Today! Because here’s something an old squire like you could use, sir – a whistle for calling your sheepdog –
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, E.E. Clive, Barlowe Borland, Beryl Mercer, Morton Lowry, Ralph Forbes, Mary Gordon
The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first and one of the best films in the long-running 20th Century Fox/Universal Sherlock Holmes series of the ’30s/’40s starring Rathbone and Bruce, and kicks off our little mini-marathon of these movies over the next year. A lot of these movies don’t really hold up – they were cranking them out two or three a year for the better part of the next decade, so naturally some weren’t going to be stellar – but they’re all at least pretty watchable due to the excellent work of the leads and their specific takes on the iconic roles.
Baskervilles is particularly interesting for a few reasons. While many of the movies are based on Doyle stories, most needed massive alterations and changes to make the screen – not so much here, as Baskervilles is also one of the rare book-length Doyle tales. Also, Sherlock is off-screen for a large portion of the middle of the film – leaving the heavy lifting to Watson, and the lead-billed, nominal star of the movie, Richard Greene as Henry Baskerville (Greene is probably best known for his work as TV’s Robin Hood in the 1950’s for ITV/CBS). And as a fun fact, this is the only Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock film to reference in any way Holmes’ cocaine use, a topic so eagerly covered in the very solid Seven-Per-Cent Solution with Nicol Williamson some years later.
Fox threw a lot of money at the first two films in this series, both released in ’39, and it shows – dwarfing the later Universal pictures in scope and design, while still delivering a riveting take on the old story of the monster on the moors. This isn’t my favorite of the series by any stretch – it does feel a bit long, and that lack of Holmes through the middle is a bit tedious – but is still a terrifically atmospheric Victorian Holmes flick (this series weirdly features some Nazi-battling WWII-era movies too). My whole Sherlock thing (touched on back in #383’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes) mostly stems from these movies, constant staples of our house growing up, as my dad was a huge Rathbone/Bruce fan, and so I’ve seen these 14 movies to death. To this day, if I see one is airing on your Movies! or TCM, I’ll DVR it. They are terrifically comforting films.
No awards! Zero! 1939 is often heralded as an all-time great year for movies, so there simply wasn’t room to hand over a Best Mouth Organ Salesman honor (to Holmes in disguise) or Best Moriarty Foreshadowing – the legendary Holmes villain has nothing to do with the events of Hound of the Baskervilles, however actor Lionel Atwill appears here playing a character named Dr. Mortimer, and four years later appears in a solid if un-Set of 400 entry in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, playing Dr. Moriarty. Coincidence? It almost certainly was, but I always like to think that he was actually Moriarty in disguise this whole film. Watch it with this in mind! Fun!