Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Study in Scarlet (KBS Productions/World Wide/Fox, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I got home in time for Charles and I to watch a movie, one of a run of films I’d recently recorded off TCM from a day (Tuesday) they decided to run a whole bunch of movies with the world “Scarlet” in their titles: A Study in Scarlet, the 1933 Sherlock Holmes movie with such a plethora of producers it seems reminiscent of a modern film than one from the classic era. The credited producer is Earle W. Hammons, who headed Educational Pictures (a maker of comedy shorts descended from Al Christie’s silent-era company and for whom Bob Hope, Milton Berle and the Ritz Brothers all made their film debuts; contrary to its name, Educational Pictures did not make educational pictures), and the credited studio is KBS (a production company whose name was the initials of its three principals, Burt Kelly, Samuel Bischoff and William Saal), while the credits indicate it was “Filmed at the California Tiffany Studios” and “Distributed by Fox Film Corporation.” The actual production company was the awkwardly named Sono Art-World Wide Pictures, which like Tiffany was an ill-timed studio startup that launched in 1929, just in time to be clobbered by the Depression. Tiffany went under in 1932 (after making some genuinely impressive films, including James Whale’s Journey’s End and Hotel Continental, a Grand Hotel knockoff they rushed through to try to get it before MGM’s mega-hit — it’s hardly as impressive a film but it’s well worth watching) and World Wide picked up both their studio and their catalog, only to collapse itself a year later — and Fox got into the picture when they bought the distribution rights to A Study in Scarlet from the bankrupt World Wide. A Study in Scarlet was a feature for actor Reginald Owen, who had just played Dr. Watson to Clive Brook’s Sherlock Holmes in the 1932 Fox film Sherlock Holmes (critics who’ve seen it consider it one of the finest pre-Rathbone Holmes films — historians of Sherlock Holmes on film generally divide the Holmes film canon into pre-Rathbone, Rathbone and post-Rathbone — but like most of Fox’s output before the 20th Century merger it’s remained frustratingly unavailable on VHS, DVD or cable) and this time around not only played Holmes but wrote the script (his credits are “continuity” and “dialogue”) from Robert Florey’s original story.

That’s right: though A Study in Scarlet is also the title of the first Sherlock Holmes story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, the plot of this movie has virtually nothing to do with the original novel (though Florey and Owen liberally peppered the script with allusions to the canon, including appropriating Conan Doyle’s description of Charles Augustus Milverton, “king of the blackmailers,” and applying it to their own principal villain, slimeball attorney Thaddeus Merridew. The reason was that Conan Doyle’s estate quoted one price for using the title A Study in Scarlet and a considerably higher price for the actual plot, so the filmmakers just decided to go with the lower price and concoct their own tale — drawing heavily on the “Ten Little Black Boys” nursery rhyme (that’s what it’s called in this film, though the original title was “Ten Little Niggers” until that was changed to “Ten Little Indians,” and then to “Ten Little Soldiers” when Native Americans became almost as politically correct as the N-word) and the concept of having a verse of that rhyme sent to each prospective victim just before he is killed. I know what you’re thinking, but this film was actually made six years before Agatha Christie published her novel And Then There Were None a.k.a. Ten Little Indians — and a novel called The Ninth Guest, written by Bruce Manning and his wife and published in 1930 (and filmed in 1934 by Columbia), had used the gimmick even earlier. The gimmick is that Thaddeus Merridew (played superbly by Alan Dinehart, a character actor who specialized in this kind of oily creep; he’s also superb in another frustratingly unavailable film, Paramount’s 1933 horror drama Supernatural) heads a secret society called “The Scarlet Ring” that holds its meetings in the Limehouse district (historically known as London’s Chinatown) and one of whose members, James Murphy, is discovered in a train at Victoria Station, an apparent suicide. Pretty soon the other members of the society — Captain Pike (Wyndham Standing), William Dearing (never seen) and William Baker (Cecil Reynolds) — all die, one by one. Previously a member named Forrester had died of apparently natural causes and his daughter Eileen (June Clyde, the necessary ingénue lead) had been admitted into the group and told it would make her rich, but exactly how and why were kept secret from her. Eileen’s inevitable boyfriend, John Stanford (John Warburton), wonders about her new-found acquaintances and the seedy surroundings in which they meet, but the person who brings Holmes (Reginald Owen) and Dr. Watson (a little-known actor named Warburton Gamble who’s billed seventh; he retired from film acting in 1940 and died five years later) into the case is Mrs. Murphy (Doris Lloyd), who just can’t believe her late husband really killed himself.

Of course Holmes can’t either; after some running around and intimidating visits by Pyke’s widow (Anna May Wong, billed second and stunningly photographed by cinematographer Arthur Edeson — the previous year she’d appeared as the second female lead in the Sternberg/Dietrich Shanghai Express and Edeson and director Edwin L. Marin were obviously giving her the same inscrutable treatment) and Merridew himself, the film climaxes at Pyke’s estate in the country, The Grange (couldn’t they have come up with a more imaginative name?), which is about to be sold at auction to satisfy the late Pyke’s debts — only, as Holmes deduces (and, as Charles pointed out, so had anyone who had seen more than five mystery films before), Pyke is still alive and faked his own “murder.” He was in league with his Chinese mistress (a rather off-handed bit of dialogue from Owen’s Holmes says they were not in fact married) and Merridew to knock off all the other potential heirs to the Scarlet Ring, including Jabez Wilson (J. M. Kerrigan) — a character name fans of Conan Doyle’s Holmes will recognize from “The Red-Headed League” — and Chinese servant Ah Yet (Tetsu Komai) — so he, Pyke and the Anna May Wong character (whatever hers and Pike’s relationship might be) could split the Scarlet Ring’s fortune, which turned out to have come from a daring jewel robbery its members had committed in China years before. The Scarlet Ring was formed to disburse the money made from the robbery as soon as the jewels were broken up and sold. By a weird chance, A Study in Scarlet was a movie I heard before I ever saw it — back in the early 1980’s, before films were widely available on videotape or cable movie channels, I found a record album of the soundtrack (and the first time I tried to record it on tape I ran out of tape because the album had been only 60 minutes long, since it had cut long sections with either no sound at all or just natural noises, no dialogue, and the total film’s length is 72 minutes) and played it, in the process getting confused by one scene in which the action cut away from the main intrigue to a long and pretty unfunny conversation between two country rustics, punctuated by the catch phrase, “Same as I say” — not until I actually watched the movie did I realize that one of the “rustics” was Reginald Owen as Holmes, disguised as a rustic, hanging out at the tavern near The Grange to gather information about the plot. Of course in the end the villains are foiled, Holmes and Watson return to London and the two youngsters clinch as the music comes up (and like a lot of other indies at the time, music is heard only at the very beginning and end of the film).

A Study in Scarlet is decently produced and generally well acted (though Dinehart, Wong and June Clyde — who’s actually a pretty good and appropriately restrained damsel in distress — stand out), and though William K. Everson in The Detective in Film called Owen the worst-ever screen Holmes to that point (about 1971) he plays the part with reasonable power and authority — not enough to rival Basil Rathbone, Robert Stephens or Jeremy Brett, but enough that he should have been able to get his wish to star in a series of Holmes films. (Ironically, Owen would make probably his best-known film in 1938, an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at MGM he got when the originally scheduled Scrooge, Lionel Barrymore, was so crippled by his arthritis he could no longer walk and therefore couldn’t do the film, though he was featured in the trailer and he continued to play his well-loved Scrooge on radio — and that film, like this one, was directed by Edwin L. Marin.) Where this film fails is the abysmal lack of visual imagination — aside from Anna May Wong’s stunning close-ups that fall in approach midway between Sternberg and Avedon — a relatively slow, stately pace and sets that, though substantial, look like they were built in studio soundstages. Even the opening sequence in Victoria Station features trains that look like plywood backdrops and don’t at all convince anyone that they could move under their own power, and when the film finally cuts to a real exterior the audience’s sighs of relief are palpable (this audience’s, at least). Still, the 1933 A Study in Scarlet (set in the filmmakers’ present, as were all Holmes films until Rathbone’s debut in the role in the 1939 20th Century-Fox The Hound of the Baskervilles) is an entertaining mystery and one of the worthier entries in the otherwise largely disappointing pre-Rathbone history of Holmes on film!