Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dickens at MoMA: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Ned is dead—apparently.  Unfortunately, his creator, Charles Dickens, also died before he could reveal both the location of young Drood’s body and the identity of his murderer.  It has become a literary guessing game performed on stage and screen, including the current Broadway revival and a BBC production recently seen on Masterpiece Mystery.  Somewhat underappreciated, Stuart Walker’s 1935 adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood kicks off MoMA’s Dickens on Film series tomorrow, in celebration of the Dickens centennial.

John Jasper seems to be a mild mannered provincial choirmaster, but he knows his way about London’s opium dens.  He is a profoundly flawed man, but his affection for his ward, Edwin (or Ned) Drood, is genuine.  He also harbors a darkly consuming love for Rosa Bud, the young man’s intended.  It was a Dickensian engagement negotiated by their late fathers and subsequently nurtured by their guardians, Jasper and solicitor Hiram Grewgious.  In addition to Jasper’s unwelcome attentions, fiery new arrival Neville Landless also falls for Bud, hard.  Pretty much the only one not hopelessly smitten with her is Drood, which leads to all kinds of hard feelings.  Then one dark and stormy night, Drood disappears under mysterious circumstances. 

Suspicion in the village naturally falls on Landless, the aptly named Christian orphan from Ceylon, but Dickens left plenty of evidence to incriminate Jasper with readers.  Of course, the whole question of habeas corpus is key to mystery.  Walker and a platoon of screenwriters provide a reasonably workable answer to that riddle. 

However, it is a bit surprising Walker and company do not play up the gothic elements more, especially considering the 1935 Drood came out during the golden age of Universal horror movies and features several of their franchise stars, including first and foremost Claude Rains, the original Invisible Man and Larry Talbot’s father in the first Wolfman.  Exceeding expectations, David Manners (the bland protagonist of Dracula and The Mummy) excels at the entitled attitude and drunken misbehavior of the ill-fated title character, while E.E. Clive (the Burgomaster in Bride of Frankenstein) plays another ineffectual local authority as Mayor Sapsea.

While there are many perfectly nice supporting turns in the 1935 Drood, it is unquestionably Rains’ picture.  His Jasper is definitely a brooder in the Invisible Man tradition rather than the continental smoothy of Casablanca.  Watching him leer at Bud and drug himself into oblivion is quite good fun.  Recommended for fans of Dickens and Rains, The Mystery of Edwin Drood screens tomorrow (12/20) and Saturday (12/22) as part of Dickens on Film at MoMA.