Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Case: The Hound of the Baskervilles
The 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles is the first film to feature Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. Although I can not claim to be a fan of the latter Universal Rathbone/Bruce films, I was quite surprised and impressed by this version of Hound.
We shall begin, then, by examining some of the more pleasant aspects of the film.
Undoubtedly, one of the first things the viewer will notice is the atmosphere. While obviously shot on a sound stage, the set’s design is quite striking, and instantly transports us back to Victoria London. In keeping with the era, we are shown gas lit streets and swirling yellow fog; both made more sinister by the black and white of the film. The atmosphere only improves as we leave London, and head out into the eerie, Gothic atmosphere of Dartmouth. Indeed, the attention to detail which went into recreating the era of the story is what makes this version of Hound one of the truly terrifying renditions I have seen.
Basil Rathbone, as Sherlock Holmes
Rathbone, as I have mentioned before, makes for a brilliant Holmes. His commanding presence on stage, combined with his Holmesian mannerisms, leaves little doubt in the viewers mind that we are indeed watching Holmes on screen. While Rathbone’s talents as an actor are obvious, we often forget that we are watching the actor. Indeed, Rathbone becomes Holmes, and would remain Holmes for countless generations.
Nigel Bruce, as Dr. Watson
While I do have several complaints regarding Bruce’s portrayal of Watson, I was so relieved to find that Watson was not the bumbling fool I was expecting that I found myself overlooking these complaints in favour of enjoying Bruce’s portrayal.
I must confess; I am a fan of Watson first and foremost, and so, to see Watson as a useful, intelligent companion was quite enjoyable. My enjoyment was further increased by my surprise, for in the latter Universal Rathbone/Bruce films, Watson is reduced to comedic relief, and this has always frustrated and saddened me. It was nice to know that in their original films, Watson’s role remained true to Canon.
I mentioned several complaints, and I do feel it warranted to mention those here. First, I had some difficulty reconciling Bruce’s appearance in relation to Watson’s appearance. Bruce is slightly more bulky than I would imagine Watson to be, and while I can understand the producers’ desires to prevent Watson from overshadowing Holmes, one can not help but wonder: was this the Watson so well known for his attraction of women? I hardly think so.
I also noticed that, in place of the stupidity that would later define Bruce’s role as Watson, this Watson was quite hostile. He seemed in a constant state of anger, complete with much yelling and bitterness. Again, this deviated from the Watson I remember, and so, it was slightly jarring at times.
Still, both of these things can be forgive, as it was entirely too refreshing to see Watson as a capable helpmate.
With the advent of special effects, recent producers of the Hound have attempted to make the beast more fearful by applying (what is now) dated technology. This version of the Hound merely used a rather large, fearsome looking dog, and it worked quite well. There is something to be said for simple, and I think this version of the film is a good example of that.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of this film is the slash. Here we are shown a very tactile Holmes, and it is interesting to note Holmes’ tendency to touch and caress every attractive male he comes across. Indeed, in nearly every seen Holmes shares with Henry Baskerville, Holmes finds some excuse to touch Sir Henry.
This is not limited to outside characters. Holmes is also quite tactile with Watson, and on several occasions we are witness to Holmes and Watson walking, quite cheerfully, arm in arm down the street or through the moor. Indeed, when Holmes isn’t touching Watson, he is gazing at him, or using terms of endearment to refer to him. It is quite remarkable, and very suggestive that a film adaptation should accentuate the subtext found in Canon.
Sadly, however, the film did present several undesirable elements, which I fear I must touch on.
While overall the script remained quite true to Canon, several deviations presented themselves, and, for the most part, these deviations did little to further the story.
I speak of course of the séance scene. When it was first suggested, I thought perhaps that the film was poking fun at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who, at this point, was quite well known for his Spiritualism) and yet, as it progressed, I found myself quite disappointed in the inclusion of such a thing. Holmes, I suspect, would have been appalled by the application of such methods.
Then there were the Stapletons. One of the more fascinating elements of Canon was the realization that the Stapletons were in fact a married couple. This premise was dismissed, and in its place Beryl and John Stapleton became, in fact, brother and sister. This actually confused me greatly, for one still sensed jealousy from John Stapleton, and discomfort from Beryl Stapleton.
Finally, the ending was quite weak. It was abrupt, and failed to resolve the story in the same manner Doyle resolved the story. The audience was left wondering what had happened to Stapleton, and while I am certain this was done to create a sense of mystery, it was wholly unsatisfying. The reference to Holmes’ cocaine addiction, however, was quite fitting.
While some deviations were quite amusing (for example, Watson’s claim that he was Sherlock Holmes had me in stitches) for the most part I could have done without them.
Overall, though, despite these quibbles, the film was quite good. Better than the later Rathbone/Bruce films, and one can not help but wonder why it was that Universal decided to reduce to Bruce’s Watson to a bumbling fool, or indeed, why they decided to cast aside the Victorian era in favour of the Second World War.
Questions we shall perhaps never know, and yet, I am confident that I would have very likely emerged a great fan of Rathbone/Bruce were it not for the deviations of these latter films.
In the end, Rathbone’s The Hound of the Baskervilles earns 3 out of 5 pipes; two pipes removed for the deviations and the issues with Watson.