The American film is a superficially faithful adaptation of Sapper's first novel. Drummond starts at basically the same point: bored out of his mind by peace, he impulsively places an advertisement in the Times of London.
Joan Bennett) wants Drummond to rescue her uncle from a "hospital" where he's supposedly being confined against his will by a corrupt doctor and an odd pair of criminals: Carl Peterson (Montagu Love) and his protege Irma (Lilyan Tashman). Drummond breaks into the facility several times to rescue the innocent and harass the guilty, thwarting the Peterson gang every time and eventually earning Phyllis's love.
Missing from this is the geopolitical backstory Sapper establishes before even introducing Drummond. In his novel, Carl Peterson is the ringleader of an international conspiracy of German and American (!) businessmen who hope to subvert the British economy, thus advancing their own interests, by inciting a socialist revolution. The conspirators need another wealthy donor to finance their scheme, but that man proving unwilling, he is taken prisoner and more or less treated as we see in the film. The stakes are much higher than in the Goldwyn film, where the Petersons and their ally, Dr. Lakington (Laurence Grant) simply want to drain their victim's finances.
Bulldog Drummond (Ronald Colman, right) reads his advance fan mail as Algy (Claud Allister) listens with amusement.
Here, too, is a rare instance of a pre-Code Hollywood film toning down some salacious sexual subject matter. In Sapper's novel, Irma is identified as Carl Peterson's daughter, but hardly anyone believes in that relationship. Instead, despite Irma's efforts to seduce Drummond, it is assumed by anyone who knows them that Irma and Carl are lovers. This isn't confirmed one way or the other, and the possibility is left open, I suppose, that they are all of the above. For Sam Goldwyn's purposes, Carl claims that Irma is his sister, but it's established pretty quickly that they are lovers rather than family. In the novel, Irma intervenes occasionally in the action but Sapper may already have been consciously saving her for a time when she'd be the principal villain of the series. In the movie, she seems to be the dominant partner at times, more bold and more willing to see things through than either Carl or Lakington. If anything, Irma and Carl's romance redeems them somewhat. Since they're just crooks here, not subversives, we're practically invited to root for them to make good their escape at the end.
Phyllis (Joan Bennett, left) meets our villains: (l-r) Montagu Love, Lilyan Tashman and Laurence Grant.
One other big change from the novel is the elevation of Algy Longworth (Claud Allister) from only the most memorable of Drummond's pals who arrive to help him mid-novel to Bulldog's principal sidekick and comedy relief for the entire film. Allister serves up an exaggerated caricature of a severe upper-class twit, perhaps to make Ronald Colman look more rugged by contrast. My recollection of the novel was that Algy, like the rest of Bulldog's crew, were fellow war veterans, but the film's Algy looks like he was nowhere near a trench, however enthusiastic he appears about aiding his friend. The novel's humor comes largely from Drummond's proto-Bondian put-downs of the villains. The movie's comic relief is more forced, more theatrical, and ultimately more annoying.
A certain theatricality is probably inevitable in an early talkie, though Bulldog Drummond was praised upon its release for setting new standards in naturalness in dialogue. Colman definitely earns his right to carry on as a sound star here, if he hadn't talked on film already. He makes a dashing hero, even if he doesn't really match the image of Drummond from the novel. That would be a Clive Owen or maybe even a Jason Statham; establish the brutality before you polish it with class. In any event, while Colman handles his dialogue with ease, others are more tentative, pausing awkwardly in the middle of lines for no dramatic purpose. I'm tempted to blame that on the director. F. Richard Jones was a nobody to me before this; that may be because he died the year after the film came out. He was a veteran of Mack Sennett shorts, with his most prominent silent feature probably being Douglas Fairbanks' The Gaucho, which I haven't seen. Here, Jones was doubly overshadowed by William Cameron Menzies's production design and the overall Goldwyn Touch. As an early talkie the film stands out for being slick and briskly paced. It must have looked and felt like a "roller coaster ride" to 1929 audiences. Even today, I think it'd entertain most viewers, even if it isn't as outrageous as a more faithful adaptation of Sapper could be.
Dramatic production design by William Cameron Menzies gives Bulldog Drummond a proto-comics visual flavor.