The story of the leap from silent to sound pictures is so often one of career-ending failure that it's nice to read from time to time about one of the successes. Ronald Colman may well have made the most successful leap of all and he's my choice for the best actor of 1929-30.
Movie buffs now largely remember Ronald Colman for the dulcet tones of his melodious voice, one the best voices in film history, and trying to imagine him in a silent movie is like imagining Superman without his cape, but in fact, Colman was a silent film star, exuding that same jaunty confidence with a shrug of his shoulders, with the tilt of his head, without speaking. You'd think adding the voice would cement the deal, but it just as easily could have gone wrong—can you picture Ronald Colman as, say, a cowboy?—and it was important to prepare the audience for his refined, English stage actor voice.
Unlike studio chiefs Louis B. Mayer and B.P. Schulberg, who had wrecked the careers of silent legends John Gilbert and Clara Bow, respectively, with inferior first talkies, Samuel Goldwyn spared no expense in creating the right vehicle for Colman. Bulldog Drummond, a big budget mystery based on a popular stageplay by Herman McNeile (who wrote under the pseudonym "Sapper"), proved to be the perfect combination of comedy, romance and adventure to showcase the best of Colman's talents.
To direct, Goldwyn selected F. Richard Jones, a veteran of sixty-one films, including the Douglas Fairbanks adventure classic The Gaucho. Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) and George Barnes (Rebecca) provided the cinematography and William Cameron Menzies justly earned an Oscar nomination for his looming, Expressionistic set design. Sidney Howard, who later won an Oscar for Gone With The Wind, wrote the screenplay.
For Colman, the result was a smash hit, an Oscar nomination and a long, successful career.
"Those who are wont to fling flip comments against talking pictures," the New York Times wrote after the movie's premiere, "had better spend an evening at the Apollo Theatre, where Samuel Goldwyn last night presented before an appreciative gathering his audible pictorial translation of that clever light melodrama, Bulldog Drummond. It is the happiest and most enjoyable entertainment of its kind that has so far reached the screen."
While many actors in the early talkies sounded as if they were speaking English for the first time (some of them probably were), Colman arrived fully-formed on the screen with an energy and pacing and cheeky comfort level audiences wouldn't see in other actors for another couple of years. His performance was a sensation, both at the box office and with the critics, and I think he might have won the Oscar if Academy voters hadn't demonstrated an all too familiar mindset, bestowing the award on George Arliss for what they perceived as a more "important" film, Disraeli.
The story, ostensibly a mystery, is mostly an excuse for some lighthearted fun. Capt. Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond—mustered out of the army at the end of World War I, and "too rich to work, too intelligent to play, much"—is bored with his aimless existence. "I wish somebody would throw a bomb and wake this place up," he grouses at the funereal gentleman's club where he passes his days. On a lark, he places an advertisement in the London Times seeking adventure. "Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection. Reply at once." And replies he receives, piles of them.
"Here's one from a woman whose husband raises pedigree goldfish," says his upper-crust sidekick Algy (Claud Allister), who makes Bertie Wooster look like Charles Bronson. "She wants you to kill either the husband or the goldfish."
But the plea that piques Drummond's interest is from a young woman who is in "hideous danger," just the sort of adventure he's looking for, and imagining she's "dark, voluptuous and dramatic," orders his valet to pack his pajamas, his toothbrush and a gun. "On second thought," he says, thinking of the woman, "never mind the pajamas."
Colman's performance sets the tone for generations of wisecracking detectives to come, from Nick Charles to James Bond (and indeed, Ian Fleming later acknowledged the influence).
Drummond and his client (a blonde, voluptuous and overly-dramatic Joan Bennett in her first film) rendezvous in an out-of-the-way inn at midnight, where she tells a tale of a kidnapped uncle stashed away in an asylum. Drummond thinks the girl is delusional until the asylum's director, Dr. Lakington (played by Lawrence Grant, who more than any other cast member, thinks he's still in a silent movie—he does everything but twirl a handlebar moustache), shows up to make crude threats and soon it's clear that Lakington's band is after the rich uncle's money.
Bulldog Drum- mond is mostly a comedic mystery, the kind where the hero pauses to make a wisecrack in the face of certain death, but make no mistake, Drummond is as quick with a gun as he is with a quip and in a scene more reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino than early Hollywood, strangles one of his adversaries with his bare hands.
Admittedly, the eighty year old film creaks with the burdens of early sound technology and a supporting cast uncomfortable speaking lines for the first time, and it may be difficult to appreciate it looking backward through the prism of all that came after but without it, we may never have enjoyed all the fun-stupid movies it influenced and it was certainly highly-regarded in its day. In addition to a pair of Oscar nods, the New York Times, the National Board of Review and Film Daily magazine all included Bulldog Drummond on their lists of the ten best movies of 1929.
And as for those of you who prefer their awards to go to more serious fare, I'd remind you that boredom, midlife crises and wish fulfillment are among the most universal of human emotions, at least since the invention of leisure time. I'd submit Bulldog Drummond has as much to say in its own way about the human experience as, for example, In The Bedroom, which covers some of the same ground by a different route, and it's a great deal more entertaining to boot.
Bulldog Drummond inspired more than a dozen sequels, many of which are available on DVD. Interestingly, the two starring Ronald Colman—this one and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back—aren't available on DVD. To see Bulldog Drummond for this blog, I had to buy it on VHS tape. Set me back 48¢. Don't say I never did anything for you.
Colman was born in 1891 in Richmond, England and initially hoped to study engineering at Cambridge. Orphaned at sixteen, he instead joined the London Scottish Regionals and was severely wounded in combat in October 1914. After his discharge, he went to work on the London stage, mostly because it was one of the few jobs available. He made his first film in 1917, but his breakthrough role came in 1923 when he came to the attention of Lillian Gish who chose him to co-star with her in The White Sister.
Success allowed Colman to be selective and he made only 28 movies in the three decades after Bulldog Drummond, but they included such classics as Random Harvest, A Tale Of Two Cities, Lost Horizon, The Prisoner Of Zenda, Talk Of The Town and his Oscar-winning performance in A Double Life. My old pal, film fanatic bellotoot, also recommends Champagne For Caesar, Colman's last starring role, and it's on my Netflix queue, but I admit I haven't seen it.
Colman was twice married, the second time to actress Benita Hume to whom he remained married until his death. The two had a radio show together, The Halls of Ivy, and briefly a television show. Colman died of a lung infection in 1958 at the age of sixty-seven.
Postscript: The one member of the Bulldog Drummond crew you don't hear much about these days is its director, F. Richard Jones. At the height of his career with the triumph of Bulldog Drummond, Jones contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after the film's premiere. He was just thirty-seven years old.