A little town full of smugglers and secrets.
In Doctor Syn (1937, also known as Dr. Syn), George Arliss’ final film, you will find yourself rooting for the “bad” guy. The story begins in 1780 as lawyer-turned-pirate Captain Clegg orders a mulatto slave lashed to a tree under a sign that labels him a traitor. The man has had his ears chopped off and tongue cut out and is abandoned on that deserted island to rot. A harsh treatment to be sure, but we will later learn there is more to this story than a heartless pirate torturing some unfortunate misfit. From there, we flash forward twenty years where we set eyes upon Clegg’s grave in the little town of Dymchurch. The residents are in the midst of a delightful church service which parson George Arliss must cut short before the sermon, due to the approach of the dreaded revenue agents of the Royal Navy. Once again, appearances are deceiving, and Dymchurch is not just a sleepy and quaint little place. In short order we meet an assortment of colourful characters and discover that most of them are aware of, involved in and profit handsomely from a well oiled liquor smuggling operation. They hardly need to break a sweat or scramble to shutter up and disguise the works, so efficient is their organization and so clever and resourceful their head man Arliss. When the imposing and persistent Navy Captain Collyer (Roy Emerton) and his unit march in and start snooping everywhere for contraband, they always seem one step behind the mastermind Arliss and his merry and loyal gang of “parishioners.”
From what little exposure we have to Arliss’ character, Doctor Syn, he is clearly not a man easily rattled, but the Navy has brought along one thing that shakes him thoroughly; the same mulatto (played by Meinhart Maur in the best horror monster fashion) left lashed to that tree two decades ago. The mulatto too, senses something disturbing about this place, and though the unit has trained him to act as a hound, sniffing out hidden liquor in cellars, he begins to act so uncontrollably hysterical that he ends up in restraint. Meanwhile, the Navy Captain ingratiates himself wherever possible, drinking and dining with the town’s bigwigs to glean any detail on the smuggling he is certain goes on even under his nose, and grabs on to the drunken sightings of phantom horsemen who gallop through the marshes at night. Suspecting it must be a ruse to distract from criminal activity, he trudges into the area to investigate, but is foiled by reversible signposts, mislabeled farms and human scarecrows that signal to the townspeople their scheme has worked.
It will be a tough task for the hated revenue agents to break through the defenses of this tightly knit town. Dymchurch sits upon a network of secret tunnels and concealed cellars, its school house, every pleasant property, and all its prosperity was proudly built upon the proceeds of the illegal distillery, and most everyone respects Arliss, the man who made it all happen. Unfortunately, this time, opportunism, romantic complications and a nosy youngster will cause more trouble than usual.
Graham Moffett plays the pudgy but athletic schoolboy Jerry Jerk. His life’s dream is to be a hangman, and if his frighteningly quick construction of a sturdy gallows is any indication, it’s his true calling. Moffett witnesses a murder and is intent on punishing the killer himself. The great Margaret Lockwood has one of her early roles here as a sweet serving girl at the inn, who is expected to marry the repulsive schoolmaster (Frederick Burtwell), but is in love with the handsome John Loder. Burtwell is a vindictive schemer whose ugly side is only aggravated when Lockwood spurns him. He drops a bomb on her about her true parentage, and threatens to tell all to the Navy about the booze, which would get most of Dymchurch hanged. At the same time, the escaped mulatto comes looking for revenge, and all the plot threads converge (and result in a huge explosion).
The question here is whether a man considered evil can be understood, could turn towards goodness, and then be redeemed by years of good works. When the past comes calling for justice, is it the same person they find, and can that improved person still be held accountable and punished? In this movie, you could be forgiven for hoping the “villain” wins and gets away. It’s all great fun and flies along with much excitement and suspense, a lot of juicy (even hammy) acting and scene-chewing; 78 minutes of trickery, mysterious identities and a town pulling together to protect someone they only know as a really nice criminal.
Doctor Syn was directed by Roy William Neill, a name most often seen on the credits for Universal’s Sherlock Holmes movies, and whose last movie was a noir I really like, Black Angel (1946). Doctor Syn’s source novel was Russell Thorndike’s 1915 book Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, which was again remade by Hammer as Captain Clegg (1962) with Peter Cushing and then by Disney as Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963) with Patrick McGoohan. I’ve not seen either of those but understand they play up the horror angle more than this Arliss version, which does give us slight spooks with the scary mulatto character and the skeleton masks worn by the phantom horsemen.