Mystery of Edwin Drood (Stuart Walker, 1935)

Claude Rains and Zeffie Tilbury

I’ve been planning to review a few Dickens films to mark his bicentenary, and am now beginning at the end of his career – though I do plan to write about adaptations of some of the earlier novels too! I will be discussing the whole plot of Drood in this review, including the ending of the 1935 film and also of the most recent BBC adaptation. As a lifelong Dickens fan, I like all his novels and have read them all many times over the years. But his last, dark masterpiece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, holds a special fascination for me, as for many other readers – from its stunning dream opening in the opium den through to its abrupt breaking off when the author died. The book’s real power lies not in the endless controversy over how it would have ended, but in the tortured double character of John Jasper, lay precentor of the cathedral by day and drug addict by night. (I’ve read an article somewhere pointing out the similarity between Jasper and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which had already been adapted for the screen twice when Hollywood turned its attention to Dickens’ novel.)

There have been many attempts to complete Drood in print, as well as a handful of film and TV versions, most recently the BBC adaptation shown at Christmas in the UK. I was disappointed by the latest version, or by the second half of it anyway with its convoluted ending. To my mind the 1935 adaptation holds together much better, despite its short length, coming in at under 90 minutes. Indeed, the shortness may be an advantage in some ways, as most of the film is drawn from the book we have and only a few scenes at the end move into the realm of the unwritten. Drood was one of three Dickens novels adapted for the screen in 1935 – and it was also one of a series of horror-themed films from Universal. TCM’s article about the film points out that director Stuart Walker “had his fingers in both the horror genre (Werewolf of London, 1935) and Dickens (Great Expectations, 1934).”  The film does have a Gothic atmosphere much of the time, with dark, moody cinematography and a spectacular storm, which is also there in the book. The “ancient English Cathedral town” is made menacing rather than picturesque – starting with the opium dream in the opening scene where Jasper sees the spire rising from the darkness of his own mind. It was all filmed in the US, but the English landscapes  look convincing enough to me as a Brit, though one or two of the actors do have rather shaky accents at times, especially George Ernest as the street urchin Deputy.

Claude Rains stars as Jasper, the uncle who is apparently devoted to his nephew, Edwin (David Manners), but is secretly in love with Edwin’s fiancee, Rosa (Heather Angel.) When Edwin disappears, Jasper insists he has been murdered and works to cast suspicion on a young man recently arrived in the town of Cloisterham from abroad, Neville Landless (Douglass Montgomery), but evidence increasingly points to Jasper himself being the villain. Rains was trying to avoid being typecast as a horror actor at this time, after his star-making role in The Invisible Man. In Edwin Drood,  instead of going over the top, he gives a feeling of passion simmering beneath the surface, which he is managing to restrain with difficulty. All the way through the film, he makes Jasper a complicated character rather than a simple villain. He’s a man who stops on the way out of the opium den to argue over the price. He also comes across as someone who, with at least part of his brain, loves his nephew, Edwin (David Manners) at the same time as resenting and plotting against him – a doubleness which is also there in the novel.

There are some moments of pure horror, such as the scene where he scratches the opium woman (Zeffie Tilbury) across the face, drawing drops of blood – but Rains’s ability as an actor comes across more powerfully in the quieter scenes. I was especially impressed by the early scene where he tells the thoughtless Edwin about how trapped he feels in his monotonous existence, and also by the threatening scene where he declares his unwanted love to Rosa, almost in a whisper, while leaning against a sundial. Both of these scenes use a lot of Dickens’s own language. Watching Rains in these quiet yet intense moments, I was reminded that he taught both Olivier and Gielgud.

Rains dominates the film, but there are also some other fine performances. Handsome young actor Douglass Montgomery, second-billed as the fiery Neville, actually has a double role of his own, since in this version it’s Neville who disguises himself as detective Dick Datchery. (I think Bazzard is a more likely candidate for Datchery, but sadly he is one of the characters who has been chopped from this adaptation.) In any case, Montgomery manages to make the disguise quite convincing. Valerie Hobson, who went on to play Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations, is also good as Neville’s twin sister, Helena, though the two do not look particularly alike and also don’t look all that dark. The theme of racism does feature in this adaptation, all the same, with Sapsea and the rest of the Cloisterham worthies seeming all too ready to blame the young foreigner for the murder rather than looking closer to home. Heather Angel has a difficult task in making Rosa seem spoilt and childish but still likeable, but I think she carries it off pretty well. David Manners doesn’t really get enough time to make his version of Edwin very memorable, and I don’t think he makes the character seem as self-satisfied as he is in the novel.

Sadly, a lot of Dickens’s satirical comedy has been lost, as in so many adaptations of his work. The philanthropist Mr Honeythunder doesn’t feature at all, and Mr Sapsea (E E Clive) has very little screen time, though his pomposity does come across. The Crisparkles also don’t get much scope. Forrester Harvey has some good black comedy scenes as the drunken grave digger Durdles, but in general a lot of the humour has been axed to make way for the main plot.

So what about the ending? In this version, within the constraints of the time available, the scriptwriters have stuck fairly close to what seems to be the most likely solution, drawing from the hints in the novel and from what Dickens had told his friends and family about his plans. The opium woman turns up in Cloisterham and tells Datchery/Neville what she knows. It is discovered that Jasper had stolen a key from Durdles and put Edwin’s corpse in one of the empty tombs in the crypt, using quicklime to destroy the body – but Edwin still had a gold ring given to him earlier and his body is identified from this. Dickens had told his friend John Forster that he intended to end the novel with scenes of Jasper in the condemned cell, but, instead of this, the film goes for the satisfying Gothic ending of Jasper climbing the cathedral tower and then plunging from it to his death.  I was interested to note that the recent BBC adaptation, which otherwise had a completely different and far-fetched ending, kept this element from the older film and had Jasper plunging from the roof too. After all this, it is something of an anti-climax to have Rosa marrying Neville at the end.

All in all, I enjoyed this film, even though it inevitably leaves out a lot of the book, and I especially liked the way it focuses on the character of Jasper rather than wasting too much time on building up to an unlikely ending. It has left me wanting to reread the novel yet again.  Sadly, this version isn’t on DVD, though it was issued on VHS in region 1, but there are bootleg DVDs etc around and I believe it is also on Youtube at the moment, though I don’t know what the quality is like.

David Manners and Heather Angel

22 thoughts on “Mystery of Edwin Drood (Stuart Walker, 1935)

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  2. R. D. Finch

    Judy, I saw this not long ago and found it, while not a great Dickens adaptation, respectably atmospheric and entertaining. a surprise since I’ve read some rather critical appraisals of it. You mentioned the Gothic atmosphere, and I found that quite successfully done, especially the macabre scenes in the crypt and the opium den. You also mentioned how well Claude Rains conveyed the inner torment of his character, and I saw that too. He wasn’t really sympathetic but neither was he two-dimensionally evil either. The big surprise to me was Douglass Montgomery and how effective he was in his disguise. I couldn’t help thinking that he was a much more accomplished actor than I’d given him credit for. I also wondered if the conclusion was perhaps inspired by Bill Sykes’s end in “Oliver Twist.”

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      R.D., I think you could be right about the ending being inspired by Bill Sikes – and given the role the cathedral has played all the way through it does feel right to have Jasper plunging at the end. I’ve read that there was a theatrical version the year after Dickens died where his son, Charley, was involved in the production, and that version also saw Jasper killing himself, but taking poison rather than jumping – which I can see could also work well as it carries on from the drugs, but wouldn’t be so dramatic. I do agree that Montgomery is very good in the double role – it isn’t immediately obvious that he is the one portraying Datchery. I’m glad to hear you also found this version atmospheric and entertaining, though I agree it isn’t one of the very greatest Dickens adaptations. Thanks very much for your thoughts on this film.

  3. Sam Juliano

    “The book’s real power lies not in the endless controversy over how it would have ended, but in the tortured double character of John Jasper, lay precentor of the cathedral by day and drug addict by night.”

    My apologies for getting over here so late Judy. Great that you have covered the third Hollywood Dickens adaptation 0f 1935, a film that deserves a legitimate DVD release, even with the Region 1 VHS circulating. The film is proof parcel that Claude Rains is one of the greatest American actors of all-time, as if his extraordinary work in so many other films hasn’t already established that. And he is at the top of his game in this adaptation of Dickens’ famed unfinished work. As always you do a buffo descriptive job in conveying the film’s atmospheric (that storm is indeed unforgettable) and in chronicling the intricacies of the drama. The film has gotten short shrift mainly because of the unfinished nature of the source material, though I am happy to see the BBC has tackled it again, even if as you observe it’s a mixed blessing. I haven’t set seen that version. In any case I do agree that beyond Rains there are some splendid supporting turns, and that inevitably some of the satire misses the mark, and the presentation is truncated.

    Magnificent review, Judy!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sam, thanks very much for the kind comments and no need for apologies, as it is very good of you to visit. I know you really know Rains was British, and meant he was one of the greatest actors in American films, which I agree with. :) He was born in London and I’ve read that he originally had a strong Cockney accent – hard to imagine. I’d love to see a film where he plays a Cockney, but I don’t think he ever did.

      Sadly the recent BBC version was very poor in my opinion, although it had a great cast who were let down by the script… to be honest I’m a bit fed up that they did it as I don’t suppose there will be another version for many years now, if ever. But I can always watch this 1935 version again.

  4. Emily

    Hi Judy,

    Thank you for visiting my blog to comment on Bachelor Mother…so glad to find another fan of that charming film.

    I love Charles Dickens, and because of that, I love watching adaptations of his work. I have not seen Drood, but will definitely be checking it out! My favorite of Dickens books is A Tale of Two Cities. I have seen a couple of film adaptations, but have yet to see one that I feel really captures everything I love about the book. If you know of any great versions, I would love to know.

    Thanks!
    Emily

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks, Emily, I will call back to your blog to check out more of your reviews in future. I really like both the 1935 adaptation of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ starring Ronald Colman and the 1958 one starring Dirk Bogarde, but they do both miss out quite a lot. I hope to review both of those versions here before too long, so will be re-watching them soon. I also liked the 1989 mini-series with James Wilby as Carton, which was able to cover more of the book.

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  6. John Greco

    I hope this gets a DVD release, I would really like to see it.Sadly, I have not seen many films based on Dicken’s works other than A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Lean’s excellent OLIVER TWIST. I recently recorded on my DVR the 1935 version of DAVID COPPERFIELD but have yet to watch it. Despite my poor showing on Dickens, I did enjoy your review..

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, John, let’s hope it does get a DVD release or a showing on TCM. I remember liking that version of ‘David Copperfield’ though it is a long time since I’ve seen it – funnily enough I recorded it recently too but haven’t got round to watching it again either! I think often films of his work are a bit of a disappointment because it is hard to pack in much of the plot, but I do like Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ a lot – love Jean Simmons as the young Estella.

  7. ellenandjim

    Talking about the recent spate of film adaptations of Dickens I’d like to comment that once upon a tmie people would complain that (at least some of ) the central values of the books were reversed. That’s now old hat. What troubles me about the new film adaptations is the aesthetics give up what was enjoyable and meaningful in the 1990s and early 2000 mini-series. Even when they were a one-shot deal they’d have the slow pace, good dialogue, time for acting and interaction between developed characters. I had occasion to watch a few films on PBS (which plays the British ones) and they had stick figures in slick action-adventure films dressed up as if this were the costume drama form. I had rather those who detested this form (probably partly because it got smaller audiences except when a big hit, partly its identification with women, partly sheerly the cultural value in it) tried to get rid of them altogether rather than re-vamp them. It’s getting rid of them in a new phony way. My students and I this term watched parts of two mini-series and I made a blog about some of what we talked about:

    http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/serial-storytelling/

    Dickens himself was a serial storyteller and Davies can do his books so effectively partly because both the printed and film form have this older aesthetic.

    Ellen

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Ellen, thanks very much for commenting – I will have a look at your blog on this theme. I was very disappointed by both the Dickens adaptations shown in the UK at Christmas as they seemed to include (or speak to) so little of the books and, as you say, lose what viewers loved about the earlier mini-series and even one-off films, allowing no time for the characters and plots to develop. The BBC ‘Edwin Drood’ adaptation seemed to waste almost half its short running time on a far-fetched ending which had nothing to do with what Dickens wrote – a shame, since it started well and it all looked beautiful. I still hope for better in the future, but we will see.

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  11. ellenandjim

    I have a rejoinder now: it’s not about the Dickens’s film adaptation but about _Sherlock_, also one of these new-style adaptations. Not only did I not dislike it, I was even drawn to it – but then I find Sherlock Holmes stories, most of them to be thin. We get so few of these new-style adaptations in the US: this one was using all the new high speed cinematic techniques — let me suggest we need to start thinking about and responding to film differently. It may be the recent Dickens adaptations are actually “against” (disliking) Dickens, but this adaptation rather like Conan Doyle’s stories.

    I just watched the first episode of the first season. I noticed a lot of parallels with the orignial first _Study in Scarlett_ whose first line is “I perceive you have been in Afghanistan” and the movie opens with Martin Freeman as John Watson on the battle field, being very wounded and then discharged and then living in bad quarters in London. The creators have noticed how thin and flimsy are many of the Holmes’s stories so they can bent and refold them at will; this one had hardly any of the central or front/back story – we first got to it towards the end and then it made little sense. An evil man who loathes everyone is murdering people as a serial killer, doing it so they look like suicides. Phil Davies (ever the evil man, Smalweed in Bleak House) is the evil cabbie.

    Then they are sophisticated. The woman’s body was an allusion to Prime Suspect.

    There are disturbing things. Not so much the pace but the insistence on coolness. Since when is sadism fun? But Holmes says it is, sort of The developng friendship between the two is the point of this one and by the end there was that good feeling of camaraderie I recognize as essential but the world outside them has darkened considerably. The backstory was silly and there were no politics, no substance really but then this was just introduction.

    It’s the coldness, swift, lack of dignity, willingness to say there is no meaning — and this is unlike Dickens.

    I know I’ve not talked about the very thing I wanted to — the cinematographic techniques.

    Ellen

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Ellen, thank you – I’ve been watching ‘Sherlock’ as my son is a fan of it, but, although I found some of it interesting and liked Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, I do prefer adaptations which are set in the time period – and I agree with you that the coolness and sadism are problems in the first episode, though I think these elements were played down in later episodes.

      I also need to get my head round changes in cinematographic techniques in some of these faster modern adaptations, where every minute counts, although, as you know, I tend to prefer the older ones where things develop at a slower pace and there is time for conversation and to develop characters more.

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  13. Helen

    I haven’t read “Edwin Drood” yet, even though Dickens is my favorite author, because I’m reluctant to start an unfinished novel. I’ve frequently been disappointed by Dickens film and TV adaptations but this is one case where the adaptation actually has the potential to improve on the original- by supplying that missing ending. (Of course, there’s no guarantee the screenwriter’s ending will be any good!) I’ll definitely be on the lookout now for a DVD release of the 1935 film.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Helen, speaking as someone who has loved ‘Edwin Drood’ for 40 years, I can’t recommend it highly enough – it is sad that he didn’t live to finish it, but I think what he did write is still one of the greatest of his novels. For me the ending of this 1935 film works pretty well because it sticks fairly closely to what Dickens is thought to have intended, and also it is more satisfying than another writer trying to finish the book. On the page, the difference of style is inevitably off-putting! Thanks very much for commenting and I hope you do get to see this film, and read the book.

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