Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938)

Bulldog Drummond's Peril, a B-picture released by Paramount Pictures in 1938, was one of the many films adapted (sometimes rather loosely) from the series of thrillers written by H. C. McNeile under the pen-name Sapper. This film stars John Howard as Bulldog Drummond. He was the ninth of thirteen actors to play the role (and he played it in no less than seven films). 

Bulldog Drummond's Peril was based on The Third Round, the third of the Bulldog Drummond novels in which the hero faces off against the brilliant diabolical criminal mastermind Carl Petersen.

The movie starts with the marriage of Hugh Drummond to Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell). The wedding festivities are interrupted by murder. 

Drummond suspects the murder may be connected with the disappearance of one of the wedding gifts, a very fine diamond. There is a curious story behind the diamond - it’s a real diamond and yet it isn’t. An eccentric professor named Goodman has found a way to manufacture fake diamonds that are in every way identical to the real thing. Not everyone is happy about the possible ramifications of this discovery.

The problem of course is that if it is possible to produce perfect diamonds in unlimited quantities then diamonds will cease to have any value. That means the discovery is in some senses quite useless. On the other hand it also means that it is worth a great deal of money to certain to keep this discovery quiet. The secret of Professor Goodman’s process is very much worth possessing.

It looks like Drummond is about to embark on another of his adventures, something that does not go down well with the new Mrs Drummond. Before their marriage he made her a solemn vow to give up such escapades but the lure of excitement is of course too much for him.

Watching this movie immediately after reading one of McNeile’s original novels offers a salutary reminder of just how wrong the movies managed to get Bulldog Drummond’s character. Not one of the actors who played the role was even remotely suitable. Captain Hugh Drummond should be a very big man, quite ugly, very loud, very boisterous, with a distinctly low-brow sense of humour and a general air of extreme heartiness. John Howard is not sufficiently physically imposing, he’s too conventionally good-looking and much too charming and debonair. Of course the makers of a movie are free to change whatever they like when they adapt a story for the screen but in the case of Hugh Drummond they managed to eliminate every single quality that made him such a memorable and oddly endearing hero. They turned him into a generic upper-class British hero.

It’s not that John Howard is a terrible actor or that his performance is bad - he simply bears no resemblance whatsoever to the character in the books. The problem is that the character in the books is a whole lot more interesting than the movie’s version of him.

John Barrymore plays Colonel Neilson of Scotland Yard (as he did in two of the other Bulldog Drummond movies). Although decidedly a supporting role Barrymore actually gets top billing. It’s a typically manic Barrymore performance. Reginald Denny plays the irritatingly dense Algy Longworth who acts as Drummond’s sidekick and provides feeble comic relief. E. E. Clive is more amusing as Drummond’s faithful servant who plays a rather active role in his master’s crime-fighting activities.

This movie has its problems but it’s not all bad. It’s frenetically fast-moving and energetic. James P. Hogan was one of those directors who never managed to break out of the B-movie ghetto but could be relied on to get the job done with reasonable efficiency. Stuart Palmer wrote the screenplay. Palmer was a popular writer of detective stories who achieved reasonable success as a screen writer as well. You might not expect penguins to play a significant role in a Bulldog Drummond story but Palmer had a thing for penguins so he manages to shoehorn one into the movie!

The plot’s twists and turns are at times somewhat predictable but they come so thick and fast that the movie is able to maintain the viewer’s interest without too much trouble. There’s also a notable motorcycle chase that provides some added excitement.

Bulldog Drummond's Peril is in the public domain and is very easy to get hold of. Most if not all of the available editions are pretty rough - if there’s been a really good DVD release I haven’t heard of it. The copy I have comes from one of the Mill Creek 50-movie packs. The transfer is fairly poor but since the cost of the movies in the set averages out at 37 cents per movie I guess I shouldn’t be complaining.

It’s a great pity that no-one ever bothered to make a real Bulldog Drummond movie. If you can put that to one side and simply take it on its own merits then Bulldog Drummond's Peril is enjoyable B-movie fare. Not as good as the excellent 1937 Bulldog Drummond Comes Back but still recommended.

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