Posted by Susan Doll on February 20, 2017
As might be expected, the first big-screen detective was Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in Sherlock Holmes Baffled for American Biograph in 1900. Sherlock has enjoyed a long run on the big screen, which isn’t over yet, because Guy Ritchie’s third SH film is currently in the works. The most beloved American detectives are arguably Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe because of their importance to film noir, a genre that continues to fascinate movie lovers and film scholars alike. However, I believe the golden age of the movie detective occurred in the years between the world wars when dozens of sleuths slugged it out in countless film series. The Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy represents a high point in production values and star quality, though most series were created as B-films. No matter the budget, all had their diehard fans who waited anxiously for the next movie featuring their favorite detective, be it Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy, the Falcon, the Lone Wolf, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, Torchy Blane, the Saint, or countless others. The Criterion Collection pays respect to the detective series by offering ten Bulldog Drummond movies for streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.
Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond first appeared as a policeman in a short story by H.C. McNeile for The Strand Magazine. Using the pseudonym Sapper, McNeile would rework the character into a roguish gentleman adventurer for a 1920 novel called Bull-Dog Drummond: The Adventures of a Demobilized Officer Who Found Peace Dull. The hyphen and subtitle were quickly dropped. McNeile eventually published ten Drummond novels, four short stories, four plays and one screenplay.
Bulldog Drummond is a decorated veteran of WWI, who grows bored with his postwar lifestyle. He decides to go into business as an adventurer or detective, because his heroic exploits during the war prepared him to detect crimes and foil spies. In addition, his natural charm helps him to romance women and to exchange witticisms with his pal Algy Longworth. Drummond’s arch-enemies, Carl Peterson and his companion Irma, never fail to bring intrigue to the detective’s door. Bulldog Drummond epitomizes an archetype known as the English rogue, who is both debonair and daring. The sell-copy for the Drummond films on the Criterion site gets a lot of mileage out of comparing Bulldog to James Bond, but the comparison is valid.
Film adaptations of Bulldog Drummond stories, plays and novels spanned five decades and involved several studios. The detective made his movie debut in 1922 in a British production of McNeile’s 1920 novel, but it was the 1929 film Bulldog Drummond starring Ronald Colman that created the template for the cinematic version of the character. This film is not one of the ten offered by Criterion, which is unfortunate because it is essentially Drummond’s origin story. Bored with civilian life, the former captain places an ad in the newspaper offering his expertise in exchange for “any excitement.” A young woman named Phyllis Benton responds, and the adventure begins. Independent producer Sam Goldwyn planned the film as a vehicle to introduce the public to Colman’s speaking voice. Bulldog Drummond shaped Colman’s star image as the suave gentleman with the melodious voice. Most importantly, the actor’s approach to the character emphasized Drummond’s debonair side and eliminated the “bulldoggish” quality described in the novels. This interpretation became the standard for playing Bulldog Drummond that other actors adopted over the next several decades. Not only was the film an enormous popular and critical success, but Ronald Colman received an Oscar nomination for his performance. Colman reprised the role in Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back for 20th Century Fox in 1934.
Despite the missing Colman features, the Criterion Collection includes several interesting entries in the series, such as The Return of Bulldog Drummond (1934), an effort by British International Pictures (BIP) to take back the character for Queen and country. A young Ralph Richardson stars as Drummond in a story that revisits the older novels and McNeile’s thuggish version of the character. Its failure with reviewers and at the box office did not stop BIP (renamed Associated British Picture Corp.) from attempting another Drummond feature three years later. Bulldog Drummond at Bay, also offered by Criterion, stars John Lodge as the character this time around, though the film’s best asset is costar Dorothy Mackaill, an actress best known for such daring pre-Code ventures as Safe in Hell (1931).
In 1935, Paramount Pictures signed a ten-year agreement with McNeile allowing them to adapt any previously published books as well as new Drummond novels. Criterion offers all eight of Paramount’s entries in the series. The first, Bulldog Drummond Escapes, stars Ray Milland in the title role. Sadly, McNeile died in 1937, the year this film was released. The Drummond stories were continued by the author’s good friend Gerard Fairlie, who was approved by the McNeile estate.
Like the Hollywood actors who had played the character previously, Milland boasted a debonair persona, polished accent and smooth charm, which made him a good fit for the character. In Bulldog Drummond Escapes, the good captain has just returned to England. While driving along a foggy road to his estate, Rockingham Lodge, he barely misses Phyllis Clavering when she jumps in front of his car. Before he can properly assist her, Phyllis steals his car and drives away. Paramount changed the character’s name from Benton to Clavering, and the studio cast Heather Angel in the role. Angel would continue to costar as Phyllis, but this would be Milland’s only turn as Drummond. Shortly after, he was cast opposite Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937), which propelled him into more prestigious features.
Paramount continued the series with John Howard, who is best known as stuffy George Kittredge in The Philadelphia Story (1940). All are included on The Criterion Channel: Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge (1937), Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937), Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938), Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (1938), Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1938), Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police (1939), and Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (1939).
The appeal of a film series—any series—is not the plotlines but the characters. Viewer satisfaction is dependent on watching Drummond outwit a criminal, thwart a spy ring, and interact in expected ways with costars and cohorts. For movie lovers, much of the appeal of a B-series like this is discovering familiar faces in supporting roles, which add texture and substance to the cookie-cutter plots. Drummond is forever tangling with the by-the-book Inspector Colonel Reginald Nielson, played by a witty John Barrymore in three of the Paramount films. H.B. Warner, who played Christ in the 1927 version of King of Kings, took on the role in four films. Character actor Reginald Denny played Bulldog’s hapless buddy Algy Longworth in all eight Paramount films, while Heather Angel costarred in five. Look for a young Anthony Quinn in Bulldog Drummond in Africa and Leo G. Carroll in Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police.
Binge-watching has been embraced by viewers for those trendy television series touted as “must-see TV,” or for familiar small-screen classics. Binge-watching also works for old-school detective series like Bulldog Drummond. I bet you’ll like the series better than the second season of True Detective!
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