Returning home to England, gentleman adventurer and excellent cricketer Bulldog Drummond almost runs over a young woman on a deserted country road near his home. After he rescues her, he hears gunshots and finds a dead body. Then she steals his car. Soon, he becomes convinced that she is being held against her will by the mysterious Merridew and the other tenants of a nearby lodge. Despite the opposition of his friend, who is a Scotland Yard Police Inspector, he determines to investigate the mystery.
Congress Pictures launched their ‘Bulldog Drummond’ series of 8 pictures with this thriller starring a young Ray Milland in the title role. Sir Guy Standing was Police Inspector Nielsen and heroine Phyllis Clavering was played by Heather Angel (who later appeared in Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ (1944)). The film is what would be termed today ‘an origin story’ with Drummond meeting perennial fiancée Phyllis for the first time and saving her from the machinations of the criminal gang led by Porter Hall. Having said that, the Drummond character was already familiar to audiences from the Ronald Colman incarnation and there was also no need for formal introductions of sidekick Algy or his aged manservant (here called Tenny).
This is an efficient little potboiler that does betray its somewhat humble origins by the limited range of action, but there is some fun to be had with a fast pace and brief running time. It looks very much like Milland was aiming for a dashing hero in the Colman mode but he’s dynamic to a fault; his exaggerated facial expressions sometimes verging on the ridiculous. He was a very talented actor with almost a decade of experience so it’s a fair assumption that he was just taking direction, but the result is a rather nervy and unappealing character.
Angel sees a pleasing amount of action as the heroine, although the character was watered down in subsequent entries to somewhat of a token role. Thankfully, series regulars (and – whisper it! – the real stars) Reginald Denny and E. E. Clive are in place already as Drummond’s dim witted sidekick and manservant respectively. Denny’s not quite in the groove yet as he’s lumbered with an off-screen wife in labour and most of his lines consist of fretting over the birth. Clive, however, is right on the money from the off; wonderfully dry both in his delivery and manner.
Plot wise things are not exactly complicated and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the limited twists and turns of the story. The villains are fairly colourless and the director fails to conjure a great deal of atmosphere from the fog bound studio sets. Milland went on to much bigger things and his sole outing as Drummond soon shuffled down to the bottom of his CV. Sir Guy Standing was a well-known theatre actor whose movie career never amounted to much and in fact ended right here.
Whether he was unavailable for the rest of the series, or the studio decided to go in a new direction, is unrecorded, but John Howard replaced Milland in the role. Legendary stage actor John Barrymore took over the part of Inspector Nielson (and was promoted!) whilst Angel returned on a rota basis with the livelier Louise Campbell. Although Howard sometimes verged on smug as Drummond, he was a better fit for the role than the edgier Milland, even though it was the latter who went on to Oscar glory for ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945).
Watch it for Denny and Clive. They deserved their own series.