Sherlock Holmes Week Day 1: Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Hound of the Baskervilles 1939Director: Sidney Lanfield

Writer: Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Basil Rathbone, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Barlowe Borland, Beryl Mercer, Morton Lowry, Ralph Forbes, Mary Gordon

Plot: Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) concludes the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville was caused by heart failure. Many people in town are outraged by the diagnosis – they believe he was murdered. His young heir Henry (Richard Greene) is summoned to take his place as head of Baskerville Hall. The news reaches the ears of the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his comrade, Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce). Mortimer calls on Holmes and tells him of a legend of a terrible hound that has slaughtered members of the Baskerville family for over 200 years as punishment for the bad behavior of their patriarch, Hugo (Ralph Forbes).

Henry arrives in England, but is threatened within minutes by a note tied to a rock and thrown through his carriage window. Mortimer and Henry go to Holmes for help, and the detective saves them when a man in a hansom cab points a gun at them. They later question the cabby, only to find his passenger used Holmes’s name.

Holmes sends Watson to accompany Henry back to Baskerville Hall, and that night the two of them chase a prowler across the grounds. They begin to suspect the butler, Barryman (John Carradine) of using the hound legend to hide the murder. Watson meets Henry’s neighbor, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry), who warns him about the deadly bogs, which killed a pony just days ago. Henry is saved from falling into the same bog by John’s stepsister, Beryl (Wendy Barrie), and the two grow infatuated with one another. The group has dinner with another neighbor, Frankland (Barlowe Borland), who has a predilection towards bringing lawsuits against his neighbors – and who is planning a body snatching suit against Stapleton for excavating a skeleton that had been there for hundreds of years. Mortimer proposes a séance to contact the late Sir Charles and ask him the truth about his death, but the séance is interrupted by the incessant howling of the “hounds” outside.

The next day, Henry asks Beryl to marry him. The happy moment is broken when first Watson arrives, then a strange old peddler who tries to sell them harmonicas and whistles. Watson is later sent a message, which he traces to the peddler hiding in a cave in the bogs. The peddler turns out to be Holmes in disguise – he wanted to watch the proceedings anonymously. As they walk back to the castle, they see an enormous hound chase a man off a cliff. The dead man turns out to be an escaped murderer wearing Henry’s clothes. Holmes deduces the man was killed because the hound caught Henry’s sent – Henry was the true target. Homes discloses the truth – the convict was Barryman’s brother-in-law, whom his wife had given shelter, food, and Henry’s old clothing. Satisfied that the murderer is gone, Henry is glad to move on with his plans for a wedding celebration.

As Holmes and Watson take a train back to London, Holmes tells Watson he thinks the real killer is still at large, and they will loop back and catch him in the act of attempting to murder Henry. That night, Henry chooses to walk home from the Stapletons’ alone, across the bog, an act that is only forgivable in that it is 1889 and he’s probably never seen a scary movie. As he leaves, Stapleton fetches a shoe stolen from Henry earlier and gives its scent to a hound he’s keeping in the bog. Holmes and Watson chase after the hound’s howls as it attacks Henry. They kill the dog and Watson takes the injured Henry back to the house, while Holmes searches the bog. Stapleton traps Holmes, then returns to the house and tells Watson Holmes is waiting for him. Alone with Henry, he tries to poison him, but Holmes arrives and stops it. He reveals Stapleton is a distant cousin and, if Henry dies, will be heir to Baskerville Hall. Although Henry escapes into the bog, Holmes says he’s placed constables along the roads. Confidant he will be apprehended, Holmes declares the case closed.

Thoughts: Sherlock Holmes has been played by dozens, maybe hundreds of actors over the years. He’s one of the most iconic characters ever created, one of the greatest icons of British literature… hell, his name has become a synonym for a genius. And even in 1939, when this film was released, Basil Rathbone was hardly the first person to play the detective. Yet somehow it’s his performance, in this film and the 13 others he would make, that would cling to the public conscious and shape the perception of Holmes for decades.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was not the first Holmes story written by Doyle, and Ernest Pascal and Sidney Lanfield don’t waste any time pretending it is. From the moment we see Barrymore and Bruce it’s as if we’re looking in on characters we’ve watched dozens of times. There’s a cursory attempt at establishing the characters in the form of Holmes challenging Watson to deduce information about Dr. Mortimer based only on his walking-stick. (Bruce’s Watson bumbles through his deduction – more about that later.) In many films, this would be somewhat annoying, it would feel like an unfair assumption on the part of the filmmakers… but somehow, this movie pulls it off. Trying to establish Sherlock Holmes, especially this Sherlock Holmes, feels utterly unnecessary. Everybody already knows who he is and what he’s like, so giving that establishment a perfunctory moment before moving on with the story feels justifiable. However, that does raise a question: as this is the film that created that iconic vision of Holmes, would it have been acceptable in 1939, before that version was created? Evidently, the audiences of 1939 didn’t seem to mind, as this Holmes was utterly embraced, but looking back on it from my perspective I’m forced to ask if I would have been satisfied with the way Holmes and Watson were introduced if they weren’t already such well-known characters.

At any rate, there’s no denying the iconic nature of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. Although many of the traits he displays were described in the original stories, it’s his iconic image we cling to: the robe-wearing, violin-playing, pipe-smoking figure that paces back and forth in his study while pondering a case. When someone thinks of an iconic Holmes, the image invariably is Basil Rathbone wearing the seersucker hat – which Doyle never included in the original stories. There’s a power to Rathbone’s performance. From the first moments he commands the screen and draws you in, and his masquerade as the peddler is really perfect. The way he dances through his deductions remains the standard for how it is done, and even modern interpretations like the Robert Downey Jr. movies or Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance on television are a reaction to the way Rathbone carried it off. You can’t try to subvert expectations that don’t already exist, after all.

As enamored as I am of Rathbone’s Holmes, I’m less happy with Nigel Bruce’s Watson. Bruce gives a perfectly good performance, mind you, and the role brings some much-needed lightness to the rather serious story, but his Watson is a bit of a goof. Early on, when Holmes establishes his deductive skills by analyzing Mortimer’s cane, he first has Watson take a go at it. Watson, of course, should never be portrayed as being as capable as Holmes (the entire point of the character is for the audience to have a viewpoint that’s closer to their level than Holmes’s nearly-superhuman intellect could provide), but at the same time, he shouldn’t come across as incompetent either. There are times in this movie (and in the later films Rathbone and Bruce made together) where Bruce’s Watson treads dangerously close to or even crosses that line. Comic relief is one thing, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of such a fine character. To be fair, though, Watson does have an immediate distrust of Stapleton, so there’s at least a hint of intuition there.

This was the first time I’ve actually seen this movie, and I’m amazed at how neatly it establishes the whodunit formula that we’ve seen thousands of times since then. We start with an initial crime, then a series of other events that are building to a big one. We meet the characters and encounter several red herrings along the way: Frankland, Barryman, and even Mortimer for a brief moment when Holmes notices a dog’s tooth-marks on his cane. The one thing that goes against formula, and delightfully so, is the end. I’m so used to the Scooby Doo ending, where the criminal is captured and unmasked in full view of everybody, that it’s legitimately surprising when we see Stapleton preparing to kill Henry before that last murder is committed. These days, no doubt, his face would be kept in shadows until the last moment, probably the one where he tries to poison Henry. It’s actually rather refreshing.

The mood and atmosphere of this film is perfect – gloomy, foggy. The dog works well too. I’m not sure exactly how they pulled off the attacks… the first one looks like stop-motion, but the later (even from a distance) looks like Henry is wrestling a real dog. Whatever the case, the visuals are impressive enough and enjoyable even 75 years later.

This is a fun film that’s got me anxious to watch more of Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, but not quite yet. After all, this is an Icons week, and that means tomorrow it’ll be somebody else’s turn.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on May 27, 2013, in 4-Icons, Mystery and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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