November 3rd, 2012

DETECTIVE-PALOOZA: BULLDOG DRUMMOND

If you’ve never heard of Bulldog Drummond, he was sort of the missing link between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. He was the creation of Herman McNeile who wrote ten novels worth of Bulldog Drummond adventures. (Gerard Fairlie picked up the baton after McNeile’s death and wrote several more Drummond novels.) There had been movies based on Drummond novels spanning back to the silent era, as well as an unsuccessful reboot in the 60’s, but the series of Bulldog Drummond films from the late 30’s are probably the best known and most popular. It’s that series that we’ll be taking a look at today.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND ESCAPES (1937) ** ½

Ray Milland stars in his first and only portrayal of Bulldog Drummond. On a dark and foggy night, Bulldog stops his car to come to the aid of Phyllis Clavering (Heather Angel). She winds up stealing his car and motoring on over to her mansion. Bulldog tracks her down and soon discovers a plot by some snide bastard to steal her inheritance.

As you’ll soon see, the Bulldog Drummond series is marked by numerous personnel changes. Milland quickly exited the series and was replaced by John Howard for the next seven films. Heather Angel was also replaced with Louise Campbell; although she would later reclaim the role in Bulldog Drummond in Africa. And Guy Standing who plays Bulldog’s ally Inspector Nielsen, passed away shortly after the film was made and the role was taken up by John Barrymore (and eventually H.B. Warner). The only constants throughout the series were Reginald Denny, who played Bulldog’s bumbling best friend Algy and E.E. Clive, who was Bulldog’s faithful butler Tenny.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes is a fairly solid entry in the series. The film has plenty of atmosphere; especially in the scene where Drummond discovers a dead body in the marsh. And the comic relief (a hallmark of the series) is rather amusing. (Algy’s wife is in labor but he’s too busy helping Bulldog solve a case.) But despite a number of good points, Bulldog Drummond Escapes is still a bit on the dull side. The opening is rather snappy, but things tend to slow down once Bulldog starts snooping around the mansion.

Heather Angel is a bit of a wet blanket in this film. She’s responsible for a lot of the film’s weaker moments, but she somewhat redeems herself in the end when she dispatches an evil butler. The good news is that she got better as the series went along. In subsequent entries the character of Phyllis was given more to do and became a rather strong female presence in the series.

The plot of this thing is more or less forgettable, and the end is wrapped up way too fast. Also, it seems like Bulldog spends more time getting cornered by the villain and less time doing some actual sleuthing. As for the rest of the film; it’s pretty clever, and has some good production values. But all in all, it just never quite works as well as some of the later entries.

Ray Milland’s wild eyed energetic performance makes the film unique. When John Howard took over the role, he played Bulldog Drummond as your standard debonair badass. There’s nothing wrong with Howard (I like him quite a bit actually), but Milland’s portrayal of the role is more fun. It’s kind of a shame he didn’t carry on and play Bulldog Drummond in the rest of the films in the series. I guess he was destined to go on to bigger and better things though.

AKA: Bulldog Drummond’s Escape.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND COMES BACK (1937) ***

E.E. Clive and Reginald Denny are the only ones who returned for this superior sequel to Bulldog Drummond Escapes. John Howard does a fine job as Bulldog Drummond and the great John Barrymore makes for the definitive Inspector Nielsen. And as for the character of Phyllis, I’d say the new one they got (Louise Campbell) is just as fine if not better than Heather Angel.

Bulldog Drummond falls in love with Phyllis after rescuing her in the first movie. But before his wedding day, some vengeance seeking baddies kidnap Bulldog’s bride-to-be. The only way he can get her back is by going on a wild goose chase filled with riddles and traps (it’s kinda like a 30’s version of Saw, minus all the gore).

Part of why I like the Bulldog Drummond series (at least this incarnation) so much is that so many plot elements are carried over from movie to movie. Even though the continuity of the actors is all fucked up, at least the plot lines are fairly consistent. For example, in the first film Algy kept being distracted from the case because his baby was about to be born. In this one, he’s distracted because the tot is getting christened. And Bulldog and Phyllis’ wedding plans being interrupted by a kidnapping/murder became a running gag throughout the entire series.

I like this movie a lot. I think it’s probably the best in the series. Part of me would’ve loved to have seen Ray Milland in the lead again. But that being said, Howard is a decent substitute. He’s more dapper and refined, which works for the character and he grew into the role nicely.

The supporting cast is aces. J. Carrol Naish is excellent as the villain, but I think John Barrymore gave my favorite performance. There’s a running gag of Inspector Nielsen being forced to don a variety of disguises to keep tabs on Drummond that’s pretty funny. And speaking of funny Denny and Clive are given some decent comedic material to work with.

Bottom Line: The tight plot, breezy pacing, and solid supporting performances make Bulldog Drummond Comes Back the best of the series.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND’S REVENGE (1937) **

A scientist invents a new kind of explosive. The problem is that it’s extremely unstable. Predictably, he is killed by enemy agents who take possession of the volatile substance. He hops on a train and Bulldog Drummond (John Howard), Algy (Reginald Denny), and Tenny (E.E. Clive) climb on board and try to get it back.

Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge features the same principle cast as Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, but it’s noticeably missing the spark that made that film so much fun. There is one funny bit involving a severed hand Bulldog finds in the wreckage of an airplane. This whole scene is pretty funny (especially when Bulldog tries to hide the hand from Phyllis). Unfortunately, that’s the only real standout part of this otherwise ho-hum outing.

I mean in the last film, Bulldog was going all over town solving riddles and trying to rescue his fiancée. In this one, he’s just stuck on a train looking for a briefcase. With the exception of the hand scene, it’s all very by the numbers and more than a little boring. Plus, the comic relief isn’t as sharp as in previous entries and a lot of Bulldog’s make-up/break-up stuff with Phyllis (once again played by Louise Campbell) gets a bit tiresome. And to make matters worse, Bulldog never gets “revenge” on anybody! What’s up with that?

BULLDOG DRUMMOND’S PERIL (1938) ** ½

Bulldog Drummond (John Howard) and Phyllis (Louise Campbell) are making arrangements for their upcoming wedding. A diamond gets stolen at their engagement party, which prompts Drummond to delay the wedding so he can investigate. He eventually learns the diamond is a fake and the product of a scientist who has created a machine that makes imitation diamonds. Some thugs kill him and take his machine in an attempt to depreciate the diamond market and Bulldog sets out to stop them.

Bulldog Drummond’s Peril starts off solidly enough, but stumbles a bit in the second half. Although Reginald Denny and E.E. Clive provide some OK comic relief, all the shit with a penguin getting loose at the engagement party is just too dumb for words. That’s fine by me though because the scene where the scientist creates fake diamonds by using lab equipment left over from Frankenstein is pretty cool.

Despite some second act doldrums, the film really comes alive for the finale. In addition, the flick features some impressive action sequences (well… for the time anyway). The motorcycle chase features some good stunt work and Bulldog’s fight with a bullwhip wielding villain is rather exciting.

John Howard’s performance keeps you watching when things get slow. By now, he had built up a rapport with Denny and Clive, so they seem to have found their groove. Bulldog Drummond’s Peril proved to be Louise Campbell and John Barrymore’s final go-round in the series, which is fine since they weren’t given anything memorable to do in this one.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND IN AFRICA (1938) ***

Bulldog Drummond in Africa is the best film in the series since Bulldog Drummond Comes Back. While it may be a tad too leisurely paced in some spots, it’s short on plot (Inspector Nielsen is kidnapped on Bulldog’s wedding day and he has to go to Africa to rescue him), has an excellent cast, and boasts a lively climax. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

J. Carrol Naish returns to the series playing a different villain. It’s no surprise that the two best entries in the franchise feature Naish as the baddie. He’s just the kind of villain these films require. The scene in the end where he threatens our hero with his pet lion is pretty fucking sweet. And as an added bonus, a young Anthony Quinn turns up in a small role as a henchman.

The rest of the cast is once again solid all the way around. Reginald Denny gives what is probably his best performance since Bulldog Drummond Escapes. He gets a funny bit where he steals Bulldog’s pants so he can’t get into any adventures on his wedding day. (Naturally, that plan fails.) Heather Angel is back as Phyllis and she does a fine job. H.B. Warner takes over for John Barrymore as Inspector Nielsen and while he is no John Barrymore, he doesn’t suck or anything.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND’S SECRET POLICE (1939) ** ½

On the eve of Bulldog and Phyllis’ wedding, an absent minded professor turns up at the Drummond estate claiming there’s a treasure hidden inside Bulldog’s house. Naturally, an escaped convict breaks into the house, kills the professor, and goes after the treasure. It’s then up to Bulldog and Co. to stop him.

The comic relief was getting a bit much by the time this entry was released. While it’s not very funny, there’s still plenty to like about Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police. It may get off to a rocky start, but once it finds its footing, it becomes a solid entry in the series.

Like Bulldog Drummond Escapes, the film is bolstered by a good villainous performance. Instead of J. Carrol Naish, we get Leo G. Carroll, which is a fair trade if you ask me. And John Howard probably gives his best portrayal of Bulldog Drummond of the entire series.

The film does suffer from some obvious padding. There’s a dream sequence featuring “best of” moments from Bulldog’s previous installments that is in there for no good reason whatsoever. But for every slow part, there’s at least one cool bit (like the climax involving a bed of spikes), so it’s a decent entry overall. Plus, the film ends on a fitting note as Bulldog and Phyllis are about to be married and then… well… I won’t spoil it for you.