As a long-time Perry Mason fan, I know that Raymond Burr had taken time off from playing the eponymous defense attorney for various health reasons. However, until recently, I had no idea that Bette Davis (of all people) had played substitute lawyer in any of those episodes.
But, in fact, she did. In Season Six, Episode 16, “The Case of Constant Doyle”. An odd title considering that Constant Doyle is the attorney, not the subject of criminal prosecution.
In any case, here’s the low-down on this one: a young man, Cal Leonard, gets mixed up in bad business and ends up in the clink. He tries to reach a lawyer who’s not Perry Mason—imagine!—but is Joseph Doyle. Unfortunately for Mr. Doyle, he’s
kicked the bucket passed away, but in his place is his (former) wife and law partner, Constant Doyle, who is played with typical eye-rolling panache by Bette Davis.
Now, this is interesting for a couple of reasons. Cal’s initial reaction to having
Bette Ms. Doyle show up to spring him from jail is downright hostile. Is it because he was expecting Joseph or because she is a … she?
The other interesting part of what ends up being their attorney-client relationship is Constant’s almost motherly attitude toward Cal. Despite his initial hostility, she coughs up his bail—almost on a lark.
And because this is Perry Mason, their meeting ends up being fateful. The transgression that led to his brief time in jail segues into a scenario in which he is accused of murder. And, of course, who ends up representing him? It can’t be Perry, because he’s in the hospital. (The episode includes a few scenes of Raymond Burr in a hospital bed on the phone. An assurance for the viewers or a refusal to be upstaged by the Grand Mistress of the Eye Roll? 🙂 )
The details of the mystery are less important than the relationships that develop between the various characters. Despite every attitude that Cal displays before the trial takes place, Constant takes it in stride with the air of one abiding a recalcitrant teen. Davis portrays the attorney as a woman of intelligence, patience, and enough attitude to show she’s no pushover. I loved that the writers had her interact with not only Paul Drake, but Perry’s faithful secretary, Della Street.
Of course, when it comes to the courtroom, one waits with bated breath to see how this particular attorney stands up in that arena. Constant usually practices transactional law, not litigation.
There is one very believable moment when she stumbles briefly. Hamilton Burger (the prosecutor we either love to hate or feel sorry for) doesn’t hesitate to point out her gaffe, but does so with a politeness that’s either benevolent or condescending. But when all is said and done, Constant rises to the occasion and even engages in a bit of Mason-style courtroom theatrics to clear her client.
In a sense, this episode is not only remarkable for having a talent like Bette Davis play an attorney, but for the way it shows how a female lawyer can use her people skills to work with the client and win the day. So perhaps the episode’s title isn’t all that odd?
The ending is a foregone conclusion. We know Constant will win—it wouldn’t be a proper Perry Mason episode if she didn’t. Maybe the real winner here is Bette Davis, who does such a masterful job of eye-rolling her way into our hearts. Particularly at the end, when she’s says good night to her husband as she closes her office door.
I couldn’t find that on YouTube, but I did find this! 🙂
“Good night, Tuffy.” 🙂
PS: The Saturday Matinee will return next week! Natch! 😉