Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today is Barbara Hale’s 90th birthday. This is awesome! She is one of only three still-living main cast members (Richard Anderson and Karl Held being the other two).

Barbara had a long and illustrious film and television career, in addition to an enduring marriage to fellow actor Bill Williams. They were married for over forty years until his death in 1992. During their time together they sometimes appeared in the same productions (although they may or may not have shared scenes). Bill was on Perry several times. They also appeared together on the religious anthology Insight and in an episode of the police drama Adam-12. And there are most likely others.

I have seen Barbara’s (and Bill’s) guest-spots on those series and enjoy them highly. As far as Barbara’s movies go, I’m sadly far behind. (My mother liked trying to see them all. I’m not sure if she succeeded!) Last year we stumbled across her as the leading lady in the second movie about singer Al Jolson, Jolson Sings Again. She turned out a splendid performance as the nurse Jolson meets during World War II who later becomes his second wife.

I must admit, most of the movies Barbara has been in I haven’t even heard of. I’m looking forward to taking up my mom’s goal of attempting to see every one of them.

And of course, Della. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming close to Barbara’s wonderful performance as the faithful secretary. As Della Street, Barbara portrayed a beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate woman. Her first interest is always in Perry’s well-being and happiness, and she is always ready to handle whatever bit of investigating or secretarial work he has for her.

Although she is fully on the side of justice, there are quite a few times she indicates sympathy towards some of the murderers. Some of them, having killed in self-defense or by accident, are more deserving of her kind feelings than others. Paul usually expresses bewilderment or amazement when she professes such compassion during their conversations.

Sometimes Della’s helpful nature gets her into trouble. More than once in season 1 she ends up in hot water with the police and Hamilton due to some aspect of her investigating for Perry. And who can forget when she tried to assist Janet Brent in season 6’s The Weary Watchdog and ended up threatened with a charge of accessory to murder?

Showing how three-dimensional and human of a character she is, her sympathy is occasionally ill-placed. I, like Paul, have had some raised eyebrows over Della’s choices of pitiable criminals. Perhaps her strangest moment is in season 8’s The Sad Sicilian. The good-natured but incorrigible young fellow accused of murder is a thief and a liar. By the end of the episode he shows no signs of changing his ways, or of feeling rattled at all by his experience. Della is fond of him throughout the episode, she claims because he’s Italian. I don’t know; I think there’s plenty of Italian men more appealing than he. It’s possible Della felt more of a motherly affection for him than anything else, but she shows no signs of being bothered by his behavior or of feeling he needs to turn over a new leaf.

(The whole episode is rather odd, and to be honest, one of the few way down at the bottom of my list, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Of course, in spite of any fleeting interest in characters such as that, it’s clear that her deepest feelings are saved for Perry. They have a close bond, whether or not one chooses to believe they eventually confirm a romantic relationship. It’s often a random comment of Della’s that starts Perry thinking on the right path towards finding the murderer. And they have an entire series of silent signals and looks that they understand quite well between them.

Della and Paul are close friends too. They would have to be, to so smoothly and effortlessly engage in their innocent flirting and comebacks. The rapport between them and Perry as they interact is a joy to watch.

Less seen is Della’s interaction with the police or Hamilton. She seems to get along alright with all of them, in spite of any trouble she may end up in along the way. Although she can and sometimes does adopt a very cool tone of speech if she is displeased with the way they are handling some things. It’s difficult at times to really gauge what her feelings are for any of them. But it’s hard for me to believe that she doesn’t hold some level of fondness for them, due to the looks she sometimes shoots at them (and especially at Hamilton). It could be Barbara herself slipping out of character. Or it could be a mysterious side to Della we were sadly never given the chance to really see.

Della is a strong woman. Throughout the many tense situations she and the others end up in, and even when discovering many bodies with Perry, she rarely loses her cool. She does panic and exclaim in horror when she is alone to discover the body in The Reluctant Model. And when Paul is brought to death’s door in The Carefree Coronary, Della delivers the news to Perry while breaking down in tears.

She will not tolerate slurs and false accusations against her loved ones. When things look bad for Perry in The Dead Ringer and his client is ranting against illegal actions that Perry supposedly (and didn’t) commit, Della and Paul become visibly angry and staunchly defend Perry’s integrity. And when the robbery sergeant is frustrated and confused over Perry refusing to press charges on a juvenile who very likely helped to strip his car in The Twice-Told Twist (because Perry hopes to resolve things without bringing a life-damaging felony charge on a minor), Della lets the amazed sergeant know that even though it will be costly repairing the car himself, Perry doesn’t put a price tag on his conscience.

Della has a gift for interacting with children, another something I wish we had seen more of. The way she easily talks with the little boy in The Deadly Toy and makes friends with him is adorable. And she bonds so beautifully with the baby in The Borrowed Baby. As much as I have little interest in personally reading or writing stories where she and Perry finally get together, I do like to think that eventually they do, and Della gets to have the children she longs to have. Judging from Perry’s surprising and adorable interaction with a baby in The Deadly Toy, he would make a wonderful father.

Though I also have little interest in the Perry Mason reunion movies and can’t bring myself to consider them absolute canon, I do thrill that audiences got to see the beloved characters of Perry and Della shine in new adventures twenty years after the end of the original television series. The TV movies brought in some new fans, both young and old, who then went on to explore the other facets of the franchise.

On the 50th Anniversary DVDs, there is an interview with Barbara where she is asked (approximately) how much like her Della is. She said that they really weren’t much alike; for one thing, she is a practical joker and Della definitely is not. I can’t picture Della going in for that sort of thing, it’s true, but she certainly likes a gentle tease when she gets the chance. She often teases Paul, and even occasionally Lieutenant Tragg (who may or may not have a crush on her, age difference notwithstanding).

Barbara’s website has a Guestbook where visitors can drop by and leave comments (using the password “Della” to prove themselves genuinely interested and not spammers). I suggest that everyone who reads this post head over there today and add a Happy Birthday comment. I’m intending to do so right now. Barbara, here’s to more happy years to come!


  1. I've been away for so long and I didn't even make it in time to give a nod to Barbara Hale on her birthday, the doll. So double-hurray to you, Lucky Ladybug, for doing so! :o)

    Your write-up about Della Street, her most famous character no doubt, made me smile. She's so very different from the other characters Mrs. Williams has breathed life into - so I'm never surprised to read or hear her say Della is so not very much like her in real life. Although her love for children must be, according to everything I've read. And I totally agree with you, it would've been awesome to see more of Della with babies on the show. Sigh.

    About your plan to watch Barbara Hale's other work in its entirety - I've been doing that for some time now and am slowly closing in on everything she's ever done. And it's so worth it from where I am standing. Movie-wise the availability of her work has improved in recent years and it's a great joy to watch her in the two Falcon films for example or in the Westerns she made. Other gems are still shown on different networks which always gives me great joy because I respond to her acting on all levels. I always get where her characters are coming from. :o)

    Her projects with hubby are pure gold, from The Clay Pigeon or A Likely Story as their earliest work from their times as newlyweds to Buckskin and Insight and The Flight of the Grey Wolf post-Perry-Mason. It's also great fun watching Barbara Hale acting with her son, Billy Katt. Gotta love their genuine family chemistry. :o)

    1. I'm always happy to make a birthday post for a cast member. :) It was a lot of fun doing this one!

      I'm glad to hear there's a lot available to choose from! I'll keep your specific mentions in mind. :)

      Barbara interacting with her real-life son is probably one of the only things that could make me curious enough to try one of the Perry Mason TV movies.