Stuart Walker, 1935
Starring: Claude Rains, Douglass Montgomery, Heather Angel, David Manners
I did not expect to like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished final novel by Charles Dickens, due mostly to my frustrations with Dickens. In high school I read and hated Great Expectations, but I think the problem is that I’ve never been given a proper, adult introduction to the beloved author. His novel Bleak House has long been on my “to read” list and watching The Mystery of Edwin Drood makes me want to read it sooner rather than later.
A young man, Edwin Drood, has been engaged to an orphaned family friend, Rosa Bud, since childhood, but Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, also has his eye on her. Jasper is the local choirmaster and gives Rosa private music lessons, but his developing obsession begins to frighten Rosa. Jasper also has a secret opium addiction that fuels his perverse fantasies. A pair of half-English, half-Ceylonese (Ceylon is now Sri Lanka) twins, Neville and Helena, arrive and both immediately love Rosa. Rosa befriends Helena and begins to develop feelings for Neville. He and Edwin fight over Rosa and Edwin realizes that Neville loves her in a way he never can. As a result, Edwin breaks off his engagement with Rosa, who is delighted, and they part friends. He goes to make up with Neville and then disappears. Though there is no concrete evidence other than their quarrel and Neville’s bad temper, Jasper blames Neville and suspicion falls on him, though Rosa is sure of his innocence.
With an intelligent script co-penned by Universal regular John Balderston (Dracula), The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a mystery (bet you wouldn't have guessed that from the title) with solid horror elements. Our knowing, or at least suspecting, the identity of Edwin’s killer in no way hampers these elements and it is an exciting race to the finish to see if the murderer will be fully revealed and how Edwin's murder unfolded. There are a number of things for me to recommend here: dialogue, visuals, pace, and performances. The script is quick and witty and brightens up some characters who would normally feel like stock roles. It also manages to include a love story without being reduced to sappy sentimentality. Nearly every character is likable. Claude Rains is incredible as the villainous, yet dualistic Jasper. He is not inherently an evil man, but is driven mad by his obsession with Rosa. It’s amazing that after this and The Invisible Man that Rains wasn’t typecast as a horror star, but his obvious talent shines through regardless of genre.
Universal regulars Valerie Hobson (Bride of Frankenstein) and David Manners (Dracula, The Mummy) are often forgettable in other horror films, but are at their best here. Hobson is charming and unusually defiant as Neville’s twin Helena. The normally bland Manners is perfect as Drood, a bland and boring character with a good heart underneath and limited enough screen time that he doesn’t become annoying. Heather Angel is perfect as the charming Rosa and manages to rise above the typical female lead found in horror and mystery films from the period. Though not looking remotely half-Asian, Douglass Montgomery is good as Neville and particularly lights up during the second half of the film when Neville appears to flee, but is really in disguise as a wizened old man so that he can solve Edwin’s murder.
Other than Rains, who is clearly the star of the film, prolific actor Walter Kingsford (The Man in the Iron Mask) steals a couple of scenes as Hiram Grewgious, the man in charge of Rosa’s estate and effectively her caretaker until she gets married. Grewgious has some absolutely delightful dialogue and despite his assertions that he is a cold, boring man, he often sees to the heart of situations before other characters, comes to the aid of Rosa and Neville, and is responsible for much of the film’s comedy.
Director Stuart Walker, also responsible for Werewolf of London (1935) and Great Expectations (1934), does a wonderful job with the pacing and visuals. George Robinson’s moody cinematography captures storms, spooky forests, the decrepit crypt, and Victorian-looking homes that give this a definite post-gothic, Universal horror feel that intensifies the scenes of suspense.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is surprisingly one of my favorite Universal non-monster horror/mysteries and comes highly recommended. It’s certainly not for everyone, but has plenty to offer, some great atmosphere, and is mostly recommended for some wonderful performances. Fans of Claude Rains or Dickens especially need to seek this out. Sadly, it is not yet available on DVD, but you can find it online and hopefully it will be released in a Claude Rains box set sometime soon.