Friday, June 3, 2016

Bulldog Ronald

Former British army Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (Ronald Colman) is finding civilian life to be a bore, so he puts an advertisement in the Times as a lark - advertising his services in exchange for some adventure.  Though most of the replies are nonsensical, one - from Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett) is not.  She is in extreme danger and needs his help.  Intrigued, Drummond heads out to meet her - where he finds the adventure he seeks.  So begins Bulldog Drummond (1929), a very early sound film, and the first talkie featuring Ronald Colman.

Films from the beginning of the talking film era can be both a blessing and a curse to the modern audience.  It's fascinating to watch the birth of a new technology, but the birth pangs - the unease with the technology, the problems with its limitation, the insecurities of the performers as they try to adapt to a new style of acting - are equally frustrating in an age where CGI makes special effects hyper-realistic.   But these early films often provide a surprise and in this one, the surprise is Ronald Colman, in his first sound film. 
According to this TCM article, "by late 1928, producer Sam Goldwyn was searching for a suitable property for Ronald Colman to transition from silent films to talkies."  The natural choice seemed to be a romance, but Goldwyn decided instead on a mystery film, and was he ever correct!.  Colman is so natural, and so comfortable with sound that he immediately takes command of the film.  While the rest of the actors (especially Lawrence Grant as one of our villains, Dr. Lakington - he all but twirls his mustache!) appear to have some problems making the transition, Colman is never ill at ease.  One wonders what it was like for the viewers, familiar with Colman in silents, first hearing that glorious voice.  Certainly, Goldwyn must have suspected he had a goldmine on his hands!   Colman gives Drummond a joie de vivre that permeates the film, and keeps you wanting to watch it.

The character of Bulldog Drummond was not unfamiliar to the screen.  While this was the first talking film about his exploits, there had previously been two silent films - Bulldog Drummond (1922, a US production with Carlyle Blackwell in the title role) and The Third Round (from the UK in 1925, with Jack Buchanan as Drummond). Nor would this rendition be the last.  Ronald Colman would return as Drummond in 1934's Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, but in the meantime, two other films would be released with Kenneth MacKenna (Temple Tower, US, 1930) and Ralph Richardson (The Return of Bulldog Drummond, UK, 1934).  In all, there was a total of 23 films featuring the character of Bulldog Drummond  released between 1922 and 1969.  Among the actors who appeared as the character were Ray Milland, Tom Conway, John Howard, and Walter Pidgeon.   The character also was featured on television and radio adaptations. (TheAFI Catalog also discusses the history of the film series).
The series of films is based on the popular novels of H. C. McNeile (aka "Sapper"), who wrote 10 novels between 1920 and 1937.  Sapper was inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Richard Hannay, and The Scarlet Pimpernel in his creation of the character of the gentleman adventurer.   After McNeile's death, the series continued with 7 novels written by Gerard Fairlie (from 1939-1954).  More novels followed in 1967 and 1969, both authored by Henry Raymond.  Later iterations using the character included short stories and graphic novels.

Our two female leads - Joan Bennett as Phyllis and Lilyan Tashman as Erma display different levels of comfort with sound.  Bennett, at age 19, and also appearing in her first talkie, seems strained, though she gives Phyllis a spunky-ness that is appealing - watching her rescue Drummond was a real treat!  Her unease with the new medium would, of course, quickly pass - she would ultimately appear in 98 film and television appearances.  She began her career as a blonde - it wasn't until her character in Trade Winds (1938) needed a disguise that she went to brunette tresses.  The look was so attractive, and opened up such a range of roles (like that greedy Kitty March in Scarlet Street) that she retained the dark locks til the end of her career.
Lilyan Tashman, on the other hand, seems more relaxed with sound.  An interesting actress, the bulk of her career was in silent films.  She was transitioning nicely, when she was diagnosed with cancer.  She died in the hospital, following surgery.  She was 37 years old.

Bulldog Drummond was extremely well received, as evidenced by these reviews from the New York Times and Variety. The film also received two Oscar nominations: for Art Director James Cameron Menzies and Ronald Colman as best actor (he lost to George Arliss in Disraeli.  Technically, both Arliss and Colman were nominated for two appearances that year.  Colman was also cited for Condemned).  We were lucky enough to see an introduction by author James Curtis.  He credits Menzies and his use of storyboards for the fluidity of the film, as well as the use of sound effects which give the film movement and sound simultaneously, something films of this period generally lack.

We wholeheartedly recommend this film, especially if you are a Colman fan - he is a delight! Next week, we'll look at another Drummond film, with one of our favorite actresses, Dorothy MacKaill.

 

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