Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Best Actor Of 1929-30: Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond)

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 Backaren'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.


Douglas Fairbanks said...

Jones was a pansy, but he let me have my head, and cinematic history was the result.

I've got nothing but good things to say about Colman, goddamit. . . .

(a blonde, voluptuous and overly-dramatic Joan Bennett in her first film)

Anyone who remembers her as Elizabeth Stoddard on Dark Shadows, who undoubtedly remembers her as sucking, was actually seeing her at her best.

Her performances would make Jack Nicholson as the Joker look tame.

I hated that broad. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Welcome back, Doug. Sheriff John T. Chance has had you pretty tightly reined in these days, but I couldn't mention The Gaucho without allowing a visit from the man himself.

How are tricks? Is Mary Pickford keeping you busy?

Re: Joan Bennett. I thought maybe it was just me. She has her champions, especially for the 1945 film noir Scarlet Street with Edward G. Robinson. I haven't seen it in nearly twenty years and promise to watch it again when the time comes, but my memory is that I wasn't all that impressed.

We'll see.

Douglas Fairbanks said...

How are tricks? Is Mary Pickford keeping you busy?

Well, MythMon -- or, more likely, Sheriff Chance -- let me just say that Mary can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch, so


Douglas Fairbanks said...

btw, I assume that by the time you get to 2009, the controversies surrounding Inglorious Basterds may have died down.

But I'm not really sure. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Let's face it, Doug, by the time I get to 2009, the sun may have burned out.

Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, speaking of Inglourious Basterds, the website Scarecrow Video has listed most of the movie references Tarantino stuffed into it. Among them is this entry:

Bulldog Drummond
One of the names seen on a card in the guessing game at the La Louisianne bar.

I'll be honest, I can't remember seeing "Bulldog Drummond" on any of the cards in question, but at the same time, I've only seen the movie once and wasn't looking for it either.

I mention it.

The site's URL:

Donald J. Rickles said...

Um, you appear to have missed the more important entry:

Kelly’s Heroes (Soundtrack reference)
A WWII romp with Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, and Donald Sutherland as WWII’s only hippy.

I don't want to have to wait until 1970-1971 for you to bring it up!

Mythical Monkey said...

Don, as the only one of my heroes to have insulted me personally in Atlantic City, you are always welcome at The Monkey.

Although come to think of it, The Mule and Bellotoot probably insulted me in Atlantic City, too. Although they weren't on stage when they did it. But they're welcome, too ...

Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, I only just noticed that the VHS tape cover (which I reprinted above) misspelled Ronald Colman's name, adding an "e" where there isn't one.

Maybe they thought it stars Gary Coleman ...

mister muleboy said...

Brooks, please.

I would offer some comments about R. Colman, but I am more than woefully ignorant -- I'm clueless and wrong.

About Colman, too.

I must admit, though, that I suspect Bellotoot is ignorant too -- he recommends a film in which Colman portrays Beauregard Bottomley

eff that

Uncle Tom said...

what you talkin' bout Monkey

ah, the comedic stylings of Gary Coleman - along with Joe Piscopo, the name just screams comedy genius.

well in a really talentless hack sort of way that is

Mythical Monkey said...

I think if I knew nothing about Ronald Colman and wanted to watch just one movie to get the feel for him, I'd go with The Prisoner of Zenda (the 1937 version, not be confused with the 1952 Stewart Granger remake). It's the best of all aspects of his talent, plus it has Douglas Fairbanks Jr. doing the best work of his career as well. Plus you get a little Mary Astor action, which is always a plus.

As for Gary Coleman, if you somehow missed his comedy stylings, count yourself lucky ...

Lupner said...

I do like Ronald Colman. I like those dashing types who possess just the right amount of charm and humor. And silent strength, in those dramatic moments requiring silent strength. Especially when they look like Ronald Colman. And have that voice . . .

Add *my* voice to the "Why Joan Bennett?" club. Although I felt sorry for her in Dark Shadows, when she seemed to be having trouble applying her lipstick evenly. If I get to the stage where my make-up starts to look embarrassing, somebody take it away, please . . .