Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bulldog Drummond's
Road to the Wedding: Part One

This is the first of two posts covering the eight Bulldog Drummond films produced by Paramount in the late 1930s. Click here to read some background on the series and its cast.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)
Starring: Ray Milland, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Guy Standing, Reginald Denny, Porter Hall, Fay Holden, and Walter Kingsford
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" opens, daredevil adventurer Captain Hugh Drummond (Milland) is returning from an extended trip abroad. Over the objections of airport officials, he lands his private plane in thick fog before jumping into his sports car and speeding off to his country estate. Along the way, he comes across Phyllis Clavering (Angel), and before the night is out, he has to decide if she's a damsel in distress, or a mentally unstable woman, as her sinister wards (Hall and Holden) would have him believe. Before this most unexpected adventure is over, Drummond finds himself not only captured by a ring of spies, but finds himself heads-over-heels in love with Calvering. But will either of them live long enough to make good on the promise of romance?

"Bulldog Drummond Escapes" spends its first few minutes introducing the viewers to the main character and the supporting cast, and then proceeds to present a story that is not only engaging, but which features subplots that will continue to develop over the next five sequels, such as Algy's relationship with his wife and his struggle to balance a life of adventure with his friends Drummond and Tenny with that of a responsible husband and father; Colonel Nielsen's ongoing attempts to force Drummond to just behave like a normal citizen and stop sticking his nose in government business; and Drummond and Clavering's marriage plans that are forever interrupted by various bad guys and disasters.

Despite the fact that the first "Bulldog Drummond" films appeared in the 1920s, you would be well served to ignore those and just start your viewing with "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" and the other Paramount-produced films that follow it, particularly if "Bulldog Drummond at Bay" is any indication of the quality of the films that came before the Paramount series.

What makes this film, and its sequels, so much fun is the interplay between the characters and the snappy dialogue. The relationship between Tenny and Drummond is particularly fun.

Cast-wise, everyone does a fantastic job. Milland is adequate as Drummond, but he is greatly bolstered by excellent performances from E.E. Clive (as the ever-unflappable manservant Tenny) and Reginald Denny (as the ever-stressed and freaked-out Algy, who is trying to help Drummond out of his latest jam while supporting his wife as she gives birth to their first child). Heather Angel's character of Phyllis Clavering is something of a non-entity in this film, but she does as good a job as can be expected with the part... and she's as cute as ever.

With its fast-paced, well-constructed script and solid characterizations of a likeable group of people who are joined together by a sense of adventure, fun, and mutual respect, "Bulldog Drummond Escapes" is a great start to an excellent series of films.

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)
Starring: John Howard, E.E. Clive, Louise Campbell, John Barrymore, Reginald Denny, J. Carroll Naish, and Helen Freeman
Director: Louis King
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Adventurer Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) is preparing to marry the love of his life, Phyllis Clavering (Campbell), his past comes back to haunt him in a major way. Phyllis is kidnapped by Valdin and Soldanis (Naish and Freeman), a sinister pair of characters with very personal reasons for wanting to torment Drummond. As he is drawn into a deadly game of riddles and clues where Clavering's life is the prize, he calls upon his friend Algy (Denny) and loyal manservant Tenny (Clive) for help, and to keep Scotland Yard's Colonel Nielsen (Barrymore) from accidentially causing Clavering's death.

"Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" is the weakest of the Paramount-produced Bulldog Drummond films, but not through any fault of the actors. Every performer featured is excellent and they play their roles with great style and good humor or deadly menace (depending on what side of the Good/Evil line the characters fall on). The problem here is the script... the situations presented never seems believable or sensible, even when viewed through the screwy lense that captures the world of Hugh Drummond and his pals. As a result, everything seems frivolous and pointless.

Still, the film is great fun to watch. With John Howard replacing Ray Milland in the role of Drummond, the energy and charm of the character is ratcheted up several notches, bringing a rapidfire pace to the film that will be a hallmark of the series for the six.

E.E. Clive also comes fully into his own as Tenny in this film, establishing a scene-stealing dry wit that gives rise to some of this film's funniest moments. He also plays fabulously off the other actors, and he makes a much better on-sceen partner to Howard than he did to Milland.

Louise Campbell, who takes over the role of Phyllis Clavering, is not quite as beautiful as Heather Angel, but, like Clive, she establishes the Phyllis Clavering character as she will appear in the future films--not quite as fully realized as Drummond and Tenny, but the foundation is put in place: As a spunky, self-reliant heroine who can give Dummond and the boys a run for their money. (And she does this while still remaining feminine and mostly proper. As one of the original "spunky heroines", Clavering is an interesting and fun character.)

Barrymore's first outing as Colonel Nielsen is greatly entertaining, although a bit out of character. His persuit of Tenny and Algy in a series of provides as many highpoints to this episode as Tenny and Drummond's banterings.

The rest of the cast performs expertly, as I mentioned above, with Naish being particularly strong in his first turn as a bad guy in the series (he shows up again in "Bulldog Drummond in Africa").

The great performances by the cast, and some snappy dialogue, almost lifts "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" to the high-end of average... almost but not quite.

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937)
Starring: John Howard, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, John Barrymore, Louise Campbell, and Frank Puglia
Director: Louis King
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

While preparing to travel to Switzerland with his friends Algy (Denny) and Colonel Nielsen (Barrymore), as well as his manservant Tenny (Clive), so he can finally marry the love of his life, Phyllis Clavering (Campbell), Captain Hugh Drummond (Howard) is drawn into a nefarious scheme by murderous froeign agents attempting to steal the only existing sample of a newly developed high explosive, Hexonite. Can Drummond and his friends round up the guilty parties without spoiling yet another set of wedding plans?

"Bulldog Drummond's Revenge" is a fast-paced adventure tale that keeps things funny and lighthearted--almost in spite a sequence where our heroes are tossing about a suitcase that don't realize contains unstable explosives, and a series of ghoulish gags involving a severed arm.

The regular cast-members provide their usual charming and witty performances. Clive shines particularly brightly in this outing, with Tenny's plain frustration with the antics of his "betters" giving rise to some very funny sarcasm.

The film's main weak point is its reliance on far-fetched coincidences to both get started and keep the characters involved in the events. (I could accept that Drummond and pals just happen to be driving along the road where bad guys are executing Stage Two of their scheme... but it taxes my ability to suspend my disbelief that Drummond and Phyllis's train compartment just happens to be next to the ones reserved by the bad guy. There's also the issue that Phyllis seems just a tiny bit too shrewish at times during the film; it's hardly Hugh's fault that a suitcase and a severed arm literally dropped out of the sky as he was returning from London.

This entry in the series will be particularly appreciated by fans of the "Indiana Jones" movies, as it has much of a same tone as they do.

Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938)
Starring: John Howard, Louise Campbell, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, John Barrymore, Porter Hall, Matthew Boulton, and Halliwell Hobbes
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

&Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) once again courts danger (and misses his wedding date) when a security guard at his wedding reception is murdered, and he sets off in pursuit of the theif (Boulton) who stole a synthetic diamond that was among the wedding gifts. As a larger plot comes to light, and he and his manservant Tenny (Clive) run afoul the villains, his bride-to-be, Phyllis (Campbell), and his friend Algy (Denny) set out to find and rescue him. But will they make matters better or worse?

"Bulldog Drummond's Peril" is one of the best entries in the series. Fine acting, an engaging story, and attention paid to the events of previous films, it is certain to draw you in. (The fact that it pays attention to series continuity--the previous film ended with Hugh and Phyllis on their way to Switzerland to get married, and this one opens at the wedding reception a day or two before the wedding--makes it all the more enjoyable. If only more of the writers and producers of movie series in the '30s and '40s could have been bothered with such details....)

The film is part mystery, part adventure tale, and its convoluted plots twists back and forth as Drummond tries to catch a killer and unravel the many deceptions that are piled upon one another. And if the plot wasn't enough to keep the viewer interested, (There are two seperate groups of bad guys after the same goal but for different reasons, and they are alternatively cooperating and crossing each other, frustrating Drummond's efforts to get to the bottom of what is really going on.)

Although there isn't as much amusing banter in this film as in the three previous entries in the series--things are a little grimmer here, as one of Drummond's quarries is a respected business man and one of the peerage, (so Scotland Yard won't get involved without solid evidence of serious wrongdoing) and the laboratory of Algy's father-in-law is bombed--most of the returning castmembers give their best performaances of the series yet.

The villians of this installment are also superior both in writing and in the actors who portray them. In the previous two installments of the series, the bad guys were either a little too frivilous (in "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back") or too bland (in "Bulldog Drummond's Revenge"), but here they are perfectly slimey (the devious, arrogant British lord played by Matthew Boulton) or sinister (the sociopatic American scientist played by Porter Hall).

The film also provides an interesting expansion of the Drummond Universe in the revelation that Tenny is far, far more than just a clever gentleman's gentleman. He is himself something of an adventurer and a rogue with his own network of informants that he can tap into when he or Drummond needs it.

The only true weak point in the film, it John Barrymore's portrayal of Colonel Nielsen, Drummond's friend at Scotland Yard. In the previous three movies, Nielsen came across as consistenly irrirated with Drummond, but stll fairly professional, friendly, and even a little fatherly at times. Here, he comes across as an ignorant, bellowing jerk and almost slides into the "incompetent police inspector" stereotype that was so typical in films of this type. (He does get one of the films funniest lines, though right at the end where he effectively turns the tables of joking on Drummond.)

Please come back tomorrow for the reviews of the second and final half of the Paramount-prodcued Bulldog Drummond films.

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