Saturday, July 18, 2015

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back was released in 1937, part of Paramount’s extensive series of B-movies based on the immensely popular thrillers of H. C. McNeile (who used the pseudonym Sapper). 

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back was based on McNeile’s excellent 1928 novel The Female of the Species, and it adheres reasonably closely to McNeile’s story. An old enemy of Drummond’s is out for revenge and she intends to use Drummond’s wife Phyllis as the means by which to achieve this. Phyllis is kidnapped and Drummond is supplied deliberately with a series of tantalising clues, the aim being to ensure that his suffering will be as prolonged as possible.

It’s a story idea that has been used countless times but both the novel and the movie execute the idea with enough energy and imagination to keep things exciting.

Drummond’s old friend Colonel Neilson of Scotland Yard (John Barrymore) is anxious to help but Drummond knows that Phyllis’s survival depends on his willingness to keep the police out of the matter. Colonel Neilson however is determined to become involved anyway, without Drummond’s knowledge.

Captain Drummond can also rely on the willing if not always effective assistance of the faithful Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny) and the somewhat more useful assistance of his butler Tenny (E. E. Clive). 

Hugh and his pals are led a merry chase through the English countryside accumulating the needful clues. There’s more action than is usual in a thriller of this vintage and the villainess’s diabolical plot provide the opportunity for some effective suspense and some quite well-executed thrills.

It has to be said that this is one 30s B-movie that wastes no time in plunging us into the action. The brisk pacing is maintained throughout the 64-minute running time.

Director Louis King spent a lengthy career churning out competent B-features and he knows his stuff. Despite the inevitably tight B-picture budget he does a fine job. Edward T. Lowe Jr had been writing for movies since 1912 and his screenplay is tight and captures the breathless flavour of McNeile’s novels rather well. 

This movie has all the essential ingredients of a fine B-thriller - disguises, secret codes, hidden trapdoors, narrow escapes and just enough romance and humour to season the  derring-do.

No less than thirteen actors eventually attempted the rĂ´le of Captain Hugh Drummond. The one thing they had in common was that all were quite wrong for the part. In this film John Howard plays Drummond for the second time (and would do so on five subsequent occasions). He is spectacularly wrong for the part. Drummond should be bigger, beefier, louder, more boisterous and much much uglier. Drummond’s taste for schoolboy humour is also entirely lost in the film adaptations.

That’s not to say that John Howard’s performance is bad. He’s quite adequate but much too smooth and polished. He just isn’t Bulldog Drummond.

I do like the scene in which Drummond summons Tenny not by any of the normal methods for communication with a servant but by firing his revolver into the ceiling. That at least is an authentic Bulldog Drummond touch. 

Algy and Tenny both provide some comic relief but unusually for a 1930s B-movie the comic relief is genuinely amusing and it’s kept strictly within bounds. Helen Freeman brings a suitably sinister glamour to her performance as the evil Irena Soldanis. John Barrymore has plenty of fun as Colonel Neilson.

My copy of this movie comes from Mill Creek’s 50-movie Mystery Boxed set. The transfer is adequate by the standards of cheap public domain sets.

While Ray Milland, who played Drummond in Bulldog Drummond Escapes, was a considerably better actor than John Howard Bulldog Drummond Comes Back is overall a better and more satisfying movie. It’s an excellent example of just how good 1930s B-thrillers could be. It’s fast-paced and exciting and hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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