I have been watching the Bulldog Drummond films produced at Paramount Pictures in the late 1930s, adapted from H.C. McNeile’s pulp novels. The titular Captain Hugh Drummond is an English gentleman and veteran of the Great War who seeks out mystery and espionage on the home front in the interwar period.
The Paramount series features American actor John Howard as Drummond, who would go on to play Katherine Hepburn’s fiancée in The Philadelphia Story. John Barrymore appears in the first three films as Drummond’s ally, Colonel Nielson of Scotland Yard, occasionally disguised in elaborate Victorian stage makeup. The nine entries are low budget, but thoroughly enjoyable, comparable to Twentieth Century Fox’s Charlie Chan mysteries and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series of the same period.
In adapting the source material the tone was altered. Howard’s Drummond owes as much to P.G. Wodehouse as he does to Sapper, an improvement. The Wodehousian influence ranges in degrees of subtlety.
Whereas Sapper’s Drummond is married to Phyllis Benton, the Paramount films are set on the eve of their postponed wedding, with the events of each plot once again interrupting the nuptials. They are finally married in the last film, Bulldog Drummond’s Bride. As a bachelor, Drummond becomes a sort of capable, two-fisted Bertie Wooster. His valet, played by E.E. Clive, stands in for Jeeves, with lines like “I endeavor to give satisfaction, Sir,” upon producing a much-needed pistol. Reginald Denny plays Drummond’s friend Algy Longworth as the sort of comedic fop who comprise the membership of the Drones Club.
And indeed, Wodehouse’s fictional London club features in the dialogue, implying a crossover literary universe.
In Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1938) we find Drummond rehearsing a speech for his bachelor party, addressed to “fellow members of the Drones Club.” Sapper’s Drummond is a member of the fictional Junior Sports Club in St James’s.
Wodehouse certainly read the Drummond books. Leave It to Psmith contains an extended parody of the first novel.
Peter Cushing’s notes on playing Sherlock Holmes for his performance in The Hound of the Baskervilles [Hammer Films, 1959]:
Morning suit—hat—gloves?—cane. Cape over tweed suit (no hat). Put stains and burns on gloves. Don’t make Holmes obvious—or his suspicions. Suspect everything. Don’t do jackets up at all. Get nervous energy over. Just slip pipe to mouth (not open mouth). Puff clouds of smoke. Sardonic sense of humour. Flashes of steel after laconicness. The deerstalker has been dyed a little. Do cuffs up as if buttoned—short links. Make top quiff of hair stand up a little. Have hypnotic quality. Slight mystic quality.
Dialogue from Horror Express [Granada Films, 1972]:
Inspector Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster? Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know!
Michael York, quoted in What Fresh Lunacy is This?: The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers:
And certainly Oliver was an aristocratic sort. I knew he had a house in the country and I could see him as the country squire type, wearing tweeds with his gun dogs. He fitted in perfectly with that kind of image. He’d been brought up in good schools, with good manners…he was like an aristocratic ruffian, a complete contradiction in terms.
When I first saw the Coppola adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the cinema as a (precociously gothic?) twelve year old in 1992, it made a memorable impression. I remembered one scene in particular well enough to notice that it was abbreviated in subsequent home video releases. It is a crucial scene early in the film: London solicitor Jonathan Harker (played by Keanu Reeves) has just arrived at the castle of Count Dracula (played by Gary Oldman). They sit together over Harker’s late dinner. The conversation takes a dangerous turn when Harker responds lightly to a story about the Count’s ancestors.
Dracula draws a sword and exclaims, “It is no laughing matter. We Draculas have a right to be proud. What devil or witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood flows in these veins?” Here he relents. “Blood is too precious a thing in these times. The warlike days are over. The victories of my great race are but a tale to be told. I am the last of my kind.”
Harker stands and apologizes: “I have offended you with my ignorance, Count. Forgive me.” If you watch the film on video the scene ends here, rather awkwardly. But in the original screenings it continued.
Dracula realizes that he has alarmed his visitor. He says, “Forgive me, my young friend, I am unaccustomed to guests and my heart grows weary with many years of mourning over the dead.” On video the scene transitions with a dissolve at the moment Dracula appears to speak (see the 3:35 minute mark here).
The missing dialogue I think obviously improves the scene: it gives us deeper insight into Dracula, it resolves a conflict that is otherwise left hanging, and it puts Harker somewhat at his ease before plunging him back into danger.
After years of seeing the complete scene truncated in both “Theatrical” and “Extended” cuts on DVD, and omitted from deleted footage reels, I finally found the missing thirty seconds (see the 12:54 minute mark here). Interestingly the scene runs longer than it did in the original theatrical cut. Dracula bids Harker “Drink….drink” and leaves the room. Both the theatrical and video edits seem to have been made to avoid Dracula’s departure since the next scene finds Harker and the Count sitting together again in another room.
All of this goes to show that the original instincts of Coppola and the film editors was correct and the scene played best in the 1992 cut.
“Television is a rather frightening business,” said the actor Peter Cushing in a 1958 interview. “But I get all the relaxation I want from my collection of model soldiers.” Over his lifetime, Cushing—beloved for his many films at Hammer Studios—had built a 5000-piece army of miniature soldiers, trains, and scenery. Many of the soldiers were handmade in lead by Frederick Ping, whose work was sought after by collectors, and painted by Cushing himself. With these the actor played “War” according to the rules devised by H. G. Wells.
In addition to pieces for wargames, Cushing constructed miniature theatrical sets. His assistant Bernard Broughton described his home in later years: “He had a set in one of the rooms, where the entire wall was comprised of different sets. One of his favourites was R. C. Sherriff’s play about the war (Journey’s End).”
Last year I wrote a long post about the influence of Thomas De Quincey on the mystery genre, broadly, and Sherlock Holmes, specifically. Thus I was pleased to catch a reference to De Quincey in the 1945 film The House of Fear starring Basil Rathbone. This was the tenth film in the long-running series with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson.
The screenplay is an original story very loosely based on Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips.” In the film, Holmes and Watson are summoned to a remote castle in Scotland where seven men live together under a strange agreement by which they benefit from each other’s life insurance policies. Someone is murdering them one by one.
While searching for clues Holmes inspects the volumes on a bookshelf, selecting one titled Murder As a Fine Art. This is obviously De Quincey’s 1827 classic, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”
With a run-time of only seven minutes Moscow Clad in Snow offers a tantalizing glimpse of Russia in the halcyon days before the 1917 revolution. Filmed by Joseph-Louis Mundwiller for Pathé Frères in 1909 the film presents candid scenes of everyday life in Moscow. It is similar in structure to the London documentaries produced by Robert W. Paul in the previous decade.
Fritzi Kramer has written a shot-by-shot description of the film at Movies Silently that is worth reading. For me the highlight is an extended look at pedestrian and sleigh traffic on an unnamed street (from roughly 2:47 to 3:42). Here we see a city of charming Edwardian modernity similar in architecture and energy to the better parts of New York at the time. The sleighs and snowfall add a touch of fairytale ambience.
Anyone nostalgic for the Belle Époque will find this film bittersweet.
The definitive exhibition on the Byron-Shelley circle was hosted by the New York Public Library in 2012. Shelley’s Ghost brought together materials from the Bodleian and the NYPL’s own Pforzheimer Collection, including the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Byron’s love letters, a necklace made from Percy Shelley’s hair, the water-damaged copy of Sophocles’s Tragedies that had been on his person when he drowned, as well as fragments of his skull taken from the funeral pyre, among other artifacts.
A new exhibition at the Morgan Library celebrates the bicentennial of Frankenstein. It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 collects many of the same items as Shelley’s Ghost. It is a much bigger exhibition with a narrower scope, focusing on the inspiration, creation, and legacy of the classic novel, which was published in 1818. In it’s own way Frankenstein at 200 is the equal of Shelley’s Ghost.
Pages from the manuscript are on display, loaned by the Bodleian. The curators provide a cultural context with eighteenth century galvanic equipment and surgical tools, a number of important Gothic paintings, including Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) and Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard (1790). The lives of the Shelleys are presented through letters and portraits, including the well-known Richard Rothwell painting of Mary, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. The aforementioned fragments of Percy’s skull (calvariae disjecta?) are present, as is the manuscript of a love poem he was carrying when he drown, the ink washed to a blur. (I have written about the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Shelley’s death in an earlier post.)
All of these items are on display in a single gallery, which is worth the price of admission alone. A light but cheerful second gallery contains a collection of advertising posters from the various film adaptations of the novel, and modern illustrations, including those by Lynd Ward and Bernie Wrightson. The highlight of this gallery is an original six-sheet poster for the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff.
It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 runs through January 27, 2019 at the Morgan Library in New York.
I recently alluded to Fred Astaire as one of the all-time best-dressed men, together with the Duke of Windsor.
G. Bruce Boyer called Astaire the “master of casual elegance.” In 1957 GQ published a long interview with Astaire on his style and philosophy of dress. I’ve mined it for quotes (arranged by topic below) but there is much more to read at the GQarchive.
He believes that his measure of male dress is basically British. “You have to give them credit. They have been very stable in their designing and tailoring. They hardly ever change.”
On buttons and vents:
…he feels that all coats should have the British side-vents: “quite deep, about seven inches.” He favors two-button jackets, although he used to be an addict of three-buttoners at the age of 20. “I only button one,” he says, “and I think it looks better that way.”
On the double-breasted jacket:
One of the present-day fashions that roils him is the prejudice against the double-breasted suit. “It’s incredible how they have maligned that garment,” Astaire declares. “Abroad, you will see three or four double-breasted suits to one single-breasted.” For instance, he points out, he prefers the double-breasted dinner jacket—”for one thing, you don’t have to wear a vest or that hideous invention, the cummerbund. And I can’t comprehend red evening ties or fluffy shirt fronts or that sort of thing.”
Handkerchiefs should be flipped out and folded into the pocket with an appearance of casualness, Astaire thinks. He does not like the square or folded style, nor the puff type that he describes “like a range of the Andes.” Once, on a TV show, Ed Sullivan came to him and begged him to put his coat kerchief in properly. Astaire obliged. “I think it set a new standard for Ed,” he said. “At least he was still wearing it that way when he appeared weeks later on the show.’
On shirt cuffs:
He prefers a well-made buttoned cuff to French cuffs. In fact he never uses cufflinks except for formal dress, when he generally wears ruby-and-diamond studs and links or sapphire-and-diamond combinations.
He has what seems to him to be a “thousand ties” but in reality only between 50 and 100. He likes a full tie, not the narrow ones. “I always like to use the Windsor knot,” he says. As for the collars, he dislikes the tab and prefers the button-down and the wide-spread collar— braced by staves. “Once I used to wear bow ties,” he says somewhat wistfully, “with polka-dots, too, and enjoyed it, but I’ve got away from that.” He explains his aversion for the narrow tie with a smile: “I’m narrow enough myself, too narrow.” He points out that thinness seems to destroy an essential quality of dress, its style, by misuse in ties or lapels. “Look at the thin rolled lapels with the double-breasted suits—they are atrocities.”
In his own ties, he prefers a dark color and a very small pattern. He has only a couple of striped ties, emblematic of the clubs to which he belongs.
His daily jewelry is severely limited to a single gold-seal ring and the simples tie accessories.
In the way of belts, Astaire likes to use silk handkerchiefs—purely for utilitarian purposes rather than theatrical. He has a 31-inch waist and loses pounds when he is dancing. The resilient silk allows him to draw his pants right. “I used to use old neckties for the same purpose but the handkerchiefs are better.” At home he will use a belt, usually shoving the buckle to one side, “simply to get it out of the way.”
On pant cuffs:
His trousers are cuffed and inclined to be a little shorter than most—”I don’t want them slopping over onto my shoes.
In the shoe department, Astaire possesses perhaps 50 pairs of professional dancing shoes and more than 20 pairs of his own. “It’s really very economical to have that many,” he asserts. “I have shoes today that are as good as when I bought them 20 years ago—and I assure you I have worn them many times.” A few pairs are slightly large for his feet and Astaire wears two pairs of wool socks with them when he goes walking. All his shoes are custom-made in London.
As for style and color, he prefers suede as a material and the loafer design. Most of his shoes, exclusive of the formal ones, are dark brown. “I don’t have any evening pumps any more,” he says. “I used to wear them ‘way back. Now they’re out of style. They were fun to wear but I don’t see any chance of them coming back.”