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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!

Dorothy Gale Week Day 2: Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Wizard of Oz 1939Director: Victor Fleming

Writer: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum

Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick

Plot: On a farm in Kansas, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) has to defend her dog, Toto, from the angry reproach of her neighbor, Mrs. Gulch (Margaret Hamilton). Because Toto has bitten Gulch, she’s within her rights to take the dog and have it destroyed. Dorothy and Toto run away, encountering a carnival performer called Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), who convinces her to return home to her upset Uncle Henry and Aunt Em (Charley Grapewin & Clara Blandwick). When she returns, a tornado has sprung up and her family is hiding in the storm cellar. Dorothy and Toto rush into the farmhouse, which the tornado plucks from the ground and hurls through the air.

Dorothy crashes in a brilliantly colorful land called Oz, where she finds herself the darling of a group of small people called Munchkins.  She is met by a good witch named Glinda (Billie Burke), who explains that Dorothy’s house crushed the tyrannical Wicked Witch of the East. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton again) arrives for vengeance, but finds she cannot harm Dorothy directly, as Glinda has given her the dead witch’s powerfully magic Ruby Slippers.

Glinda sets Dorothy on a path to the fabled Emerald City, where the Wizard of Oz may be able to help her get home. Along the way she is joined by three others, each who need help from the Wizard: a living Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) was made without a brain, a Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley) who was crafted without a heart, and a Lion (Bert Lahr) who is sadly a coward. The three of them encounter the witch several times, narrowly escaping her traps before finally arriving in the Emerald City. When they go into the Wizard’s chambers, they encounter an enormous floating head that tells them he can grant their wishes, but will only do so if they can bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Dorothy and her friends travel to the Witch’s palace, where she is captured by the Witch’s flying monkeys. The other three disguise themselves as guards and rescue her, but encounter the witch upon escape. In desperation, Dorothy hurls a bucket of water at the witch, who immediately melts away, destroyed by her one weakness. Returning to the Emerald City, the Wizard tells them he needs time to think about their requests. As the friends despair, Toto discovers a little man (Morgan again) hiding behind a curtain, operating a machine that projects the image of the head. The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, it seems, is a humbug – a simple performer from the United States who accidentally drifted into Oz years ago in a hot air balloon.

Recognizing that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman and Lion already possess those very things they most desire, he gives each of them a small token: a diploma to signify the Scarecrow’s wisdom, a testimonial in the shape of a heart for the Tin Woodsman, and a medal to proclaim the courage of the Lion. For Dorothy, though, the only thing he can do is repair his balloon and take her home himself. Before they’re about to leave, though, Toto leaps from the basket. Dorothy rushes after him, and the balloon drifts away with the Wizard alone. Dorothy fears she’ll be trapped in Oz forever, but Glinda appears again and reveals that the Ruby Slippers she wears have the power to transport her: she need only click her heels together three times and recite “There’s no place like home.” When Dorothy does this, the world swims around her and she wakes up back in Kansas, surrounded by her Aunt and Uncle, three farmhands who bear a striking resemblance to her friends in Oz, and Professor Marvel, who has come to check on her. Although they all believe she dreamed her adventure in Oz, Dorothy doesn’t care – she is content to simply be home.

Thoughts: After yesterday’s somewhat disturbing look at a silent Oz, spending time with the MGM classic is just what I needed. This is the movie we all know and love, the apex of the musical fantasy, the film that virtually everybody in the world has seen as a child, hidden from the flying monkeys, sang along with the Munchkins, and then later pretended they didn’t like a few years later while going through a hipster phase. It is, in fact, a masterpiece.

Although the film seemed like it was going to be a disaster for much of the production, with prospective directors and screenwriters playing musical chairs before we finally landed on the people who got the credit, the final result is something that was spectacular to look at in 1939 and is still lovely today. The transition from the sepia tone of Kansas to the brilliant color of Oz is beautiful both artistically and technically. The shift demonstrates a transition from a sad, humdrum world into a place of incredible wonders, and when you consider most people in 1939 would never have seen much color before, it’s easy to see it as a game-changer. The color in this film mattered as a storytelling choice, it sold the idea that color can influence the telling of the tale. This was Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer all over again, looking at the camera and proclaiming “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” This (if I may briefly tangent) is why I still don’t care for 3-D movies – no matter how pretty any of them may be, I’ve yet to see a movie become more effective as a story because it is in 3-D, the way this film could never have been filmed in black and white.

Judy Garland has become the gold standard for Dorothy Gale. Not only is the actress most identified with the role, but a vast majority of the artistic representations since then have used her likeness and costume as the basis, even though later Oz books specified her as blonde and depicted her in different clothes than the blue checkered dress. In truth, at 16 when the movie was filmed, Garland was really too old to fit the part as written (at one point, then 10-year-old Shirley Temple was a frontrunner for the role). Yet her youthful charm, innocence, and amazing voice sold her like few actresses have ever sold a part. You cannot use the name Dorothy without summoning up a vision of Judy Garland, and that’s all to the good.

Despite the various cast changes, it’s now virtually impossible to imagine anyone filling in the other principle roles than the actors we had. Ray Bolger flawlessly plays the wise man who doesn’t understand his own worth, Jack Haley has tenderness without seeming weak, and Bert Lahr is a living cartoon, silly and heartwarming all at once. Morgan and Hamilton, similarly, have become the benchmark for their parts as the Wizard and Witch. Hamilton in particular deserves special credit, I think, taking a character who had little personality in the original novel and creating one of the most enduring villains in cinematic history.

The film leaves out certain sequences from the book, and changes too many things for it to really succeed as an adaptation, but the alterations are forgivable in the context of the film MGM was trying to make. Sequences like the China town (brought back by Disney in this year’s Oz the Great and Powerful) would have been difficult to make convincing with the special effects of the time. Other scenes featured Dorothy’s friends getting rather violent in defense of the little girl – could you imagine seeing Ray Bolger standing atop a pile of crows after snapping their necks or Jack Haley swinging his axe to behead a pack of ravenous wolves? The original story left a lot of blood on the page that never made it to the movie screen, and that’s honestly okay.

This is one of those films that’s so well-known, so well-loved, it’s hard to  imagine anything I could say that hasn’t been said already. As an Oz fan, I’m still waiting for a truly faithful adaptation of the L. Frank Baum novel, but as a fan of musical cinema, this is one of the greatest movies ever made.

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!