In the late-1930s, detective movies were all the rage: 1939 alone saw the release of Another Thin Man, Nancy Drew, Reporter, Philo Vance was on The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and the year saw two thrillers each for Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, and three for Mr. Moto. It was inevitable that Hollywood would eventually get around to the world's greatest consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Now MPI, whose label has already released beautifully restored editions of the later, modern-dress Sherlocks produced at Universal, has completed the series with its first two films: Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both produced at 20th Century-Fox.
Basil Rathbone's iconic Holmes and Nigel Bruce's crowd-pleasing Dr. Watson were first teamed for The Hound of the Baskervilles. The classic story finds Holmes coming to the aid of Henry Baskerville (20-year-old Richard Greene), who has inherited the family estate in Dartmoor after the mysterious death of his uncle, which many blame on the Baskerville curse and the legend of a killer hound that roams the adjacent Grimpen Mire. Holmes sends Watson to accompany Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall, which is quickly overrun with weird happenings and suspicious characters. Among the suspects: butler Barryman (John Carradine) and his wife (Eily Malyon), who late at night signal to a mysterious figure far out on the moor; occultist Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), whose motivations for bringing the curse to Holmes's attention are unclear; neighbor John Stapleton (Morton Lowry, looking like a young Paul Newman) and his sister Beryl (Wendy Barrie), whose actions appear friendly yet mysterious.
There have been at least 18 feature-length versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1901 novel, including adaptations in German (Der Hund von Baskerville) and Russian (Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sobaka Baskervilej). It's surprising, in a way, that Hound should remain the most adapted of Holmes stories, given that the great detective is absent for the entire middle-third of the story, or fully 25 minutes of screentime in this version. Yet Hound has several advantages over superior stories like "The Red-Headed League," "A Scandal in Bohemia," and "The Greek Interpreter." For one thing, Hound was a novel, unlike the short stories noted above and, perhaps more importantly, it has elements of gothic horror that make it particularly desirable when that genre is in fashion. That was the case in 1939, when horror movies were just beginning to make a big comeback in Hollywood, and again 20 years later, when Britain's Hammer Films supplemented its remakes of classic Universal monsters with a Hound of Hell that emphasized its supernatural terror elements.
This 1939 Hound remains one of the best. It's quite faithful to its source, far more than the very enjoyable but sometimes ludicrous Universal films, which had Holmes flying to modern-day Washington D.C. and battling Nazis. Hound is also a bit more lavish than the Universals, with its expansive, beautifully contrived studio sets of dead trees and Neolithic rock formations representing the Grimpen Mire.
Indeed, it's too lavish in at least one respect. 221b Baker Street is much too opulent for its own good, as is the exclusive-looking Baker Street, quite a contrast to the grimy bustle of the Jeremy Brett teleseries.
Otherwise, the film is practically perfect, with Rathbone (here especially looking the image of the Sidney Paget drawings) and Bruce sliding into their characters as if they had been playing them for years. Rathbone's range is perhaps a little narrower then it would soon become, but it has an enthusiasm that would partly disappear by the mid-1940s. Bruce, with darker, dyed hair, is amusing but not yet a buffoon. As David Stuart Davies smartly points out in his commentary, screenwriters were faced with a problem in adapting Dr. Watson to the screen. Since he narrates the short stories and novels, adding his own observations and feelings in the process, screenwriters of the film versions have had to find something else for him to do.
Hound is also blessed with a superb supporting cast. Particularly good is Lionel Atwill's owlish Dr. Mortimer. Atwill and Rathbone were paired later that same year for Son of Frankenstein, and their mutual hamminess in that picture makes an interesting contrast to their relative restraint here. Mary Gordon appears as Mrs. Hudson, a role she would reprise in most of the Universal films, and in the "Sherlock Holmes" radio series with Rathbone and Bruce.
Video & Audio
Except for some minor artifacting around the main titles font, MPI's transfer is quite good, this in spite of the challenges inherent in the film's fog-shrouded atmosphere. The film elements appear to be in good shape, unlike several of the Universal titles that presented various problems for UCLA's Film & Television Archive. There are a few very minor problems -- a jump cut at 07:23 and a noisy pop on the soundtrack at 26:33 -- but these do not distract from the otherwise excellent presentation. The DVD offers optional English subtitles, but as with the Universal titles, the subtitles frequently lag several seconds behind, particularly when there is a lot of dialogue. The mono audio is about par for its age.
The primary extra is its Audio Commentary with David Stuart Davies. The author of Starring Sherlock Holmes and the editor of Sherlock Magazine, Davies offers a wealth of material, not only in comparing the film version to its source, but also the final cut to earlier drafts of the script, to other film versions of the story, all of which is supplemented with behind-the-scenes production information.
Selected Theatrical Trailers offers three short trailers for Dressed to Kill (1946), House of Fear (1945), and Pearl of Death (1944), all in poor condition. Universal must have junked its trailers from the period years ago. Their "Monster Legacy" collections use Realart reissue trailers, while the three on this DVD are rerelease trailers from yet another company, Associated Artists Productions (AAP).
A Photo Gallery / Original Theatrical Poster is just that, though some of the images appear to be well-chosen frame-grabs rather than publicity stills.
The Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes pictures remain one of the most enduring film series of all time. The pictures still holds up remarkably well, and thanks to MPI the entire series, many of which had suffered the indignity of awful public domain releases, can at last be enjoyed in near-pristine versions.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.