Sunday, April 20, 2014

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Director: James P. Hogan                                 Writer: Edward T. Lowe
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                        Cinematography: Victor Milner
Starring: Ray Milland, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny and Porter Hall

Unlike the many Sherlock Holmes films which, in each of their incarnations, has had a relatively stable cast, the stories of mystery writer H.C. ‘Sapper’ McNeile and his detective Bulldog Drummond have been a bit more inconsistent, without particular stars to point to in representing his detective. Also, where Holmes continues to appear on screen to this day, Drummond’s appearances ended in 1969. He has been played by the likes of Ronald Coleman and Tom Conway, while John Howard played the role the most times in seven films in the late 1930s. Bulldog Drummond Escapes was Ray Milland’s only appearance as the detective. And where Conan Doyle and his fans are incredibly serious about their murders, and like their wit extremely dry, the Drummond stories are played nearly as camp with Drummond running around nearly breathless with excitement as he tracks down murderers and thieves. In this case it’s both.

The film begins with Ray Milland as Drummond landing a plane in a dangerously thick fog on a matter of life and death. The life, it turns out, is the birth of Reginald Denny’s first child. Denny is one of several rotating friends that fulfill the Watson role in the stories. On his way to London Milland is stopped by Heather Angel who steals his car. At the same time he hears a man being shot and sees him sink into a swamp. But the car is eventually discovered by his butler, E.E. Clive, and in it Angel has left behind her purse. When delivering it back to her house Milland learns that she is being held against her will by Porter Hall. The head of Scotland Yard, Sir Guy Standing, is friends with Hall, however, and wants Milland to stay out of it. Of course there’s no way that will happen and he heads back immediately to see what he can to for Angel, including romantically. But Hall is always a step ahead of Milland. Just when he thinks he has the evidence, it disappears, until finally the whole thing becomes a mad dash in the dark through every room in the mansion.

There’s not a lot here that’s particularly cinematic. It’s a fun mystery story that is entertaining and that is really the point. Milland is perfect for the role of the melodramatic and romantic detective. This was one of his first real leads in the motion pictures after breaking out in Universal’s Three Smart Girls. British actress Heather Angel became a Drummond regular after this, appearing in four of the next five films starring John Howard. Reginald Denny is terrific in a screwball role as Milland’s best friend. He was best know for his work in supporting roles, most famously in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House. Character actor regular Porter Hall does a nice imitation of an aristocrat, playing against type from his usual everyman roles. E.E. Clive, so memorable from Universal horror films, is hilarious as Milland’s butler, and in a bit part as a nurse is the great Doris Lloyd. Again, it’s a light and frothy film, and not intended as anything more. If there’s one downside, though, it’s the lack of music. Even though stock music by Friedrich Hollaender and Heinz Roemheld was used, it really needed to be far more prevalent, especially during the climax where there was no music at all. Otherwise, Bulldog Drummond Escapes certainly fulfills its purpose as a fun mystery story.

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