John Howard is best remembered today for two supporting roles, as the stuffy fianc jilted by Katharine Hepburn at the end of George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940) and as Ronald Colman's "jingoistic younger brother" - as Capra himself described him - in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937). Both were important movies and their casts were hand-picked. There seemed every chance that he was going to be a major star.
He had appeared on stage in his native Cleveland when Paramount signed him to a contract and put him into a sentimental drama about the naval academy, Annapolis Farewell (1935), which starred Sir Guy Standing. Howard had class (he was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Western Reserve University in Ohio) and he looked great in a uniform. He promptly played Fred MacMurray's co-pilot in Thirteen Hours by Air.
MacMurray and Ray Milland were among the several handsome stiffs under contract to Paramount. Both of them became genuine stars, MacMurray almost immediately, but Howard, like Milland, was tried out in various capacities - supporting roles in A movies, and leads in Bs and on loan-outs. These last could be significant: the smaller studios had restricted contract lists and were prepared to pay well to borrow good- looking guys whose acting consisted mainly of not bumping into the furniture. Howard was the doctor hero of Universal's crusading Let Them Live (1937), the convict the warden (Walter Connolly) was all fussed about in Columbia's Penitentiary (1938) and the romantic interest of opera star Lily Pons in RKO's Hitting a New High (1937).
When he played Bulldog Drummond in seven films for Paramount he proved himself a resourceful, debonair and witty player, in his double-breasted suits and trilbies an admirable choice to play Sapper's British-army-trained amateur detective. The first Bulldog Drummond book was published in 1920, with dramatised versions appearing in New York and London the following year. Carlyle Blackwell played Drummond in a British film in 1922, to be followed on home ground by Jack Buchanan and then Ralph Richardson. Ronald Colman famously played him in 1929 and 1933; and by the time Bulldog Drummond at Bay (published in 1935) was filmed in Britain in 1937 Paramount had begun its B series.
Throughout, Reginald Denny was Drummond's dithery, overanxious side-kick, Algy, and Louise Campbell or Heather Angel the bride-not-to-be till the derring-do was finished; E.E. Clive was the valet, Tenny, to be replaced by H.B. Warner, and then by Clive, when Warner was promoted to the role of the Scotland Yard man, Nielson. Sir Guy Standing played that role in the first of the series, Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937), but died and was succeeded by John Barrymore - for only three films, however, because by this time he was more interested in alcohol than acting.
Ray Milland was the eponymous detective in Bulldog Drummond Escapes, but his star was rising so rapidly that Howard replaced him thereafter, starting with Bulldog Drummond Comes Back. The titles, splendidly, had nothing to do with the plots (since Drummond was never captured, there was nowhere to escape from) and the inconsequence was pleasing (in Bulldog Drummond in Africa, Drummond hardly gets to Africa, while he and Tenny spend the first two reels trouserless, which the dozens of people they meet don't even notice). All the while the spider's-web plots (of death threats, disguises, ambushes, sobbing women and booby-trapped motor-cars) hurtled to the screen - under various directors - with superior production values. They are more enjoyable than competitors featuring the Falcon, Charlie Chan, the Lone Wolf, Sexton Blake et al due in part to Howard's insouciant playing.
When Paramount abandoned the series with Bulldog Drummond's Bride (1939), he might have expected roles to extend him. He had one in Disputed Passage, directed by the sentimentalist Frank Borzage, from a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas: Howard was the protg of an idealistic surgeon (Akim Tamiroff), trying to instil in him that science was a nobler destiny than marriage with a beautiful Eurasian, Dorothy Lamour. When the film failed - rightly - the studio lost interest in Howard.
Free-lancing, he turned up in a Universal vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jnr directed by James Whale, Green Hell (1940). Trapped in the jungle and preparing for the end, Howard remarks, "Funny, it's the little things you remember." "It must be spring now in Devonshire," George Sanders replies.
But once you're a star of B movies, the public would not accept you as anything else; and The Philadelphia Story did Howard no favours. He reprised the role several times, including Father Takes a Wife (1941), as the pompous son opposing Adolphe Menjou's marriage to Gloria Swanson. He continued to appear in movies, memorably as a plane passenger quarrelling with his wife (Laraine Day) in The High and the Mighty (1954), and did much television, with his own series, Dr Hudson's Secret Journal, in 1955-56.
David ShipmanReuse content