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"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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Basil Rathbone was, in my opinion at least, the very best Sherlock Holmes ever to appear on screen. Rathbone had immense stage presence and an authoritative manner few others could match. Teamed with Nigel Bruce as my favourite Dr. Watson, Rathbone made 14 Holmes films, all of them well worth watching. This one was the first and some would say best of the series. Made in 1939, it's set in 1889, with Holmes called upon to investigate the threats posed to the aristocratic Baskervilles. Plagued by murder, the family fear an ancient curse dating from 1650 is responsible for their terror. Holmes knows better of course, and after spending time undercover, he solves the case with consummate ease. In the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes series, Sherlock often goes undercover in disguise. It's fairly obvious to the most uninterested viewer what is happening, but detach yourself from trying to judge the film by today's standards. Yes, the set is old and creaky, yes the dialogue is slightly dated. This doesn't matter. This film works because of the strong acting and excellent atmosphere. Well worth seeing.
More often than not, I have a bit of trouble finding the time to watch
these old movies. I've been making efforts though, especially with the
advent of DVD (I'm somewhat older than a lot of the people on this
site, so technology takes longer to make it to my doorstep) all films
are possible to get a hold of.
This is a good example of classic mystery to its core. This black and white film features Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, acting brilliantly in the part. Filmed in 1939, some aspects of the original story were altered to cater to anti-Nazi public relations. I think anyone who enjoys these old mystery movies will certainly be pleased with this.
Befitting of a murder mystery, and almost to be expected for that
matter, The Hound of the Baskervilles leaps across the screen with a
murder and an ambiance that bears no small resemblance to the Universal
horror films that utterly dominated the 30's. This opening murder is
witnessed by a sort of hunchbacked, grizzly old man that seems to be by
all accounts a genuine descendant to the long line of professor
assistants, body snatchers and other minor characters who performed
various tasks of a grisly nature on behalf of their masters. The type
of character that one Bela Lugosi portrayed that very same year in
Universal's SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, alongside Basil Rathbone and Lionel
Atwill (in the iconic role of Krogh) no less, both of whom incidentally
appear in this virginal Sherlock Holmes entry in the long-standing
series with Rathbone in the lead and the foggy soundstage that passes
for Dartmoor has an atmospheric quality reminiscent of Universal's
backlot that furthers the connection.
Rathbone is his usual delightful self and seems to be greatly enjoying his role, as is Nigel Bruce offering his bumbling rendition of the affable Dr. Watson. The movie is a very traditional murder mystery with little in the way of surprise after all these years, yet one that remains endlessly enjoyable and entertaining. It's a whodunit whose red herrings appear harmless and domesticated compared to the convoluted nature of raunchy Italian gialli or later whodunits but it's perhaps that reason that lends it an old-fashioned charm all its own.
The first of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes' films "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is the best version of this most-filmed novel of Arthur Conan Doyle. The follow-up "Sherlock Holmes" also filmed at Fox was probably better in some ways, but being the first, "The Hound" was to me the most enjoyable. It is a pity that 20th Century Fox only made the two before Universal took them over, and they deteriorated very much into B's appearing to be cheaply made. In addition to Rathbone, the ever reliable Nigel Bruce made a great Dr. Watson, while Richard Greene and Wendy Barrie added class and interest to this movie. The settings on the moors were realistic, and the tension built even though most patrons knew the story so well, that the outcome was no surprise.
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