Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Gail Patrick Jackson's Final Fade-Out

On May 22 1966, the final episode of the classic TV series Perry Mason aired on CBS. "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" was the 271st episode overall and the 30th of that ninth and last season. I recently re-watched the episode, which is probably one of the best series finales in dramatic television history. Of course, there's also an Alabama connection. Let's investigate....

In August 2015 I posted an item on actress Gail Patrick, born in Birmingham as Margaret Lavelle Fitzpatrick on June 20, 1911. After graduating from Woodlawn High School and Howard College, she headed to Hollywood. You can read about that change and her acting career at the blog post and Wikipedia page linked above. She appeared in more than 60 films between 1932 and 1948, including classics like My Man Godfrey [1936] and My Favorite Wife [1940]. I recently saw that latter film, which is delightful, even if Irene Dunn does get husband Cary Grant back in the end. Patrick is outstanding as the other wife.

Patrick had a second career as producer of the Perry Mason TV series that ran 1957-1966. Let me quote myself to explain how that happened:

"In 1947 Patrick married Cornwell Jackson, who just happened to be the literary agent for Earle Stanley Gardner. Gardner was a prolific author best known for his series of Perry Mason novels. Jackson secured the film rights to those novels, and through his company Paisano Productions Patrick became producer of the very successful Perry Mason television series. Gardner had disliked a series of film adaptations done in the 1930's, and wanted no more appearances by his character outside his novels. Apparently Patrick talked him into changing his mind."

"The Case of the Final Fade-Out" is a self-referential episode unusual for its day and still fun to watch. The murder takes place on the set of a popular TV series; the victim is the insufferable male star, who's made enemies of everyone. The first half  unfolds mostly on the set as police question other actors in the cast and various crew members. Those crew workers and others seen in the background of shots were actually Perry Mason workers. As noted below, even Executive Producer Patrick, one of her fellow producers and her husband appear in a bar scene. 

In addition to the series regulars, the main cast has several film and television veterans. Jackie Coogan began his career as a child in a 1921 Charlie Chaplin film; he later played Uncle Fester in the The Addams Family TV series in the 1960's. English actress Estelle Winwood performed on stage in London before moving to the U.S.; she made numerous film and television appearances until she was 100 years old. She was also a long time friend of Alabama native Tallulah Bankhead. Denver Pyle played first a suspect then a victim in this episode, the last of five appearances he made on the series. He was a prolific film and tv actor perhaps best remembered as patriarch of the Darling family in The Andy Griffith Show. Dick Clark took time out from his duties on American Bandstand to perform in a rare dramatic role. 

Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason character has cut a wide swath through American popular culture. The first novel The Case of the Velvet Claws appeared in 1933; the eightieth was published in 1969. Two more appeared after Gardner's death. Many of the novels were serialized in a popular magazine of the day, the Saturday Evening Post. Gardner was a very prolific author and published much before he created Mason and other novels in between the Mason ones. He also published non-fiction and worked a legal career in there somewhere. When Gardner died in 1970, he was the best-selling American author. 

Mason quickly jumped to other media. In the 1930's Warner Brothers released six films featuring the character, with three different actors in the role. A weekday radio series on CBS ran from 1943 through 1955. Four different actors played Mason. CBS wanted to create a show for daytime television and retool the character for the soap opera audience, but Gardner refused. Instead, CBS used that potential show's writers and staff to create The Edge of Night, which ran for thirty years on television. CBS gave Gardner a show more to his liking which ran 1957-1966.

In 1958 Patrick attempted to bring a second Gardner property to television based on the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam novels. A pilot episode was produced and broadcast, but did not proceed  to series. In 1969 she and Jackson divorced, but the two and Gardner's daughter remained partners in their production company. Jackson later proposed a Perry Mason series revival, and Patrick was the only holdout. She was given a credit of executive consultant on The New Perry Mason but had nothing else to do with it The program, starring Monte Markham in the title role, did not please either critics or audience and only fifteen episodes were made for the 1973-74 series.  

The character returned to success in the 1980's. A television film series began in 1985; thirty films were made by 1995. Burr starred in the first 26. In the final four, Paul Sorvino in one and Hal Holbrook in the final three played lawyer friends of Mason's. Barbara Hale returned as Della Street and her son, William Katt, played Paul Drake, Jr., in the first nine films. 

In 2015 a publishing arm of the American Bar Association began returning the Mason novels to print. On June 21, 2020, the first episode of a new Perry Mason miniseries premiered on HBO. Set before the first novel, Mason is not yet a lawyer and is eking out a living as a sleazy private eye working for an attorney whose secretary is named Della Street. The series is gorgeously filmed, and I'm enjoying Matthew Rhys' performance as the down-and-out Mason. We're learning a lot of the character's back story, including service in World War I. 

Who knows what the future holds for Perry Mason. But one thing's for sure--a woman from Alabama played a major role in creating the most iconic non-print expression of Gardner's character. 

A Patrick glamour shot

Source: Travalanche blog

Patrick in a modest little dress in the film Mississippi [1935] which also starred a couple of guys named Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields. 

Source: Wikipedia

Patrick in Gallant Sons [1940]

Source: Wikipedia

William Hopper and Patrick in a Paramount Pictures publicity photo July 1936. Hopper would take the role of private detective Paul Drake in the Perry Mason series Patrick produced. 

Source: Wikipedia

Cary Grant and Gail Patrick in My Favorite Wife [1940]

Jackie Coogan [1914-1984]

Estelle Winwood [1883-1984]

Denver Pyle  [1920-1997]

Dick Clark [1929-2012]

Producer Art Seid & Patrick are seen quickly in the bar scene. That's Patrick's husband Corney Jackson in the background as the bartender. Anne Nelson, a CBS executive, and Lester Salkow, Raymond Burr's agent, also appear in this scene. 

In the late 1940's Patrick had purchased a gated estate in Los Angles with almost seven acres. The mansion, constructed in 1911, was used in some Mason episodes. 

Source: Jim Davidson's Pinterest board

District Attorney Hamilton Burger, played by William Talman, makes a point to the judge, played by the author of the Perry Mason novels, Erle Stanley Gardner

Another shot of Gardner as the judge

And so "The Case of the Final Fade-Out" and the series itself reaches the end. Here we see the main characters together one final time. William Talman played District Attorney Hamilton Burger, Richard Anderson as police Lt. Steve Drumm, Raymond Burr as Mason, William Hopper as private detective Paul Drake and Barbara Hale as secretary Della Street. All but Anderson had been with the series since the first episode. 

Source: Pinterest

In the final shot Mason is talking to Drake and Street about their next case. The source for this image is a blog post from 2014 that discusses this final episode and notes that exteriors were shot at the Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. 

Patrick, Erle Stanley Gardner and columnist Norma Lee Browning on the set of the final episode, April 1966

Source: Wikipedia

Jackson as Executive Producer

Source: Pinterest

March 1958

Source: Pinterest

This pattern was apparently one of several promoting actresses that ran in newspapers; see a few more at the source below. 

Source: Pinterest

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