“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.
The 1935 Gaumont-British comedy-thriller Bulldog Jack is almost entirely forgotten nowadays, which is ironic seeing as it was subsequently copied to death by the Hollywood studios. The basic premise is simple enough: An ordinary everyman (who’s also something of a well-meaning bumbler) dreams of becoming a heroic tough guy, the type who foils the bad guys and saves the proverbial damsel-in-distress. Fate conspires to place this everyman in real-life danger and, against all odds, he overcomes his fears, exposes the criminals, and successfully rescues the aforementioned damsel-in-distress, winning both the day and the girl. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because several of Hollywood’s top comedians appeared in countless variations on the theme, including Bob Hope in My Favorite Brunette, Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Jerry Lewis in It’s Only Money.
Bulldog Jack was the brainchild of its star, Jack Hulbert, who is credited for “idea and dialogue.” Hulbert was one of Britain’s top three film comedians of the 1930s, along with George Fromby and Will Hay. Writing about Bulldog Jack in his 1972 book The Detective in Film, British-born film historian William K. Everson stated, “Hulbert was a song-and-dance comic (though wisely keeping musical interludes out of this particular film) who followed the Harold Lloyd technique of combining comedy with thrill. He had a breezy, cheerful personality and good diction which made him far more acceptable to American audiences than many of the regional comics from Britain with their heavy local accents. His films were always solidly produced, with good sets, camerawork, and well-staged action scenes.” (In fact, I would never have even heard of Bulldog Jack if it hadn’t been for Everson’s enthusiastic recommendation of it.)
Clocking in at a breathless 70 minutes, Bulldog Jack was directed by Walter Forde, with a screenplay by J.O.C. Orton, Gerard Fairlie, and Sidney Gilliat, “in collaboration with ‘Sapper’ [the pseudonym of author H.C. McNeile].” (Gilliat’s name is familiar to many movie buffs, not only in connection with the screenplays he co-wrote for Alfred Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn, but also for the films he wrote and directed himself, most notably the classic whodunit Green For Danger.) Instead of inventing a generic detective hero for the comic to emulate (as was the case in My Favorite Brunette and It’s Only Money), the writers made use of McNeile’s already widely popular fictional sleuth, Bulldog Drummond. So, in addition to being a first-rate comedy in itself, Bulldog Jack also functions as a sharp, incisive parody of the melodramatic excesses of the Bulldog Drummond novels as well. (Indeed, Bulldog Jack has stood the test of time better than any of the official Bulldog Drummond film adaptations.)
Bulldog Jack gets off to a wonderful start, with the credits accompanied by composer Louis Levy’s appropriately dramatic overture, and interrupted briefly by a gunshot and one of co-star Fay Wray’s patented ear-splitting screams. (Wray was still at the height of her loveliness, having recently played the ultimate damsel-in-distress in King Kong, and made a most fetching heroine for Hulbert to rescue.)
The real Bulldog Drummond, played by Atholl Fleming (accurately described by Everson as “rather too mature and stolid an actor for the role”), only appears in the film’s first five minutes. In an introductory sequence worthy of Hitchcock himself, we see two sinister figures out in the British countryside in the dead of night, obviously up to no good as they tap a telephone pole’s lines and listen in on a conversation between Drummond and Ann Manders (Wray) in which she entreats the celebrated amateur sleuth to come to her aid. Unfortunately, Drummond mentions that he’ll need to stop for gas before meeting Miss Manders at his flat in London. So the two villains hightail it to the only gas station in that isolated area, bind and gag the attendant, and one of them takes his place. When Drummond arrives, accompanied by his pet terrier, the bogus attendant waits on him while his accomplice lurks behind Drummond’s car and sabotages the brake line.
Blithely unaware of the danger he’s in, Drummond drives down a steep, winding stretch of road ominously known as “Devil’s Elbow.” As he futilely tries to pump the brakes, the film cross-cuts between his automobile and another car heading up the road from the opposite direction. The two cars collide, completely overturning Drummond’s auto. The driver of the other car, a professional cricket player named Jack Pennington (Hulbert), sticks his head out of the window and casually inquires whether this is “the right way to Gilford.” The only response he receives is Drummond’s terrier sticking its head out of passenger window of the overturned car. Jack politely thanks the pooch and gets out of his car.
Jack accompanies Drummond, who has suffered a broken arm, and his dog on the ambulance ride to the hospital. After exchanging introductions, Jack fawns over the famous detective and expresses his lifelong desire to become a detective himself. Since he’s obviously out of commission for the time being, Drummond asks Jack to impersonate him long enough to interview Miss Manders and determine exactly who and what is threatening her. Needless to say, despite the potential danger, Jack gladly accepts the assignment.
Upon Jack’s arrival at Drummond’s flat, we are introduced to two supporting characters well known to followers of the Drummond novels, the first being Drummond’s faithful, unflappable manservant Denny, played here by Gibb McLaughlin, best remembered for his work in David Lean’s early films. The second familiar character to appear is Drummond’s perennial sidekick, “Algy” (short for Algernon) Longworth, the very embodiment of that archetype affectionately known as “a silly-ass Englishman.” In Bulldog Jack, Algy is played by Hulbert’s brother Claude, an accomplished comedian in his own right. (Few British comics could do “silly-ass” better than Claude Hulbert.) Algy agrees to go along with Pennington’s impersonation of Drummond and the two act as a team for the remainder of the movie. (The dynamic between the Hulbert Brothers is rather reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, with Jack driven to a perpetual state of exasperation by Claude’s ineffectualness.)
The next person knocking on Drummond’s door, much to Jack’s disappointment, is not Ann, but rather an elderly foreigner (Paul Graetz) who claims that criminals are pressuring him into participating in a crime involving “the Goddess with a Hundred Hands.” (“Do you know what they want me to do?” the old man asks. “Wash them?” Algy guesses.) The man’s pleas are interrupted by the arrival of a couple of strangers who identify themselves as policemen. Convinced they’re imposters, Jack locks them in the kitchen while two other men, also identifying themselves as police, show up. Jack, however, smugly declares these two to be authentic and turns the old man over to them. Not surprisingly, the first set of men are the real cops and the second two are minions of the master criminal behind the sinister goings-on.
At last, Ann herself arrives (Jack is, of course, immediately smitten with her) and the plot finally gets underway. As Ann explains, the old man is Salvini, her grandfather, and he’s an expert jeweler whose professional services are required by the master criminal in question, one Professor Morelle. Played by a young Ralph Richardson (with bushy mustache and gray fright wig) in one of his early film appearances, Morelle is a satirical take-off on such sinister literary masterminds as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. (One of the main reasons that Bulldog Jack works so well is that Richardson, Wray, and all the other supporting actors play their roles absolutely straight, and only the Hulberts play it for laughs.)
The caper Morelle is planning is the theft of a priceless set of jewels embedded in the gigantic multi-armed statue of the Indian goddess Kali that is kept at the British Museum. Morelle needs Salvini to create replicas of the jewels that will be indistinguishable from the real thing, so that they can be substituted for the originals. When Savini refuses to give in to Morelle’s threats, Ann is also kidnapped by Morelle’s henchmen, and it’s up to Jack and Algy to track down Morelle’s secret lair and save her and her grandfather from the villain’s evil clutches.
In their quest, Jack and Algy are put through a series of perils typical of the average Bulldog Drummond story. At one point, they’re locked in a basement storeroom. (Algy suggests burning their way out. It isn’t until the fire is blazing out of control that it occurs to them that they might be incinerated as well.) They deduce that Morelle’s hideout must be located somewhere in London’s underground subway tunnels and—you can see this one coming a mile away—they’re forced to outrun a train when they start down a seemingly empty tunnel. (By the way, the film’s special effects are flawlessly done, particularly the miniatures used in the climax.)
After sending Algy to go alert the police, Jack eventually reaches Morelle’s underground hideout, but his attempt to spirit Ann and her grandfather out of there by impersonating Morelle and hoodwinking his gang is spoiled by the inevitable appearance of Morelle himself. It’s at this point that Morelle demolishes Ann’s trust in Jack (she still thinks he’s Bulldog Drummond) by exposing him as a fraud and imposter (the film’s only touch of pathos). Undeterred, Jack still hopes to prove himself to Ann and give Morelle his well-deserved comeuppance.
There are some highly amusing sight gags in Bulldog Jack, most notably a literal running gag in which the good guys and bad guys are constantly hurrying up or down the London Underground’s circular staircases (an image beautifully punctuated by Levy’s score) and a frenzied nighttime chase through the London Museum after hours when Jack interrupts Morelle and his men in mid-robbery, climaxed by Jack utilizing the museum’s collection of Aboriginal boomerangs against the villains. At first, Jack successfully knocks out several of Morelle’s henchmen (complete with comic sound effects), but, as comedy tradition demands, the last boomerang he flings backfires on him.
The dangers that Jack faces in the last fifteen minutes of the movie would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones film, with an emphasis on suspense rather than comedy. Jack pursues Morelle down to the subway tunnels and the two of them fight it out on the tracks, with the electrified third rail and an oncoming train posing serious threats. Finally, in a last-ditch act of sheer desperation, Morelle hijacks a subway train with Jack, Algy, Ann, and Salvini aboard. Intending to commit murder/suicide by crashing the train when it reaches the end of the line, Morelle locks himself in the lead train’s cab and Jack’s only hope of stopping him is to crawl out over the top of the moving train and get into the cab via the front door.
Now, alas, for the bad news. The video transfer on the Region 1 DVD release by a company called Firecake Entertainment leaves something to be desired. At first glance, the image seems to be sharp enough, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s some rather annoying fuzziness in the picture. Although, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that this fuzziness is not bad enough to make the DVD unwatchable. (Lord knows, the transfer is nowhere near as bad as those 5th or 6th generation public domain dubs that have plagued unwitting video purchasers for decades.) The soundtrack, however, is clean and the dialogue is quite audible, which isn’t always the case in British films of the period.
On the plus side, Bulldog Jack definitely qualifies as “family friendly” entertainment. As Everson explained in his program notes for a 1963 New York screening of Bulldog Jack: “There was a lot of ‘blue’ comedy in the British films of the 30s, some admittedly very funny. Hulbert’s were always scrupulously clean.” Even if you’ve seen any of the numerous Hollywood knock-offs of Bulldog Jack, I think you’ll agree that the original can’t be topped, in terms of both laughs and thrills.