The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Produced by Gene Markey, Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay by Ernest Pascal
Based upon the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Cinematography by Peverell Marley
MPI Media Group Blu-ray
I’ve had several leanings towards all things Sherlock Holmes during the past few years, re-reading some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction, watching the BBC show Sherlock and enjoying the graphic novel Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black by Karl Bollers and Rick Leonardi. I’d also been eyeing Blu-ray box set Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection since it was released in 2011. The price of that set – which includes all 14 of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films – has now dropped below $50, so I jumped on it.
The “box” set designation is really a misnomer. The set comes in a standard case with disc holders that you can flip like pages. In my experience, the plastic often breaks during shipping, which was exactly what happened with this set. Oh, well…
The introduction by Bob Gitt, Preservation Officer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive is worth watching. It’s only four minutes long and will give you some important information regarding the restoration of these 14 films and their various original prints.
Now on to the film itself…
The moors of Devonshire, shrouded in mist and fog, conceal a curse, one that has unfortunate consequences for the Baskerville estate. The owner of the estate dies under mysterious circumstances, causing the young heir, Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene), to take charge of the property. The locals suspect the legendary “hound of the Baskervilles,” a wild, demonic beast that has wreaked havoc on the Baskerville house for centuries. But before Sir Henry arrives from Canada to take over the family estate, Devonshire doctor James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) asks Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) to look into the Baskerville shenanigans.
Holmes (right) knows something’s up, and being too busy to go himself, he engages Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce, left) to check things out. Upon arrival, Dr. Watson meets several suspicious people including Baskerville servants Barryman (John Carradine) and his wife (Eily Malyon), a little-too-charming neighbor Jack Stapleton (Morton Lowry), a decidedly un-charming curmudgeon named Frankland (Barlowe Borland), and others. Could one of these be behind the death of Sir Henry’s uncle or is the supernatural responsible?
As far as the visual quality, The Hound of the Baskervilles looks very good. Gitt mentions that the Film & Television Archive worked from the best prints available, and while you’ll no doubt see some imperfections here and there, the overall look is excellent.
I haven’t yet listened to the David Stuart Davies commentary and know very little about Sherlock Holmes film history, so I’m not sure whether the casting choices were carefully considered, accidental, or something in between. I do know that for many Holmes fans, Basil Rathbone remains the definitive Sherlock Holmes. He’s certainly the most memorable Holmes of his era, coming to prominence just before and during World War II. His tall, thin frame and iconic poses, especially in this first film, combine with a supremely confident intelligence to produce a Holmes who’s hard to forget.
On Nigel Bruce’s casting as Dr. Watson, however, the jury seems divided. Bruce’s Watson – quite unlike the character in the Conan Doyle stories – is likable but bumbling, buffoonish but lovable. If you can accept this version of Dr. Watson, you’ll likely have a great time with the film(s). If not, well…
While the casting of the main and supporting players (including a young John Carradine) is excellent, I can’t go any further without recognizing the superb set design by Thomas Little, art direction by Richard Day and Hans Peters, and cinematography by Peverell Marley. Baskerville Hall is a wonderfully creepy old manor that rivals many of the great mysterious houses in cinema, but the journey to the hall is perhaps more spectacular than the hall itself. The moors exude mystery, foreboding and danger. Newcomers are frequently warned of the dangers of one false step along the moors, and the fog, shadows and treacherous terrain give the impression of a never-ending labyrinth that guarantees doom. This is wonderfully atmospheric stuff, especially when you hear the howl of the hound…
I’ve probably seen only three or four of these films previously and I’d be surprised (astounded, actually) if the other 13 films maintain the high standard of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but for a first effort from the Rathbone/Bruce team, I’m very impressed.