Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bulldog Drummond's
Road to the Wedding: Part Two

This is the second 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 in Africa (1938)
Starring: John Howard, E.E Clive, J. Carroll Naish, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, and H.B. Warner
Director: Louis King
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Despite some extreme measures that adventurer Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) and his friends take to stop him from being drawn into yet another adventure that will ruin the plans for his wedding, Fate once again intervenes. When his fiance, Phyllis Clavering (Angel), witnesses the kidnapping of Scotland Yard's Colonel Nielsen (Warner) by notorious freelance spy Richard Lane (Naish), Drummond and the gang persue the bad guys all the way to Morocco to rescue him.

"Bulldog Drummond in Africa" is one of the very best in the series released by Paramount Pictures. It's got some of the best gags (Drummond and Tenny, trapped in Rockingham Lodge without pants and money to keep Drummond from being lured into trouble, doing Scottish dances in improvised kilts to entertain themselves gives even more entertaiment for the viewers), it's got the most suspenseful storyline so far (with everyone being placed in extreme mortal danger during the unfolding story, and Drummond and the entire gang having one of their most narrow escapes ever). From its opening scene to the final fade-out, the film moves along at lightning pace, never letting off on the banter, action, or antics.

On the acting front, Howard, Clive, and Denny return as the characters they've played in previous films, and they do their usual excellent jobs. Denny's character of Algy Longworth (the undisputed champion in the Upperclass Twit Olympics) has a little more to do in this film, and viewers who might have started to wonder why Drummond tolerates him, can start to understand why.

Also, Heather Angel and J. Carroll Naish return to the series with this episode, Angel resumes the role of Phyllis Clavering (which she played in "Bulldog Drummond's Escape"), while Naish appears as a different bad guy than he played previously. Both are excellent in their parts, with Angel delivering a more energetic Clavering than Louise Campbell did in the intervening three films. (Campbell did a good job, but I prefer Angel's Phyllis.) Naish, meanwhile, is playing a far more interesting, competent, and evil villian than the one he portrayed in "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back". He has some nice lines, and the always jovial demeanor of Richard Lane, who is a murderous sociopath, makes for a bad guy who is fun to watch, particularly in interplay with new series regular H.B. Warner, who takes over the role of Colonel Nielsen from John Barrymore.

With Warner joining the cast, Nielsen returns to the sort of character he was in the first couple of films. It's hard to say whether Nielsen was badly written in "Bulldog Drummond's Peril", but here the character is back in form, and the calm, upper-lip-so-stiff-it-must-be-made-of-bone fashion he deals with Lang and his spy collegues makes it clear why Nielsen and Drummond are good friends. Nielsen is far more than just a former Army officer and high-level government official--he's every bit the hardcase adventurer as Drummond, and we get to see that in this film, even if he is basically the "damsel in distress."

I recommend this film to fans of 1930s and 1940s pulp fiction tales, adventure films, and even those who enjoy the "Indiana Jones" movies. While this isn't a good point at which to start the series, those who have seen one or more of the earlier films should note that as of the fifth entry, this series is still on an upward quality climb. There are few other movie series that can be said about.

Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police (1939)
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, H.B. Warner, Loe Carroll, Forester Harvey, and Elizabeth Patterson
Dirrector: James Hogan

Just as it appears Hugh Drummond (Howard) and Phyllis Clalvering (Angel) are finally going to make it to their own wedding, a cooky historian (Harvey) shows up on the doorstep and says he comes to search for a massive treasure hidden in the catacombs below the Drummond family's ancestral home. A treasure hunt isn't enough to disrupt the wedding plans--Drummond thinks that can wait until the day after he and Clavering married--but the murder of the historian is. Drummond, his friend Algy (Denny), his faithful servant Tenny (Clive), house-guest Colonel Nielsen of Scotland Yard (Warner), and even Miss Clavering are soon searching the long-abandoned tunnels in search of a treasure and a deadly killer. But it's a deadly hunt, because the killer is one step ahead of them.

"Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police" is another strong entry in the series. The physical humor is strong in this one, and the action is fast-moving, entertaining, and downright suspenseful at times. In fact, there's a scene where several of our heroes are in ancient death trap and it actually feels like they might not escape.

The regular cast is excellent as usual, and they have Reginald Denny is funnier in this installment than he as ever been before, and Clive gets some excellent zingers off as well, with Tenny's signature "I rather like it" line being used to great effect on multiple occassions. Howard and Angel once again display excellent on-screen chemistry, and the viewer can easily understand why the two characters keep trying over and over again to get married, despite Fate continuially getting in their way. (In fact, Angel is perhaps the best I've ever seen her in this film--she lights up the screen in every scene she appears in, and she ends up as one of the feistiest "damels in distress" to ever make the bad guy regret taking prisoners.)

To add to the quality, this film can even serve as a jumping-on point for those who don't want to watch from the beginning. As it unfolds, the film manages to give a quick introduction of the characters and the ongoing "Road to the Wedding" subplot that's been running through the series since "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back" without boring those of us who have watched all the previous installments.

As good as it is, this episode is not exactly perfect. First, there is a very annoying, very stupid comic relief character that makes Algy look like a genius. Second, there's a problem with the villain of this episode. He's written in a very sinister fashion, he's got some good lines, and he proves to be a real threat to Our Heroes... but he's played by an actor who's nearly a non-entity compared to the high-energy performers he's surrounded by. Leo Carroll isn't exactly bad, but he's out of his league with the "Bulldog Drummond" ensamble.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: This series of "Bulldog Drummond" films reminds me more of the "Indiana Jones" series than any other films from the 1930s I've seen. Heck, there's even a death-trap scene in this one that brings part of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" to mind... and in this installment Drummond and the gang are hunting for a lost treasure in an ancient castle!

Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1939)
Starring: John Howard, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, Heather Angel, H.B. Warner, and George Zucco
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Hugh Drummond (Howard) ends up a murder suspect when an international freelance spy (Zucco) kills an inventor and steals an experimental beam-weapon that remotely detonates gunpowder and explosives. With his wedding plans yet again disrupted, Drummond, his best friend Algy (Denny), his ever-resourceful gentleman's gentleman Tenny (Clive), and his fiance Phyllis (Angel) travel to a tropical island to capture the spy and return the deadly weapon to British hands.

"Arrest Bulldog Drummond" starts sluggishly, has a darker tone than the other entries in the Paramount-produced "Bulldog Drummond" series, and what gags that are present are rather tepid. The film is saved by a strong third act, the usual excellent performances by Howard, Denny, Clive, and Angel (with Denny and Angel getting quite a bit of screen-time, and their characters of Algy and Phyllis taking more active roles in the plot than usual), and a nifty turn by George Zucco as the sinister spy Rolf Alferson. Unfortunately, Colonel Nielsen (Warner) is once again reduced to a blithering idiot by the writers (something which seems to be a hallmark of the worst installments in the series.)

With a near equal amount of good parts and bad parts, "Arrest Bulldog Drummond" is one of the weakest entries in the series, with the strong finish and good performances by Zucco and the regular cast members barely managing to elevate the film to the upper-end of average. It's okay, but you won't miss much if you skip it.

Bulldog Drummond's Bride (1939)
Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, Eduardo Ciannelli, H.B. Warner, E.E. Clive John Sutton, Gerald Hamer, Louise Mercier, and Louise Patterson
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Phyllis (Angel) gives adventurer Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (Howard) one final chance to marry her, forcing the matter to the point where she has promised to marry another suitor on the day immediately following their scheduled wedding should the date be missed again. But, despite the efforts of their friends and families (regular returning cast-members Clive, Denny, Patterson, and Warner), a small-town French mayor with a deeply romantic soul (Mercier), this wedding plan may be foiled by the deadliest obsticle yet: A murderous, bomb-happy bank robber (Cianelli) in search of revenge and the 10,000 pounds of loot that he hid inside Phyllis' portable radio and which Hugh shipped to France.

Whether or not Hugh Drummond and his fiancee Phyllis actually manage to complete their nuptuials, "Bulldog Drummond's Bride" ends the Paramount-produced series with a bang! It features one of the series' most sinister villains--second only to the opponent that almost fed Colonel Nielsen and Hugh to a lion in "Bulldog Drummond in Africa"--and a weddding ceremony that's exactlyl the sort of pay-off that's called for, given how long it's been in coming.

It's a little dissapointing that the characters of Tenny (Clive) and Colonel Nielsen (Warner) are reduced to playing very small parts, but the trade-off of John Sutton's character (Colonel Nielsen's assistant in four of the films, referred to mostly as "Inspector Tredennis", but called "Jennings" in "Bulldog Drummond's Revenge") getting to play a larger role, and to even manage to be the one to make sure Drummond stays put long enough to give his final hope of marriage even the slightest chance of happening; and the hilarious, pompous small-town mayor/chief of police character portrayed by Louis Mercier more than make up for it.

Although this final step of Bulldog Drummond's Road to the Wedding is a little short of hi-jinx (the only truly funny bit is bank-robber Henri Armides tormenting of a confused Algy (Denny)--the wild energy of the film's final minutes brings this series to a close at a very high point of quality.

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