The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Director: Sidney Lanfield
Cast: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene
Synopsis: Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate the legend of a supernatural hound, a beast that may be stalking a young heir on the fog-shrouded moorland that makes up his estate.
The Hound of the Baskervilles had already been filmed no less than eleven times in various countries and forms before 20th Century-Fox decided to film this definitive version in 1939. Rumour has it that Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Magic Sword) was cast in the role of the ‘consulting detective’ Sherlock Holmes after meeting Sam Goldwyn at a Hollywood party, and he and Nigel Bruce (The Thirty-Nine Steps, Suspicion), who would play the bumbling Dr. Watson opposite Rathbone in all 14 movies in the series, were already firm friends. There’s no doubt that, more than seventy years after first appearing on the screen, Rathbone and Bruce’s incarnations of Holmes and Watson remains the one fixed in the public consciousness, with both seeming to have been born to play the respective parts. Ironically, the studio was so unaware of how popular Rathbone and Bruce were to be that they were given only second and fourth billing respectively, with a fresh-faced Richard Greene (The Blood of Fu Manchu) given prime position on the cast list.
Ernest Pascal’s screenplay for The Hound of the Baskervilles remains fairly close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, although the character of Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), who was the wife of John Stapleton (Morton Lowry — How Green Was My Valley) is transformed into his sister in the movie in order to provide some love interest for the young Greene. It begins with the death from a heart attack of Sir Charles Baskerville after being chased by some unseen creature. At an inquest into his death, Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill — who would later play Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon) confirms that Baskerville dies of heart failure, but the cantankerous old Mr. Frankland (Barlowe Borland) insists that his deceased neighbour was murdered. Mortimer also has his doubts, and travels to 221b Baker Street, where he relates the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles to Holmes and Watson, and explains that he fears for the life of the new head of the Baskervilles, the young Sir Henry (Greene).
After foiling an assassination attempt on Sir Henry in London, Holmes instructs Watson to accompany the young man to the Baskerville estate and report back, where they are greeted by the cadaverous butler, Barryman (John Carradine — Stagecoach, The Howling), whom Baskerville and Watson one night find behaving strangely at a window, as if signalling to someone across the moors. The following day, as they explore the moors, they encounter their neighbour, John Stapleton and his sister, Beryl, who warn them of the dangers of the Grimpen Mire, a boggy area of the moors which can suck down anyone unfortunate enough to stumble into it…
Although The Hound of the Baskervilles remains stubbornly set-bound, it still manages to generate a nice atmosphere which is due mostly to its insistence on depicting Dartmoor as a gloomy, perpetually mist-shrouded domain of escaped prisoners, scruffy hawkers and, of course, a ferocious hound with a habit of howling at the moon. But it’s also the familiarity of Rathbone and Bruce in the roles which largely defined their careers that gives classic movie buffs a case of the warm-fuzzies. They bring Donan Coyle’s characters to life in a very real way that no other actors have come close to rivalling, so that each seem to harbour a genuine fondness for the other — even though Watson is prone to bluff and bluster when shown by Holmes how far off the mark he invariably is. The duo supported here by a typically polished cast who lend an effortless air of class under the dependable direction of Sidney Lanfield and an uncredited Alfred Werker. Particularly effective is Barlowe Borland in the semi-comical role of the curmudgeonly Frankland. Borland was one of those Hollywood foot soldiers who only occasionally made it on to the credits, but he clearly wasn’t prepared to let this opportunity to pass him by.
(Reviewed 28th April 2014)