Charles Dickens’ is an author whose works have been well represented in the history of film from even the earliest days of the silent era. Even perhaps his least known work, the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, has hit the big screen and broadway several times. Part of the allure of the story is that it is unfinished and though Dickens’ did leave a few clues as to how the story may have resolved itself, no one will ever know for sure. (Dickens’ died suddenly halfway through writing the work.) Hence, each telling only has the basic premise to go by, with the conclusion left to the screenwriter.
So in addition to a fine film you can second guess the ending just to see if you feel it works into whatever your particular perception of Dickens’ intentions really were. Was Drood to be murdered? Or just disappear for a bit?
Perhaps the best, though least known of the many versions put to celluloid is Universal’s effort in 1935 titled- go figure- The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Universal spent lavishly on the picture, which is definitely apparent on screen with the numerous luscious sets, some of which were reused in (and from) other Universal horror pictures. Sadly and unknowingly, Universal of all the major studios was at the time little able to afford the expense. Worse still, the picture ultimately flopped with the public in spite of critical success.
This brings up another point, though perhaps one on the periphery of importance. Usually the film, which seems increasingly hard to find, is categorized among the more standard Universal horror fare.
Not so as it come across as more of a whodunit- although granted one that takes only a half hour or so to figure out. The center of the film is the character of John Jasper, played by an extremely young Claude Rains, who was taking advantage of his success in 1933’s Invisible Man.
Rains’ Jasper is brooding, intense, with intense pangs of jealousy and the random violent outburst. A chronic opium addict, Jasper in his opiate induced dreams, fantasizes of and ultimately becomes obsessed with his nephew’s fiancé. On a humorous note, the fiancés name is Rosa Budd, played by Heather Angel.
Ultimately Jasper’s fantasies drive him mad and the unthinkable happens. Actually it is predictable as you’ll see it coming. The best part of the picture is the unraveling of how and when the deed was done- and how the villain is discovered. All this happens in a hair under 90 minutes of running time.
Director Walker shows some of his affinity for both the horror and Dickens’ genres and keeps the pace moving after an uncharacteristic slow first reel. He keeps the focus on Jasper (Rains) and the balance of the strong cast don’t see their characters develop overly much, but no matter. Watching Jasper devolve into madness is more than enough.
Then as now Claude Rains is the draw for this picture if you are lucky enough to see it. It is easy to see why exactly he got the glowing reviews at the time and also amaze oneself that he wasn’t typecast as a horror star. Most know him now from his strong supporting roles in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood or Casablanca. One should not forget, however, that Rains could and did carry several films on his own and to great success.
One hopes that in the era of MOD releases The Mystery of Edwin Drood gets a release of some sort in the near future. Universal has been a bit slower than most in this area but have been a bit more active of late, so there is hope.
Otherwise, hopefully you’ll find on TCM.