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The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
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The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal detective Sherlock Holmes is easily one of the most widely known of all fictional characters, and of the many dozens of film incarnations that the intrepid sleuth has enjoyed, the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles is no doubt the best known. The Samuel Goldwyn production was an enormous hit with audiences, primarily because of the casting of the leading roles; even 70 years on, it is difficult for many fans to picture an actor better suited for the part of Holmes than Basil Rathbone, and Nigel Bruce as a somewhat befuddled Dr. Watson seemed the perfect counterpoint to Rathbone's angular look and imposing manner. In their book The Films of Sherlock Holmes, authors Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels point out another reason that the first Rathbone film was "strikingly original" - it was the first Sherlock Holmes film to be shot as a period piece. Prior to this, "...Holmes on the screen [had] very much been a product of his time, moving into the twentieth century and adjusting handily to motor cars, telephones, the scientific apparatus of the thirties, even the motion picture itself."

The screenplay for The Hound of the Baskervilles (by Ernest Pascal) adhered closely to the source novel, and opens on the misty moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire, England, as a man is being chased outside Baskerville Hall, seemingly chased by a large animal. At a subsequent inquest, Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) testifies that Sir Charles Baskerville died of a heart attack, while Mr. Frankland (Barlowe Borland) claims he was murdered. The scene shifts to gaslit London and 221-B Baker Street, the residence of detective Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone). Holmes is engaged in an exercise in deduction with his friend Dr. Watson (Bruce); Dr. Mortimer has visited in their absence and left his walking stick, and Holmes quizzes Watson on what he can deduce about the man just from observing his cane. When Mortimer returns, he asks for Holmes' help in protecting his friend, Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene), who has inherited the family estate. Mortimer fears that a giant hound was set loose on Henry's uncle and that now Henry will be a target of murder. Holmes soon foils an assassination attempt while trailing Mortimer and Sir Henry, and he assigns Watson to accompany Sir Henry to the Baskerville estate. After a long journey, the party is welcomed by Barryman (John Carradine), the mysterious butler of the Manor. The following day, while exploring the grounds, Watson and Sir Henry encounter neighboring residents Stapleton (Morton Lowry) and his step-sister Beryl (Wendy Barrie), who warn the curious hikers about the dangers of the moor, including wild animals and the Grimpen Mire, an innocent-looking patch of soft ground which can suck down any living thing that wanders in too far.

In his 1961 autobiography, In and Out of Character, Basil Rathbone wrote, "had I made but the one Holmes picture, my first, The Hound of the Baskervilles, I should probably not be as well known as I am today. But within myself, as an artist, I should have been well content. Of all the 'adventures' The Hound is my favorite story, and it was in this picture that I had the stimulating experience of creating, within my own limited framework, a character that has intrigued me as much as any I have ever played." The genesis of this bit of casting couldn't have been simpler; by one account Samuel Goldwyn ran into Rathbone at a Hollywood party and noted that he would make an excellent Holmes. The casting of Bruce was equally fortuitous; Rathbone and Bruce were already friends off the screen. Rathbone would later write, "there is no question in my mind that Nigel Bruce was the ideal Dr. Watson, not only of his time but possibly of and for all time. There was an endearing quality to his performance that to a very large extent, I believe, humanized the relationship between Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes. It has always seemed to me to be more than possible that our 'adventures' might have met with a less kindly public acceptance had they been recorded by a less lovable companion to Holmes than was Nigel's Dr. Watson, and a less engaging friend to me than was 'Willy' Bruce."

In addition to Rathbone and Bruce, The Hound of the Baskervilles features support from such colorful character actors as Lionel Atwill, E. E. Clive, and John Carradine. The romantic lead is provided by Fox contract star Richard Greene, who had made his film debut the previous year in the Zanuck-produced and John Ford-directed Four Men and a Prayer (1938). In fact, Greene was given top billing over Rathbone – the only time Sherlock Holmes would be second-billed in his own adventure. As the romantic interest for Baskerville, Fox brought in British actress Wendy Barrie after first considering an American, Anita Louise. (Barrie would also appear opposite George Sanders in entries of his two detective series as The Saint and The Falcon).

The Hound of the Baskervilles went through a number of director assignments. Irving Cummings was initially set to helm the picture, but was moved to The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and William Seiter was next assigned to the Holmes film. Seiter was finally replaced by Sidney Lanfield, although Lanfield did not complete the shooting phase; Alfre Werker completed work on the movie, uncredited. The opulent-looking film was well-suited to a studio like Fox. As Steinbrunner and Michaels note, "Twentieth-Century Fox had an enormous, well-designed back lot with winding European streets ideally suited for London and the British villages detailed in the story." The moor was an indoor set, built on a large soundstage spanning 300 by 200 feet and in such a way that different camera angles and slight redressing could trick the eye and create the impression of a vast expanse. Very helpful in this regard was a huge amount of fake fog pumped into the set; according to the studio publicity department, $93,000 of the production budget was spent on fog machines.

Writing in the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent said that "putting its straightest face upon the matter and being weird as all get-out, the film succeeds rather well in reproducing Sir Arthur's macabre detective story along forthright cinema lines. The technicians have whipped up a moor at least twice as desolate as any ghost-story moor has need to be..." The critic writing for Variety had high praise for the lead role, saying "Rathbone gives a most effective characterization of Sherlock Holmes, which will be relished by mystery lovers."

The critic for Time magazine turned in a flip notice, praising Rathbone and adding, "the only serious bit of miscasting in The Hound of the Baskervilles is in the title role. The proper selection, obviously, would have been a calf-sized Norwegian elkhound; equipped with fright wig and false fangs. Instead, Associate producer Gene Markey, perhaps in the delightful confusion attendant on his recent marriage to Hedy Lamarr, put his O.K. on a friendly old Great Dane named Chief, who, despite all his yelpings, cannot even make his bark seem worse than his bite." Incidentally, the title character was actually played by a dog named "Blitzen" - the publicity department at Fox rechristened the pooch "Chief" since the former name sounded too Germanic in the volatile pre-WWII year of 1939.

Following the success of this first outing, Rathbone and Bruce starred in a follow-up for Fox, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). Ostensibly, this film was based on the William Gillette play instead of any of the Doyle novels, although the plot was altered to a great extent, making it more of an original screenplay. In 1939 Rathbone and Bruce also began appearing in a long-running Sherlock Holmes radio series on NBC. In 1941, Rathbone signed a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM loaned the actor out to Universal Pictures for their long-running Sherlock Holmes series, while Universal signed Bruce to his own contract to reprise the role of Watson. The pair made twelve films for Universal, while also continuing the radio series, moving to the Mutual network in 1943. Rathbone found the numerous subsequent entries in the series to be repetitive, and he later observed that "my first picture was, as it were, a negative from which I merely continued to produce endless positives of the same photograph." In 1946, Rathbone walked away from the character, refusing to sign on for more films or radio programs as Sherlock Holmes. He had made fourteen movies and over 200 radio shows, and at first he suffered some backlash from his decision, writing, " all intents and purposes I might just as well have killed him. My friends excoriated me for my dastardly behavior, and for a while my long-time friendship with Nigel Bruce suffered severe and recurring shocks."

Twentieth-Century Fox let the literary rights to The Hound of the Baskervilles lapse in the early 1960s, so the film was out of circulation for several years, unavailable for television syndication. In 1975 a distribution company called Film Specialties picked up the rights and The Hound of the Baskervilles was reissued to movie theaters, garnering quite a bit of publicity, since by then it had a long held reputation for being the best of the Rathbone series.

Executive Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Associate Producer: Gene Markey
Director: Sidney Lanfield
Screenplay: Ernest Pascal; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (novel "The Hound of the Baskervilles")
Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Richard Day, Hans Peters
Music: David Buttolph, Charles Maxwell, Cyril J. Mockridge, David Raksin (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Robert Simpson
Cast: Richard Greene (Sir Henry Baskerville), Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Wendy Barrie (Beryl Stapleton), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Lionel Atwill (James Mortimer, M.D.), John Carradine (Barryman), Barlowe Borland (Frankland), Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Jenifer Mortimer), Morton Lowry (John Stapleton), Ralph Forbes (Sir Hugo Baskerville)

By John M. Miller