fay Wray capers about in a nightclub voodoo act, which will get post-modern tongues a-waggin’ about cultural appropriation.

But The Case of the Haunted Husband (1958) was made in the first season when directors used film noir techniques and the TV tropes of the Mid-Sixties hadn’t yet kicked in. Karen Steele steals the show as Doris Stephanak, the loyal friend of the defendant.  Besides Steele’s looking Polish or Czech, she plays a friend so true-hearted that she’s willing to go out on a date with a cad in the hopes of pumping him for information that will help her friend's cause. Paul Drake, smitten as any guy would be at such loyalty, observes, “Whatta gal.” She takes wearing a little black dress to levels not often achieved. The cad gets loaded, ever-supportive Doris half-carries him to his apartment, leaves to go get take-out coffee, and returns to find him shot dead in the shower. A lot to experience for a friend, but she’s stalwart. That this is one of the best shows of all 271 is mainly due to Karen Steele.

Steele in fact had an admirable courage. At the tail end of a good career in TV, in 1970, she went on a goodwill tour of service hospitals in the South Pacific instead of taking a job in a TV series that would have paid almost $80,000 (a bit more than a cool half-million today). Missing his cut sorely, her agent walked away from her. She settled in Arizona and married a psychiatrist. They were married until her death from cancer at age 56 in 1988. 

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