Investigating The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) for CMBA’s The Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon.
On the moors of Dartmoor, Devonshire, we watch a strange scene unfold: a man runs terrified from the sound of howling, suddenly drops dead and has his watch stolen by a scruffy bearded fellow. At the coroner’s inquest we learn the victim was Sir Charles Baskerville, and what little testimony is given by friends and locals comes with great trepidation. There is some open secret, some terrible truth that everyone seems to know, but no one dares speak of. Despite the curious footprints and evidence of something far more sinister than a simple heart attack, that’s what will be recorded as Sir Charles’ cause of death.
This case has not escaped the notice of the man who lives at 221B Baker Street; Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is one step ahead, following news of the arrival from Canada of young Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene). Holmes tells his partner Watson (Nigel Bruce) in no uncertain terms that Henry will be murdered. It’s a belief shared by Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), who arrives from Dartmoor with a plea for Holmes’ help and the story of the cursed males of the Baskerville clan. Holmes pledges to assist, and sends Watson, Baskerville and Mortimer to Dartmoor straight away; he will follow after finishing some other business. At the house they meet the strange and unpleasant servants the Barrymans, played by John Carradine and Eily Malyon. The creepiness is as thick as the fog, leading Watson to write Holmes that evening of the “dreadful eeriness of this place.” It’s also a busy place, where characters sneak in and out of the house, where eyes of portraits follow passersby and reveal, better than any DNA test, true heirs and impostors. It’s a place where Barryman signals to someone far across the moor, leading Watson and Baskerville to investigate in the first of the film’s many ventures into the night and mist and dangerous mire, to the crags and caves which conceal secret trap doors, graves and ruins.
There will be fancy dinners with the locals, all of whom seem suspect due to some strange quirk, animosity or grudge, people like the litigious Frankland (Barlowe Borland) or the mysterious Stapleton siblings (Morton Lowry and Wendy Barrie). There will be romance between Baskerville and Beryl Stapleton, the return of the scruffy watch thief, a new bearded stranger peddling trinkets, perfume and secrets. There’s an escaped killer roaming the moors who turns out to be related to one of the characters (only one of the surprise kin in this story), and there’s a bold and risky climactic plan by Holmes to use Baskerville as bait to coax out the killer. And yes, after all this activity and all the debate over the truth of family legend and folklore, there is indeed a deadly hound whose howl chills skeptics and believers alike, a creature trained by our villain to maim and kill on command.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first of the fourteen Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies, and one of the two made at Fox (generally thought to be the two best instalments) before the series moved to Universal. It was directed by Sidney Lanfield, and while it’s not an exact adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle source novel, there’s little fault in this impressive version of it. The movie is fast, thrilling and clever with memorable images and style, tension that steadily ratchets higher, touches of horror, well-placed humour that conceals or distracts from big clues, and themes that speak to the audiences of 1939 while remaining true to the original Victorian era (an area where the later Universal Holmes films strayed).
Nigel Bruce’s Watson is at his best here, in terms of character and performance. In subsequent Sherlock Holmes films, Watson increasingly became a bumbler and a source of silly comedy (which he was very good at, mind you). Here he could only be called slightly incompetent, and that’s when compared to the genius Holmes. He’s always well-intentioned, and you get to see the professional side of him as the capable doctor, as well as the man of action who charges toward the fire. When he’s outsmarted by Holmes, he’s amusingly miffed and exasperated but not humiliated, bitter or defeated. For instance, there’s an amusing bit here where Holmes does a little profiling lesson, quizzing Watson about Mortimer’s walking stick, and asking him to reconstruct the man from his accessory. Watson is fairly confident in his readings but predictably gets it wrong, whereas Holmes swiftly deduces the man’s occupation from the engraving, his pet from the teeth marks, and even the imminence of his next visit by the stick’s presence. Holmes can’t conceal his smug satisfaction when all those points are proven correct, which hits Watson like a slap, but instead of mugging, Bruce shows a mix of admiration and humility. Another great moment occurs when Bruce and Greene are in the moors, frozen with fear after hearing howls; upon seeing each other’s concern they nervously laugh and reassert how much they don’t believe that ridiculous hound nonsense.
Supporting the tension is the great look of the film; mood, fear, history and mystery are all constructed from creative technique and atmosphere. There are many nicely composed shots like the one from above on a staircase at 221B, or from below as Holmes questions a witness. There’s a fine transition when Mortimer reads the Baskerville history, as the camera focusses on the handwritten pages which become transparent to reveal the manor and frame the flashback to 1650, when Hugo Baskerville (Ralph Forbes) dies in familiar circumstances, surrounded by gigantic hound footprints. A flickering firelight effect is used more than once, making this look more like a horror picture at times, and search lights pierce through the mists long before The X-Files made it seem like their invention. The lack of music is especially effective in the moors, where the only sounds are characters trudging through the thick muck, crickets, and the inevitable howls. It may all have been done on a sound stage but the rich atmosphere, the light and shadow, gives the impression of a vast moor area with hidden dangers, endless ways to get lost, places to stalk victims, and high precipices falling into nothing but more great drama. The hound is frightening despite being little more than a sound effect until the climactic reveal and the ensuing brutal struggle with its prey.
The cast is good and brings a variety of characters to life. The popularity of Rathbone and Bruce was a surprise that came after the film’s release, so Richard Greene got first billing. He’s good as the cute, charming and initially unsuspecting heir to riches and curses, but he’s also a gentleman with some edge. I like the flash of annoyance and disdain he shows once he’s out of sight of the ladies who have been fawning and clingy during his ocean crossing. He just as lightly dismisses all this business about the “wild supernatural hound” story, even after the oddity of having one of his boots stolen, returned and a different one pilfered. He remains blase after he gets a threatening note assembled from London Times type clippings (except for the rare word “moor” which has to be scrawled by hand). When the time comes for him to face the reality of the danger, he does it in dashing style, most notably struggling with the hound in a graphic, extended sequence where he’s nearly torn apart.
Barrie’s Beryl Stapleton is a refined and elegant lady who gets a nice entrance when she rescues Greene, stopping him just before he walks into the mire her brother has just described as consuming an entire horse. John Stapleton is friendly but rubs Watson the wrong way; he senses that Stapleton is aloof and off kilter, a relic hunter who takes morbid pleasure in telling horror stories about the mire, yet remains a skeptic about the hound. It’s almost comical how he constantly writes off those howls as the wind, or the calls of a bittern. Where the Stapletons are proper and refined, the Barrymans at Baskerville Manor seem plainly bad. Carradine and Malyon have gaunt faces and shifty stares (not to mention some masterful side-eye) befitting an old dark house. They add plenty of shivers and apparent nastiness, but beneath those intimidating exteriors are charitable hearts whose actions lead to a big fat red herring.
As Mortimer, Atwill is a weird possible suspect and the opposite number to the rational Holmes. Mortimer has a gleeful fascination with the occult (wide-eyed, even, when seen through those thick glasses), a childlike excitement when his wife (Beryl Mercer) agrees to hold a seance, and an unbeatable sense of drama when reading aloud the tale of the unlucky Baskervilles. That creepy seance episode, lit from low angle like a campfire story session, has a nice touch of humour when Mercer calls out for the late Sir Charles and is answered by distant howls and Lowry’s restatement of his “just the wind” theory.
Rathbone is excellent, whether he’s teasing or deceiving Bruce, always with warmth and playfulness, whether he’s concentrating on a puzzle and revealing to us his light bulb moments, explaining his conclusions to others or expressing doubts about his own plans. He’s amused and drawn in by an intelligent opponent; when Holmes and Watson follow Baskerville during his first day in London and foil a shooting from a hansom cab, Holmes is impressed to learn the mystery passenger told his driver he was Sherlock Holmes. That’s a villain toying with his opponent and also a foreshadowing of the frequent assumption of identities and disguises we’ll see in the rest of the film.
Holmes may be a superior intellect but he’s not an irritatingly egotistical one. Unimpressed by legend or the occult, Holmes measures on a scale of potential challenge and intellectual engagement. In his view, there is enough room in the realm of reality and rational efforts to be creative; he says people “stick to the facts even though they prove nothing” and imagination is best applied to “asking questions,” then arranging and understanding the concrete and provable. And for all his mental acuity, Holmes is also a man of action. For much of the film, he carries out a vigorous and difficult investigation, and when trapped by the villain in the hound’s underground lair, he has little time to carve through the rotted door, but leaves little doubt that he will.
The portrayal of Holmes as a master detective and an immortal character is a central message of this film. Mortimer approaches him as many others have: “you’re the one man who can help.” Holmes is also presented as a welcome and much desired hero for a nation under attack in 1939, and Atwill makes a statement at the end that must also have spoken to the fears and desires of those original movie audiences: “knowing there is such a hero in England as Sherlock Holmes gives us strength and security.” Fittingly, in this story Holmes fights evil on a somewhat larger scale. He doesn’t just reveal a murderer’s identity but brings down a seemingly unstoppable monster whose ability to terrorize depends on superstition, hype and propaganda, but who is ultimately small and defeatable, given the right focus, knowledge and effort.
There’s no originality in stating that 1939 was a stellar, perhaps unmatched, year for great films but there’s always pleasure in revisiting those pictures and considering why they were great and meaningful. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a fine movie that ranks high among the classics of that year. It kicked off a long and well regarded series, further built the stature of a cultural icon, featured definitive portrayals and is just a good tale of “murder, Watson, refined, cold blooded murder.”
This post of part of the Classic Movie Blog Association The Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon. Click here to see all the other films being covered this week, and while there, learn more about the eBook collection of several of this event’s essays, with proceeds going toward a good film cause.