With Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, we have a movie with two lead actors. One was a modest man with modest talent; the other, a man who had trouble distinguishing between acting and hamminess. One was a brave man who, when his acting career died out, became an English teacher; the other was an overbearing drunk some found amusing who died of alcoholism, and whose favorite anecdote among his friends was the night in a drunken stupor he peed against his hostesses curtains at a party. We're talking about John Howard and John Barrymore. Who would you want at your party? Unless your dry cleaners would give you a break on the price of cleaning your curtains, John Howard. But in a movie, it's John Barrymore. Even when he's just going through the motions, as here, he's watchable. And when he's at the top of his game...in both acting and hamminess, as in Twentieth Century...he's just about unbeatable.
Barrymore gets top billing although Howard is the hero. In some ways, the point of the movie and the reason for Barrymore's billing is that it gives moviegoers a chance to see Barrymore put on disguises. Even though he's playing Colonel Neilson, the head of Scotland Yard, Barrymore pastes on false noses and dons scruffy wigs. He transforms himself into a cockney hunchback and an aged fisherman. As the fisherman, he looks a like a seagoing Fagin. "I really think I should have been an actor," Neilson tells a young Scotland Yard detective. "I was very good at amateur theatricals," We all get the in-joke.
Why is the head of Scotland Yard walking around carrying a basket of dead fish? He's helping his friend, Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond (John Howard) rescue Drummond's perennial fiancé, Phyllis Claverling (Louise Campbell), from the clutches of Irena Soldanis. Drummond sent her husband to the gallows the year before. Irena still bears a grudge. Irena has kidnapped Phyllis and, through a series of riddles, she's sending Drummond, accompanied by his manservant Tenny (E. E. Clive) and his friend Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny), on one wild goose chase after another. When Irena finally decides to let Drummond rescue his fiancée, he will be trapped along with her...and Irena's revenge will be completed with a fiery explosion. But thanks to Colonel Neilson's disguises, Tenny's ingenuity and Algy's...well, Algy is the perfect English ninny, so we'll have to say, thanks to Algy's comedy relief, all will turn out fine. Bulldog Drummond, a brave survivor of WWI, a wealthy man who, naturally enough, decided to become a gentleman detective, will continue to foil criminal masterminds.
My favorite in these movies has always been E. E. Clive. Tenny is aged, attenuated and acerbic. He's no lover of second-rate love poetry, even when written by his employer. Tenny usually gets the best lines and Clive knows how to deliver them. John Howard was a lead actor who was conscientious and pleasant, but who never made much of a splash. He was shy and, some have said, seemed most comfortable during the heyday of the big studios when roles were assigned and actors did what they were told. Yet if he was diffident, he was also a brave man. In WWII when his ship struck a mine off the French coast, the captain was killed. Howard took command, fought to save the ship and personally rescued several wounded sailors. He was awarded the Navy Cross and seldom mentioned it. Finishing off your life as an English teacher strikes me as far more noble and useful than simply becoming a talent-wasting drunk. So here's to John Howard...an average actor but a superior human being.
Bulldog Drummond Comes Back has some snappy dialogue and some foggy scenes. As a public domain movie, however, it's in the usual poor shape. Buyer beware.