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Few authors have been as well represented on screen as Charles Dickens. His most famous works--among them Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol--have been adapted multiple times for feature films and television, and even his lesser known novels, such as Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, and Little Dorrit, have provided the basis for a number of films and shows.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is probably Dickens's least known work and with good reason. The book was left unfinished at the time of his death. It was originally intended to be published in six installments between April 1870 and March 1871. At the time of his death in June 1870, the author had completed only three of the segments, leaving the book half finished. Many writers since the time of Dickens's death up to the present day have attempted to complete the tale, including several efforts to solve the mystery on film, radio, theater, and television. The first screen adaptations were done in England in 1909 and the US in 1914. More recent versions include two television series (1960, and one to be broadcast in 2012) and a 1993 film, all of them produced in England.
The 1935 Hollywood production The Mystery of Edwin Drood has the advantage of a studio (Universal) that made its mark in this decade with eerie movies of the macabre and mysterious, as well as a director (Stuart Walker) who had his fingers in both the horror genre (Werewolf of London, 1935) and Dickens (Great Expectations, 1934).
Despite the title, the real focus of the plot is not Edwin himself, who disappears part of the way into the story, but his uncle, opium-addicted choir master John Jasper, who develops an unhealthy obsession with his nephew's intended, the preciously named Rosa Bud, a young student at the finishing school that employs Jasper. The studio's biggest horror star, Boris Karloff (aka Frankenstein's monster) was originally set to play Jasper, but after the success of The Invisible Man (1933), the studio decided to offer that movie's lead player, Claude Rains, a two-picture contract.
Rains was a 44-year-old stage performer who had made only one previous movie in his native England in 1920. His Hollywood debut in The Invisible Man, James Whale's horror movie based on the H.G. Wells story, was a potent performance (despite being unseen most of the film), and he soon found himself in demand. Universal's two attempts to cash in on his new fame--The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood -- did not score well with the public, but Rains's career didn't suffer for very long. He became a much-respected staple of a number of top productions, most of them at Warner Brothers, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), and Notorious (1946). Nominated four times for Best Supporting Actor Oscars®, Rains died in 1967 at the age of 77.
The ending the screenwriters concocted for the story (the mystery of Drood's death was solved) didn't please some Dickens scholars, who believed the author intended to bring Edwin back at the conclusion, basing this assumption on two titles that he had considered for his tale: "The Flight of Edwin Drood" and "Edwin Drood in Hiding." The review in Variety also took exception to the fact that the screen version did not include the character of Lieutenant Tartar whom, according to the review, Dickens "doubtless intended Rosa should wed."
Most reviews, however, were rather glowing, calling the film "good Dickens and a genuinely fine horror story in the bargain." Rains in particular got the best notices, albeit ones that used words like "terrorist performance," "brilliantly repellant," and "tainted with mania." He also got $10,000 for five weeks work on the picture, matching director Walker's weekly pay. Nevertheless, when The Mystery of Edwin Drood was completed, Rains wisely decided to escape further typecasting as a crazed, creepy fiend, despite having his name in the hopper for two of the choicest mad scientist roles of the time: Dr. Pretorious in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Dr. Gogol in Karl Freund's Mad Love (aka The Hands of Orlac, 1935).
Among the familiar faces in the cast is Valerie Hobson, who appeared a short time later as Dr. Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth in The Bride of Frankenstein. Hobson also turned up in the key role of Estella in one of the best Dickens adaptations, David Lean's version of Great Expectations (1946). Also in the Drood cast in uncredited bits are perennial supporting player (and three-time Academy Award winner) Walter Brennan and future "Grandpa Walton" Will Geer, who plays the village lamplighter.
Assistant director Phil Karlson later moved into a directing career of his own, notable for several sharp crime dramas and action pictures, among them 99 River Street (1953), The Phenix City Story (1955), The Brothers Rico (1957), and Walking Tall (1973).
Director: Stuart Walker
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Screenplay: Leopold Atlas, John L. Balderston, Bradley King, Gladys Unger, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Cinematography: George Robinson
Editing: Edward Curtiss
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino
Original Music: Edward Ward, Clifford Vaughan (uncredited)
Cast: Claude Rains (John Jasper), Douglass Montgomery (Neville Landless), Heather Angel (Rosa Bud), David Manners (Edwin Drood), Valerie Hobson (Helena Landless).
by Rob Nixon