Before James Bond, There was Bulldog Drummond

BULLDOG DRUMMOND COMES BACK, John Barrymore, Louise Campbell, John Howard, 1937

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.

BULLDOG DRUMMOND'S REVENGE (1937)

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).

BULLDOG DRUMMOND ESCAPES, Ray Milland, Sir Guy Standing, 1937

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).

BULLDOG DRUMMOND'S PERIL, John Barrymore, 1938

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!

Susan Doll

16 Responses Before James Bond, There was Bulldog Drummond
Posted By Charles Berger : February 20, 2017 5:34 am

As noted in the article, I mainly enjoyed the characters and not so much the plot in the various detective movies. Many of these movies from the thirties and forties show cased actors who had real ability. Many would be relegated to the B movie, but were nevertheless interesting and appealing.
The Bulldog Drummond, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Marlowe series were well done.

Posted By LD : February 20, 2017 6:55 am

Last year I watched four of the Bulldog Drummond movies shown on TCM, the one with Milland and the three with John Barrymore as Colonel Nielson. Along with seeing ARSENE LUPIN, I became interested in the gentleman adventurer/thief/detective. Later I enjoyed binge watching several of the Falcon and Saint films shown on TCM. I don’t know if I would have watched them if I had not seen the Drummond and Lupin movies earlier.

Posted By H. Dow : February 20, 2017 2:47 pm

You can find the 1929 Bulldog movie streaming online at: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1zo65z_bulldog-drummond_shortfilms

It’s a riot. Basicaly, Colman channels Fairbank’s Zorro. Joan Bennett is terrible. The whole thing is utterly naive. And there’s a meta moment, when BD advises one of the bad guys about his bad breath…

Posted By Chris Wuchte : February 20, 2017 3:05 pm

Last year I saw Deadlier Than The Male, a film I’d been trying to watch for some time since it starred Richard Johnson, at one point a contender for Bond, playing a Bond-like character. Having only known him from The Haunting, I couldn’t picture it, but he actually does quite well.

What I didn’t know until I watched it was the character he was playing was Bulldog Drummond, whom I was slightly familiar with from old time radio, and more familiar with as being the subject of a lyric in The Drifters’ song “Searchin’”. Looks like this was the last attempt to adapt the character into film (or rather the sequel, Some Girls Do, was).

As for the movie – worth a watch if you have an affinity for the numerous James Bond knock-offs of the era, but the budget makes it look more like an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. than a theatrical release. I can’t imagine the Bond films ever devoting a long action sequence to a goofy robotic chess match.

Posted By George : February 20, 2017 3:55 pm

The 1929 movie with Ronald Colman remains my favorite. It’s quite advanced for an early talkie. With its William Cameron Menzies sets, George Barnes/Gregg Toland photography, and an astonishingly young Joan Bennett, it’s a feast for the eyes. Catch it the next time TCM shows it.

If its director, F. Richard Jones, hadn’t died young (in 1930), who knows what else he might have accomplished.

Posted By LD : February 20, 2017 4:32 pm

George, I will certainly see the Coleman version of Bulldog Drummond. I would also like to see Coleman as Raffles (1930), and John Barrymore’s silent version. I have already seen Niven’s 1939 Raffles.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 20, 2017 7:02 pm

I am glad to know that there are other fans of Golden Age sleuths. Personally, I prefer Torchy Blane, the Lone Wolf, and Boston Blackie, but you can’t go wrong with the Drummond series. Binge-watching these series is a lot of fun.

Posted By Doug : February 20, 2017 8:28 pm

I caught some of the Saint series on TCM a bit ago, and enjoyed George Saunders. Lone Wolf is great, and I own the Torchy Blane set. It’s all good, and I think Warren William starred in every series at least once except, of course, for Torchy.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 20, 2017 9:46 pm

I watched the two British Bulldog Drummond films and four of the Paramount films a couple of years ago when Criterion was still affiliated with Hulu. But I didn’t watch them in the order they were made, and I can’t remember which ones I watched, other than the one with Milland. I’d like to see the Colman films. And speaking of detective series, I always enjoyed The Saint and Philo Vance series, and I love the few Lloyd Nolan Mike Shayne films I’ve seen.

Posted By George : February 20, 2017 10:27 pm

My favorite low-budget crime series is probably The Whistler, because it’s the most noirish.

The Boston Blackie films are a lot of fun, if you can get past the scenes where Chester Morris and George E. Stone are in drag AND blackface. I’m sure that provoked great laughter in the ’40s.

Posted By LD : February 21, 2017 6:18 am

Philo Vance…..it has just occurred to me that I have a dvd somewhere of THE KENNEL MURDER CASE. It isn’t very good quality. Need to revisit that film.

Posted By swac44 : February 21, 2017 4:45 pm

It’s really a shame that Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back is in literary rights limbo, it’s probably the best of the entire series, and one of the best-paced action/adventure titles of the 1930s. I managed to get a copy someone recorded off cable in the early ’90s (possibly AMC, when it actually showed uncut movie classics) and it’s as brisk and thrilling a film as you could hope for from that period.

In contrast with those late ’60s BD titles, I caught Deadlier Than the Male years ago on the local TV weekend movie matinee show and it was both dull and incoherent, likely due to how it was cut down to fit the time slot with commercials. Being directed by Ralph Thomas (all those Dirk Bogarde “Doctor” movies) probably doesn’t help, although the first Thomas/BD title has a screenplay by Hammer horror scribe Jimmy Sangster, so perhaps it deserves a second look after all these years.

According to IMDb, there’s a BD project “in development” but who knows if that’ll ever get produced. I’d be curious to see one, if it’s done in the lighthearted fashion of the recent Man From U.N.C.L.E. reboot.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : February 21, 2017 5:20 pm

I watched Deadlier Than The Male uncut and without commercials – I don’t think it was the editing that made it dull or incoherent.

According to its Wikipedia page, it was intended as a television pilot. If so, that makes a bit more sense. It at least explains the cheap look and the time devoted to setting up comic relief characters, like his nephew.

I’m curious to see the sequel, Some Girls Do. Perhaps it’s better without the baggage of originally being planned for television? Don’t think I’ll get my hopes up too much, though.

Posted By artfrankmiami : February 22, 2017 11:26 am

Did anyone see the send up Bullshot Crummond? Showtime used to run it in the early 80s. it was basically a video recorded play. I got to see a live performance by the same actors at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Florida.

Posted By Rose Pinnock : March 18, 2017 6:30 pm

Didn’t John Howard also star in an early tv series called Dr. Hudson’s Journal with Kathleen or Katherine Freeman as his housekeeper/cook?

Posted By Susan Doll : March 18, 2017 6:46 pm

Rose: You are correct. The series was called Dr. Hudson’s Secret Journal.

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