The introduction of sound in motion pictures was a fairly gradual thing; it’s not like every movie suddenly had synchronized sound one weekend, the slow transformation occurred over several years in the late twenties and early thirties. Over that time, many studios double-dipped, remaking silent movies with sound and releasing them as a whole new movie, and horror movies were not exempt from this trend. Cinema Fearité has already covered how London After Midnight was turned into Mark of the Vampire, The Hands of Orlac was rechristened as Mad Love, and The Cat and the Canary became The Cat Creeps, but other classic horror tales like The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame found themselves remade shortly after the innovation of sound cinema as well. Amidst all of the legendary movies that were being “soundified,” there were also a bunch of lesser-known thrillers. The Drums of Jeopardy is one of these underappreciated gems.
The Drums of Jeopardy stars Warner Oland (from the king of the “talkies,” The Jazz Singer) as Dr. Boris Karlov (yes, really – more on that later), a scientist who is summoned from his work by the news that his daughter, Anya (Florence Lake from The Day of the Locust), has attempted suicide. Karlov rushes to her side, arriving just in time to discover that it is a member of a Russian royal family, the Petroffs, who has driven the girl to take her own life. Not knowing whether it was General Petroff (Flesh and the Devil’s George Fawcett) or one of his sons, Nicholas (Lloyd Hughes from The Lost World), Gregor (Two-Fisted Law’s Wallace MacDonald), or Ivan (Ernest Hilliard from The Soul of a Monster), who is responsible for his daughter’s death, Karlov vows revenge on the entire family, murdering them one by one. In his bloodlust, Karlov follows the Petroffs to America where they find the protection of a secret service agent named Martin Kent (Hale Hamilton from The Most Dangerous Game). The surviving Petroffs end up hiding out with a young woman named Kitty Conover (June Collyer from The Ghost Walks and A Face in the Fog) and her aunt, Abbie (Clara Blandick, better known as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz), but Karlov is resourceful, and is hell-bent on completing his vengeful task.
The screenplay for The Drums of Jeopardy, written by Florence Ryerson (who was one of almost 20 writers on The Wizard of Oz), is a faithful remake of the 1923 silent movie, which was adapted from a 1922 Broadway play based upon the serialized novel by Harold McGrath. Director George B. Seitz (The Last of the Mohicans) carefully crafts a thrilling film that has the feel of a mystery but, in reality, is no mystery at all, since the killer’s identity is known to both the audience and the characters from the onset of the film. The movie gets its name from a cursed necklace that Karlov steals from the Petroffs from which he breaks off a drummer charm and sends it to each victim, basically announcing their impending demise. It may not be subtle, but The Drums of Jeopardy is fun, and it’s got more than a few twists that will keep even the most observant viewers guessing.
At the center of The Drums of Jeopardy is Dr. Boris Karlov. Now, by the time Harold McGrath’s novel was written, the legendary actor Boris Karloff, who was in everything from classics like The Ghoul and The Black Cat to more obscure fare like Isle of the Dead and The Man They Could Not Hang, had already been steadily working, but was not yet a huge movie star. The name of McGrath’s anti-hero is purely coincidental, and in fact, for the first silent filming of the book, the villainous doctor’s name was changed to Gregor Karlov to avoid confusion with the real-life Karloff. However, it was changed back to Boris for the sound version of the film, perhaps as a nod to Karloff’s popularity in Frankenstein, a film which had been released in the same year.
Karlov is played to moustache-twisting perfection by Warner Oland, an actor who, despite being Swedish in nationality, found himself repeatedly cast as Asian characters, even making a healthy career out of playing both Charlie Chan and Dr. Fu Manchu in several films. In the first scene of the movie, Karlov is ferociously horrifying, wearing a mask and goggles while standing amidst flaming beakers and hunched over sparking lab equipment. It’s only when his reign of terror begins that he transforms into the Snidely Whiplash/Dick Dastardly type of campy villain, yet the entire time he remains a somewhat sympathetic character – he actually has a decent reason for his murder streak, which makes him that much less of a maniac in the eyes of the audience.
Maybe it’s because sound was fairly fresh and new, but the dialogue in The Drums of Jeopardy is sillily transparent. The entire film suffers from over-spoken exposition. For example, at one point, Martin Kent walks into a trap set by Karlov, and the doctor actually says “you walked into my trap,” to which Kent says “I let your man lead me to you so I could do THIS!!!” and fires a volley of gunfire into Karlov. Karlov, who is now surprisingly buddy-buddy with Kent, explains that he “acquired the habit of wearing a bullet proof vest!” The Drums of Jeopardy is packed with on-the-nose dialogue and spoon-fed expositional scenes like this, scenes that seem to almost insult the viewer by assuming they aren’t smart enough to figure things out for themselves. Again, there’s nothing subtle or subtextual about The Drums of Jeopardy.
From a technical standpoint, The Drums of Jeopardy is a well-made film. It was shot by poverty row cinematographer Arthur Reed (The Corpse Vanishes), and the photographic style falls somewhere between gothic horror and film noir. Reed uses plenty of low-angle lighting that produces lots of long, spooky shadows. Reed also knows exactly how to light a set for dramatic effect, as much of the film is shot like a theatrical play. Arthur Reed’s cinematography in The Drums of Jeopardy is both real and surreal, and because of the man’s talent and creativity, the film looks like a much more expensive production than it actually was.
There’s no doubt that the advent of sound was a huge advancement in the history of film, giving storytellers a way to tell their tales audibly as well as visually. But, in the early days, movies like The Drums of Jeopardy showed the growing pains of the adaptation to the new technology.