Stuart Walker’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an entertaining if completely prosaic completion of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel for the screen.
The Production: 3.5/5
Charles Dickens may have died in 1870 before finishing his novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but that wasn’t a problem for Universal studio’s writers who gladly penned a solution (albeit a too obvious one) to the murder before the studio filmed it for a 1935 release date. Stuart Walker’s movie version of the book, coming a year after he brought the first sound version of Great Expectations to the screen, didn’t do any better at the box-office than his earlier Dickens attempt (meanwhile MGM was raking in handsome profits for their Dickens adaptations A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield), but Drood deserved better. It’s a handsomely made and well-directed if straightforward telling of the tale with noteworthy casting decisions and quite good atmosphere holding viewers’ attention even after the writers have shot themselves in the foot by identifying their murderer way too early in the unfolding of the story.
Opium-addicted choirmaster John Jasper (Claude Rains) harbors deep feelings of love for his vocal pupil Rosa Bud (Heather Angel), but she’s been engaged to Jasper’s nephew Edwin Drood (David Manners) since childhood and has also recently caught the eye of new-to-Cloisterham Neville Landless (Douglass Montgomery) whose fiery temper and too assertive manner are quick to make enemies. Rosa and Edwin finally come to the realization that they aren’t really in love with one another but merely regard one another as brother and sister, so they happily dispense with the engagement but decide to keep it a secret for the time being. Unfortunately, Edwin turns up missing after a particularly stormy night where he was last seen walking along the river with Neville, and Jasper insists that Landless be arrested for Drood’s murder, but without a body and with assurances from Neville’s protector the Reverend Mr. Septimus Crisparkle (Francis L. Sullivan) and Neville’s sister Helena (Valerie Hobson) that he’s innocent, the mystery of the missing Edwin Drood becomes the talk of the town.
The screenplay and adaptation of the unfinished Dickens work are the hands of veteran Universal writer John L. Balderston along with Gladys Unger, Leopold Atlas, and Bradley King. Admittedly, they’ve written a tight and logical conclusion to the mystery, but Dickens’ later novels were anything but predictable and often rather unforgiving and bleak about humankind, so the ending that’s unfolded here just doesn’t have the real surprise and sociological snap that Dickens was known for in his later works. (Which is why the Broadway musical adaptation of the book left the solution of the mystery up to an audience vote, allowing the audience to second guess Dickens). What Universal has gotten right, however, are several atmospheric set pieces: the skin-crawling squalor of the opening opium den sequence, a torrential rain storm which destroys lamp posts and clock towers that bodes nothing but ill for poor Edwin Drood, a couple of creepy sojourns into a burial crypt. Director Stuart Walker helms all of this with a sure hand and exerts some chic style midway through the movie when he films Rosa’s three beaux (Edwin, Neville, Jasper) having drinks from behind the fireplace, the flames symbolizing the rising heat of their tempestuous rivalries for her hand. There are a couple of effective montages, too: Jasper’s drug-induced dreams in the film’s opening scene and a later gossipy story of Neville’s attack on Drood that gets more threatening and murderous with each retelling. The ending might have been directed with a little more energy and suspense as the murderer and his next victim tussle amid the burial tombs and plots in the graveyard, but things get tied up in a nice, satisfying way (unless you’re looking for Dickensian complexity, and then you’re simply out of luck).
Director Stuart Walker and producer Edmund Granger have cast the movie spectacularly with wonderful character actors down to the smallest roles. Claude Rains is a marvelously haunted and calculating John Jasper, that sonorous voice lending great presence even though he’s by far the shortest of the major players. David Manners as the title character is unaffected and pleasant, but he’s completely overshadowed by perhaps Douglass Montgomery’s best-ever performance as Neville Landless and (later) the disguised Dick Datchery who appears in Cloisterham to search for the real killer of Drood without the police being constantly underfoot suspecting him as Landless. Valerie Hobson was great casting as Neville’s strong, determined sister Helena (she has more to do in the book), and Heather Angel is fine as the delicate Rosa Bud. But you’d look long and hard and never find better actors to play the Reverend Crisparkle than Francis L. Sullivan, the guttural opium den proprietor than Zeffie Tillbury, the obsequious school matron Miss Twinkleton than Ethel Griffies, the drunken grave tender Durdles than Forrester Harvey, or the fatuously pompous and ineffectual town mayor Thomas Sapsea than E. E. Clive. These are peerless performers and priceless performances. Look quickly and you’ll see a young Will Geer as a lamplighter and Walter Brennan as a town gossip. One year later, he’d appear in a movie that would win him his first of three Oscars.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. While the images are generally sharp and offer strong (if not top-notch) grayscale levels of black, Universal has done minimal clean-up and damage control on the element used for this transfer. Dust specks abound, and there are occasional splotches and attenuated spotting here and there and even a flash or two. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix reveals its age rather badly in spots. In the early reels, there is decided hiss and crackle though this does lessen to a great degree as the film unspools. Dialogue is generally well recorded and has been mixed with the Edward Ward background music and the sound effects into a generally satisfactory whole.
Special Features: 1.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historian David Del Valle offers another of his almost breathless commentaries which always contain some great information and usually reasonable film assessments but also contain occasional errors in facts (Claude Rains earned four not six Oscar nominations in his career; Bill Sikes, not Bill Wilkes, murders Nancy in Oliver Twist, for example).
Kino Trailers: Supernatural, The Undying Monster, The Spider Woman Strikes Back, The Mad Doctor, The Eagle and the Hawk.
Stuart Walker’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an entertaining if completely prosaic completion of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel for the screen. Boosted by a superb cast of stars and sterling character actors and Universal’s lavish production values on this period murder mystery, the movie is definitely worth seeing.
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