Saturday, May 23, 2009

Before There Was Bond, There Was Drummond

The Bulldog Drummond Series at Paramount — and One Earlier, One Later

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Bulldog Drummond (Goldwyn/United Artists, 1929)

I ran the 1929 Bulldog Drummond, produced by Sam Goldwyn, directed by F. Richard “Dick” Jones (who’d worked in the silent era for Sennett and Roach, directed Mabel Normand’s hits Mickey and Molly O — in the process of the troubled production of Mickey, which ran through four directors, Jones actually stole the negative from the studio and essentially held it hostage in a pay dispute between him and Sennett — and ultimately rose to direct prestige features like Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho, only to die a year after Bulldog Drummond without ever making another film) and starring Ronald Colman in the title role in his first talking film.

Alexander Walker cites this film as an example of a producer who did something right in breaking his big star into sound films — by contrast to the shabby treatment John Gilbert got from MGM in selecting his talkie debut, His Glorious Night, two months later. As a silent star Colman had been a heavy-breathing lover of the Valentino type, cast in intense romances (mostly with costar Vilma Banky, whose fractured Hungarian-accented English killed her chances for a successful transition in the U.S.); as a talkie star Colman’s ringing high tenor voice and British inflections made it hard to cast him as anything but the Englishman he in fact was, and made him better suited for a film like this: a comedy-thriller in which Drummond, a former captain in the British army in World War I, advertises in the London Times for a damsel in distress he can rescue and finds her in the person of Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett), whose uncle, fabulously wealthy American financier John Travers (Charles Sellon), is being held prisoner in the mental asylum of Dr. Lakington (Lawrence Grant, in a marvelously florid villain performance on the order of Gustav von Seyffertitz or Ernest Torrence) and a husband-and-wife criminal team, Carl and Irma Peterson (Montagu Love and Lilyan Tashman), posing (like the Stapletons in The Hound of the Baskervilles) as brother and sister.

Based on a play by the original creator of the Drummond character, H. C. McNeile — billed on the credits only as “Sapper” (the pseudonym, and the use of initials, both seem to have been conditioned by his parents having given him the decidedly un-butch first name “Herman”) — and adapted by Wallace Smith (continuity) and Sidney Howard (dialogue), Bulldog Drummond opens magnificently with a sequence later recycled for two even better films, Love Me Tonight and Top Hat: Drummond and his upper-class twit friend Algy Longworth (Claud Allister in a superb comic-relief performance) are sitting in a London club that strictly forbids speech on the premises (like so much of the Drummond mythos, this too is a direct ripoff of one of the Conan Doyle Holmes stories, though doubtless such clubs actually did exist!). When one of the waiters drops a teaspoon — the first synchronous sound we hear in a film that began with a door being closed in our face to reveal a sign reading, “SILENCE” (itself a quite amusing in-joke just two years after The Jazz Singer) — a club member stands up and protests “this infernal din.” Drummond and Algy walk out whistling “The Girl I Left Behind Me” and — inspired by a joke from Algy — Drummond puts in his Times ad and the plot per se gets under way.

The film creaks all over the place; Jones was (not surprisingly, given his background) considerably more comfortable with the comedy than with the thrills, and much of the action is slow and stagy even though the cinematographers, George Barnes and Gregg Toland, cop some of the more spectacular effects from the German thrillers, Lang’s films in particular — including some shots of rooms with ceilings 12 years before Citizen Kane (also shot by Toland!) supposedly pioneered them. The entertainment value of Drummond lies mostly in the finely honed acting of Colman, Allister (for once a comic-relief character is genuinely funny!) and Tashman, whose over-the-top vampy villainy leaves nominal heroine Bennett in the dust by comparison; and in the overall “look” created not only by Barnes and Toland but also by set designer William Cameron Menzies, many of whose backdrops are so obviously stylized that at times the film looks like The Cabinet of Bulldog Drummond.— 6/30/05

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1/22/37)

When Charles finally did get back and joined me in the room for a movie, my choice was Bulldog Drummond Escapes, the first in the eight-film Drummond series for Paramount from 1937 to 1939, though separate from the others in that it used a different cast: Ray Milland (back when he was still the male equivalent of a starlet, before Paramount started giving him better roles in films like Arise, My Love and The Major and the Minor and elevated him to major stardom) as Drummond, Sir Guy Standing (in his last film; he died of a heart attack shortly after it was finished) as Inspector — excuse me, Captain (he makes a big fetish of the distinction in the film!) Nielsen of Scotland Yard (who was essentially to Drummond what Inspector Lestrade was to Sherlock Holmes), Heather Angel as damsel-in-distress Phyllis Clavering (her character would continue throughout the series and there was a running gag that her planned marriage to Drummond was always getting interrupted by one crisis or another that he would have to run off and investigate), and Reginald Denny as Drummond’s Dr. Watson, upper-class twit Algy Longworth. (In the later films in the series American actor John Howard would take over as Drummond — likely because he’d played Ronald Colman’s brother credibly if unspectacularly in Lost Horizon and therefore could conceivably be accepted in a role most moviegoers still associated with Colman — with Louise Campbell as Phyllis, though Angel later re-assumed the role; John Barrymore and H. B. Warner as Nielsen; and Denny the only cast member from this film who carried over into the later ones.)

Based on a play called Bulldog Drummond Again by the character’s creator, Herman Cyril “Sapper” McNeile, with Gerard Fairlie, and variously called Bulldog Drummond Saves a Lady, Bulldog Drummond’s Holiday, Bulldog Drummond’s Romance and Bulldog Drummond’s Escape, Bulldog Drummond Escapes was a decent enough movie with an O.K. script by Edward T. Lowe (later associated with the dregs of the original Frankenstein cycle at Universal), competent direction by James Hogan, brilliant cinematography by Victor Milner (oddly uncredited on the extant prints, which were released not by Paramount but by a TV reissue label called “Congress Films”) — though the movie is a lighthearted thriller with no “class” ambitions there are some heavily Germanic shots here that anticipate noir — and a decent cast but a surprising dearth of real excitement.

The plot seems heavily recycled from the 1929 Bulldog Drummond film with Ronald Colman: Phyllis Clavering is being held in a sinister old dark house by two men, Norman Merridew (Porter Hall) and Stanton (Walter Kingsford) and one woman, Merridew’s sister (she really is his sister this time, not his wife posing as his sister à la The Hound of the Baskervilles and the 1929 Colman film) Natalie (Fay Holden), who are trying to convince her that she killed her brother Ted (actually murdered by Merridew) and then went insane. Though it’s a bit surprising he didn’t wear the Colman-style moustache John Howard donned for his entries in the series, Milland is an excellent Drummond, able to bring to the role the same insouciant charm Colman did; and the rest of the casting works well enough, though one misses the sheer outrageousness of Claud Allister’s Algy from the first Colman film.

Oddly, Charles noted that though the accents were suitable for British people (the fact that the four top-billed actors were British undoubtedly helped in that department), the script itself was full of American idioms that wouldn’t have come from these people’s mouths in real life — but the real problem with this film is that, for all the excellent atmospherics of Milner’s cinematography and the strong performances, it’s surprisingly dull. One of the quirkier aspects of 1930’s cinema is that the gangster films of the era were tight, fast-paced and genuinely exciting and intense, but when the studios tried any other sort of crime film the results were frequently anemic, slow-paced and uninteresting. There are some genuinely clever scenes — including the early one, in which Heather Angel coaxes Milland out of his car, he appropriately “rescues” her and she responds by stealing his car in her attempt to escape that old, dark house — but for the most part this is just a 67-minute time-filler that largely wastes a good cast. — 7/4/05

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (9/24/37)

I ran Charles Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, the second in the sequence of eight Bulldog Drummond films made by Paramount between 1937 and 1939, and a good deal better than the earlier Bulldog Drummond Escapes. (I couldn’t help but consider the odd confluence of the titles of the two films on this Critics’ Choice disc: Bulldog Drummond Escapes and Bulldog Drummond Comes Back. It’s reminiscent of Desi Arnaz’s joke about Lucille Ball’s titles for the TV series she did after they broke up: when she came out with one called Here’s Lucy, he said her next two would be called There Goes Lucy and Here Comes Lucy Back.)

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back benefits from a better director (Louis King) than the one who helmed Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James Hogan); a stronger plot line — though both of them are based on writings by Drummond’s creator, H. C. “Sapper” McNeile, Comes Back is based on a novel (The Female of the Species, 1928) rather than a play, allowing the writer (Edward T. Lowe again) to get some action into it; and two genuinely interesting villains, Mikhail Valdin (J. Carrol Naish) and his sister Erena Soldanis (Helen Freeman), who though their nationalities remain uncertain (their names say Russian, or at least Slavic, but Naish’s makeup makes him look Chinese and their accents are unlike those of any real people from anywhere on earth!) are at least powerfully motivated: they seek revenge on Drummond (John Howard, in his first of seven appearances in the role) for having sent Erena’s brother to the gallows exactly one year earlier.

They do so by kidnapping Drummond’s fiancée, Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell, replacing Heather Angel — though Ms. Angel would take the role back in subsequent episodes of the series) and running Drummond, his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive) and his friend Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny again) on a wild-goose chase around London and its environs through a series of cryptic clues — some delivered as gnomic rhymes on paper, some as phonograph records, one delivered by Phyllis herself as the villains are holding both her and Drummond hostage in a moving car. One caution the villains give Drummond is specifically not to involve his friend, Col. Nielson (that’s how it’s spelled in the credits) of Scotland Yard, in the investigation — they’ll kill Phyllis instantly if they spot Nielson on their trail — but Nielson disguises himself in a series of increasingly ugly lumpenproletariat outfits in order to hang out in the lower-class environments (including several pubs, one run by the great character actress Zeffie Tilbury, listed in the credits as playing a character called “Zeffie”!) to which the villains’ clues are sending Drummond.

Though this is just a “B” with a 64-minute running time (the film’s brevity actually helped it, forcing King and Lowe to speed the action along at a rapid clip and avoiding the longueurs of Bulldog Drummond Escapes), it has a quite handsome physical production — producer Stuart Walker and director King did a good job raiding the Paramount warehouses for old sets they could use to stage elaborate action scenes, including a dungeon with a trap door over the Thames and another in which gas is piped in while Drummond, Phyllis and Algy are trapped at the end (there’s also a time bomb that will explode, then combine with the gas to produce a truly horrific conflagration and incinerate Our Heroes).

Nielson is played by John Barrymore, whom the Paramount brasses actually gave top billing — “Youngsters of the period, who had never heard of Barrymore, could never understand why his name was billed above that of Howard, who carried all the action, and they resented it,” William K. Everson wrote of this film and its two immediate successors in The Detective in Film — and who gets surprisingly little screen time but thoroughly makes the most of what he had. His disguises (especially the second, uglier one) bear more than a faint resemblance to his look as Mr. Hyde in the 1920 Paramount version of the Stevenson novel, and though he was portlier than he’d been in his glory days his posture, profile and magnificent voice dominate the screen in all his appearances. Barrymore’s presence adds a touch of class to a film that’s otherwise all Boy’s Own Adventure action with only brief (though charming) bits of exposition between the big scenes; but Howard, though laboring under the handicap of American nationality (unlike Ronald Colman and Ray Milland, who like the Drummond character were card-carrying Brits), is quite a good Drummond. His British accent is serviceable and good enough to be credible, and his rather arrogant manner (off-putting when he was playing Ronald Colman’s brother in Lost Horizon and Katharine Hepburn’s fiancé in The Philadelphia Story, his two best-known films) actually suits the character. — 7/7/05

Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge (1/7/38)

I spent the morning running a videotape I got recently at Blockbuster, a double bill of Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge and Bulldog Drummond’s Peril. These were two of the Bulldog Drummond “B” movies made at Paramount in the late 1930’s, starring John Howard as Drummond (probably cast because he’d been so convincing as Ronald Colman’s brother in Lost Horizon, and Colman, of course, was the most famous movie Drummond of all) and John Barrymore as Inspector Nielson of Scotland Yard. Revenge had the interesting novelty of having its villain (Frank Puglia) spend most of the movie in drag as a disguise, though the film was surprisingly un-atmospherically directed by Louis King (especially three years after his good work in Charlie Chan in Egypt) and Peril had a better, if sometimes confusing, plot (and a novel casting of Porter Hall as the villain); together these brief films (Revenge was 54 minutes, Peril 66 minutes) made a nice little entertainment package, full of the economy in storytelling that makes even the least interesting 1930’s movies watchable today (when Drummond lands his plane in the middle of nowhere in Peril, the next scene shows him driving into London — without bothering to waste valuable screen time explaining how he obtained the car). — 7/23/93


I ran him the second of the John Howard Bulldog Drummonds — still with John Barrymore top-billed for the relatively minor role of Col. Nielson [sic] of Scotland Yard — called Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge, though in fact there was very little content in these titles: all you had to do to name one of these films was to give the character name and add to it some noun or verb-object phrase that would connote “thriller-icity.” William K. Everson is particularly hard on this film, calling it “unquestionably the weakest” of the Howard Drummonds and adding, “Nothing whatsoever happened in the film — certainly no kind of action that could be constituted as ‘revenge’ — and Frank Puglia was a mild and ineffective villain.”

Actually, quite a lot happens in this film — reclusive but not quite mad scientist Sir John Haxton (Matthew Boulton) invents the world’s most powerful explosive, “haxtonite,” but his long-suffering secretary Draven Nogais (Frank Puglia) hatches a plot to steal it; as Haxton is flying his own plane to meet with international representatives for a demonstration of haxtonite, Nogais, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, shoots him, dumps the attaché case containing the haxtonite out of the plane — a parachute is attached and two of Nogais’s confederates are on the ground in a car waiting for it — then bails out himself, after putting his ring on a severed hand so anyone finding the wreckage will think both Haxton and Nogais were killed in the crash. Only Drummond (John Howard), his fiancée Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell) and his upper-class twit friend Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny) happen upon the haxtonite first and take it back to their country home — whereupon Nogais sneaks in and steals it back, then hides out on the Channel boat-train to Paris, which means Our Heroes have to get on the train themselves and give chase. About the only interesting part of the film is that, to avoid detection on the train, Nogais dresses as a woman — it’s actually one of the worst drag attempts in movie history, thought it might have fooled audiences in 1937 — though of course the villain is finally foiled.

The film’s biggest weakness (the script is by Edward T. Lowe again — the credited source is H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s book The Return of Bulldog Drummond but the most-powerful-explosive-in-the-world bit was hardly fresh writing even then! — and the direction by Louis King hardly lives up to the atmospherics of Charlie Chan in Egypt and Bulldog Drummond Comes Back) is its sheer preposterousness: even by the usual standards of a thriller, the plot depends on one unbelievable gimmick after another, and one can’t help but recall how much better Alfred Hitchcock had done with a similar plot in The 39 Steps two years earlier (albeit with Robert Donat, a much more charismatic star than John Howard and an actor who would have been quite good casting as Drummond).

John Barrymore is barely in the film at all, and when he is he’s playing Nielson as a crotchety old man, resenting Drummond for butting into Scotland Yard’s business (now where have we heard that old cliché before?) and possibly — at least this is what William Everson thought — expressing his own resentment for having to make his living making silly films like this and playing a part that, for all the pretension and conceit of Paramount’s billing (below the title, but still first and in larger letters than Howard’s, and with his name in all caps on the closing card), is still a pretty unimportant supporting role. At 56 minutes this is short even for a late-1930’s “B” and it seems to drag in a way Bulldog Drummond Comes Back — with its comparative wealth of genuinely exciting action scenes — hadn’t; and Howard, appropriately debonair in his earlier Drummond film, just seems morose and petulant in this one. This time Lowe made the mistake of including Algy’s wife Gwen (Nydia Westman) as an on-screen character — in the two previous films she’d merely been talked about — and the so-called “comic relief” of Mr. and Mrs. Longworth just makes one long for the comparative subtlety and genuine amusement provided by Claud Allister as Algy in the 1929 Bulldog Drummond with Ronald Colman. — 7/15/05

Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (3/18/38)

Afterwards we settled in for the evening and watched the second film on the first of two Embassy Entertainment tapes featuring Bulldog Drummond movies I bought in the mid-1990’s and recently dug out of the back files to “mate” them with the Critics’ Choice DVD’s of some of these movies — alas there’s one title, Arrest Bulldog Drummond, that I’m still missing (a real pity because the villain is George Zucco and there’s a marvelously tacky still from it in William K. Everson’s book The Detective in Film that shows Zucco and his henchpeople, Jean Fenwick and Georges Regas, posed in front of a so-called “Death Ray” obviously cobbled together from two old movie projectors).

Bulldog Drummond’s Peril was the fourth in the series — the third with John Howard as Drummond and the last to use Louise Campbell as his fiancée Phyllis Clavering and John Barrymore as Col. Nielson (probably just as well, for while he’d been a marvelously campy Nielson in Bulldog Drummond Comes Back he played the part in Revenge and Peril as a crotchety old man with little to offer but a generalized disinclination to deal with Drummond’s help on his cases; as Everson put it, “Either the novelty had worn off for Barrymore and he was proving hard to handle, so that the scenarists literally wrote him out of the films except for token appearances, or his roles were initially so small that Barrymore resented it and showed it by his performances. Either way, his Nielson became morose and bad-tempered, shouting his lines, glowering, mugging, and showing no signs of wanting to give either a serious performance or a gaily lighthearted one” — though even here, in Barrymore’s last appearance in the series, he was still getting top billing!).

While not at the level of Escapes or Comes Back it was certainly a major improvement over Revenge. Its only real flaw as a thriller is that there are just too many villains: American (though oddly accented) scientist Dr. Max Botulian (Porter Hall), diamond syndicate owner Sir Raymond Blantyre (Matthew Boulton — the character’s last name is pronounced “Blan-tree”), and his secretary Roberts (Austin Fairman). They’re all after a new process for making artificial diamonds of gem size, perfected by yet another dotty but not really mad scientist (much like Boulton’s role in Revenge), Professor Bernard Goodman (Halliwell Hobbes), which Blantyre wants suppressed because it will make his natural diamonds worthless, and Botulian wants suppressed because Goodman has beaten him in the race to perfect a diamond-making process, while Roberts secretly wants to steal the formula and use it to make money (at least that’s what I think is going on; the script by thriller writer Stuart Palmer isn’t all that coherent as to the characters’ clashing motivations) — and the plot thickens when Roberts disguises himself as Botulian to get his hands on Botulian’s diamond-making equipment and the real Botulian disguises himself as Roberts disguised as Botulian to kill Goodman (though Goodman actually survives to the fadeout) and blow up his lab under the cover story of offering Goodman his own diamond-making equipment (which Goodman wanted to retrofit with his own process so he could create an artificial diamond bigger than any natural one).

Despite the confusing plot, Bulldog Drummond’s Peril is actually quite an entertaining movie, largely due to two really elaborate and genuinely exciting action sequences. In one, Drummond’s butler Tenny chases the bad guys (some of them, anyway) in a motorcycle, catching up to the villains’ van, leaping on top of it and forcing his way in with a gun. (E. E. Clive’s stunt double must have had a field day with this one!) The other is a quite spectacular fight scene between Drummond and Botulian at the end, in which Botulian, armed with a bullwhip, uses it to snap Drummond’s gun out of his hand; Drummond reaches for some conveniently placed swords hanging on the wall and slices off the business end of Botulian’s whip — which comes off weirdly as a sort of symbolic castration — then throws it like a javelin and impales Botulian in the arm, wounding him to the point of offering no resistance while Drummond waits for Nielson and the police to take Botulian into custody.

One could tell the roles were starting to wear on some of the actors — Louise Campbell was clearly getting tired of the damsel-in-distress bit (though she gets some delightful scenes at a château in Switzerland — where Drummond and Phyllis have gone to get married, interrupted by all the diamond business — with her aunt, played by the delightful Elizabeth Patterson) and John Howard was both stuffier and nastier than he’d been in previous series episodes — and James Hogan, returning as director, didn’t have the flair for atmospherics Louis King did and paced the film (except for the two big action scenes) rather sluggishly, but still Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (whose working title was Bulldog Drummond Interferes — which shows once again how these films could have been called just about anything as long as the Bulldog Drummond name appeared alongside some words suggesting a thriller) was a nice little bit of 1930’s “B”-thriller fun. — 7/16/05

Bulldog Drummond in Africa (8/5/38)

I ran him the next Bulldog Drummond series film in sequence: Bulldog Drummond in Africa, which I’d been somewhat dreading because I didn’t think even a major studio like Paramount would have been able to mount an effective physical reproduction of Africa (and where in Africa? I’d assumed it would be sub-Saharan but it turned out to be Morocco, and Spanish rather than French Morocco at that!) on a “B” budget. As things turned out, though, this was actually one of the better ones in the series: J. Carrol Naish returned as the principal villain, a former British spy named Richard Lane who during the Great War had turned traitor and then fled the country to avoid execution, settling in Spanish Morocco and thumbing his nose at British law — until the action of this film starts with Lane secretly returning to England to kidnap Col. Nielson (H. B. Warner, taking over the role from John Barrymore — one of the screen’s most famous alcoholics replaced by Jesus Christ!) to worm out of him the secret of a radio-wave dematerializer that would permit the British to scramble their own radio signals and thereby encrypt their secret communications. (Remember what Alfred Hitchcock said: it doesn’t matter what the spies are after! It matters to the people in the movie but we in the audience couldn’t care less!)

As things turned out, the reproduction of Africa was just fine — aided by decent if unspectacular process work and quite a lot of stock footage (including what looked like a clip from the Valentino Sheik!) as well as a Moroccan villa for the bad guy that looked recycled from Charles Laughton’s redoubt in Island of Lost Souls. The plot features Lane flying the kidnapped Nielson out of Britain to his Moroccan home and Drummond following them in his own plane despite the efforts of British authorities on both ends of his trip to keep him from doing so, which Drummond evades on the British side by locking a Scotland Yard inspector in a trunk and on the Moroccan side by dealing with the lazy British consul Major Gray (series regular Matthew Boulton) and his assistant, Deane Fordine (played by a very young Anthony Quinn in his days as a low-level contract player at Paramount).

There’s one good suspense scene in which the baddies have planted a bomb on Drummond’s plane and timed it to go off over the ocean — only Drummond disobeys instructions and secretly flies back into Morocco and he and his passengers, Phyllis (Heather Angel), Algy (Reginald Denny, blessedly less arch than usual) and his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive), get out of the plane with seconds to spare before it blows up. The finale isn’t as much fun, and there’s no real surprise about it — it’s just a shootout on the balcony of Lane’s villa followed by the scene we’ve been expecting for at least half the movie, in which Lane’s pet lion turns on him and devours him for the finish — but this is still one of the better Paramount Drummonds, at least in part (as Charles put it) because it has less of the Wooster-and-Jeeves aspects of the Drummond-Algy and Drummond-Tenny relationships about it.. (Incidentally, the extant print has two “The End” titles — one in Paramount’s typeface superimposed over the plane that takes Drummond and company out of Africa, then quickly replaced by a Congress Films end title and then back to Paramount for the closing cast list.) — 7/18/05

Arrest Bulldog Drummond (11/25/38)

I ran Arrest Bulldog Drummond, which Charles had recently downloaded from and which was the only one of the late-1930’s Paramount Bulldog Drummond films I didn’t have in my collection. The Paramount Drummonds began with a separate film called Bulldog Drummond Escapes, released in January 1937 and featuring Ray Milland as Drummond, but when Paramount launched it as a “B” series later in 1937 Drummond was played throughout by John Howard. Howard seems to have got the part because in the film Lost Horizon he’d played the brother of Ronald Colman, who though he only played the role of Drummond twice (Bulldog Drummond for Sam Goldwyn in 1929 and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back for 20th Century-United Artists in 1934), became as identified with the part as Sean Connery later would in the role of James Bond, and for the same reason: he was simply that much better than anyone else who ever played it.

The Drummond-Bond parallel is actually quite strong — the Drummond films come closer than any other 1930’s productions to the Bond movies, presenting a British action hero (created by author H. C. “Sapper” McNeile, whose military experience in World War I gave him the idea for the character much the way Ian Fleming’s real involvement with the British secret service during World War II gave him the idea for Bond) with plenty of derring-do and dash in gimmicky melodramas against various super-villains — though, this being the Production Code era, instead of seducing one woman after another like Bond did, Drummond (at least in this phase of his on-screen existence) has a fiancée, Phyllis Clavering (Heather Angel), and he’s trying to marry her but ends up leaving her at the altar again and again and again when called on to solve some case of immediate pressing importance.

Arrest Bulldog Drummond — the title is a bit of a misnomer since Drummond hardly spends any time in police custody even though he is at one point a prime suspect in the murder of his long-time friend, inventor Richard Gannett (Leonard Mudie) — deals with Rolf Alferson (George Zucco), the real killer of Gannett, who was out to steal Gannett’s invention, a ray that will detonate explosives from a distance. (The ray is a quite crude construction, transparently lashed together from two old movie projectors; Paramount’s prop department obviously wasn’t going to spend much time or money building something genuinely credible for a 57-minute “B”!)

Alferson and his girlfriend, Lady Beryl Ledyard (Jane Fenwick) — it’s something of a novelty that this movie (scripted by Stuart Palmer from McNeile’s novel The Final Count) features a villain who has a girlfriend, and what’s more seems genuinely to care for her — steal Gannett’s ray, killing him in the process, and set up shop on the island of St. Anthony (which according to Wikipedia’s geographic subsidiary, Wikimapia, is actually off the coast of India, though the scenery we see looks Caribbean), where they plan to meet with agents of the usual sinister (and unnamed) foreign power to sell the Gannett invention for cash.

I’d had hopes for Arrest Bulldog Drummond mainly because Zucco played the villain — but for some reason he underplayed it, offering very little of the eye-rolling hamming that made so many of Zucco’s bad guys fun to watch — did director James Hogan tell Zucco to cool it? If so, it was a mistake. There’s only one scene in which Hogan let Zucco be Zucco: he’s captured Drummond’s assistant Algernon Longworth (Reginald Denny) and his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive) and has them in a rope basket, suspended over a bit of ocean in which they’ll either drown or get eaten by sharks, and though they’ve already escaped by then (we know that, but Zucco’s character doesn’t), Zucco gets ready to sever the cord suspending them and tells Phyllis (whom he’s lured there) that he’s about to eliminate the last two living witnesses to his misdeeds: “Care to see the splash?”

Aside from that, Arrest Bulldog Drummond is 57 minutes of relatively amusing fun, suffering (as most of the films in this series did) from John Howard’s stuffiness and stiffness (we don’t want Heather Angel to have to marry him any more than we wanted Katharine Hepburn to in The Philadelphia Story) but getting most of its entertainment value from the various traps McNeile and Palmer set for the hero and his imagination and daring in getting out of them. — 5/23/09

Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police (4/14/39)

I ran another one of the John Howard Bulldog Drummond series, Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police — a surprisingly good little “B,” given a beautiful subterranean tunnel set (apparently, according to William Everson, the set was “constructed specifically for this film and was not a borrowed castoff from another”) and atmospheric direction from James Hogan that made good, suspenseful use of it. — 7/28/93


The two Bulldog Drummond movies, Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police and Bulldog Drummond’s Bride, were both very pleasant surprises indeed. By 1939 the writers, Garnett Weston (on both films) and Stuart Palmer (on Secret Police), had finally got the mix of action and camp right; they had stopped trying for proto-James Bond melodrama and instead kept the tone light, the intrigues believable (more or less — the McGuffin in Secret Police is the royal jewels and treasury of King Charles I, supposedly buried in Drummond’s ancestral manse by Charles’ faithful secretary after the battle of Nasby sealed the king’s fate).

Secret Police was based on H. C. “Sapper” McNeile’s novel Temple Tower (previously filmed by Fox in 1930 in what William K. Everson rather baldly proclaimed the worst Drummond film of all time) and, according to Everson, used an elaborate set of underground tunnels, passages and streams that was actually built especially for this film and not recycled from an earlier, bigger-budgeted one. The story features a genuinely charming performance by Forrester Harvey as a dotty professor named Downie — a far cry from the rustic peasants he usually played (most notably in Frankenstein, in which he’s the father of the murdered girl) who brings Drummond the news that his castle contains a fortune in jewels, only to be killed by the vicious criminal Henry Seaton (Leo G. Carroll, not yet using his middle initial professionally), The first half of the film features a dream sequence in which Drummond recalls all the previous adventures that have kept him from marrying fiancée Phyllis Clavering (a welcome return to the role by British actress Heather Angel after the rather shrill Louise Campbell did some of the early episodes) and the second half is almost all chase through that great set — but the whole thing is a lot of fun and even Reginald Denny’s comic relief, oppressive in some of the earlier films, is genuinely funny. — 10/7/05

Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (6/30/39)

Earlier in the evening I’d watched Bulldog Drummond’s Bride — James Hogan’s direction had exactly the fast-paced quality Chester Erskine’s direction of the 1934 film Midnight needed and lacked, and in this, as in his other entries in the series, Hogan basically handled the absurdities of the plot and its “comic” relief by slamming through the story so fast they didn’t matter much. It’s surprising how strong the cast was, given that this was just a “B” movie: not only John Howard as Drummond, but H. B. Warner, Reginald Denny, E. E. Clive, Heather Angel, Eduardo Ciannelli (as the villain, naturally) and John Sutton, an interesting actor, as Warner’s assistant at Scotland Yard. Needless to say, it was the actors who made this film and gave it its appeal (and John Howard is so credible as a dashing hero, here and in the other three series entries I’ve seen, it seems odd he got relegated after this to Ralph Bellamy-type roles as in The Philadelphia Story). — 7/30/93


So it is with Bulldog Drummond’s Bride, an even funnier and better balanced film whose action ranges from the London flat where Drummond and Phyllis are planning to live after their oft-delayed wedding (thanks to a homemade bomb that blew up a good chunk of their castle at the end of Secret Police) to a village in France variously called Tagemont and Targemont (it’s spelled one way on the destination sign at its train station, another way in Paramount’s intertitle) where Phyllis has fled with her Aunt Blanche (Elizabeth Patterson in a comic-relief role that adds a lot to these films’ appeal) after the latest delay in her marriage plans and has served notice on Drummond that unless he marries her by September 10 she’ll marry another man on September 11. (At the end she ruefully confesses that this “other man” did not exist.)

Though the basis of this film is an H. C. McNeile novel called Bulldog Drummond and the Oriental Mind, no Orientals figure in the dramatis personae: instead the principal villain is Henri Armides (Eduardo Ciannelli), who in the opening reel stages a daring bank robber, then flees by disguising himself as one of the painters working on Drummond’s flat (which conveniently lies just across the street from the robbed bank) and hiding the 10,000-pound loot inside Drummond’s radio-phonograph — which Phyllis asks him to send to her in Ta(r)gemont.

The script by Garnett Weston is full of felicitous touches — notably Armides’ inventive escape from the police cordon around Drummond’s apartment building by pretending to go insane, splashing paint over the walls of Drummond’s flat (and inundating Algy Longworth, Drummond’s comic-relief friend, with paint), getting hauled out of the area in the asylum van and then relatively easily escaping from the mental hospital to which he’d been taken — and in the end Drummond and Phyllis are finally married by the town magistrate of Ta(r)gemont before Drummond’s final climactic fight with the bad guy, staged on the rooftops of the French village in a style that harkens back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue as well as looking forward to the opening scenes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

This was a very neat ending to a series that was better than its reputation (Everson recalls that critics hadn’t liked these films — being particularly hostile to the delayed-marriage gimmick used to unify them — and greeted the end of the series gladly) and actually got better as it progressed — and it’s an indication that John Howard, while hardly in the same league as Ronald Colman or Ray Milland when it came to playing a dashing hero, could credibly play a good guy and a lover, something one would never know about him from his two most famous roles (Colman’s obnoxious brother in Lost Horizon and the stuffy piece of cardboard who loses Katharine Hepburn to her ex, Cary Grant, in The Philadelphia Story). — 10/7/05

Calling Bulldog Drummond (MGM, 1951)

The film was Calling Bulldog Drummond, a 1951 frozen-funds movie from MGM starring Walter Pidgeon as a rather over-the-hill Drummond (supposedly he retired from crime-fighting to re-enlist in the armed forces, served in North Africa during World War II, then retired to a farm and raised, not bees like Sherlock Holmes, but pigs) and the talented Margaret Leighton as Sgt. Helen Smith of Scotland Yard. I remembered seeing this film in the 1970’s and not liking it particularly — though ostensibly a thriller, it was plodding and dull and I had a hard time staying awake — but this time around it seemed better than that, though still hardly a great film. (William K. Everson, in his chapter on the Drummond movies in The Detective in Film, called it “the best in many years, though its merits are only relative.” That about sums it up.)

It begins with a marvelous opening sequence: a group of 12 crooks in face masks that gives them a simultaneously sinister and clown-like appearance deploy from a truck and commit an armed robbery of a department store with military-style precision, then get away in a thick London fog thanks to a radar device they’ve stolen from the British military that allows them to navigate while the cops can’t pursue them. Drummond is called out of retirement by Inspector McIver of Scotland Yard and asked to go after this band of commando bandits, who’d committed two previous crimes with the same M.O., and to help him he’s given the undercover services of Sgt. Smith despite his rather sexist objections (which he soon modifies) to women as crimefighters.

Of the usual supporting cast of the Drummond adventures only his sidekick Algy Longworth (a doofus Watson to his Holmes) appears — and he’s played here by David Tomlinson, who surfaced in the U.S. 18 years later as the villain in the Disney comedy The Love Bug. Anyway, Drummond and Smith go undercover, posing as a criminal couple recently forced to flee Italy when their smuggling ring was uncovered, to attempt to infiltrate the gang; and gang member Arthur Gunns (Robert Beatty, who alone among all the actors here speaks with no trace of a British accent — was the character supposed to be American?) falls for her, much to the disgust of his previous girlfriend, Molly (a nicely edgy noir-ish performance by Peggy Evans), who in turn finds out who Drummond really is and blows his cover. In the end Drummond and Smith are able to keep the gang members from killing them long enough to allow the police to arrive, and the mastermind of the gang is revealed to be Drummond’s old club-mate, Col. Webson (Bernard Lee), who took up crime to relieve his boredom and lack of action after the war.

Calling Bulldog Drummond benefits from a decent script (story by Gerard Fairlie, who also co-wrote the script with Howard Emmett Rogers and Arthur Wimperis) and workmanlike direction by Victor Saville (whom, based on his later work, I’d always regarded as an amiable hack — seeing his spectacular and incredibly creative 1930’s musicals, Evergreen, First a Girl an earlier version of Victor/Victoria — and It’s Love Again with Jessie Matthews and Evensong with Evelyn Laye, was a revelation). Indeed, “workmanlike” is a good description of the entire film; there’s nothing especially bad about it but there’s nothing especially good about it either (aside from Saville’s commendable restraint in using Rudolph G. Kopp’s original score — many of the big action scenes are not underscored and actually benefit from the absence of music)

Much of the film takes place at a low-life cabaret with a creditable Black jazz group playing songs from the MGM catalogue — I had a fun time trying to identify them. Some sounded like they might have been British songs that didn’t cross the pond but I recognized at least two important songs from MGM musicals, “Our Love Affair” from one of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films, Strike Up the Band (1940), and “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” introduced by Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh (1945). There were at least two interesting credits on the technical end — both men with the same last name, albeit in different languages — art director Alfred Junge, who’d worked with Saville before on The Good Companions (1932) and with Hitchcock on The Man Who Knew Too Much (first version, 1934); and cinematographer Freddie Young, who would later shoot Lust for Life for Vincente Minnelli and Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter for David Lean.

About the only thing against Calling Bulldog Drummond is that, for a thriller, it isn’t particularly thrilling — it introduces a particularly creative set of bad guys but then settles down into all too normal intrigues, and the sexual tension between Drummond and Smith (as well as the interesting script conceit that in order to establish their bona fides as crooks he has to make himself look like he abuses her) actually has more entertainment value than the overall plot! — 2/5/05