Tuesday 10 August 2021

Literary Clichés 9: Stereotypes in Perry Mason

During lockdown, I've watched a lot of old Perry Mason episodes. Some stock characters are easy to spot: the bad blonde, the dark-haired beatnik, the dim-witted "Scottish" housekeeper.

There was one recurring character who puzzled me: the elderly “lady” who lives in the past. She's middle-aged, wears a hat and white gloves, and good jewellery. Her manner is fluttery, anxious, child-like, her expression frequently worried. She is ignorant of "business" and the modern world. Her “grandeur” depends entirely on her character, not money or aristocratic descent. She is often played by Lurene Tuttle, and is fond of  proffering tea with a full service of fine china and silver teapots and “tinkling” cups and saucers. (To me they don’t tinkle, they rattle annoyingly.)

Bizarrely, middle-aged men find this attractive and everybody treats her like royalty. She’s a “grand lady”, a survival of a more gracious age, and must be protected.

There is an example of the type in the episode The Case of the Barefaced Witness, set in a small town. The complicated plot concerns possible embezzlement and blackmail. The elderly "Miss Sarah" plays a pivotal role. Embodied impressively by Josephine Hutchinson (pictured), she has an upright carriage, elegant clothes (and hats) and an ancient car. He hair is dressed in a Gibson girl updo.

Due to the plot, she has signed an alias to a vital document and is challenged in the witness box by Perry. She breaks down, crying real tears, and confesses that 25 years ago, when she was 35, she did live under another name. She was "married", but the man left her, and her baby died. Was this such a terrible secret in 1961, when the episode was made?

Of course everything ends happily and she invites the cast to tea in her Victoriana-stuffed old house.

But remember many of the Mason stories were written in the 30s – subtract 25 years and that brings us to 1910, and she'd have been young in 1900. Then the Gibson girl hairdo would make sense, plus the waffle about the “gracious days of 50 years ago”, and the Victorian interiors.

But in 1961... minus 25 gets us to 1936, take away 10 and we’re in the roaring 20s, which doesn’t fit at all! There’s a suggestion of “the gracious days before the war” – presumably the First World War, but maybe the Civil War is hinted at.

I have an old-fashioned "posh" accent and sometimes people make the oddest assumptions on the strength of it. I've been called "not quite with it" and a "confused English rose", even a "sweet old-fashioned thing". A friend apologised for talking about Stormzy and broke off to explain to me who he is. Is this the stereotype they were applying?

More movie clichés here.
And here, and links to the rest.
More literary clichés here, and links to the rest.

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