Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937)

Notorious evader of weddings Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (John Howard) is just about to go on his way to Switzerland with his fiancé Phyllis Clavering (Louise Campbell) in tow to marry there, when he stumbles into another wedding-postponing affair.

I don't know what the odds are that a suitcase containing a highly experimental and volatile explosive Drummond's old friend/foe Colonel/Inspector/Whatever Nielson (John Barrymore, in an act of cruelty first-billed despite not being the actual hero of the piece) is trying to keep out of the wrong hands will land directly in front of Drummond's feet, but it does.

Before our hero can do very much about it, the bad guys out to steal the explosive break into his home, drive his and his nit-wit buddy's Algy (Reginald Denny) respective better halves into wild screeching and fainting (there is - alas - a lot of fainting of women in the movie), and escape with the explosive again. This however, as lazy scripting will have it, is not at all the last our heroes see of the explosives nor the bad guys, for everyone will make their respective ways over the channel in the same train and on the same ferry. Drummond, Phyllis, Drummond's Butler Tennison (E.E. Clive), an Algy too easily distracted by villains to leave a train on time, and the exasperated Nielson soon play catch with the bad guys again, one of whom walks around in drag for reasons of being less conspicuous.

Louis King's Bulldog Drummond's Revenge is the first appearance of John Howard as the - in the movies - decidedly non-fascist adventurer Bulldog Drummond, a role he would go on to reprise many a time. In his first film, however, the actor is not as fun to watch as Colman or Ray Milland were in the role. Here - and I've seen Howard's other Drummond appearances in a past so distant I don't dare say anything about later films or I'd turn into one of these IMDB "reviewers" who talk about films they watched once thirty years ago pretending they still know what they're talking about - Howard's Drummond seems neither as silly and charming as Colman's, nor as mad as a hatter as Milland's, and lands at an uncomfortable place where he often just seems not quite as charming as he's supposed to be, as well as just a bit too serious for the film he's in.

How much of that impression is caused by the film's rather dubious script is anybody's guess. Now, I don't expect deep psychological insights or clever plotting from this sort of movie (this clearly was an actual B-movie in the true sense of the word, that is to say, a film meant as the shorter film of a double bill), but I do expect a film to not unnecessarily bank on happenstance to drive its plot further when it might more fruitfully let its protagonists actually do something smart or fun to get to the same point, as it is generally more entertaining when a film's heroes act instead of only ever reacting to things that happen for no good reason. I'm also not too enamoured with the way the film sets up its many "comic" episodes as scenes that seem completely disconnected from what's happening around them, especially since the humorous moments that are actually needed in the plot are the only ones that are in fact funny.

I had also to cope with a certain degree of disappointment when I realized that the film uses its female characters strictly to nag and faint and get threatened a bit, which stands in strange contrast to the other Drummond's I've seen where the women all were allowed some degree of independence (most of all Heather Angel in the Milland Drummond) despite being kidnap fodder and eye candy. I know, this was made in 1937, but Bulldog Drummond's Revenge isn't doing much else to distract me from its flaws, so I don't see why I should ignore them.

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