Doctor Syn (1937)

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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11 thoughts on “Doctor Syn (1937)”

    1. Can’t wait to see the later versions of Syn now. A crafty boy is still no match for a wily Arliss who, in this movie, can talk his way out of anything, it seems. And still be very sympathetic. Thanks, I’ll check that post out, I love me some Boris. Best!

  1. Roy William Neill doesn’t get enough credit as a director because, as you mentioned, he was tethered to the Sherlock Holmes franchise. Black Moon from 1936 was also good, and of course Black Angel. Even the Sherlock work was solid, and I’d put The Scarlet Claw up with the best of that year. He essentially brought noir elements to the Holmes universe, and that was the darkest that I remember.

    Adding this one to my constantly growing “to see” list. 🙂

    1. Agreed, he had a long and varied resume, and I love the look of his Holmes films. Lots of nice visuals in this one too. Always happy to get people to watch more Margaret Lockwood, too, she has a smallish role here but enjoy her in anything. Got to see the later Syn versions now. Thanks for reading!

  2. Both the Disney and Hammer versions are quite entertaining, thanks to their stars–Patrick McGoohan, and Peter Cusing, respectively. I like Arliss, but prefer their interpretations of the role.

  3. That’s an interesting question raised by the film, one of redemption through good works.

    I’m not sure if I’m a George Arliss fan or not…but I agree with you that he certainly can talk his way out of nearly anything!

    1. He is good for this type of role, kind of suspicious yet totally believable as a kindly but crusty authority figure. This was a lot of fun and now I want to see the other SYN movies!

  4. aaronwest, I also think Roy William Neill did a great job on the Homes films. And his Scarlet Claw always scared me more than Lanfield’s Hound of the Baskervilles did! I wish Neill had somehow been able to direct Baskervilles too.

    Kristina, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is, along with Gallagher and Zorro, one of my all-time favorite Disney series’, which explains why I’ve never seen this one. Sounds VERY different than the Disney version (apparently the Arliss version is closer to the book, from what I’ve heard.)

    Patrick McGoohan is brilliant as the vicar with the double life (love his ‘scarecrow’ voice… and oh, that laugh!), but he’s a much more upright character than the one Arliss portrays. His masked identity is more of an “act” than his everyday persona is. Which is an interesting switch from the usual Scarlet Pimpernel/Zorro masquerades. Besides the usual high production values Disney gave his shows, it’s got a great cast, clever plot turns, and edge of your seat suspense (plus a GREAT theme song by Terry Gilkyson.)

    1. Since I posted this I have heard nothing but raves from fans of the Disney/McGoohan SYN, I must see it somehow, but the OP DVDs are super pricey. I wonder if TCM would ever show it as part of the Disney vault stuff? Here’s hoping. The plot alone has great bones for more horror, development, elaboration, etc than was in this short little Arliss version, I can imagine how great it must be! Love your comment on having Neill do Baskervilles, very cool potential. Thanks as always for dropping by!

  5. You’re welcome; thanks for having me 🙂

    Oh, I know what you mean, the DVD set is priced out of existence by now… a real shame. I agree, it would be a great one for TCM to add to their series.

    The Disney Channel used to show all three parts, but the first version of it I ever saw was a rental copy of the slightly edited down feature version (that was released theatrically in Europe, I believe.) They did a good job of the editing, nothing major was lost. If TCM were to show that version by mistake, it would still be well worth recording (unlike the dubbed Darby O’Gill they aired for St. Patrick’s Day!)

    A copy of the Disney Channel airing was on YT several years ago, maybe it’s still there? (I’m sure the theme song will be, in any case. Warning: once you let it get into your head, it won’t leave in a hurry! (lol))

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