Tag Archives: Bulldog Drummond

Musing on old movies

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been streaming a lot of old B movies of late on Amazon Prime. The films range across several decades, but (for some reason) I have a special fondness for the ones from the 1930s – when talkies were new and nobody had yet figured out how to handle the technology. (A well-known example is the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, in which all documents are visibly sopping wet. That was because they hadn’t worked out how to filter the sound of crackling paper.)

Today my theme is acting styles. My view of the old silent movies is that they’re really a form of interpretive dance. Actors had to use broad, unnatural gestures and exaggerated facial expressions to convey their messages to the audience. These were skills that transferred pretty well from stage acting, where you have to play to the cheap seats. This meant that nobody was ready for the subtleties that sound demands.

The first film I watched was One Rainy Afternoon, a 1936 effort starring Francis Lederer and Ida Lupino. Lederer was a Czech actor who plays a Frenchman here – because everybody knows Americans can’t distinguish foreign accents (and they’re right). Irving Thalberg had plans to make Lederer a big star, but died before he could get the ball rolling. Instead Lederer got rich in California real estate.

Here he plays a young actor who’s having an affair with a married woman (this is an English version of an earlier French film). They go to a movie together, but enter separately. In the dark, Lederer sits next to the wrong girl – a very young and pretty Ida Lupino. When he kisses her, thinking it’s his paramour, she reacts in a big way. Soon there’s a riot, the press is called in, and Lederer is pilloried in the newspapers as “the Monster.” Guardians of public morality call for his prosecution, and he’s sentenced to a few days in jail. Lupino, regretful about all the fuss, secretly bails him out. You can probably predict the rest of the story based on that.

What stuck in my mind about this movie was the portrayal of the proto-MeToo women’s group that calls for Lederer’s blood. When their leader makes her denunciations, she strikes attitudes appropriate for a speech to a large arena, and uses a voice appropriate for the same arena with no sound amplification. It’s entirely artificial and embarrassing to watch. But at the time, this was cinematic convention. Margaret Dumont, in the Marx Bros. films, actually toned it down a little.

Also present is an actor named Hugh Herbert, who is mostly familiar to my generation from the many times he was caricatured in old animated cartoons. His shtick was acting flustered, patting his fingertips together and making “Woo-woo” noises. His form of comedy is preferable to the feminist oratory, but only by a little.

Moving along, I saw another movie which is generally better, though it was made earlier. I’ve reviewed “Sapper” McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond on this blog. This is the film version from 1929, based on a stage play. Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is described in the books as big and not very handsome. Here he’s played by Ronald Colman, who is not particularly big and quite good looking. The character would be played by several actors over the years, but all would follow this precedent.

Bulldog Drummond is a young World War I veteran in London who chafes at peacetime boredom. He longs for adventure, and apparently has no sense of fear at all (you might put it down to PTSD nowadays). He advertises in the Times for dangerous work, and gets a note from Miss Phyllis Benton (played by a very pretty, very young Joan Bennett). She is concerned that her father has gotten involved with sinister characters. She is correct in this, so Drummond plunges in in his customary senseless style, pulling irritating practical jokes on the plotters, until he finally escapes certain death and thwarts a major criminal conspiracy.

Notable in this movie is a different kind of bad acting. The villains talk… slow. They strike dramatic attitudes and enunciate every word carefully through curled lips. This may account for Drummond’s improbable success against long odds – these oafs give him lots of time to act while they’re just talking. Once again, this is (I think) a carryover from silent films. What actors and directors still hadn’t figured out was that the challenge now was not to communicate thoughts, but to replicate reality (or rather the illusion of reality).

Also notable in Bulldog Drummond is his sidekick Algy, played by Claud Allister. Think of Bertie Wooster, without the massive intellect. All nose and teeth, with a monocle and a tendency to stand with is mouth gaping open, Allister is the archetype of the upper class twit. I actually found it painful to look at him sometimes. It was like staring at a freak in a sideshow.

Nevertheless, Bulldog Drummond left me with a positive feeling, while One Rainy Afternoon just felt embarrassing. Things (and people) have to be judged according to their times and contexts, not compared to our own ideals – which will, no doubt, look stupid to our descendants someday.

‘The Black Gang,’ by H. C. McNeile

I invested in a complete set of Bulldog Drummond books for Kindle. So I’ll review the second book, though there’s little to say about its virtues or failings beyond what I said in my review of the first book, Bulldog Drummond.

The Black Gang is the title of this outing, and the fact that the title refers to the hero and his friends rather than the villains indicates the ambivalent character of the book for the modern reader.

At the very beginning, the Black Gang capture a criminal villain and take him into their own custody, to be sent to a secret prison of their own. The police are aware of their activities, but not too concerned, as the “right sort of people” are disappearing.

The modern reader has a hard time with this sort of thing – though heaven knows we may be quickly moving into a state of nature where every man will again have to do what seems best in his own eyes.

Anyway, Bulldog Drummond, our intrepid hero, sets his sights on closing down the operation of the greatest criminal mastermind in the world (a Communist, which pleased me), and there are attacks back and forth, and kidnappings, and Drummond triumphs in the end.

Nothing very challenging. Nothing very plausible. There are some ethnic slurs (especially of Jews), but we’ve come to expect that sort of thing, haven’t we?

Mindless entertainment from a more innocent era. Cautions for racist elements.

‘Bulldog Drummond,’ by H. C. McNeile

In my ongoing quest to live in the past, turning a blind eye to the harsh truths of the modern world, I’ve been experimenting with reading some of the old classics in the mystery and adventure fields. I’ve long been a fan of John Buchan. I tried E.C. Bentley and Marjorie Allingham, and wasn’t overwhelmed. I thought I’d sample the Bulldog Drummond series, by H. C. (Sapper) McNeile, and I bought this inexpensive Kindle collection.

It’s pretty much what you’d expect. Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is a big, unhandsome, wealthy Englishman, bored with civilian life after surviving World War I. One day he takes out an ad in the Times, offering to do any job as long as it’s dangerous. He has no objection to breaking the law in a good cause.

One of the numerous replies he receives stands out. A young woman, Phyllis Benton, asks him to investigate the group of men with whom her father has gotten involved. She fears that they’re dangerous, and are getting him into something illegal. Drummond promptly falls in love with the girl, and quickly starts interfering with the criminals (as indeed they prove to be) in various clever and annoying ways. He gradually comes to understand that it is no ordinary crime being planned by this international group, but an act of sabotage on a national scale.

It’s interesting that Drummond falls in love in this, the very first book in the series, and stays with the same girl through all the sequels. In our time that would probably seen as a drawback, limiting the hero’s sexual options. But in 1920, when the book came out, standards were different, and it probably served as a sign that while there would be violence to come, erotic hijinks would not be on the menu.

The book was entertaining in a sort of schoolboy way, but I found it a little naïve. Perhaps my tastes have been corrupted by modern mystery stories, but I like a little more complexity in my heroes. Hugh Drummond talks piffle quite in the same vein as Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, but Sayers does it better, and Lord Peter has a deeper heart.

Still, it was a ripping enough yarn for the sort of thing it is. Mindless entertainment, competently delivered. Nothing particularly objectionable on the moral side.