Monday, August 2, 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I showed Charles last night was the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first of the 14 Sherlock Holmes films that starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson (15 if you count their brief cameo appearance as one of the Universal stars who announces the imminent arrival of comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson in the 1943 vehicle Crazy House). The first two, this one and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were made at 20th Century-Fox and were the first Holmes films ever set in the period of the original stories — 1890’s Britain — rather than updated to the (then) present. Later Rathbone and Bruce would resume the roles of Holmes and Watson in a series of 12 films for Universal made between 1942 and 1946, which were set in the 1940’s and originally came (at least the first three) with a partially defiant, partially apologetic title announcing that Holmes remained “invincible and unchanging” even in stories with contemporary settings.

The studio actually conceived this film as a vehicle for their new romantic star, Richard Greene — a British-born actor they were building up as a backup for Tyrone Power, and while he lacks the almost unearthly beauty of Power he’s certainly a good-looking hunk of man-meat and eminently suitable for the part of Sir Henry Baskerville — and they billed Greene first, Rathbone second and Wendy Barrie (as Beryl Stapleton) third, with Nigel Bruce at the top of the next card with the miscellaneous cast members. Scripted by Ernest Pascal, The Hound of the Baskervilles is actually a quite faithful adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel — the only time Rathbone got to play Holmes on screen in a plot line actually derived from the canon (though in some of the radio shows he and Bruce broadcast during the period, including “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” Rathbone got to play Conan Doyle’s Holmes instead of some screenwriter’s or radio writer’s concoction based on the character), though when Universal licensed the character from Conan Doyle’s estate one of the conditions was that each of their Holmes film must contain something from the canon — a character name, a plot device, a famous deduction or bit of dialogue — even though none of the Universal Rathbone-Bruce Holmes films actually used any of Conan Doyle’s plots.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is actually a pretty good movie — not the film it could have been given the power of the original story and the almost cinematic imagination with which Conan Doyle set the scene and described the great expanse of Dartmoor over which much of it takes place, but nonetheless a quite remarkable adaptation, appropriately atmospheric and with enough of a budget so the sets look substantial, elaborate and especially constructed for this film rather than recycled from 20th Century-Fox’s inventory of standing sets. (Many of the sets built for The Hound of the Baskervilles were reused three years later for director John Brahm’s werewolf tale, The Undying Monster.) There are a few annoying changes between novel and film — the last name of the husband-and-wife team of servants who look after Baskerville Hall (played by John Carradine — in a surprisingly subtle and understated performance from an actor who was usually a scenery-chewer — and Eily Malyon) was changed from Barrymore to Barryman (apparently someone at 20th Century-Fox’s legal department was actually worried one of the real-life Barrymores would sue!); the villain, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry), isn’t revealed as such until a shock cut towards the end, when he actually looses the hound on Sir Henry (Conan Doyle named Stapleton as the villain two chapters before the end and we already know he’s the bad guy well before the climactic scene when he sic’s the hound on Sir Henry); and the woman he’s living with, Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), actually is his sister (or at least his stepsister, as a throwaway line of dialogue tells us), rather than his wife posing as his sister as in the novel (the Production Code strikes again!).

There are also some scenes that represent a failure of the imagination of the director, Sidney Lanfield — though Fox was willing to spend a fair amount of money on this movie and Pascal’s screenplay was mostly a close adaptation of the novel (one of the deviations, a séance in which the wife of Dr. Mortimer tries to get in touch with the spirit of the late Sir Charles Baskerville and ask him how he died, was certainly defensible in light of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own well-known interest in and support of spiritualism), they weren’t really interested in recruiting a first-rate director. Irving Cummings (who’d made his reputation with two Warner Baxter vehicles in the early days of sound, In Old Arizona — in which Baxter played the Cisco Kid and won the Academy Award — and the unspeakably dull Charlie Chan adaptation Behind That Curtain) was the first person they assigned, but before the film started shooting they took him off it and replaced him with William Seiter, only to replace him with Sidney Lanfield (a Fox hired hand best known today for his direction of the TV series The Addams Family — another story set around a moldering old Gothic mansion! — in the 1960’s), who got sole credit even though he was pulled off the movie before it was quite finished and replaced by Alfred Werker (another Fox hired hand who would go on to direct the next Rathbone-Bruce Holmes film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which would be my choice if I were lined up against a wall and forced to name my favorite Sherlock Holmes film of all time).

Fortunately, the sets by Richard Day and Hans Peters and J. Peverell Marley’s amazingly atmospheric cinematography (including ceiling shots two years before Gregg Toland supposedly pioneered them in Citizen Kane — ceilings appear in movies at least a decade before Kane and it’s surprising that the myth that Toland and Orson Welles invented the ceiling shot has lasted as long as it has!). Among opportunities presented by the story that Lanfield misses is the revelation that Stapleton is really a long-lost Baskerville murdering everyone standing between him and the inheritance — in the book Holmes holds his hands over the hair and beard of a portrait of Sir Hugo Baskerville, whose alleged deal with the devil started the myth of the Hound, and “the face of Stapleton suddenly leaped out of the portrait.” Lanfield misses the opportunity for such an obviously cinematic effect and merely dissolves from an extreme close-up of the portrait’s eyes to a similar one of Stapleton’s. Also, like all movie adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles until the BBC’s TV version in the 1980’s, the hound is simply a large dog; the added detail that Stapleton painted it with “a cunning preparation” of phosphorus to make it look like an apparition from hell instead of an ordinary, half-starved terrestrial dog was ignored. (Ironically, Conan Doyle himself seemed to anticipate this when, in the epilogue to the novel, he has Holmes say that “the use of artificial means to make the creature diabolical was a stroke of genius” on Stapleton’s part: “An ordinary schemer would have been content with a savage hound” — or, he might have added, an ordinary director.)

There are also some oddball casting issues with The Hound of the Baskervilles: Anita Louise was originally slated to play Beryl Stapleton but was replaced by Wendy Barrie after Robert Kent, head of foreign production at Fox, said that British audiences wouldn’t accept the film unless it had an all-British cast — which seems a weird objection given that Beryl’s character was supposed to be Latin American (in the book Stapleton met and married her in South America before moving back to England), and Richard Greene’s British accent sits oddly for a character who was supposed to have grown up in Canada and lived most of his life there. Still, on the whole The Hound is marvelously cast — Rathbone, as in his other Holmes films, looks the image of the part, as if he’d just stepped out of one of Sidney Paget’s illustrations in the early numbers of The Strand magazine that carried the Holmes stories; and even Bruce, younger and considerably less rumpled than we generally think of him today, comes off as more competent and less annoyingly dumb than in later episodes in the series. (In 1934 Nigel Bruce made Murder in Trinidad for the pre-20th Century Fox company, a film in which he played a private detective himself — which would be worth seeing if for no other reason than a comparison with his later role as a great detective’s sidekick.)

One other oddity of Hound is that it seems very much like 20th Century-Fox was trying to make a Universal movie, going for horror-style atmospherics and casting two of Universal’s stars, Rathbone and Lionel Atwill (as Dr. Mortimer, an effective performance even though he was considerably older than Conan Doyle described the character). Even the character of the escaped convict (Nigel de Brulier) who’s hiding on the moor and receiving food and clothes from Mrs. Barryman, who’s his sister (he’s called “Selden” in the novel but has no name in the film) is made up to look like a horror character, rather like Bela Lugosi as Ygor in the other big 1939 movie that co-starred Rathbone and Atwill, Son of Frankenstein (released January 15, 1939, two and one-half months before The Hound of the Baskervilles).

William K. Everson grudgingly accepted this version of Hound as the best in his 1975 book The Detective in Film; he wished a truly imaginative horror director like James Whale or John Brahm had helmed the project and thought the studio “exterior” sets unimpressive. “If you’re going to build Dartmoor and Grimpen Mire in a studio, no matter how artfully you design it, you’re not going to succeed unless you create an atmosphere of awesome desolation,” he wrote. “Cunning and handsome as the moor sets are … one never has the feeling of boundless space, of being cut off from all help. One is all too aware that victim, pursuer and rescuers are all carefully running around one basic set, with visibility minimized by the dry-ice created mists and rocks strategically placed to allow for a good variety of camera angles.”

The first time I saw this film — in the 1970’s, in a reissue at the Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco that double-billed it with the two-reel newsreel interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shot by Fox Movietone in 1928 (two years before his death; he agreed to talk about Holmes in reel one only if the Fox people would allow him to talk about spiritualism in reel two) and drew a packed audience eager to see a movie that hadn’t been released to TV with the other Rathbone-Bruce Holmes films and had been unseeable for decades — I shared the same criticism: I’d read the novel around the same time I first saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the image of the moors in my mind was the stark, highly stylized one of Caligari and the Universal horror films it had inspired (and indeed there’s one visual quote here from the 1931 Frankenstein, in which during one of the chases across the moors people pass in front of a badly dilapidated cemetery with some of the crosses and other grave markers askew at odd angles). Back then the moor as depicted here seemed altogether too homey, not expansive or desolate enough to match my mental image of it from Conan Doyle’s prose.

This time I found the settings a lot more believable and accepted them far more readily — and the movie itself seems like the best of the many films of this story (at least the ones I’ve seen); it’s certainly far better than the most commonly shown version, the 1959 Hammer with Peter Cushing as Holmes, André Morell as Watson and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, though like Everson I find it all too easy to imagine a “dream version” of this story that would exploit all the opportunities for Gothic terror, cinematic atmosphere and effects Conan Doyle put into his novel, some of which are nailed in this movie while others are sorely missed.