Sherlock Holmes was Rathbone's trademark role and it all began here, with The Hound of the Baskervilles. Twentieth Century Fox made two Sherlock Holmes films with him in 1939, but without a series in mind. However three years later Universal stepped in and made twelve more, moving the setting to the present day. Rathbone and Nigel Bruce also took the same roles in a long-running American radio series, with which they stayed throughout their time on the movies. About those, I've been told the following: "I love the films but the radio series is the best thing they did, being both bonkers and brilliant, especially the interaction between Watson and the man from the sponsors."
This first film is atypical of its series, being comparatively faithful to the original novel. Of course these things are relative. I'm comparing it with the rest of the series, which often didn't even bother to adapt an existing story. This film takes its share of liberties, but still takes a lot of scenes and details from the original. Thus for instance my notes say, "Oooh, clever, they've tracked down the hansom cab!" That's in the original novel, but not my three other adaptations. That surprised me. They've streamlined the plot and trimmed the dialogue, but that's only to be expected, especially in a movie. It moves cleanly and it's easy to follow, not to mention being absolutely gorgeous to look at.
However of my four versions, it's the stupidest. Their main mistake was to focus on the romance between Sir Henry Baskerville and Beryl Stapledon. Their scenes together are bland and not always even convincing, which isn't helped by the performance of top-billed Richard Greene. Admittedly he's cute. I can't deny that. I can see why he kept getting work in movies. He's probably the youngest, best-looking Sir Henry you'll ever see, which is a brave decision but not one I agree with. I was wincing at a few close-ups. Wendy Barrie is better as Miss Stapledon, but not much more interesting. Together these beautiful nonentities water down the film. When they're onscreen together, they turn a classic horror-tinged detective story into a formula romance with no tension, significance or even perceptible characterisation. They're charming, but they make the film lose its way.
What's more, hilariously the film is set in Hollywood England, where everyone lives in palaces and can't wait to put on their dinner jackets. In one way this is lovely. It's gorgeous to look at and I'm not even sure it hurts the production. It's still weird though, especially if you've seen something like the Hammer adaptation. Compare those two Stapledons, for instance. One's a surly subsistence-level peasant who probably kills and eats small children, while the other is landed gentry in a stately home that probably needs servants for its servants. Admittedly the size of the Baskerville fortune is important for the plot, but this is silly.
The stupidest bit comes when the film continues for nearly another ten minutes after Sir Henry's been rescued from the hound. We get some cat and mouse on the moors between Holmes and Stapledon (which I like), but then they both turn into idiots. Stapledon abandons all his cautious planning and tries to murder Sir Henry in a way he'd have never got away with, only for Holmes to knock the poison to the floor instead of confiscating it as evidence. This is also the only adaptation I've seen in which Stapledon doesn't die at the end. He's not even arrested! Instead he flees on to the moor, Holmes assuring us that he won't escape the constables. Dammit, I wanted blood! Suck him into Grimpen Mire!
I also couldn't believe the lack of music towards the end when the dog's hunting down Sir Henry. That should have been far more dramatic.
The film doesn't even begin strongly. No legend, no visible hound, but just a man running and then falling down. It works more as a detective story than as horror, especially given the dodgy-looking character who's interested in the deceased's posssessions. Eventually we get our 17th century flashback. It's unusually specific about its era, featuring Cavaliers from the English Civil War. I liked that. The novel dates it to that period too. However it's a forgettably bland retelling of the legend, not even measuring up to the 1968 BBC version, let alone the Hammer one. This Sir Hugo is a milksop, although in fairness they did find a fierce-looking dog.
That probably doesn't sound good, but the movie has two big things going for it. The first is the production values. This is a fantastic-looking film. They built their Dartmoor on the studio lot, resulting in a bleak gothic wilderness that looks better than the real thing in the 1968 BBC version. It's like a gothic distillation of all things sinister, although it's all terribly civilised once we get indoors. Baskerville Hall might have been plucked from Wuthering Heights, while their reconstruction of Victorian London is equally delicious. Admittedly I adore monochrome, but I'd still recommend this to anyone just as eye candy. The blacks, the cinematography, the art design... it looks like one of those classic Universal horror movies, which helps make the howling hound seem more real. It's wonderful, it really is.
Furthermore the cast is a big draw, despite the romantic leads. Lionel Atwill's a strong and memorable Dr Mortimer. He'd play Moriarty later in this series, in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
(1943) and had previously played opposite Rathbone as the police inspector in Son of Frankenstein
. Barlowe Borland is a deliciously mad old coot as Mr. Frankland. Nigel De Brulier looks like the Wolf Man as Sheldon, being this mysterious shaggy thing that doesn't even get explained as an escaped convict until quite late in the film. Stapledon is charming rather than sinister, but that's true to the novel.
However my favourites are John Carradine and Eily Malyon as the Barrymores, or rather the Barrymans since the famous family of that name was still acting in films back then. For me they're the definitive Barrymores, simply by virtue of looking so good in the roles. They get almost nothing to do. Their involvement with Seldon is given little emphasis and then dismissed in the blink of an eye, but they're startling anyway. Malyon in particular is downright scary. She looks like a man. Both of them are gaunt, intense and great in close-up. Carradine is yet again acting entirely with his bone structure, but what a bone structure.
I don't believe I've yet talked about Rathbone and Bruce.
Basil Rathbone simply is Sherlock Holmes. He's commanding, authoritative and even the spitting image of the original illustrations. It's not a particularly deep performance, lacking the layers of Jeremy Brett or the humanity of Peter Cushing, but he's natural and effortless in the role. It's a straightforward heroic performance. Here he's a little cold-blooded in the risks he's prepared to take, but he's dynamic, incisive and always thoroughly watchable. He's cool, something like an earlier David Niven. It's as simple as that. He rules the screen and it's easy to see why even today he's still regarded by many as the definitive Sherlock.
Then there's Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson. This series gave the world Watson the idiot, which proved such a powerful archetype that fifty years later people would still think it worthy of comment for a Watson to be anything else. At this point he still actually has a brain, but even here it's clear he's the comedy character. Nigel Bruce had made a career of playing upper-class buffoons, by the way. It's fashionable to decry all this, but I actually approve. Conan Doyle's Watson is boring. If you're going to make this character one of the two leads in a major movie series, it makes a lot of sense to give him a clearly defined role. Personally I think it's rather clever to make him the comic relief, although it's possible I might be eating my words to some extent by the time we've reached the end of the series. We'll wait and see.
Here he's like a big cheerful dog with a moustache. Importantly for a comedy character, he's capable of being funny. I loved his reunion with Holmes on the moor, with the film having had a world of fun with the latter's disguise. However this Watson can also notice things at times, e.g. a man limping on the wrong foot.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, even with a romantic lead who's a mannequin and a script that's far too interested in his marriage prospects. After leaving London we lose most of the actual detective work, but there are still plenty of selectively faithful bits in there. Then of course we have the cast. Rathbone. Atwill. Borland. Carradine and Malyon. It looks too gorgeous to be real, it's thoroughly charming and basically it's good stuff. Watch it.