Sherlock Holmes, of course, needs no introduction. The Guinness Book of Records lists him as the “Most portrayed move character”, being played by over 70 actors in over 200 movies. Even today, films and TV shows starring the Great Detective are released on a regular basis, to great (and some not so great) acclaim.
The first adaptation of Holmes to the stage was in fact done in cooperation with Conan Doyle himself. His attempts to write a play starring the character proving fruitless, he then collaborated with William Gillette, a famous actor and playwright of the time, to create a play entitled simply “Sherlock Holmes”. This play was to become the centre of most early filmed versions of Holmes, and we will be discussing it more at a later date.
It was in this play that the line “Elementary, my dear Watson” appears. (So the next time somebody tells you that the line is absent from Doyle’s works, feel free to remind them that he is credited as a co-author on the play.) This began a growing tendency for Holmes to achieve a character through these secondary works. And no series did more to establish elements of the Holmes mythos that appear nowhere in the original works than the series of films produced between 1939 and 1946, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. The notions of Watson as a bumbling idiot and Lestrade as an antagonist to Holmes are both firmly established in the popular view of Holmes, but both in fact originated in this, possibly the definitive cinema version of Holmes.
The first of these films was produced by 20th Century Fox, and was (as the title of this review may have tipped you off) an adaptation of the Hound Of The Baskervilles. The most cinematic of the original stories, with its Gothic styling and thick atmosphere, this novel was actually written and released between Doyle killing Holmes off in The Final Problem, and bringing him back in The Adventure Of The Empty House – in fact it was the first Holmes story that he had written in eight years, perhaps accounting for its enormous popularity, leading it to be regarded as the most famous of the Holmes adventures.
Legend has it that when the producer of the film was asked who could play Holmes, he replied “Who?! Basil Rathbone!”. In retrospect, it is easy to see why he saw the casting as inevitable. Rathbone, a British resident of Los Angeles, not only resembled Sidney Paget’s original illustrations of Holmes, but his suave mannerisms and easy air of superiority, which he had used to great effect in playing swashbuckling villains, were a natural fit for Holmes. The casting of Watson, meanwhile, showed well where they intended to take the character. Nigel Bruce was well known for playing buffoons. It could be argued that between them, the two represented the stereotypical extremes of British characters in Hollywood films – Bruce as the well-meaning buffoon, Rathbone as the superior and often villainous aristocrat. Yet the onscreen partnership between the two was rock-solid, and came from a genuine friendship that lasted until Bruce’s death in 1953.
The film is the only one of the series to not have an original plot, though it does stray slightly from the events of the novel. It also differed in that it did not feature the famous opening used later in the series, with the camera panning up to show the two men before superimposing the title – this was a feature added later, after the series moved to Universal.
Synopsis (hereafter be spoilers!)
We open with onscreen text on an Olde Englishe style, informing us that it is 1889 (fifty years before the film’s release), and that “In all England there is no district more dismal than that vast expanse of primitive wasteland, the moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire”. This deliberate setting of the story as a period piece was actually a departure from the standard procedure – most prior adaptations of Holmes had set them in what was then the present day. We then cut to see an old man, fleeing for his life. He collapses before a large house, and a bearded man dressed in rags watching from the shadows comes out, rifling through his pockets before fleeing at the approach of a woman with a lantern from the house. She sees the body of the fallen old man, and screams.
We cut to an inquest the next morning, where we learn that the dead man was Sir Charles Baskerville, and that in the opinion of the local Doctor, one Dr Mortimer, he died of heart failure. Mortimer is about to speak about something that had been preying on the dead man’s mind, but his wife stops them, and the coroner (beginning a long run of incompetence on the part of the authorities in these movies) decides to let it go. We are also introduced through this scene to the woman who found the body (Mrs Barryman), her husband (Mr Barryman, the butler to the deceased), local eccentric Frankland (who insists that Sir Charles’ death must be murder) and the two people the Doctor had been dining with when he was called away, Jack Stapleton and his sister Beryl. In a clever method of disguising potential suspects, every male character looks like a potential villain, and the camera angles are all shot from a low angle. A palpable air of deceit hangs over the inquest, setting the stage for the mysteries to come.
A model of Big Ben signals a scene shift to London. Watson is clipping the story of Sir Charles’ death from the paper, while Holmes comments that he would predict that Sir Henry, the heir to the estate, will soon meet a similar fate, with the somewhat sinister observation “It will be interesting to see if my prediction is correct.” They are interrupted by Mrs Hudson, who brings them a stick left by a visitor. Thus follows a typical scene of Watson failing to learn anything from the artifact, while Holmes learns everything of import. (The “stupid Watson” moment comes when the medical man fails to recognise the initials of Charing Cross Hospital – the first of many to come.) The owner of the stick soon appears, revealed to be Dr Mortimer, soon appears, and begs for Holmes’ aid to protect Sir Henry Baskerville from the fate that has befallen every other Baskerville. He reveals that he saw (but did not mention to the police) the footprints of a gigantic hound near the body. He also reveals an ancient legend of the Hound of The Baskervilles, a demonic creature unleashed by the evil of Sir Hugo Baskerville some 200 years earlier to prey on the Baskerville family. (We are treated to legend of Sir Hugo in flashback form, featuring some awesome “drunken crony” acting by men in the most evil moustaches imaginable.) Mortimer leaves, and Holmes uses his violin playing to drive Watson off, before contemplating the case.
The next day we see Sir Henry arrive from Canada, to be greeting by Mortimer and taken off in a coach. A stone with a note attached is hurled through the window of the cab, and after perusing it the two men take it to Holmes, who is able (with his keen deductive mind) to determine that the words on it have been cut out of a newspaper and stuck to the page. Masterful. The two men depart, and Holmes and Watson follow them, scaring off a man who tries to take a shot at Sir Henry. Holmes then visits Sir Henry’s hotel, to be disturbed by a story of missing boots, before Watson arrives with the driver of the taxi that somebody had tried to shoot at Sir Henry from. He is only too happy to pass on the name the man who hired him gave – “Sherlock Holmes”.
Holmes pleads a prior engagement, leaving Dr Watson to travel up to Dartmoor with Sir Henry and Dr Mortimer, returning us to the incredibly impressive studio set of the moor, before they arrive at Baskerville Hall. That night, Watson and Sir Henry discover Barryman at a window with a candle, and they believe he may be signalling to someone across the moors. They set out to see who may be out there, Watson leading the way. (He may be bumbling, but he never lacks courage.) They find signs of habitation, although the mysterious man from the opening manages to avoid them, hurling a stone down at them from a large rock and making off. They head back to the house, hearing what sounds like howls across the moor as they go.
The next day, Sir Henry sets off for a walk on the moor alone, and as soon as Watson discovers this he sets off after him. He meets Jack Stapledon, and the two then hear his sister Beryl crying out “Stop, stop!” She is calling out to Sir Henry, who is about to walk into the deadly Grimpen Mire that he had been warned of the night before. Clearly Watson has his work cut out for him. He writes a note to Holmes with his suspicions of Stapledon, before setting out for a dinner party. There, Frankland displays his eccentric penchant for suing everyone in sight and Beryl shows off her brother’s collection of skulls before Dr Mortimer’s wife agrees to hold a séance to contact Sir Charles Baskerville’s ghost. The séance is actually a totally new addition from the novel, and works surprisingly well, with Mrs Mortimer’s question of “What happened that night, Sir Charles?” being answered only by a howl from the moors. Slightly less effective is the romantic banter between Sir Henry and Beryl, as he promises to introduce her to the exotic arts of fishing and walking.
At some later date (the film is unclear as to how much time has passed) Sir Henry and Beryl walk on the moor, and discussion of the stone age artifacts that her brother is excavating turns romantic, as is so often the case. A passionate clinch is first interrupted by Watson blundering in, followed by the appearance of a mysterious peddler who is clearly Holmes in a beard. He leaves, leading Beryl to utter the classic line “This is why I hate these moors – there’s always something strange!”
Watson receives a note directing him to a stone hut on the moors, and he sets off, while Stapledon appears at the house looking for Sir Henry. On discovering that he’s out, he uses a handy telescope to spot him on the moors and leaves. Meanwhile, Watson arrives at the hut and lays an ambush for the occupant, who turns out to be the “mysterious peddler”. After some extended comic confrontation that ends with Watson claiming to be Holmes, leading the peddler to reveal that he is Holmes. (It’s actually a pretty good disguise, so it’s a shame that the way the character is introduced men that we immediately realise who it must be.) Holmes and Watson compare notes, with Holmes coming out with what is possibly my favourite original line of the films. “That’s why so many crimes go unsolved, Watson. People will insist on sticking to facts, even when they prove nothing.” They hear the noise of the hound and a scream, and run to find what they think is Sir Henry. It turns out to be the mysterious bearded man, wearing Sir Henry’s clothes. Holmes recognises him as an escaped convict, and claims that the fact that he was wearing Sir Henry’s clothes led to his death. Stapledon appears and discusses the death with them.
They return to the Hall, where Holmes is reunited with Sir Henry, and asks for Barryman and his wife to come in. There he breaks the news to her that the convict – as he had deduced, her brother – is dead. She breaks down, and Sir Henry decides to forgive them their conspiracy, rather than fire Barryman as he had earlier thought to do. Holmes refrains from mentioning the hound that he and Watson saw, and instead claims that this must be the solution to all the mysteries. Sir Henry then tells Holmes that he and Beryl have become engaged, although Holmes is distracted from this news by the sight of a painting of Sir Hugo above the fireplace.
Holmes and Watson take the train back to London (in a setup that mirrors one of the classic Sidney Paget drawings, although the view from the window more resembles California), with Holmes explaining en route that the danger to Sir Henry is far from over. His plan is to change trains and return unexpectedly to catch the killer in the act.
We cut to a dinner party of the usual suspects at the Stapledons, with Sir Henry announcing his engagement. Meanwhile, Holmes and Watson’s return is interrupted by the carriage they have hire breaking a wheel. They cut across the moor to reach the Hall, while we cut back to see Sir Henry deciding to forgo a lift with any of the other guests to allow him a private goodbye with Beryl, before he sets out to walk home across the moor.
Stapledon sees his sister off to bed, before retrieving a set of standard issue Black Leather Villain Gloves ™ from a desk, along with the boot stolen from Sir Henry’s hotel earlier in the story. As Sir Henry walks blithely along the moor, Stapledon raises a trapdoor to reveal the Hound. He waves the shoe before the creature’s nose, and then releases it. Holmes and Watson hear the beast and quicken their pace, as does Beryl, who tries to rouse her brother but finds him gone from the house. Sir Henry tries to run but the hound chases him down. He fights it off for long enough for Holmes and Watson to arrive and drive it off with gunfire, whereupon Watson administers precious life-saving booze to restore him. Stapledon sees his scheme fail, and slinks off. Holmes tracks the hound’s trail back to the trapdoor, but when he enters to investigate Stapledon locks him in.
Stapledon appears at Baskerville Halls, to find Sir Henry being treated for his wounds. He convinces Watson that Holmes has asked for him to come out and meet him on the moors, leaving him alone with Sir Henry. Holmes arrives in time to foil his attempt to poison Sir Henry. Holmes then calls everyone in to the room to explain that the killer is Stapledon, who had discovered that he was descended from the Baskervilles and in the event Sir Henry’s death would inherit their fortune. He pulls a gun and flees the scene, but Holmes assures them that constables on the road will soon arrest them. He accepts their fulsome praise, and turns in to the night – but not before asking Watson for a morphine injection before he does.
It’s hard to judge this film in isolation, given what it spawned. Rathbone and Bruce would go on to star in thirteen more films together as Holmes and Watson, as well as over 200 episodes of a half-hourly weekly radio serial (of which, sadly, only 53 are still in circulation).
For a first foray into the roles, it is perhaps best that they starred in a film that was solidly based on a Conan Doyle original tale. And in fact, that original tale does help to excuse the weaknesses of the film. The fuzzy nature of Stapledon’s motivation, the downplaying of the horror of the hound, the fact that it’s never resolved who threw the stone with the note at the start of the film – all of these don’t really bother those who are familiar with the story from the book. The two major deviations from the novel (the séance, and making Beryl the sister of Jack Stapledon rather than his wife, to avoid having an adulterer as a hero), both work well within the framework of the film. The film was a roaring success – so much so that a sequel was out mere months later. And the definitive Holmes and Watson were born.