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This is a very dark, mysterious version of the story - almost a horror
film but not quite. Very eerie sets - especially in the Moors. The
story is quite captivating and Ernest Pascal's screenplay for this film
is quite good.
Basil Rathbone is perfect for the role of Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce is outstanding as Dr. Watson. Both play their roles believably well.
This is the type of film I enjoy watching on a dark night with the lights off - it creates a "creepy" atmosphere just like in the film.
Basil Rathbone portrayal of the great detective Sherlock Holmes is one
of the most popular and this adaptation of the popular The Hound of the
Baskervilles is the nearest in accuracy that I have seen of the book,
recurring that I have seen the modern British Sherlock series do a
version of the Hound of Baskerville, which digressed a lot to the use
of drugs to portray the intensity of the hound's presence.
Many differences can be seen when watching this movie adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's, Sherlock Holmes's The Hound of the Baskervilles, from the role of Beryl Stapleton (she is portrayed here by Wendy Barrie), to some other screenplay differences. That being said, this 1939 movie is one that is straight to the heart captivating, it starts with a high note, introducing us to the characters and the case at hand, it then goes smoothly down to the case and how Holmes was intending to solve it, adding the suspense that the book had, as we the viewers as well as Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) has to wait till Holmes tells us what he has been able to deduce.
Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce) receive a visit from Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), who wishes to consult them before the arrival of Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene). Sir Henry is the last of the Baskervilles and heir to the Baskerville estate in Devonshire.
But Dr. Mortimer tells Holmes of a legend, the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, a demonic dog that first killed Sir Hugo Baskerville hundreds of years ago and the same dog is believed to kill all Baskervilles that stay in the Devonshire, in which Sir Henry will lodge.
The screenplay of any book adaptation is one that needs to be judged carefully, even after reading such a book, you still have to have it in the back of your mind that not all that is written can or should be adapted on screen, in such a case the screenplay has to be well glued together not making you feel like something is off. The 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles has such a screenplay that makes you not feel lost, they did their best to tie up loose ends and make you the view feel a sense of closing as the movie itself ends.
Not many of the Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes portrayal can be found in the market, but if you do search the online market hard you should be able to come across some at a good price although some are said to be on the public domain; as I to will continue the search to see if I can see all fourteen of the duo of Basil Rathbone and Niguel Bruce.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm a huge Holmes fan, having read all the stories decades ago, seen
this movie, watched the Jeremey Brett series multiple times and
listened to every radio episode available, whether part of the canon or
pastiche. It's been years since i watched this version, and i looked
forward to it when I saw it available on youtube. Unfotunately, I was
I'm actually in favor of dramatizations being changed somewhat from their literary sources, but in this case I can't think of a single change that was neutral, much less an improvement. The change of the Barrymores to Barryman was silly - the most famous story from probably the English speaking world's most famous character is already locked in our minds. To change a character's name - for any reason - just serves to take us out of the suspension of disbelief. The role of the Barrymores to Selden is a fundamental part of the story - minimizing it took away from the drama.
Apparently, Hollywood didn't think audiences could deal with Beryl Stapleton having any part whatsoever in the plot, so she's no longer the wife. And Sir Henry asking her to marry him after we've seen them meet just once again follows an unfortunate Hollywood convention and destroys the suspension of disbelief.
And of course how it was that Stapleton lived in the district all his life and no one knew he was related to the Baskervilles is one of those jarring puzzles that Hollywood would typically drop on people just before the film ended and the lights went on. It works until they get outside and start thinking about it.
Nigel Bruce certainly wasn't the bumbling clown he later played in this series, but he's no Watson if you've read the stories. As likable as he was in this role, he was never asked to play Watson and he never did. Bruce was more Jimmie Chan than Dr Watson.
At least this was better than the later Hammer version, which went even further re-writing the story. It was a failure at the box office, with good reason.
If ever an actor was born to play a role, surely it was Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. His physical appearance was spot on, he had a phenomenal speaking voice, and if the producers had ever gone there, an exploration of Holmes' skills as a swordsman would certainly have been safe in his hands. The problem with most of this series is that the support isn't there for him. Nigel Bruce plays Watson as less of a dolt here than he did in subsequent installments, but still plays him as a dolt. Sidney Lanfield's direction moves the story along briskly, the B&W cinematography is gorgeous, and Chief does an excellent job in the title role. The plot of the novel is followed fairly closely, and on the whole, this is a winner, though not definitive by any means.
"In all (of 1899) England there is no district more dismal than the
vast expanse of primitive wasteland, the moors of Dartmoor in
Devonshire." Initiating their successful run of films based on Arthur
Conan Doyle's imagination, famed detective Basil Rathbone (as Sherlock
Holmes) and loyal companion Nigel Bruce (as Dr. Watson) are called upon
to protect handsome Richard Greene (as Henry Baskerville) from the
cursed "Hound of the Baskervilles". Mr. Greene arrives at the moors to
take over the moody Baskerville mansion, after his uncle dies
mysteriously. The death wasn't ruled as such, but Mr. Rathbone believes
it was "Murder, my dear Watson," and nephew Greene is up next
If you're not paying attention, you're liable to think Rathbone isn't the star of this fine first film in his Holmes series; but, his impression is strong throughout. The Gothic look given by director Sidney Lanfield and especially photographer Peverell Marley is outstanding. The servant class is well represented by creepy John Carradine and eerie Eily Malyon (as the Barrymans). Lionel Atwill and Beryl Mercer (as the Mortimers) dabble in the occult. Love interest Wendy Barrie (as Beryl) is pretty, but husband (in the book) turned step-brother Morton Lowry (as John Stapleton) sneaks away with best supporting actor honors. A famous last line reveals Holmes' habit...
******** The Hound of the Baskervilles (3/24/39) Sidney Lanfield ~ Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene, Morton Lowry
The first of Basil Rathbone's many appearances as Sherlock Holmes.
For purists, it is also a faithful adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle novel.
Rathbone gets to play a "good guy" for a change. He is partnered with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.
Richard Greene ("The Adventures of Robin Hood"), Lionel Atwill, and Wendy Barrie provided great support.
Sir Henry (Greene) wasn't in the best shape for a wedding after that hound got to him, but he survived.
This was the start of a beautiful relationship.
This is an A-grade Holmes production. Fox filled a whole sound stage
with an English moor that's about as eerie and atmospheric as the old b
& w photography gets. Later and cheaper Universal entries would have
substituted close-in tracking shots for the moor expanse. Not here. Fox
was clearly aiming at a quality product, and one that also happened to
be good enough to kick-off the Holmes series (mainly at Universal).
Add to that a generally sparkling cast, especially Wendy Barrie whose lovely eyes really do sparkle. And of course, there's Rathbone's lively Holmes, not yet the dominant figure he would become, but then his sleuthing has to share more screen time than usual. And what about those colorful characters, the graveyard-voiced Carradine and the hatchet-faced Malyon. With servants like these, who needs a big house. Then there's a less sinister than usual Atwill, for once, acting more normal than mad scientist. But I especially like Borland's cranky old man. He's a very unusual creation, forever threatening people with lawsuits, including his sweet-tempered hostess Barrie who fortunately views him with a knowing smile. But what's with the bearded guy (De Brulier) who skulks around the moors like he's looking for the Wolfman's set.
As good as the ingredients are, I wish Fox had given one of their top directors the assignment. Lanfield's okay, but really adds little to the great sets and cast. For example, consider the séance scene. In a spooky old house of half-lit rooms, that scene promises be a movie highlight, but is cut short in a disappointingly pedestrian manner for no apparent reason. Then too, I wish he had found a way to pick up the pacing of the romantic interludes. All in all, I don't think a director used to directing comedies really engaged with the material, though those attack scenes on the moor are well done. Speaking of cutting short, who can explain that strange unresolved ending. It's almost as if the crew ran out of film and had to do a quick wrap. There must be an inside story to that.
Anyway, this is the best mounted of the Holmes features, with an able cast and some fine atmospherics. It's not the best whodunit nor the most briskly paced, but there are more than enough compensations. Happily, Fox's typically generous purse strings make this an entry to catch up with.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
First of the Holmes films with Rathbone and Bruce is a solid version of the tale. The story of Holmes and Watson being brought in to investigate the possible threat to the new owner of Baskerville Hall has been done numerous times over the years including an excellent version from Germany in the 1930's and an almost 3 hour version that ran on Soviet television. This is the film that effectively set in motion a series of 14 films. Its not the most faithful of the tellings (probably that would be the Jeremy Brett version) since this does play fast and loose with a couple of Conan Doyle's plot points, but it is a fine mystery tale. What I find interesting is that watching the film for the first time in a long while is that I'm shocked that this spawned any sort of sequel, let alone a series. Yes Rathbone and Bruce are good, but watching the film isolated from the rest of the series I'm left not wanting or needing to continue with these actors in the roles. Yes I do love them and I love many of the films that followed, but why this film clicked leaves me puzzled. This is not to say that the film is bad, its not, rather its simply to point out that the film isn't "as warm and fuzzy" as the later series. Definitely worth a look.
The first Sherlock Holmes film was made as early as 1900. I have made a list, which may not be complete, of how many times THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES has been filmed, and it comes to 17, if we count the serial versions as single films rather than as many episodes. The dates were: 1914-20 (German serial interrupted by the war, with two different leading men), 1921 directed by Maurice Elvey with Eille Norwood as Holmes, 1929 German, 1932 with Robert Rendel, 1937 German, 1939 with Basil Rathbone, 1955 German, 1959 with Peter Cushing, 1968 Italian, 1972 with Stewart Granger, 1974 French, 1978 comedy with Peter Cook, 1981 Russian, 1982 with Tom Baker, 1983 animated film with voice of Peter O'Toole, 1983 with Ian Richardson, 1988 with Jeremy Brett, 2000 with Matt Frewer, and 2002 with Richard Roxburgh. This particular version of 1939 was Basil Rathbone's first Sherlock Holmes film, and from the very first scene, he is magnificent. He was born to be Sherlock, indeed he WAS Sherlock. No matter how wonderful Jeremy Brett was later, and many people have their other favourites, Rathbone was the archetypal Sherlock, never to be surpassed. Naturally in years gone by, I have seen this Rathbone version several times, but upon seeing it again now, I was really shocked at its pitifully low production values, its terrible studio exteriors (the interiors are OK and even interesting) and the shoddy art direction. Littering Dartmoor with megalithic trilithons resembling Stonehenge is just one of countless design inanities of this terrible production. And yet, if we can somehow force ourselves not to notice these deficiencies, this is in its way a classic, if only because it introduces Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson so forcibly and indelibly. And if it were possible in grammar for anything to be 'more perfect', then Bruce as Watson was even 'more perfect' than Rathbone as Holmes. What I mean is that although no one ever met a Rathbone-as-Holmes, and he is purely a product of literary and cinematic imagination, I actually knew men when I was young who were exactly like Nigel Bruce, down to the very last detail and, amazingly, one of them was actually called Dr. Watson, and was a retired medical doctor living in London! (He did not live in Baker Street!) I can assure all doubters that people like Dr. Watson as portrayed by Nigel Bruce really existed, and there were plenty of them at one time, though they have all died long ago. England was at one time overrun by what were called 'bachelors', an estate to which many were honourably called. These 'bachelors' were occasionally secretly gay, but mostly they were sexless. Sexlessness was remarkably prevalent in men before contemporary times, a fact that is now entirely forgotten in our sex-obsessed society. Those sexless men who actually flirted with women but could not deliver were known in English society as 'rigs' (a word picked up from horse breeders, to describe a useless stallion who refused the mares), and they were popular as escorts, as they were safe company for a vulnerable lone woman. Not that the Dr. Watson type would be called a 'rig', since he was so sexless his overtures towards the female sex never extended beyond elaborate politeness and refined manners (interspersed in his case with some huffing and puffing and some impatient grumpiness about the follies and weaknesses of women). Alas, how little is known today about these vanished social milieux, and the types of humans once so common who have now become utterly extinct. They have disappeared like the mist rising on Dartmoor as the morning progresses. It is so sad that Datmoor as portrayed in this film is such a pathetic pastiche. No effort at all was made to be even slightly realistic with the exteriors. As for the Grimpen Mire of the story, the quicksand bog into which thousands are said to have sunk, and a wild pony only the other day, we could have done with at least one grisly closeup of Sir Henry Baskerville just about to step into it before he is saved by the warning from Miss Stapleton who turns up on horseback at just the right moment. But no, not even a cheap cutaway of some quicksand was in the script or in the budget. The hound is rather good, and has savage teeth, and the sound effects are not bad as he howls, snarls, and savages people. Richard Greene as Sir Henry is rather mediocre and boring. Wendy Barrie as Miss Stapleton is rather good, because she has that eerie quality anyway, able to look wan and worried without the slightest effort. Most of the character actors are marvellous, with E. E. Clive ideal as the cabbie, Eily Malyon extremely eerie as the housekeeper, John Carradine as the butler who is suitably and convincingly sinister, Lionel Atwill as Dr. Mortimer who was especially good with his wide-eyed perpetual sense of awe and love of the occult, and Barlowe Borland superb as an irascible but strangely endearing neighbour. Morton Lowry is a good villain. They are all good except Nigel de Brulier, whose attempt to play the Murderer of Notting Hill who has escaped from Dartmoor Prison at Princeton on Dartmoor is really terrible. Despite the corniness of this production, the performances are so wonderful, and the atmosphere of menace and intrigue so palpable, that this is what one might call a 'reluctant classic', by which I mean a film which has become a classic despite itself, largely because of the determination of the actors to make it one.
Familiarity with "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is always going to be
an issue when it comes to the countless adaptations of it. It is
probably the best-loved and best-known of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock
Holmes stories (and one of his longest and best-developed tales). It
helps that it's a story that is quite hard not to love, and one which
never gets boring no matter how many times you read or watch it.
This 1939 film, the first film featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, is a particularly concise and tight adaptation that runs for only 80 minutes but still delivers all the essential aspects of the story, fine photography and atmosphere, tight direction, and superb performances from just about everyone involved. There remains the question of how someone as seemingly foolish as Bruce's Watson became a doctor, but you come to accept such things and appreciate his performance for what it is.
It's not quite the best version of the tale nor the best of the Rathbone films, but there is a great deal to enjoy here. My favorite adaptation is the glorious 1959 Hammer version with Peter Cushing and Andre Morell as Holmes and Watson. It was the first Sherlock Holmes film filmed in color, and while it is a liberal adaptation to say the least it is gloriously entertaining and has a superb script. If only Hammer had done a full Sherlock Holmes series, it could have matched the Rathbone series in both length and quality, perhaps it might have surpassed it.
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