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Saturday, 29 October 2016

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939)

Following his rejuvenating effect on one franchise as the Baron in Son of Frankenstein, Basil Rathbone began another by going straight into this excellent adaptation of Conan-Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not only has this tale become the most-filmed version over the decades, Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as his doctor sidekick Watson are arguably the most well-known pairing of the duo on film, making a total of 13 films between 1939-1946

Rathbone gives Holmes a precision and authority, coupled with a hint of more warmth than his creator bestowed on him, to humanise what would otherwise be an intellectual remoteness difficult for audiences to take to. Some fans of Conan-Doyle have been critical of Bruce’s slightly woolly duffer of a sidekick, taking issue with an interpretation that doesn’t reflect his battle-hardened background as an ex-military assistant surgeon wounded in the field, nor credits him overly with undoubted intelligence. However, Bruce is an avuncular, personable contrast to Holmes and represents the audience in needing to have the lightning-fast superhuman deductions of Holmes explained along the way. His is also more of a rounded character than the enigmatic narrator function Watson has in the original stories.

20th Century Fox mounted The Hound with decent sets and a quality cast whilst commendably cleaving to the Victorian era in which the story is set instead of the then-modern setting as previous versions presented. Working with a script by Ernest Pascal, the director Sidney Lanfield was an ex-vaudeville performer and jazz musician who transferred his light touch to directing comedies for the studio through the Thirties. After this most successful film of his, in the Forties he went on to helm the Fred Astaire vehicle You’ll Never Get Rich and a string of popular comedies with fellow Vaudevillian Bob Hope.

The plot concerns the arrival back to British shores of Sir Henry Baskerville from Canada who is to take up his inheritance of Devonshire’s Baskerville estate providing he can live long enough to enjoy it. In advance of his visit, Lionel Atwill makes a welcome appearance as Dr Mortimer, friend to Sir Henry’s late uncle, who unburdens his fears to Holmes and Watson that the family curse of the Hound of the Baskervilles will see Sir Henry savaged by the ferocious dog on the Moors that first killed Sir Hugo Baskerville (Ralph Forbes) centuries before – told to us in flashback. The curse is said to take the lives of all successive heirs to the estate. (In real life, Atwill was to find within the next year that he would be cursed himself by the ruinous sex scandal already covered within my earlier writings that would subsequently wreck his career).

Richard Greene is a pleasant enough, handsome Sir Henry and here capitalised on his heart-throb status as a Fox star that would later make him famous on TV in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955- 59). He actually took top billing in the film over Rathbone since the studio at first had no idea how popular the Sherlock Holmes series would become. Wendy Barrie, notable as a romantic leading lady of the period, was credited above Nigel Bruce as Sir Henry’s love interest Beryl Stapleton.

The pacing is good and the Moors are impressively realised with a realistic depth of perspective and atmospheric layering of fog. We also benefit from a suitable fierce, fang-baring Great Dane as the titular Hound. Aside from Atwill, another horror alumni (fleetingly seen as a cruel hunter hounding Karloff in a different sense in Bride of Frankenstein) is John Carradine as Barryman the butler – changed from Barrymore for the film to avoid comparisons with John Barrymore He would make his mark in horror movies across future decades in a hugely prolific career of roughly 350 credits.

Intriguingly for those new fans unfamiliar with this particular tale, Holmes vanishes for the whole of the middle act on the pretence of being too busy. He does however accord us an enjoyable cameo of his and Rathbone’s character-acting skills when he pops up in the vivid guise of a travelling old Devonshire hawker of musical instruments.


Eventually we discover that the curse is nothing more than a ruse cooked up by the family’s dastardly cousin Stapleton, played by Morton Lowry, who had trained the killer dog to help him dispatch all the other heirs in his master-plan to gain an unfettered claim on the estate’s title. He flees across the Moors, which we learn from Holmes won’t help him as there are alerted police lying in wait. 

Lowry would return near the end of the series in another role as a Steward in the sea-going Pursuit to Algiers.

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