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.


Anonymous said...

Rathbone is still my favorite Holmes, despite being followed by more faithful portrayals such as Jeremy Brett.

As for the time shift, it becomes less jarring after the three WWII-based entries.

Wings1295 said...

I think these two are my favorite Holmes/Watson combo. Just might be because I first saw them as the characters, but I think they hold up pretty damn well, too.

A couple of months ago, I finished Volume One of the complete Holmes tales. Loved it and am anxious to read the Second Volume, but wanted a bit of a break to catch up on the ton of books that have been piling up.

Saw this film again, too, around that time and loved it just as much. They just don't make them like this anymore. Dammit.

And as a side not, my daughter has liked Holmes for a good number of years, but now she is INFATUATED with the new Sherlock Holmes BBC series, with the characters set in the modern time. She just ordered a tee with the characters on it!

Wings1295 said...

Side note.

Dammit X 2.

Michael May said...

I can't wait to watch that BBC series, but I'm making myself hold off until I watch some of the old ones first. Sometimes it's hard to be a nerd.

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I remember the Rathbone and Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies quite fondly. My Dad was a sucker for old detective movies so we could always look forward to either Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan or Nick and Nora on the weekends, they were always fun, but very different from movies today, feeling more like word for word adaptations or stageplays for better or worse.

I agree I that it was weird to see the series shift to then present day and frequent references to Hitler and the war (and how totally frickin' awesome America is in "Secret Weapon") , my guess is they thought that would make the character more relatable and cheaper to make.

Watson became a bumbler later on certainly, but not as bad as he'd become in "Young Sherlock Holmes".

I can relate to all of what you've said with the classic horror movie feel, going to an isolated atmospheric mansion in search of a monster, establishing Holmes' deductive style, relationship with Watson and mastery of disguise, plus a suspenseful climax involving escape from an underground trap.

ben c said...

you REALLY have to watch the BBC eps. there is only possibly one or two adaptations of anything that i've thought were decent (even if i liked the film/show on it's own, it's not been a good adaptation). but without being faithful to the law, the BBC stories are shockingly faithful to the spirit.
also, if you like baskervilles, you should check out "the scarlet claw", in the same rathbone series. it's contemporary (1944), but everything happens in an isolated, gothic village in quebec that is timeless, so you'd hardly notice (although at the end holmes blathers about the importance of the british empire in the war, or something like that). obviously the story isn't as tight as baskervilles, but it's a lot of fun in the same moorish vein.

although, since 20th fox was so free with settings, in a perfect world there would have been some sort of holmes/thin man crossover!

Tanner said...

Yeah, definitely stick with these! If you liked that Universal Monsters vibe, just wait till you get to The Scarlet Claw and The Spider Woman! (Which are probably my two favorites in this series, but there are so many great ones!) Personally, I think it's kind of cool to see Holmes battling Nazis, but I think that only happens in two of them. (Secret Weapon and In Washington. Maybe there's another though.) For the most part, the "contemporary" movies are still pretty timeless.

Watson does become more bumbling as the series goes on, but I think it was Alan Barnes in the excellent Sherlock Holmes On Screen who pointed out that Bruce, often wrongly credited with ruining the Watson character, actually SAVED the character. Before him, filmmakers didn't seem to know what to do with Watson. He barely registers as a character in most of the pre-Rathbone movies. By making him a comedic foil, Bruce gave him PURPOSE on screen, and suddenly he was an equal to Holmes in billing, if not intellect.

Michael May said...

@Ben: I was gonna say I don't think I could handle the awesomeness of a Holmes/Nick Charles crossover, but I'd man up for that.

@Tanner: Thanks for that insight on Watson. That makes a lot of sense. I've just watched the second film and Watson's already goofier, but then...everyone in the second film is pretty goofy.

ben c said...

@MM - i don't think anyone could handle that much coke and booze in a single story!

@tanner - i never thought of it that way, pretty interesting.

Michael May said...

"i don't think anyone could handle that much coke and booze in a single story!"

HA! :D


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