2. The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935, USA)

The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood di­rect­ed by Stu­art Walk­er, pro­duced by Ed­mund Grainger, and writ­ten by Leopold Atlas and John L. Balder­ston. Black and white. 87-min­utes. Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, 1935. VHS ISBN 0-7832-1744-7.

A vet­er­an team of Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios' screen­writ­ers, work­ing in the 1930s Hol­ly­wood film mi­lieu, trans­formed Dick­ens's 1870 psy­cho­log­i­cal study of a re­spectable bour­geois with a hid­den life into some­thing of a hor­ror-thriller, with screen no­table Claude Rains tak­ing the lead­ing as the drug-crazed, ob­sessed John Jasper. Work­ing in the genre so well es­tab­lished by di­rec­tor Rouben Mamou­lian and screen­writ­er Samuel Hof­fen­stein with 1931's Os­car-win­ning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, star­ring Fred­er­ic March as the Vic­to­ri­an physi­cian with a dark side, di­rec­tor Stu­art Walk­er, then 48, cast Claude Rains in the lead. Re­mem­bered today chiefly for his role as Cap­tain Re­nault in Casablan­ca (1942), Rains, then 47, was al­ready the vet­er­an of five films, in­clud­ing the hor­ror films The In­vis­i­ble Man (1933) and The Clair­voy­ant (1934), in which he took the epony­mous roles, and The Man Who Re­claimed His Head (1934). Al­though he had pre­vi­ous­ly been a di­rec­tor of nine straight ro­mances and dra­mas, after his sor­tie into the hor­ror genre Walk­er di­rect­ed Were­wolf of Lon­don (1935) and pro­duced six in­stal­ments in the high­ly suc­cess­ful Bull­dog Drum­mond de­tec­tive-ac­tion se­ries (1937-1939) be­fore his death in 1941. Sure to strike a re­spon­sive chord with movie-go­ers in the mid-thir­ties, the Sven­gali-like char­ac­ters that Rains had re­cent­ly played made him the log­i­cal Uni­ver­sal star for the lead in the hor­ror movie (re)in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Dick­ens's novel; he had, as it were, the Hol­ly­wood cre­den­tials to tack­le the role of the re­spectable choir­mas­ter turned opium ad­dict and mur­der­er in this, his fourth film.

Part of the "Ham­mer Hor­ror" se­ries now avail­able on VHS, the 1935 adap­ta­tion of Dick­ens's novel fea­tured as its prin­ci­pals Claude Rains (John Jasper) and Dou­glass Mont­gomery (Neville Land­less), and the script by John L. Balder­ston and Gladys Unger (who had adapt­ed Great Ex­pec­ta­tions for the sil­ver screen just the year be­fore) cer­tain­ly pro­vides a nar­ra­tive dom­i­nat­ed by the fix­at­ed choir­mas­ter with the hid­den life and the Cey­lon-born im­mi­grant who proves a mas­ter of dis­guise. The VHS cover suc­cinct­ly de­scribes Claude Rains's char­ac­ter as "an opi­um-ad­dict­ed choir­mas­ter of an En­glish cathe­dral, who is ac­cused of killing his nephew, Edwin Drood (David Man­ners). All clues point to Jasper be­cause of his pas­sion­ate in­fat­u­a­tion with Drood's fiancée, Rosa Bud (Heather Angel), but there are oth­ers with mo­tives. . . ." In fact, as this de­scrip­tion sug­gests, di­rec­tor Stu­art Walk­er made this a rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward adap­ta­tion of the novel, in­clud­ing even the char­ac­ter of Dick Datch­ery, al­though he ex­cised the ge­nial sailor, Lieu­tenant Tar­tar, and the xeno­pho­bic phi­lan­thropist, Luke Hon­eythun­der, pos­si­bly for clar­i­ty and more like­ly for the sake of wrap­ping up the "clas­sic Dick­en­sian who­dunit" ex­pe­di­tious­ly. That the orig­i­nal story ends with Drood miss­ing and pre­sumed mur­dered was not ac­cept­able for the Hol­ly­wood screen­writ­ers: in the 1935 film, John Jasper stran­gles Drood to elim­i­nate his rival for the af­fec­tions of Rosa, dump­ing the body into a pit of quick­lime and at­tempt­ing to frame Neville the mur­der. The new­com­er has in­con­ve­nient­ly po­si­tioned him­self as the most like­ly sus­pect be­cause, by his own ad­mis­sion "hav­ing taken a knife" to his step­fa­ther in Cey­lon, he has given vent to his vi­o­lent tem­per in a re­cent al­ter­ca­tion with Drood, whom he had threat­ened with an ex­ot­ic, East­ern dag­ger hang­ing on the wall in Jasper's bach­e­lor rooms.

As the film opens, im­ages of Clois­ter­ham, fo­cus­ing on the young ladies of The Nuns' House and Rosa Bud in par­tic­u­lar, flood in deliri­ous suc­ces­sion through the con­scious­ness of opi­um-smok­er John Jasper, who goes by the pseudonym "Mr. Or­ridge" when a client of the Opium Woman (who strange­ly enough is never once called "Princess Puffer" in this adap­ta­tion). As­sur­ing him­self that he has re­vealed noth­ing about him­self or his plans while under the in­flu­ence of the nar­cot­ic, hav­ing al­ready smoked five pipes, John Jasper stag­gers out of the opium den, sure enough of him­self (based on the in­co­her­ence of other nar­co­tized cus­tomers) to short change his deal­er as he leaves.

The mu­si­cian's shiny boots, so out of place in so vile a re­sort, fa­cil­i­tate the tran­si­tion to a sphere more ap­pro­pri­ate to a "gen­tle­man," the Clois­ter­ham cathe­dral. He no soon­er be­gins a tenor solo after the com­mence­ment of the ser­vice than he is "taken poor­ly" with an opi­um-in­duced cough­ing fit. He has ap­par­ent­ly, as the cler­i­cal fig­ures con­vers­ing about the choir­mas­ter's con­di­tion re­mark, been going up to Lon­don twice a week for "treat­ments," but the di­a­logue never in fact re­veals John Jasper's mal­a­dy. Per­haps this mys­te­ri­ous ail­ment is noth­ing than a sort of bo­varys­ma: "The cramped monotony of my ex­is­tence grinds my life away," he re­marks to his nephew af­ter­wards, as if his tal­ents are ill-matched to his role of music mas­ter and music teach­er in a small, out-of-the-way cathe­dral town. How­ev­er, aside from his abort­ed solo and fu­ri­ous di­rec­tion of Rosa in an af­ter-din­ner recital, the film pro­vides us with scant ev­i­dence of such thwart­ed mu­si­cal ge­nius.

We next meet the twen­ty-one-year-old nephew Edwin in the bach­e­lor rooms of his thir­ty-four-year-old uncle, who has given pride of place above the man­tle to a wa­ter­colour paint­ing (de­scribed in the di­a­logue as a "draw­ing") of his fiancée, Rosa, whose eigh­teenth birth­day we learn is to­mor­row. Thus, the film has quick­ly es­tab­lished, even be­fore the ar­rival by coach of Neville Land­less (David Man­ners) and his sis­ter He­le­na (Va­lerie Hob­son), the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a ro­man­tic tri­an­gle in­volv­ing the uncle, the nephew, and the fiancée.

John Jasper seems alarmed when Edwin an­nounces his in­ten­tion to marry the beau­ti­ful Rosa, al­though she is just an ado­les­cent, and "carry her off to Egypt." The gift of gloves, which Edwin had also pre­sent­ed Rosa on her pre­vi­ous birth­day, im­plies his tak­ing her for grant­ed. On the sub­se­quent walk to "dis­cuss some­thing im­por­tant," she weari­ly ac­knowl­edges the ne­ces­si­ty for going through with the mar­riage de­spite her dis­taste for Egypt. Rosa's con­sum­ing all of the Turk­ish de­light with­out think­ing to offer Edwin any im­plies that she, too, takes her fiancée for grant­ed. The girl's en­joy­ment of an ex­ot­ic East­ern sweet­meat but her lack of rel­ish for the trip to the East point to the con­flict­ing val­ues that the colo­nial world rep­re­sents in Dick­ens's novel, which jux­ta­pos­es such neg­a­tives as the im­por­ta­tion of opium with such pos­i­tives as Neville Land­less's manly char­ac­ter.

After the ar­rival of Neville and He­le­na Land­less (who do not look par­tic­u­lar­ly Eurasian, let alone like twins), the ro­man­tic tri­an­gle so­lid­i­fies. While Miss Twin­kle­ton (Ethel Griffies) leads her charges about Clois­ter­ham, the Cey­lonese twins are ar­riv­ing by coach. When his dis­tinc­tive hat is blown off, it is re­cov­ered and re­turned by Rosa, un­der­scor­ing the film's use of per­son­al pos­ses­sions to con­nect char­ac­ters--the hat fig­ures promi­nent­ly once again when, Neville hav­ing left his hat in Jasper's rooms, Jasper takes the op­por­tu­ni­ty of re­turn­ing it to Crisparkle to mag­ni­fy the in­ten­si­ty of the al­ter­ca­tion be­tween the young men. Im­me­di­ate­ly, the pair seem much taken with each, a some­what inept use of the con­ven­tion of love at first sight to mo­ti­vate Neville's cham­pi­oning her and her break­ing off the en­gage­ment with Edwin. The mu­tu­al at­trac­tion de­vel­ops at the din­ner party at the Crisparkles'. The di­a­logue un­der­scores Neville's being for­eign from the point at which, as he alight­ed from the coach, one of the other pas­sen­gers pro­nounced him a "hea­then." Even the knowl­edge­able Miss Twin­kle­ton, how­ev­er, fails to lo­cate the is­land of Cey­lon pre­cise­ly, im­ply­ing En­glish ig­no­rance about the Em­pire even in those who ought to know.

The mer­cu­ri­al Neville seems very un­like the dark, brood­ing youth of the novel, even though he con­fess­es to at­tempt­ed mur­der and ad­mits that he was pre­pared to hate Crisparkle (pos­si­bly be­cause he was to per­form a quasi-pa­ter­nal role). As in the novel, how­ev­er, after Rosa's solo, the young men near­ly come to blows over Edwin's ap­par­ent ne­glect of Rosa and Neville's racial back­ground. When Neville in­ti­mates that men in his coun­try show prop­er re­spect for their women, Edwin point­ed­ly re­joins: "We En­glish don't en­cour­age fel­lows with dark skins to ad­mire our girls." Jasper, al­though per­haps not di­rect­ly re­spon­si­ble for the quar­rel as in the novel (since there is no im­pli­ca­tion that he has laced the young men's drinks), takes ad­van­tage of the al­ter­ca­tion to ini­ti­ate a ma­li­cious ru­mour about Neville; in a se­ries of quick vi­gnettes, the nar­ra­tive of the knife as­sault be­comes more and more lurid--and im­prob­a­ble--with each re-telling.

The film from this point more or less fol­lows the sto­ry­line of the novel, min­i­miz­ing the roles of the street-urchin Deputy (the dis­tinct­ly Amer­i­can Georgie Ernest), the saga­cious Grew­gious (Wal­ter Kings­ford), and es­pe­cial­ly the mag­is­te­ri­al Sapsea (E. E. Clive), but mak­ing good use of Dur­dles (For­rester Har­vey) and the opi­um-wom­an (Zeffie Till­bury). After the dis­ap­pear­ance of Edwin Drood, the script in­creas­ing­ly fo­cus­es on Jasper's ob­ses­sion with Rosa. As in the book, he leans calm­ly on the sun-di­al in the gar­den of The Nuns' House as he pro­fess­es his love for her: al­though he has de­vot­ed him­self to find­ing the mur­der­er of his dear boy, he promis­es to re­nounce his quest if she agrees to re­turn his af­fec­tion, even at the ex­pense of lost vengeance. Sens­ing that Neville is threat­ened, how­ev­er, Rosa im­me­di­ate­ly af­ter­ward in­forms--not her guardian, lawyer Grew­gious, but Neville. And, as in the book, he is ap­pre­hend­ed out­side of time and in­ter­ro­gat­ed about the events of the pre­vi­ous night.

The plot of the film now takes a some­what sur­pris­ing se­ries of turns, as Neville is re­vealed to be in league with Grew­gious; the pair ap­par­ent­ly have con­spired to re­veal Jasper's guilt by set­ting Neville dis­guised as Dick Datch­ery to rent a room at Mrs. Tope's (Vera Buck­land) and spy on the choir­mas­ter. Con­ve­nient­ly, in Jasper's rooms Datch­ery finds a wax im­pres­sion of a large key, which leads Grew­gious to con­clude that the choir­mas­ter has used such a key to gain unau­tho­rized en­trance to a tomb or mon­u­ment. Under the in­flu­ence of the nar­cot­ic in the opium den Jasper re­veals how a thou­sand times he has en­act­ed the stran­gling of some­body, then cries out for Ned ("Why didn't you tell me?" he cries, al­lud­ing to the bro­ken en­gage­ment) and Rosa ("No­body shall have her but me!"), be­fore he at­tempts to stran­gle the opi­um-wom­an. When her body is sub­se­quent­ly dis­cov­ered in Datch­ery's rooms, Jasper pre­tends not to rec­og­nize her, but the fact that the fringe she still clutch­es match those on Jasper's scarf.

When Datch­ery, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the open­ing of the tomb in the crypt, re­veals him­self as Neville, Jasper vain­ly at­tempts to strange him, then makes away just as the Mayor, Crisparkle, and oth­ers ar­rive, sum­moned by Datch­ery's note (dis­patched through Dur­dles) that he has found Edwin Drood. In the en­su­ing pur­suit, we see torch­es as­cend­ing the bell-tow­er. Trapped at the top, Jasper leaps to his death in the square below, cry­ing "Rosa!" with his final breath.

The 1935 film is true to Dick­ens's in­ten­tion in the book, ac­cord­ing to George Giss­ing, that John Jasper would dis­cov­er the folly of elim­i­nat­ing Drood since the nephew and Rosa in­tend­ed to break their en­gage­ment, and that the crime was to be re­solved by the dis­cov­ery of a gold ring that had re­sist­ed the quick­lime. "Rosa was to marry Tar­tar, and Crisparkle the sis­ter of Land­less, who was him­self to have per­ished in help­ing Tar­tar to ar­rest the mur­der­er" (201). In the 1935 film, al­though the dis­tinc­tive ring pro­vid­ed by Rosa's moth­er for her daugh­ter's even­tu­al en­gage­ment turns out to be the key to iden­ti­fy­ing the lime-de­com­posed body in the floor of the cathe­dral crypt, in a swift de­noue­ment Rosa mar­ries Neville Land­less in The Nuns' House as the bells in Clois­ter­ham Cathe­dral chime, pro­claim­ing the erst­while mys­tery a ro­mance of sorts after all.