Monday, June 02, 2008

I'M NOT REALLY SURE WHY I LIKE 1929's BULLDOG DRUMMOND SO MUCH but I do. I find it to be enormous fun. It doesn't get much earlier in the "talking picture" business than this film and there are places it shows. However, the extremely charming and breezy performance by Ronald Colman as "demobbed" Captain Drummond who seeks adventure of ANY kind (because he's bored) goes a LONG way toward carrying the picture. BULLDOG DRUMMOND does rest quite a bit on the actor's shoulders. This is, in fact, Colman's very first sound film but you'd never know it; the actor seems absolutely at home in the new medium and displays absolutely no "learning curve" in the film. However, there's more than that going for the film.
Now, I first saw this film many many moons ago (during the mid-80's) when it was aired on the A&E network (if memory serves) where they were airing many seldom seen classics from such producers as Samuel Goldwyn and Alexander Korda. I've never seen ANY OTHER Bulldog Drummond film so I can't say I was a fan; in fact, I really don't know WHY I watched this film in the first place. But watch it I did and I fell in love with the opening reel or two. The film opens in one of the veddy British men's clubs where SILENCE is the rule. A waiter carries a tray into the room and a spoon clatters noisily to the floor. This prompts a mustachioed old codger to stand up in a huff and fume "The eternal din in this club is an outrage!" Seated nearby is Colman as Drummond along with his sniffy sidekick Algy (played by the ultimate sniffy actor Claud Allister). Colman admits that, far from dropping spoons, he wishes someone would lob a bomb into the place and wake the place up. Drummond is bored with civilian life. He then proceeds to noisily walk out of the club whistling. Drummond's boredom leads him to place an add in the Sunday Times stating:
  • "To the Editor, Personal Column, The Times, London. Demobilized officer, finding peace unbearably tedious, would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humourous description, no objection."

Before a few shakes of a bulldog's tail, Drummond has his reply from a desperate woman (later shown to be played by an EXTREMELY YOUNG Joan Bennett) who pleads for his help in a matter unspecified. The woman has booked rooms for Drummond (under the name of John Smith) at the remote Green Bay Inn and begs him to meet her their at midnight. Drummond naturally rushes off in his roadster; unknowingly followed by Algy and his butler. Drummond arrives in a dark and rustic Green Bay Inn in the middle of a rainstorm where punters sing Irish drinking songs. The incredibly atmospheric Inn (by the masterful William Cameron Menzies) is a moody joy to behold (particularly in the rain at night when all this takes place) and helps make the beginning of the film such a pleaser with yours truly.

15 minutes before Drummond's rendezvous of mystery, Algy and the butler make their presence known. A knock at the door and Drummond sends them to hide in the adjoining chamber of his rooms. Enter mystery woman Phyllis Benton who informs Drummond that her uncle is being held prisoner by some ne'er-do-well crooks for some reason or another. All the times I've seen the film I can never remember why -- other than there's money involved -- but trust me, the reason doesn't matter -- it's just a Macguffin (a la Hitchcock) to get the players in action. And action there is -- with characters running around all OVER the place. The movie does tend to sag just a wee little bit in the middle but regains momentum in the final third.

As I said before, Ronald Colman's performance is breezy and just cheeky enough to make it seem much more modern than the 1929 vintage of the film would indicate. One marvelous scene in particular finds Colman choking the life out of one of the bad guys (Lawrence Grant who simply HAS to be imitating Tod Slaughter for all he's worth) in an adjacent room. The violence is seen projected on the wall behind them as Colman leans out from behind the door jamb and, while not even pausing in his choking of the villain, carries on a conversation with Bennett. Joan cries "Oh, Mr. Drummond! You're killing him!" and Colman quips "Don't say that, my dear. I'm being as gentle as I can!" Colman makes an extremely winning lead. This cannot be said, however, for poor Ms. Bennett who doesn't appear to have adjusted to "the talkies" so well by this point. Her first entrance is woefully over-the-top in a "Perils of Pauline", voice-quavering manner. Happily, she recovers as the picture goes on and becomes more naturalistic. Claud Allister is just perfect casting as Algy: generally addled and not knowing precisely what's going on, he smiles vacuously at everyone and aptly fills the role of dopey but well-meaning sidekick to Colman's adventurer. The happiest casting (for me) is the appearance of the delectable Lilyan Tashman as evil Irma: one of the crooks. The tragically short-lived Tashman (she died at the young age of 34 after an unsuccessful operation for cancerous tumors) had probably her juiciest role in the early shudderfest MURDER BY THE CLOCK (an early horror outing imitating the Universal horror pictures of the time like Frankenstein and Dracula and a BIG personal fave) -- however, she's just as deliciously evil here. Since the crooks are fraudulently holding Phyllis' uncle in their "hospital" when there's nothing really wrong with him, one of the crooks worries about the authorities. Irma offhandedly suggests that they break his legs or crack his skull to give him something REALLY wrong with him to show to any snoopers. Delicious! Lilyan Tashman was actually one of the few actresses (or actors) who actually did BETTER when she transitioned from silent films to talkies. Married to the rather bland Edmund Lowe (CHANDU THE MAGICIAN and THE SPIDER) at the time of her death, Tashman was one of the most interesting and fun performers of the period and was a great loss to motion pictures. It's really nice to see her in another of her malevolent roles here.

Director F. Richard Jones (who startlingly died of tuberculosis only a year after making this: his final film) does a fairly decent job keeping things moving but the age of the film does tend to make things creak a little. But the film is helped along astronomically by the performances -- most notably those of Colman and Tashman. The art direction by Menzies is, as mentioned before, superb; giving the proceedings much-needed atmospherics. One is reminded of several OTHER films (some of which hadn't even been MADE when BULLDOG DRUMMOND was being lensed). One sequence finds a stone wall behind the actors which wouldn't look out of place inside a Castle Frankenstein laboratory; however, FRANKENSTEIN wouldn't even be MADE for another two years. There are also great looming stone stairways which would make Dracula jealous! The following are some great examples of Menzies' art direction, if you please: Great use is also made of looming shadows projected onto walls in much the same way as they would be seen THREE years LATER in Robert Florey's consolation prize for losing his director's chair to James Whale in FRANKENSTEIN: the Bela Lugosi vehicle MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. And there are certain sets which feature the skewed angles and disturbing resonances found in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI made ten years before. And the photography of George Barnes and the incomparable Gregg Toland manages to keep things lively with interesting camera angles and, in one disconcerting instance, a whiplash backwards tracking shot at breakneck speed!

BULLDOG DRUMMOND is shockingly hard to find a copy of. It's apparently long out of print (in the VHS copy I have owned for years), has NEVER been released on DVD and is never shown on television (to my knowledge). This is a shame since BULLDOG DRUMMOND is quite simply a lark; a bubbly light mystery that is more entertaining than the vast majority of films hailing from 1929. As I've said before, I've never seen any other Bulldog Drummond movie but, from the looks of them, they appear to be rather low rent compared to this one. If you can ever find it, I think BULLDOG DRUMMOND is well worth your time.

5 comments:

Weaverman said...

The stills look amazing - very Cameron Menzies. Never seen this but I enjoyed some of the later b-movie series with John Howard and the first of the series (which starred Ray Milland is very atmospheric). As a kid I devoured the Bulldog Drummond books by Sapper and a few years back I tried some of them again and although they are fun in a period sort of way one has to be a bit concerned about a writer who has his hero and his buddies don blackshirts and jackboots and then go out and beat up Jews and foreigners.

Cheekies said...

Any relation to Mr. Drummond on Different Strokes?

Cerpts said...

Weaverman,
Wow. That they DIDN'T put in the movie. But it looks like I may just have to send you the 1929 BULLDOG DRUMMOND now, won't I?

Cheekies,
Only by marriage. It isn't discussed in the family. Schtum!

Weaverman said...

Dammit! You just cost me money again...nostalgia got the better of me and I just ordered a Bulldog Drummond omnibus from Amazon containing the Carl Petersen quartet - Petersen was the filthy german supervillain. I think these are the earliest Drummond adventures before they got a bit nasty in THE BLACK GANG. Hey, I forgot to say I can let you have some of the later Drummonds - if I can find them = including the Ray Milland.

Cerpts said...

That would be great, thank you. The Ray Milland sounds interesting.

But I'm assuming the omnibus is of the books and not the films, right? So i'll still be sending along the 1929 BULLDOG DRUMMONG to you in that case.

And HAH! I cost you money!!! That's what you and Terry Frost are always doing to me! Touche!!!