Friday, February 7, 2020
Bulldog Drummond (1929)
Recently demobilised officer Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond is bored with his life, and decides to put an ad in the times advertising his services. It starts out more or less as a joke, but one letter in particular gets his attention, and he investigates. A young lady named Phyllis is in a desperate situation, telling a story about her uncle being held prisoner by an evil Dr. Lakington in a fake mental asylum, run by a sinister man named Peterson and his girlfriend Irma. Drummond soon finds out these villains are no joke, and are plotting something severe. But it's them who should be watching out, as they discover why he's nicknamed Bulldog...
Bulldog Drummond was a classic British character of yesteryear. While utterly supplanted by James Bond, and going the way of other characters like The Saint, The Falcon, or =, his legacy is undeniable. Herman Cyril McNeile's stories were a bridging gap between the classical detective stories of Sherlock Holmes, to the more serious and intense spy adventures of 007.
Before reading them, I'd heard talk online that these books were full of xnophobic and jingoistic slurs, and the series had a fascist tone. While I haven't read the whole series yet, so far this couldn't be further from the truth! Since it is an old book the wording is occasionally awkward, but not racist. For example there's use of the word Jap, but in a context like 'Aussie' (I imagine it hadn't become the full-on slur it's remembered as being until a couple of decades down the track when World War II popped up).
There's a good mystery, and it really draws you in, but it feels a bit like a stage play, with too much back and forth between the Elms and Godalming. I also felt Drummond having access to all of his old military buddies took away from the lone man takes away from the pulp adventurer aspect, if at any point he's in trouble he can call up a dozen ex soldiers. The love interest is quite a tough bird, and the way she calls Drummond 'boy' is sweet. The villains are neat and varied, while the rest of the cast is alright. The Ammerican detective character is good, but could've been left on the cutting room floor, and for the life of me I could never remember his name. The climax a bit talky and preachy, but not in a bad way necessarily.
The ultimate moral of the story is that no matter how patriotic you are, you shouldn't assume your country can do no wrong, but instead strive to help it improve and better itself, and not be taken in by people who try to whip/ferment violence and chaos for their own ends. Yeeeepp, quite topical today, innit? Who would've thought that Bulldog Drummond, such a seemingly dated book that modern authors wrote stories parodying how supposedly antiquated he was, would end up being timely as all jove nowadays! The story is rather quite on the nose with how anti-fascist it is, contrary to the poor and totally unjustified reputation it's saddled with.
Now, onto the movie. I'll certainly be having some words with it over how it handles the book, but for the time being let us put that out of our minds and treat it like a standalone [movie]...It's cringey, very little to no music, bad acting
The plot is greatly streamlined the the bare basics of 'My uncle's been kidnapped, let's go rescue him', and this has two consequences. The potential upside is that the story is made a bit less complex (which is a blessing or a curse, depending on the penetrability of the source material), but the drawback is that a lot of the buildup and intrigue of the book is absent. Out of all the moments from the book to choose from, all the screenwriters chose to adapt was the constant running back and forth between the Larches and Godalming! Everything else remained on the cutting room floor, and I do mean everything. We're not even given a motivation for the villains here!
Unfortunately, the 'cherry' on the top of all these issues is a very anticlimactic ending, compounded by the weak final encounter with Peterson. He says 'I've got to hand it to you, I've lost and you've won' so weakly and uncaringly that it comes across like he's taking the piss. The trick that follows though was quite a treat, and makes up for the lacklustre fight. What it doesn't make up for though is that it doesn't feel like anything's been resolved. doesn't feel like the arch villain getting away for adventures new, but rather in the first act. That's what it feels like! We're still none the wiser to what Peterson's plan was, and it really feels like we're only partway through the greater story/as a whole.
The dialogue is spewed out so much faster than in the book that it's a bit of a jumble at times, especially with all the changed relationships (fathers have become uncles, and daughters have become sisters, etc). Phyllis is changed to an American (though still speaks with a British accent), so she can be the daughter of the kidnapped millionaire. Not a bad change, actually! Her dad in the book doesn't play much part, so this is a decent way of streamlining the book's events for the screen...Just a shame they felt the need to get his name wrong...
The Bulldog Drummond of the book is a weird guy. He's like if James Bond was a dandy with a large sense of humour, and the good sport of a boy scout who's not afraid to snap a neck here and there. He is exactly the kind of guy to say 'What a marvelously spiffing day, my dear old bean!', then show why having such a vocabulary doesn't make you any less of a man by promptly beating the living daylights outta/out of some murderous thugs!
As for in the film, he's a lot less pronounced, but considering I half wanted to punch book Drummond in the face at times, I don't mind this greatly, though he feels a little less distinctive. He almost came across as a lazy classist at the beginning, but he's alright. He even assumes Irma is a doctor at the institution when he first sees her! How progressive! He also gets called Bulldog a heck of a lot more than in the book (where the third person narration refers to him as that once, and that's literally it) which I greatly appreciated.
Phyllis is tolerable enough despite her melodrama, but is face-palmingly stupid in the ending, where she urges Drummond not to call the police, and just let Peterson and Irma get away, because 'They love each-other'.
Algy has been changed from a tough supporting ally to a comic relief goofball who doesn't really have a whole lot of =, but I didn't begrudge his presence, even if he did irritate me at first. Denny in the book is a lower class ''Cor blimey, guv'nor!' kind of guy, the same age as Drummond if not younger, whereas in this version he's a reserved older butler. Can't say the change really affects anything. One amusing difference is that Algy, far from trying to dissuade Drummond in the book, is all for the adventure. He and the other old war buddies take a fair bit/while to show up, too, unlike the movie which throws the whole cast at us at once.
Given their total lack of development, the villains aren't terribly interesting. Peterson is a fair bit more emotional than his book counterpart, but still boring, and pouts a lot. Irma isn't French, but is pretty red-blooded and take-charge! She and Peterson are now siblings rather than father and daughter, which is perhaps more believable given their close ages. The movie however completely forgets to establish that they're not actually brother and sister though, while not only keeping in their romance, but emphasising it! Oops!
This movie is suuuuper British, to an almost offensive degree (I only say almost because this is a British production, contrary to the American-written stereotypes we see). A single spoon will clatter in a dead silent gentleman's club, leading monocles to drop and outraged members to complain about how outrageous the din is in this place, all while puffing their cheeks and going 'Hbhrrruhuhf!'.
The actor playing Algy is particularly insufferable to begin with, always talking with his mouth wide open and enunciating like he has a bird in[side] his throat. He's an incredible fop, who I struggle to believe ever saw military service. He does eventually become amusing though, and I was even able to enjoy his earlier scenes in this new light.
The pacing in Bulldog Drummond is leaden. There was one odd problem I had with this movie, courtesy of it being an adaption. An original movie taking it slow is fine, but when you're adapting a novel, you can't waste a minute on slowly panning around a room. Chop chop or else you'll have to leave important developments on the cutting room floor! I wouldn't have minded this if I hadn't read the book, but since I have I couldn't help but think of all the scenes that wouldn't make it into the film just because the director wanted to spend 3 straight minutes focusing on a fence, or what felt like 5 devoted to Drummond and Algy walking down a road without dialogue.
The acting in this film is abominable! Ronald Colman does a decent job, but he's pretty much the only one who acquits himself well. The others all range from alright to downright terrible, depending on the scene. Claude Allister and Wilson Benge are the next best performers as Algy and Denny, with the over-the-top nature of the former soon giving way to a pretty endearing character. Ronald Colman's English accent is pretty spotty, which is rather an astounding feat considering he was British! Maybe his years in America had an effect.
The set design in Bulldog Drummond is inspired! From a Caligari-esque inn, to the gentlemen's club with ridiculously/absurdly tall doors, and the neato of the asylum, this production looks a lot less creaky than other talkies of 1929 The direction is equally stylish. I hear the film won two major film awards, and one of them was indeed for its art direction.
To finish, from what I've read of them the Bulldog Drummond books are by far undeserving of their reputation as racist and jingoistic, while this movie is a pleasant surprise too. Not perfect, as an adaption or a standalone picture, but still worth a watch...