Thursday, November 24, 2016

Ray Milland and the Dragon Squad

Ray as Hugh Drummond.
Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937). In one of his last "B" films, Ray Milland portrays the debonair British detective Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond. The film opens with a tense scene of Drummond piloting his plane to a landing in thick fog. Later that evening, he encounters a young woman--and a dead body--on an isolated country road. After carrying the woman to his car, he goes to examine the corpse--only to watch the rescued damsel drive way in his roadster.

He quickly learns her name is Phyllis Clavering and she appears to be an unwilling prisoner at Greystone Manor. Her "host" at the manor confides to Drummond: "Phyllis is suffering from a persecution complex and believes I killed her brother and am plotting to steal her inheritance." Who's telling the truth? Drummond intends to find out--with some help from his stalwart valet Tenny and chum Algy (who's awaiting the birth of his son).

Bulldog Drummond Escapes is a peppy little mystery that runs a scant 67 minutes. Milland gives a remarkably self-assured performance, though he may be a little too enthusiastic at times. His Drummond owes more to Ronald Colman's portrayal in two earlier films than it does to the literary sleuth. The Captain Drummond from H.C. "Sapper" McNeile's books and plays is described as a big, muscular, rugged man. That sounds more like Ward Bond than Ray Milland and Ronald Colman.

Still, this lively "B" picture--which takes place in a single night--convinced Paramount that Milland was ready for bigger roles. The following year, the studio would cast him alongside Gary Cooper and Robert Preston in Beau Geste. As for the Bulldog Drummond series, John Howard would take over the role for seven more films. John Barrymore co-starred as Inspector Nielson of Scotland Yard.

Jimmy Wang Yu in Dragon Squad.
Dragon Squad (1974). The kung fu craze was still in its peak in the U.S. when Bruce Lee died in 1973. As a result, U.S. distributors sought to create another martial arts superstar and one of their nominees was Jimmy Wang Yu. Ironically, Wang Yu had been a huge star in Asia for years--long before Bruce Lee attained fame.

He directed and starred in Dragon Squad, which is also known by its incredibly bland translated title Four Real Friends. The minimal plot is about a villain that steals gold from a convoy, but lets one of the guards escape. The guard eventually teams up with a prominent landowner, a drunken martial arts teacher, and a con man (Wang Yu) to defeat the bad guys.

So why am I writing about this film? Well, if you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know I have a soft spot for 1970s kung fu cinema. I saw this opus with some chums back in my high school days. It was their introduction to martial arts movies and they talked about it for days. That was literally the last time I saw Dragon Squad until it recently popped up on Amazon Prime (a good print, no less).

It was still entertaining this time around--though it's nowhere nearly as fun as Wang Yu's outrageous Master of the Flying Guillotine (which Quentin Tarantino has made justly famous). Wang Yu loves to film his fights in unusual places and in Dragon Squad, the climatic ballet of kicks and punches takes place in a barn filled with chickens (and subsequently flying feathers).

The man with the fan.
The director-star also has a penchant for creating memorable baddies and, in Dragon Squad, that would be the villain's hired henchman. His trademark is that he unfolds a hand fan and tears it in half whenever he's about to kick someone's butt. It may make no sense, but it's just kinda cool...and it's the one thing I remembered from Dragon Squad for the last 42 years.

3 comments:

  1. I've only ever seen bits of Bulldog Drummond movies here & there, and I didn't realize Ray Milland had a turn as B.D. Must check it out – thanks!

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  2. Definitely going to look for the Ray Milland film, Rick. I'm a big fan of early Milland. (Good news: Just found it on youtube.)

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    1. Thanks for the note about its availability on YouTube, Yvette!

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