Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bulldog Drummond (1929)

The former soldier Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (Ronald Colman) is quite bored with his new life as useless upper-class lazypants. So, as you do in such cases, he puts an advertisement into the Times, looking for adventure.

Said adventure does indeed come in form of a girl named Phyllis (Joan Bennett) who invites our hero to a conspiratorial meeting in an inn in the country. Understandably, Drummond can not resist that sort of invitation. When they meet, Phyllis, who turns out to be young, pretty and quite a friend of dramatic hand-gestures, describes her troubles to Drummond. Her father is being held captive by the evil psychiatrist Dr. Lakington (Lawrence Grant) and his cronies, the brother and sister pair (or are they?) of "Pete" Peterson (Montagu Love) and the vamp Irma (Lilyan Tashman), who torture (Lakington will turn out to be quite the fan of electricity) the old gentleman into giving them access to his money.

Clearly, this sort of thing isn't done on Drummond's watch, especially not when there's a pretty girl to impress, so he - alas with the help of his mentally handicapped friend Algy (Claud Allister) and his butler as a horrifying un-comic relief double-whammy - goes about given the blackguards whatfor.

If you ask me, early talkies like Bulldog Drummond are more of an acquired taste than silent movies ever were - after all, the silents often have a dream-like quality to make up for their theatricality the very early talkies couldn't aspire to for technical reasons. Fortunately, this free adaptation of the first adventure of Sapper's crypto-fascist, racist hero makes liking it pretty easy.

Especially since it removes the fascist elements and most of the racism and replaces them with the universal language of the more friendly elements of pulpy fun and a large amount of silly witticisms. If you ever asked yourself where the Thin Man style of mysteries in the movies came from, this might be an auspicious place to start, for the dialogue - at least whenever Algy's not concerned - is generally charming and often really funny.

It sure helps that Ronald Colman seems perfect for Drummond as the film interprets him: highly competent, difficult to perturb, and never without a witty repartee. Colman's acting is quite different from that of most of his peers on screen. Allister and Grant - if in very different ways - are both of an annoying, stagy theatricality (exactly the type of acting you expect of actors working at a point in time when the rules for sound acting on screen were still being written) which only is enhanced by the more easy-going charm Colman oozes. Bennett and Tashman, for their parts, are all over the place. There are moments when Colman seems to pull the actresses away from the old ways of stiffness; at other times, you'd find pieces of wood who are more expressive.

Of course, this sort of thing is to be expected of a film from this period, and it's rather more sensible to concentrate on Colman's approach - that pretty much carries every scene he is in anyway - than on all that stiffness.

F. Richard Jones's direction is pacy, and more than once, framing, use of shadows, as well as the production design by William Cameron Menzies hint at the influence of German expressionism and make the film more interesting to look at than I had expected. Some scenes seem to pre-figure Universal horror and noir, even though these films would end up to bee completely different in tone. Plus, there's a minor mad scientist lab with a torture chamber and an electric door of which our scientist is inordinately proud.

Which is symptomatic of exactly the sort of pulpy thrills Bulldog Drummond offers when it's not letting its hero run his mouth. Plot contrivances, chases and minor fights are the name of the game, and are - as such things go - completely timeless. Well, for me at least.

Seeing as the film was made in the wonderful pre-code times of 1929 (although it doesn't belong to the classic pre-code era; this stuff is more complicated than algebra), it also has the opportunity to add other timeless things that delight me, like hints of (fake) incest, double entendres, dominant women, sexually "deviant" (read "not boring") villains, torture and everything else that's fun in the movies and (disregarding the torture) in real life.

I don't want to end another write-up with the question "what's not to like?", but really, what's not to like?


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