Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

International man of adventure Hugh "Bulldog" (not that anyone ever calls him that) Drummond (Ray Milland) has barely returned to his native England to morally support his half-wit - so he's fifty percent cleverer than in the Colman-Drummonds - friend Algy (Reginald Denny) who is just about to give birth to a child (or was that Algy's wife?), when he stumbles into another adventure.

To be more precise, he first stumbles over a pretty girl (Heather Angel who'd go on to reprise her role in later Drummond movies with John Howard) - later to be revealed as Bulldog's future long-suffering fiancé Phyllis Clavering - playing dead by the side of the road. Phyllis will proceed to steal Drummond's car while he is distracted by the obligatory dead body. Of course, as Drummond fastly surmises with his own, manic yet ironic romanticism, Phyllis is stealing cars for a good reason and is in fact in need of a knight in shining armour. Phyllis, Drummond and the audience will learn soon enough, is held against her will by the mandatory bearded villain (Porter Hall) out to steal her inheritance.

It'll take a series of kidnappings, re-kidnappings, run-ins with Drummond's suffering police acquaintance Inspector/Colonel/Commissioner Nielson (Guy Standing) and much sneaking about a mansion to improve her situation.

It's quite useless to attempt to build a continuity from the various Bulldog Drummond movies, made sometimes in the US and sometimes in the UK, though I do tend to pretend the John Howard movies are taking place in something of a chronological order. Well, at least we can say that the US movie Bulldog Drummond Escapes reveals how Drummond got his fiancé, and must therefore happen before any of the US Howard movies, even though it seems to have been made - the Internet's not much help when you're trying to find out which of the three or four Drummond movies made in 1937 came out first - after the first Howard appearance and just leave it at that. We can also be happy that this Drummond version again does not partake in its source's borderline fascism and racism; it's much too good-natured for that.

This is the only time Ray Milland took on the Drummond mantle, which really is a bit of a shame, for Milland is surprisingly (one doesn't exactly think "dapper charm" when one thinks of Milland, after all) great as the two-fisted frantic romantic. The actor clearly has fun with the character's manic edge, going through much of the film eyes a-glow and excited by ADVENTURE. That sort of excitement is quite infectious and helps the willing viewer get over the fact that much of the film's adventure for budgetary reasons really only consists of people running or sneaking through a mansion. That's perfectly alright, however, for the film - sprightly directed by John P. Hogan (hopefully not the SF writer, climate change denier and oh-so-heroic defender of Holocaust deniers) - manages to be a whole lot of fun, having a light touch with its genre clichés that says (you obviously must imagine an American pretending to be British here) "It's just a jolly bit of fun, old chap". Which is absolutely true.

In a surprising turn of events, Bulldog Drummond Escapes wins over the few sceptical parts of my heart that can't be convinced by things like "fun" and "humour" by featuring a female lead in Heather Angel who - besides actually having chemistry with Milland - is not completely useless. In fact, it's not at all difficult to imagine that Phyllis would come out alright even if Drummond were not there to help her out in his own, peculiar manner. I'd suggest remake-loving Hollywood to take a look at the Drummond franchise and turn it into a female-led series of adventure comedies, but then I fear they'd be even less inclined to do that than they were in 1937.

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