(6/10) Gentleman adventurer Bulldog Drummond gets into hot water as he chases a mysterious villain who’s stolen a death ray machine in this 1938 spy-fi romp. It’s a silly but fun little film, and the British ensemble cast shines.
Arrest Bulldog Drummond. 1935, USA. Directed by James P. Hogan. Written by Stuart Palmer. Based on novel by H.C. McNeile. Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, George Zucco, H.B. Warner, Jean Fenwick. Produced by Stuart Walker. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Inventor Richard Gannett (Leonard Mudie) stands in his darkened basement in London cranking frantically at what looks like two movie projectors mounted side-by-side. The light beam from the project … ahem death ray … hits a small model city, complete with trees and train tracks, that Gannett has apparently built for his demonstration, and a small train carriage and a toy car blow up as if someone put a firecracker in them. From the shadows steps a tall, ominous man with thick, circular glasses and a top hat, and tells Gannett in a likewise ominous tone “You have the most powerful weapon in the world”. The ominous man is in fact master criminal Rolf Alferson (George Zucco), and he whips out his cane, on which there is a stinger made from the poison of a manta ray. Gannett slumps down dead and Alferson steals the death ray.
This is the setup of the American 1939 action thriller Arrest Bulldog Drummond, although at this point we do no yet know about the stinger or who Rolf Alferson is, that becomes clear further along the plot. The movie follows the exploits of “gentleman adventurer” Hugh C. “Bulldog” Drummond (John Howard), as he tries to solve the murder of his good friend Dr. Gannett, who had the bad manner of being killed on the night of Drummond’s bachelor party. The title of the film is derived from the fact that Drummond is initially arrested as a suspect in the murder, but consequently let go as his old “colleague” Colonel Nielsen (H.B. Warner) at the Scotland Yard vouches for his innocence. Drummond decides to track down Alferson and the death ray along with his trusted companion Algy (Reginald Denny) and his butler Tenny (E.E. Clive). Of course the wife-to-be, Phyllis (Heather Angel), is not particularly chuffed as he learns that Drummond is going to postpone the wedding (again!) in order to hunt international gangsters, so decides to embark upon their intended honeymoon to the tropics on her own. Little does she know that the villain Alferson and his henchwoman Lady Ledyard (Jean Fenwick) are embarking on the exact same ship in order to find a buyer for the death ray at their destination. It’s Drummond and the gang to the rescue, but will they get to the crooks in time to stop the weapon from falling into the hands of some enemy nation, and can they rescue Phyllis from the clutches of the madman?
I won’t delve very deeply into the phenomenon of Bulldog Drummond, as his connection to SF is negligible, at best. But as a short introduction for those not acquainted with the British amateur sleuth and man’s man, Hugh C. “Bulldog” Drummond was created by author H.C. McNeile under the pen name Sapper in 1920 for the inventively titled novel Bulldog Drummond (actually he created a prototype for the character earlier, but that’s beside the point). Drummond proved enormously successful all over the world during the inter-war period, and inspired a slew of other crime fighters and adventurers. Biggles was apparently based Drummond, and Ian Fleming stated that James Bond was “Bulldog Drummond from the waist up and Mickey Spillane from the waist down”. Sapper wrote ten Drummond novels and four short stories before his death in 1939, and the franchise was then continued by other writers.
Sapper’s novels were well-received as lighthearted, mass market adventure thrillers by critics at the time as well, however the books have not aged particularly well, and their blatant racism makes them almost unreadable today. According to culture historian Jonathon Green, while the characters of other contemporary writers, such as Agatha Christie, “exhibit the inevitable xenophobia and anti-semitism of the period, McNeile’s go far beyond the ‘polite’ norms”. One Goodreads commenter also noted that the Bulldog Drummond books were written about a blockheaded crime fighter whose only saving grace was that his adversaries were even more blockheaded than him.
There were as many Bulldog Drummond films as there were books (if not more). The first movie adaptation came in 1922, and half a dozen others were made before Paramount picked up distribution rights in 1937. Arrest Bulldog Drummond was either the fifth, sixth or seventh of the eight films that the studio distributed between 1937 and 1939, depending on the source. It is often listed as having been released in 1939, but both Wikipedia and IMDb have the release date down as November 1938, so that’s what I’m going with.
The movie is officially based on the fourth Bulldog Drummond novel, The Final Count. I actually leafed through it, and thankfully this one doesn’t deal with Commies, Jews, blacks, Asians or other groups that McNeile wasn’t particularly fond of, which makes it at least a halfway enjoyable book. For reasons that will become clear, I won’t go into the book’s plot in any other way than stating what it does not contain. It does not contain a death ray, neither does it have a villain that uses a deadly stinger made from a manta ray’s venom (which is factually fallacious — manta rays don’t have venomous stingers. Stingrays do, but even so, they’re venom isn’t fatal to humans.). In the novel Phyllis and Drummond are not about to get married (they got married in the end of the first book), and subsequently Phyllis does not embark on a ship to the tropics, and thus is never put at the mercy of the villain on said ship. And lastly, in the book Bulldog Drummond is not arrested. There IS a plot with a villain kidnapping a scientist in order to create a chemical weapon which he intends to dump from an airship, though, which seems to form a sort of superficial inspiration for the movie.
Apparently Drummond’s last-minute wedding cancellations was something of a recurring gag in the Paramount series. The wonderful Frank Nugent wrote in The New York Times in 1939: “It begins to look as though the Drummond-Clavering nuptials never will come off. Arrest Bulldog Drummond […] finds the redoubtable Captain Hugh on his way to his bachelor dinner again (this is either his sixth or seventh start), while the patient Phyllis fondly admonishes him not to get mixed up in any more murder cases until after high noon of the morrow. An incurable optimist is Phyllis, doomed to go through life with a trousseau in one hand, a death threat in the other and only the faintest trace of worry wrinkles around the eyes. It’s astonishing, the way she bears up under all this frustration. Hugh goes out into the night, impeccably white-tied, and runs smack into an atomic disintegrator or something.” Nugent’s reviews were routinely better written than the films he wrote about.
Now, while I’m not necessarily a fan of McNeile’s books (or at least of the one that I’ve read), Arrest Bulldog Drummond is a competently made, well acted, entertaining and fun little film of around 60 minutes. It was produced by Stuart Walker’s short-lived Congress Films for Paramount, and it’s a slick little production. James P. Hogan’s directorial track record is somewhat tarnished by the 1935 low-budget monstrosity Life Returns (review), but he is helped out here by seasoned DP Ted Tetzlaff, who shot Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), among others. The movie’s no work of art, but it’s efficiently and stylishly photographed, with a noirish atmosphere.
Despite Arrest Bulldog Drummond being made in Hollywood, it is choke-full of brilliant British character actors, Captain Drummond himself excluded. But John Howard in the lead does a decent job with an accent wavering between British and Mid-Atlantic, and the first time I watched the film it didn’t even occur to me that he was American. A B movie leading man in the thirties and forties, Howard’s greatest claim to fame became his seven outings as Drummond, even if he also played second banana in more prestigious productions like Franka Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937) and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940).
Other notables in the cast includes the brilliant E.E. Clive as Tenny the butler — the original daft bobby in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933, review), who exclaimed “‘Ow can I ‘andcuff a bloomin’ shirt?!” Clive also played the burgomaster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review). Tall, handsome Reginald Denny was a leading man in silent films, but his pronounced British accent demoted him to mostly supporting roles in the sound era, and his comedic abilities often landed him roles as upper-class English snobs, such as the “gentleman twit” Algy in the Bulldog Drummond series. Genre fans might know him as King Boris in the Batman TV series (1966). H.B. Warner, a veteran of the silents, plays Colonel Nielsen, something of a step down, perhaps, from his tenure as Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927). Warner remained a highly respected character actor until his retirement in 1951, appearing in films like Lost Horizon (for which he was Oscar nominated) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Heather Angel gets to play an unusually natural and headstrong girlfriend to the hero in Bulldog Drummond, and does so with panache. B movie leading lady Angel acted sparsely after WWII, but did return to Hollywood to provide voice work for Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953).
Most of Paramount’s Bulldog Drummond films featured a recurring cast, and by the time Arrest Bulldog Drummond came out, the actors had settled well in their roles and developed a good and natural on-screen rapport. This is also the main draw of the movie. Few things are as pleasant as seeing a well-oiled cast riff off each other and having fun while doing it. It helps that the dialogue by Stuart Palmer is occasionally very funny, in fact I think that the screenplay for the film has more literary value than the original novel. Mark David Welsh writes: “The interplay between the cast is the film’s greatest strength and, some might argue, all that the picture really has going for it. Denny in particular is excellent as Algy, for once making the comic relief a positive asset rather than a tiresome bore. What makes his performance all the more remarkable is contrasting it with his other work, such as the suave Sir Evan Barham in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942).”
As far as the story goes, it is both ridiculously outlandish and a very unoriginal mysterious-villain-steals-super-weapon potboiler. Of course we can’t ignore the great George Zucco as the master villain Rolf Alferson, who, as usual, is splendid. I’ll write more about Zucco in a later post, but suffice to say that in the forties, when Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were unavailable, your choice for mad scientist was a toss-up between Lionel Atwill, John Carradine and George Zucco, and Zucco could be seen in films like The Mad Monster (1942, review), Voodoo Man (1944, review, actually WITH both Lugosi and Carradine) and The House of Frankenstein (1944, review).
However, as I mentioned, it is a fun film film to watch, be it for the lighthearted banter in the dialogue, the small moments of light comedy between the characters or the feeling that the cast is having a ball. Frank Nugent wrote in 1939: “Like all the other Bulldog adventures, this one is quite a lark, especially if you’ve a mind to boo the hero and cheer the villains. John Howard’s debonair Captain Drummond is as imperishable as ever, Heather Angel’s Phyllis is the most resourceful of heroines (she even swims half a mile and never gets her suit wet), George Zucco is the most hissable man in thick-lensed spectacles, and Reginald Denny and E. E. Clive positively glow in the hot water comically kept boiling for Algy and Tenny. We still are offering 10 to 1 that the Bulldog won’t reach the altar by 1940. Any takers?”
Reading comments from Derek Winnert and Rommer Reviews I get the notion that Arrest Bulldog Drummond was a lesser entry into Paramount’s Drummond franchise. Rommer Reviews places it “a tad below the norm in the series”, and gives it 2/5 stars. Winnert gives it 3/5, and writes that it is “okay as a time-passer but definitely only ever a filler. However, though it be ever so humble, it is still far from negligible.”. I’d say that it’s more than okay, as a filler or as anything else. Sure, it’s cheap and it’s dumb and it’s silly, but it is, as Winnert points out, “a well-crafted studio production” and I’d like to point out again, superbly acted. And most importantly, it’s funny, it’s fun and it’s entertaining.
Arrest Bulldog Drummond. 1935, USA. Directed by James P. Hogan. Written by Stuart Palmer. Based on novel The Final Count by H.C. “Sapper” McNeile. Starring: John Howard, Heather Angel, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, George Zucco, H.B. Warner, Jean Fenwick, Zeffie Tilbury, Leonard Mudie, Evan Thomas, Clyde Cook, David Clyde, George Regas, Neil Fitzgerald, Claud Alliste. Music: Gerard Carbonara. Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff. Editing: Stuart Gilmore. Art direction: Hans Dreier, Franz Bachelin. Sound: Hugo Grenzbach, Richard Olson. Produced by Stuart Walker for Congress Pictures and Paramount.
Categories: Future war & weapons