Far From the Wagging Crowd

Two vastly different depictions of twentieth century detective literature’s once most popular protagonists, Bulldog Drummond, have been nicely paired in a double-feature package, BULLDOG DRUMMOND/CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND, available via made-to-order DVD-R from the folks at the Warner Archive Collection.

Drummond was the brainchild of author Herman C. McNeile, aliased as “The Sapper” (meaning “engineer”), who began his Bulldog adventures, like his hero, as a lark.  The first book, published in 1920, took off, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bulldog (actual moniker Hugh Drummond) is an ex-officer, admirably decorated in the Great War.  Filthy rich (with a plethora of equally filthy rich friends), Drummond finds life at the top on the boring side, and yearns for them good ole daze of intrigue, adventure and near-death experiences.  In other words, an adrenalin junkie (or lunatic, your choice).  Handsome, dashing – the kind of ladies man Craigslist females always think they’re going to get (before winding up as a footnote on the ID Channel), Drummond decides to manufacture his own danger.  He takes an ad in a local paper, craving excitement.  Delighted that he receives an answer, he undergoes an enforced transformation in order to successfully assimilate into the underbelly of society, one rife with lethal villains, murderous (and, natch, gorgeous) femme fatales and a ravishing damsel in distress. It’s all he had hoped for, and more.  Soon his best pal Algy (singly pared down from a gang of wealthy participants in the books) and faithful manservant Danny are likewise up to their ears in sinister plots and cliffhanging thrills – so much so that even Drummond starts to ponder the age-old adage, “Don’t wish so hard for something…”

Of course, these tales were naturals for the movies, and, the first cinematic foray was in McNeile’s native Britain, as a 1922 silent starring Carlyle Blackwell.

But it was the folks at Goldwyn, in 1929, looking for a suitable talkie to sound launch their star Ronald Colman, that sealed the filmic deal for Drummond.  The smash success of BULLDOG DRUMMOND led to an eventual 1934 Colman sequel (this time for Darryl Zanuck’s newly christened 20th Century Pictures), before diving head-first into a B-movie series (albeit an entertaining one) at Paramount.

Drummond emerged again in 1951 in the UK with Walter Pidgeon in the role (now an aging, but nonetheless rapacious, Bulldog, coming out of retirement).

The derring-do, and, frankly, often cruel, tactics employed by Drummond, including his chauvinistic predilection for womanly companionship (on both sides of the law) made the character a perfect embryonic run-through for James Bond (with Bulldog likely being an Ian Fleming inspiration); Drummond, himself, was fashioned after characters populating the works of Edgar Wallace (most notably, 1906’s The Four Just Men) – a favorite of author McNeile.

Thus, it’s not surprising that a suave, Playboy Magazine-Drummond surfaced in the 1960s in a rousing duo of Bond-like adventures, featuring the excellent actor Richard Johnson in the role.

Sadly, today, few are familiar with Bulldog Drummond, save detective story fans and ardent classic movie buffs.  Perhaps this recommended Warner Archive release will encourage the more sophisticated armchair sleuth to pursue the matter further (I would personally love to get my hands on the books, long out of print).

 

1929’s BULLDOG DRUMMOND is very nearly a Samuel Goldwyn experimental foray into the new audio technology.  Not that he was so concerned about science, but he was worried about the fate of one of his biggest stars, Ronald Colman.  DRUMMOND, what the Brits refer to as a “ripping yarn,” turned out to be an ideal vehicle for the silent screen heartthrob.  Unlike the negative word of mouth (most of it bosh) that plagued Colman’s quasi-mentor Jack Gilbert, the English matinee idol aced the talkie conversion with ease.  Millions of females dubbed his vocalizing as “dreamy.”  Thus, Goldwyn could breathe a sigh of relief (not so much for Colman’s frequent romantic teammate Vilma Banky, who didn’t make the speaking cut).

But BULLDOG DRUMMOND succeeds on many levels.  Unlike the dregs Metro unearthed for Gilbert, DRUMMOND is a first-rate project, loaded with action, suspense, romance and snarky humor.

The picture, following ridiculously wealthy ex-military man Hugh Drummond and his quest to squelch being bored, takes him on a road to danger, loaded with evil speed bumps, personified by monstrous rogues (Lawrence Grant, Montagu Love and Lilyan Tashman) residing in a Caligari-esque world of fantastic set decor (William Cameron Menzies functioned as an assistant director/designer).  The picture is magnificently photographed by Gregg Toland and George Barnes (no more needs to be said).  The direction, by F. Richard Jones, is fairly fluid for a 1929 talker, and the movie uses the then-rarity of background music (composed by Hugo Riesenfeld) more than efficiently.  Best of all is the appendage to the scenario by Wallace Smith; unlike so many 1920s sound efforts, the crackle is not on the track, but comes via the beautifully constructed dialog by Sidney Howard.  The witty asides are equally reinforced by inventive use of sound effects – an “ooo-and-ah” big deal in 1929.

Aside from Colman’s bravura speaking debut, the performances are wonderful, particularly those of Tashman, Claud Alister, Wilson Benge and, finally, the appearance of a gorgeous teenaged Joan Bennett (her character, Phyllis Benton, would remain Drummond’s perennial fiancée for the subsequent adventures, both in print and on the screen).

The picture opens in a stodgy men’s club, where one literally hears a pin drop (well, a spoon), much to the displeasure of the crypt’s members (“The eternal din in this club is an outrage!”).  We light upon a lethargic Hugh Drummond, who, taking his pal Algy’s suggestion to heart (why not advertise for adventure?) does so with gusto and verve (“Demobilized officer finding peace unbearably tedious would welcome any excitement.  Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection.”).

Soon, beautiful Bennett enters his life, beseeching the debonair man about town to help rescue her drugged and kidnapped uncle (Charles Sellon), held captive in a desolate, rural sanitarium replete with its own torture chamber.

This proves to be manna from heaven for Drummond, as well as for critics and audiences who helped make the picture a smash hit.

87 years later, BULLDOG DRUMMOND remains a joy to watch, kidding itself when not ratcheting up the tension of hairbreadth escapes, adversarial confrontations and pre-Code sexuality. Unsure of Phyllis’s ultimate role in the narrative, manservant Danny covers all bases, “Twin beds, sir, so you can use your own judgement.”  Furthermore, the sinister Petersons (Love and Tashman) are proud practitioners of savage love, and, depending upon the situation, are either a couple or brother and sister.  Yikes!

Like so many Goldwyn pictures, the 35MM elements are in sterling condition.  Succinctly, BULLDOG DRUMMOND is prescibed without reservation for fans of mysteries, Colman and historically important cinema.

 

1951’s CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND is a far cry from the above super-production.  It is the very definition of a B-picture, filmed in England with a bankable Yank star (Walter Pidgeon).  In truth, the movie was conceived and greenlit to take advantage of the post-war “frozen funds” sanction (American film studio monies held in check in the UK that could only be used if a picture was made in Great Britain).  Pidgeon, then in London (with frequent costar Greer Garson) to shoot the 1950 Miniver Story sequel to the 1942 blockbuster, was simply recruited for extra Metro duty.  Indeed, he seems to be walking through the proceedings (as a retired Hugh Drummond called back into action after a violent robbery rocks the city).

That said, as an 80-minute “B,” the movie is not without interest.  Even a watered-down Pidgeon is fun to watch; however, the bulk of the pic belongs to his young assistant, Police Sergeant Helen Smith, a vivacious Margaret Leighton in a boffo role that allows the terrific actress to go undercover and resort to a variety of characterizations.  Other neat cast members include Robert Beatty, Charles Victor, David Tomlinson (as Algy), James Hayter, Peggy Evans and Laurence Naismith.  Most interesting is the appearance of a 24-year-old Richard Johnson, as indicated earlier, himself to play Drummond (the Bond one) in the 1960s.  Speaking of Bond, Bernard Lee also turns up as a colonel.

Swift direction by Victor Saville (who, on occasion, would also produce some noteworthy cinema, his jewel being 1955’s Kiss Me, Deadly) is more than matched by the Howard Emmett Rogers/Gerard Fairlie/Arthur Wimperis script.  It’s a frequently witty scenario with good, cheeky dialog (when gentleman pig breeder Drummond is visited by Inspector McIver, the sow squeals nearly drown out their conversation, causing the irritated police official to quip, “Sounds like the House of Commons in full session”).

Best of all is the crisp, noirish black-and-white cinematography by the great Freddie Young (the 35MM MGM materials being in excellent shape); a serviceable score by Rudolph G. Kopp appends the scenario.

Long story short, for mystery fans, this is a nifty Warner Archive double-bill that many, particularly a hopefully growing array of Drummond buffs, should find hard to pass up.
BULLDOG DRUMMOND/CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono audio.  Warner Bros. Entertainment and Warner Home Video/The Samuel Goldwyn Company.  CAT # 1000596937.  SRP:  $21.99.

Made-to-order DVD-Rs from the Warner Archive Collection, available through www.wbshop.com

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