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.