Last week I saw Bulldog Drummond (1929) at Film Forum, part of their tribute to the great production designer William Cameron Menzies. Directed by F. Richard Jones, Bulldog Drummond was the third film and first talkie based on Sapper’s (aka H.C. McNeile) stage adaption of his 1920 novel. Bull Drummond is a perfect detective story for the screen—fast paced and action packed with witty dialogue, a likable hero with a comical sidekick, a beautiful girl, and sufficiently evil villains.
The film opens in London at the Senior Conservative Club where an elderly club member is outraged by the racket created by a waiter dropping a spoon. Seated nearby is the recently demobilized Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (Ronald Colman) and his best friend, Algy Longworth (Claude Allister). Adding to the noise by whistling, Drummond leaves with Algy for a bar where he confesses, “I've been bored too long. I can't stand it any more. I'm too rich to work, too intelligent to play, much; I tell you, if something doesn't happen within the next few days, I'll explode.” When Algy jokingly suggests advertising his availability, Drummond takes him seriously and quickly writes up an ad that’s placed in the Times.
"DEMOBILIZED OFFICER, finding peace unbearably tedious would welcome any excitement. Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection."
Drummond’s soon inundated with requests but one in particular piques his interest: a Phyllis Benton has written asking that if he’s serious, then Drummond should meet her at midnight at the Green Bay Inn where she’s reserved rooms for him. Drummond, who conjures up an image of a woman who’s “dark, voluptuous, and dramatic,” asks his valet, Danny (Wilson Benge), to pack him a toothbrush and a gun and departs.
At the Inn he's waiting for Phyllis when Algy and Danny show up. Calling Algy a “meddlesome jackass,” he brushes off Algy’s concerns. “If I had wanted a body guard, I should have sent for my maiden aunt,” Drummond tells him, adding, “Why not, she’s more of a man than you are.”
Bulldog Drummond (Ronald Colman) and Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett)
Phyllis (Joan Bennett) arrives, and Drummond is delighted to find that she meets his expectations. The beautiful young woman is in a state, telling him that her wealthy uncle, Charles Travers, is supposedly being treated for a nervous breakdown at a local hospital but that the two men “treating” him, Dr. Lakington (Lawrence Grant) and Carl Petersen (Montague Love), are really keeping him there against his will in an attempt to get at his fortune. Drummond tells her that her tale is “rather like a penny thriller” yet promises to do whatever she wants him to do. The sudden appearance of silhouettes at the door (it’s just Algy and Danny being nosey) spooks Phyllis who runs away only to be caught by Lakington, Petersen, and Petersen’s "sister," Irma (Lilyan Tashman). Drummond naturally heads off to rescue his damsel in distress.
Once there Drummond acts nonchalant, pretending to have just been passing. The sound of a man’s cries for help (“Somebody step on the cat’s tail?” Drummond asks) prompts him to ask point blank if they’re abusing Travers. When Petersen denies it, Drummond leaves only to circle back. Announcing to Phyllis that “it’s a fine time for you to visit my maiden aunt in London," Irma lets out a wolf whistle. Expecting her gang, she gets Algy instead (Algy’s cluelessness seems to make him immune not only to the obvious but to danger as well). When Irma’s gang does rush in, there’s a brief shootout during which Drummond and his pals escape. Telling Algy to take Phyllis back to the Inn, Drummond returns to the hospital where he hides outside a window and watches as Travers (Charles Sellon) is brought into Lakington’s laboratory. Travers is given a special injection and forced to sign a paper turning over “certain securities and jewels” to Petersen. Drummond then takes them by surprise and escapes with Travers and the paper.
He brings Travers to the Inn, which probably isn’t the smartest move. The bad guys show up, and Irma is given two of her best scenes—ordering a drink ("whiskey, straight,") and flirting with Algy who is enamoured with the blonde (he keeps saying that he must get her telephone number). The bad guys demand Travers be handed over so Drummond disguises Algy as himself while he dresses up like Travers. A fight ensues and Drummond is taken while Algy, who has lost his costume, is left behind.
Discovering Drummond's charade, the bad guys tie him up and inform him that they have Phyllis. Threatening to torture her—she’s taken into a room where she starts screaming—Drummond tells them that he left Travers at the Inn (in reality he's on the way to London with Danny and Algy). Everyone leaves save for Lakington who brings an unconscious Phyllis into the room. He shows Drummond his secret “electric” door that no one can open while the “current is switched on” (it’s a flimsily looking metal door that garnered a chuckle from the audience) before proceeding to paw at Phyllis. Announcing that he’s going to put Drummond to sleep, he leaves the room to mix a potion. Phyllis wakes and frees Drummond who then struggles with Lakington, killing him in the process.
Algy rings and Drummond tells him to bring the police from Scotland Yard. The bad guys return, and Drummond locks Petersen in the room with him and Phyllis. Admitting he’s licked, Petersen asks Drummond to let Irma go and requests one last call to her. Drummond agrees, and Petersen tells Irma on the phone to “work the old circus gag,” code for the gang to dress up like the police. Drummond falls for the trick and watches as the “police” take Petersen away. When Algy arrives and gives Drummond a note from Petersen explaining what he's done, Drummond tries telephoning Scotland Yard but Phyllis convinces him to let them go and tells him that she loves him. Drummond has won the girl and saved the day.
Ronald Colman is superb as Drummond. Handsome, charming, athletic (enough), and so very, very English. The most astonishing thing about the film may be the fact that it was Colman’s first talkie. The actor had already been acting in films for a few years before he played this role. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a moviegoer hearing Colman speak for the first time in that beautiful, cultured voice.
The cast for the most part is strong including Claude Allister whose Algy is great as the film’s comic relief, Montague Love (what a brilliant name) who brings just enough likability and toughness to the role of Petersen, and Lilyan Tashman as the cool, slinky Irma. It was also a nice surprise to see Gertrude Short playing a barmaid. Thin Man fans will recognize her as Nunheim’s girlfriend, the one who doesn’t like stool pigeons. Lawrence Grant as Lakington however is a bit too over the top in his acting while Joan Bennett is utterly underwhelming as Phyllis. Bennett wouldn’t hit her stride until the 1940s when as a brunette she turned in solid performances in films like The Woman in the Window and Scarlett Street. Here the blonde Bennett just seems inexperienced and unsure of herself.
The Tivoli theatre in The Strand, London, advertising Bulldog Drummond, July 26, 1929. Photo: J. Geiger.
For a film made during the transition period from silent to talkie, it’s incredibly smooth with none of the stilted dialogues that some other films from this time suffered. There's plenty of action and Colman’s delivery helps to keep the scenes between him and Bennett from becoming overly dramatic.
As for Menzies’ sets, their size (giant doors that dwarf the characters in some scenes are juxtaposed with small, low-ceiling rooms in others) bring to mind certain German silent films. The use of shadows also serves to enhance the story. It should be noted that this was one of the first features that the great cinematographer Gregg Toland worked on (he shared the credit with George S. Barnes).
The film was well received and earned Colman and Menzies Oscar nominations. While Colman would return to the role in 1934 in Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, many other adaptations would be made with other actors playing the role. Yet none were perhaps as convincing as Colman whose performance, a New York Times reviewer noted at the film's opening at the Apollo Theater, "is matchless so far as talking pictures are concerned."