Friday, September 02, 2011

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

With the Sherlock Holmes sequel coming up at the end of the year, it seems as good a time as any to dig into some Holmes stuff. It’s been years since I’ve read any of Doyle’s stories and I’ve never seen most of the really good, classic Holmes movies. My only experience with the Basil Rathbone films has been catching part of one of them on cable and not being impressed that Holmes and Watson were fighting Nazi spies. I’m usually all for people fighting Nazis, but that seemed to be stretching Holmes’ milieu further than I wanted it to go. I’ve always been curious about those movies though (mostly because Rathbone is such a perfect actor to play Holmes), so I wonder if seeing them in the context of the whole series will make the time shift easier to take.

There’s no time shift in the first one. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a more-or-less faithful adaptation of the Doyle novel, including its Victorian setting. I have to say “more-or-less” though because it’s been so long since I’ve read that novel and don’t remember many details about it. Even though I’ve read a few comics adaptations of it (I’ll talk about them in future posts), I never can remember who the villain is until its revealed. I usually only recall some impressions about the story: the body in the alley leading onto the moor, the demon-hound, the gothic flashback, the madman, the bottomless bogs, Holmes in disguise. It’s a fantastic story filled with impressive imagery. No wonder it’s a favorite and a natural pick for adaptation.

Right after I watched this version, I described it on Facebook as “the Universal monster people doing Sherlock Holmes.” Even though it’s actually a 20th Century Fox film, I still feel that way. The cast is a big part of it with Rathbone and Lionel Atwill (Dr. Mortimer) facing off again after Son of Frankenstein (also from ’39). John Carradine (Barryman the butler) would go on to play Dracula in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula and EE Clive (a hansom cabby) was in both Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, but I remember him best as the constable in The Invisible Man.

Even more than the cast though is the mood of the thing. Baskerville Hall and its neighbors on the moor look and feel a lot like the castle and village from the early Frankenstein films. What’s more they look better than what I ever imagined when reading the book as a kid. Everything’s dark and spooky; the moor's full of treacherous pits, jutting crags, and ancient ruins. It's the perfect place for Holmes and Watson to run around while investigating supernatural murders. As I read and watch other adaptations of Hound of the Baskervilles, this will be the one to beat.

I should mention Nigel Bruce as Watson. Though I’ve always heard people speak highly of him, I’ve also somehow connected his performance with the stereotype of Watson as kind of a bumbler. I don’t know why; it’s just a prejudice I’ve had for years. It’s not from this movie though. Bruce’s Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles is a lot like the literary one. He’s not in Holmes’ league of course (no one is), but he’s learning and he’s already competent enough to have earned Holmes’ respect as a companion and student.

The only glitch in the film was a small speech that felt tacked on at the end. One of the characters (I won’t say which for fear of 70-year-old spoilers) fawns over Holmes: “Mr. Holmes, we've admired you in the past as does every Englishman. Your record as our greatest detective is known throughout the world. But this - seeing how you work - knowing that there is in England such a man as you gives us all a sense of safety and security. God bless you, Mr. Holmes!” I’m used to people being impressed by Holmes, but this seems to overdo it a bit.

The line about safety and security was especially jarring as I recalled what England was going through in 1939. Though it was a Hollywood film, I couldn’t help wondering if the line was written with then-current events in mind. “If only England had such a man now.” That pulled me out of the Victorian fantasy. Not as much though as relocating Holmes to 1940s Europe would later in the series.

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