#188: The Drums of Jeopardy
Initial release: March 2, 1931
Director: George B. Seitz
Pre-code Hollywood was a wild west. Only in that magical period between the advent of sound and the Hays Code’s enforcement in 1935 could George Seitz, one of the busiest filmmakers of the silent and early talkie era, make this prototypical Dr. Phibes-like film.
Russia, before the revolution. A young woman is dying following an attempted suicide after being spurned by a man, whose name she won’t reveal. Her father, a chemist with the improbable name of Boris Karlov, only has a necklace of rubies belonging to the Petroff royal family for evidence. At that very moment, the royal family is having dinner and just so happen to bring up the necklace in conversation. Called “the Drums of Jeopardy,” it was acquired during an expedition to India and it is said that if one of the rubies is detached, whoever it is given to will die. Dinner is interrupted by Karlov’s daughter Anya bursting into the room and dying, followed by her father, who swears revenge on the whole family since they won’t tell him who drove his daughter to suicide. (One wonders how they got past the guards.)
By late 1930, Karlov has joined the Bolsheviks to finance his revenge scheme and intercepts a letter telling him the whereabouts of the family, which has been steadily relocating westward and is now on their way to America by boat, which he easily intercepts with his men. What starts off as a quasi-gothic tale, lit and shot like the bigger budget extravaganzas that Universal was putting together, soon devolves into a rip-roaring tale of revenge as Karlov tangles with the United States Secret Service standing in his way of the Petroffs.
There’s not a great deal much to really talk about with this movie. The culprit behind Anya’s suicide is given away almost immediately; the plot plays out much like Warner Olund’s previous Fu Manchu movies. True to Seitz’ previous work, this film is as boilerplate and workmanlike as it gets. Tiffany Studios was one of the smaller outfits in Hollywood at the time, and when they saw how successful Universal’s Dracula was, it was only a matter of time before they tried their hand at a gothic horror of their own — in this case, a remake of a profitable silent film. Such remakes were common in the 1930s, as was the practice of casting B-list actors in lead roles. And Warner Olund, who built a career on his roles as various Asian characters (despite being Swedish), was as B-list as it gets. (He was also in The Studio Murder Mystery, go figure.)
You’re probably wondering about the name. Believe it or not, that’s the character’s name in the book this film is based on, written in 1920; while the man we know as Boris Karloff — otherwise known as William Henry Pratt — had been acting under that name since 1909, it’s unclear if the book was inspired by him or not. (For what it’s worth, it’s that weird little connection that led me to watch this film. I’m always looking for new, weird things to watch for the most obscure reasons.)
At the end of the day, while this is a generally fun (and sometimes funny) early revenge flick, with a few dashes of mad science to keep it interesting, it still has a lot of the issues endemic to early 1930s talkies: little music, somewhat anemic cinematography, weak script. The spinster aunt mostly exists as plucky comedy relief who improbably ends up saving the day. The virtuous Petroff brother manages to get away clean with his American girlfriend. The titular necklace becomes irrelevant after the timeskip, which arguably makes the plot feel kind of pointless. While it was certainly willing to buck the code where it counted, that unfortunately doesn’t amount to much. It’s not a horrible film by any means, but it’s very much a budget flick overshadowed by the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein and other early 30s horror classics.
A note: while the film is not, technically, “lost,” it’s very hard to find in good condition. While it does exist on DVD, you’d be better off saving your money and watching it on Youtube, despite the absymal quality of the print.