The Hound of the Baskervilles
(1939), 80 minutes b&w

The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes movies made with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and the only one of the fourteen in which Rathbone did not receive top billing. Dr. Mortimer, a friend of the recently murdered Sir Charles Baskerville seeks help from Sherlock Holmes to protect young Sir Henry Baskerville, who has just arrived on a ship from Canada. Mortimer tells Holmes and Watson of the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, which has cursed every member of the family since 1650. Holmes pretends to scoff at the supposed danger and he tells Mortimer not to worry about an old legend. In reality he knows Sir Henry's life is in danger. Pretending to be busy in London, Holmes sends Watson to the Baskerville estate in Devonshire to protect Sir Henry. Holmes then goes to the moor in disguise, in order to investigate in anonymity.


Dr. Mortimer and Holmes

Watson, Miss Stapleton, Sir Henry, and Holmes (disguised as a peddler)

Holmes appears as a peddler before Watson, Sir Henry and Miss Stapleton, and completely fools them. When Holmes has almost figured out the mystery, he removes his disguise, revealing himself to Watson. Watson is indignant when he realizes that Holmes has been there all the time, and didn't trust him enough to tell him! (Of course Watson has made a fool of himself by claiming to be the great detective Sherlock Holmes!) Holmes returns with Watson to Baskerville Hall to fill in some missing pieces to the puzzle. Even when Holmes has figured out who the murderer is, he cannot arrest him without evidence. Holmes says, "The only way is to catch him red-handed, to catch him in such a way that there's no escape, no alibi. And that means gambling with Sir Henry's life."  Once again Holmes tells Sir Henry that he has nothing to fear, his troubles are over, and Holmes and Watson board a train headed for London. At the next stop, they disembark, take a train back and arrive at the moor just in the nick of time to save Sir Henry from being killed by the Hound. Holmes and Watson shoot the Hound dead. In the final scene, with nearly everyone present, Holmes explains how he figured out who the murderer and hound owner was. Feeling trapped, Stapleton pulls on gun on everyone, then runs out of the house. Holmes does not give chase, explaining that the police are out in force on the roads, and the only other means of escape is across the deadly Grimpen Mire.


Holmes, Stapleton, and Sir Henry

Watson and Holmes examine the walking stick.

The Hound of the Baskervilles follows the original story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pretty closely. There are, however, some differences:

  • The novel opens at 221B Baker Street with Holmes and Watson examining the walking stick left by Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), whom they haven't met yet. The film opens with the death of Sir Charles Baskerville and the neighbors discussing the circumstances of Sir Charles' death.
  • In the novel, Mrs. Laura Lyons (Frankland's daughter) is a fairly important character, having arranged to meet Sir Charles on the night of his death. She is not mentioned in the film.
  • In the novel Beryl Stapleton turns out to be married to Mr. Stapleton and only pretending to be his sister. There is no talk of an engagement to Sir Henry Baskerville. In the film Miss Stapleton (Wendy Barrie) really is the sister--step-sister, in fact, so there is a happy ending for Sir Henry (Richard Greene) and Beryl Stapleton.
  • The seance scene with Mrs. Mortimer does not occur in the novel. In fact there is no Mrs. Mortimer in the novel. Mrs. Hudson isn't mentioned in the novel either.
  • The trap that Holmes lays to catch the Hound is also different in the novel and film. In the novel Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are on the  moor, waiting for Sir Henry to leave the Stapleton's house and walk home. They are ready and shoot the Hound before it has even scratched Sir Henry. In the film Holmes and Watson (minus Lestrade) are late getting to the moor because the carriage broke down and they don't reach Sir Henry and shoot the Hound before Sir Henry has been horribly mauled, almost to death. This is typical Hollywood: try to build up the suspense--"Will he get there in time to save Sir Henry?" It is out of character for Holmes to not have all the details worked out.
  • In the film (and not in the novel) Holmes allows himself to get locked in the pit where the hound had been kept. How could Holmes be so stupid when he's supposed to be so brilliant?
  • At the end of the film Holmes says, "Oh, Watson -- the needle!" This line is not in the novel, but Holmes' use of morphine is documented in other stories. This line added nothing to the story--it's amazing that the censors allowed it.

Holmes trapped in the Hound's pit.

Holmes and Watson on the train

In spite of some of the differences mentioned above, The Hound of the Baskervilles remains one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes films, and it of course established Basil Rathbone as the definitive Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone states in his autobiography that The Hound of the Baskervilles was always his favorite Sherlock Holmes film. I especially like the first scene with Holmes and Watson in Baker Street. The dialogue is almost word for word the same as in the novel, and the chemistry between Rathbone and Nigel Bruce is perfect. I usually cringe at Nigel Bruce's interpretation of Watson as a bumbling idiot (apparent in the later Universal films), which is so different from the character appearing in Conan Doyle's stories, but in this film Bruce is much less bumbling, and actually appears to be a capable friend and physician. 

The liberal use of dry ice on the set created the eerie and ominous foggy atmosphere of the English moor and the ruins of a burial ground, which was actually a large indoor set. The Hound (a 140-pound Great Dane named Chief) appeared suitably ferocious to frighten audiences, but not the critics. The story moved swiftly from one suspenseful moment to the next.

Nigel Bruce wrote the following in his memoirs (posted on the Scarlet Street forums):

"The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is perhaps Conan Doyle's most exciting adventure of Sherlock Holmes, was selected as the first vehicle for Basil and myself. Much of the picture was made in a huge stage on the 20th-Century back lot. The entire stage was surrounded by a circular screen of canvas on which was painted a very lifelike picture of Dartmoor. The centre of the stage was filled with large boulders made of plaster of paris. Here and there a bridge was seen and several caves were visible. Running through the boggy marsh-like ground were several small streams. For eight weeks we worked in this set, and the atmosphere was most unpleasant as the fog which was necessary to the story was made by artificial methods and freshly pumped into the stage after every shot. The effect reached, however, was eerie and foreboding and the picture turned out to be an excellent one.

Basil Rathbone looked exactly like every picture that one has ever seen of Sherlock Holmes; and the cast, which was a good one, included Wendy Barrie, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine and an attractive young newcomer from England by the name of Richard Greene. Our director was Sidney Lanfield. Lanfield had the reputation of being a tartar, but after a few outbursts during the first few days, Basil and I got on splendidly with him. Each morning we greeted him with great affection and both of us would plant a kiss on his furrowed brow. After each take we would shake hands and solemnly congratulate one another on our 'excellent performance.' We took the whole film in a mood of light-hearted enjoyment which left Sidney, who was accustomed to arguments and scenes, in a state of complete bafflement, and he gave up losing his temper in sheer self-defense. The result of this was that we all worked happily together and enjoyed every moment on the picture.

I never worked with a nicer man than Basil, and I never acted with a more unselfish or more cooperative actor. The Baskervilles took from December 29th, 1938, to the 8th of March, 1939, and in the picture I earned nearly $10,000. The Hound of the Baskervilles was released....and its reception both in America and in England, where we felt they would be more critical, was beyond our wildest hopes. Basil was hailed as a splendid Sherlock Holmes and the critics not only gave him high praise but remarked that his resemblance to the general idea of the great detective was amazing. As Doctor Watson, I seemed to amuse and satisfy the many devoted admirers of the Conan Doyle characters. The London Sunday Pictorial said this of the film: 'In my excitement I dropped my hat, cigarettes, gloves and matches, and I let them stay on the floor until the lights went up.'"

 "Rathbone gives a most effective characterization of Sherlock Holmes, which will be relished by mystery lovers." --Variety

Morton Lowry (Stapleton) had previously appeared with Rathbone in The Dawn Patrol, and later appeared in Pursuit to Algiers. Lionel Atwill (Dr. Mortimer) would later play Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.


Lobby card depicting scene in which the Barrymans learn what happened to the convict

Lobby card depicting scene in which Holmes reveals the killer

See more photos from The Hound of the Baskervilles on page 2 and page 3.

Cast

 

Credits

 
Basil Rathbone ............. Sherlock Holmes Production Co. ............. 20th Century Fox
Nigel Bruce ................... Dr. Watson   Producer ....................... Gene Markey
Richard Greene ............. Sir Henry Baskerville   Director ......................... Sidney Lanfield
Wendy Barrie ............... Beryl Stapleton  

Screenplay ...................

 Ernest Pascal
Lionel Atwill ................. Dr. James Mortimer   Cinematographer ......... Peverell Marley
John Carradine ............. Barryman  

Editor .............................

 Robert Simpson
Barlowe Borland ........... Frankland  

Music Director .............

Cyril Mockridge

Beryl Mercer ................. Mrs. Mortimer  

Art Directors ................

Richard Day

Morton Lowry ............. John Stapleton     Hans Peters
Ralph Forbes ................ Sir Hugo Baskerville   Costume Design .......... Gwen Wakeling
E.E. Clive ....................... Cabby      
Eily Malyon .................. Mrs. Barryman  

The Hound of the Baskervilles is available on DVD:

Click to order

Nigel de Brulier ............ Convict  
Mary Gordon ............... Mrs. Hudson  
Peter Willis.................... Roderick  
Ivan Simpson ............... Shepherd  
Ian MacLaren .............. Sir Charles Baskerville  
John Burton ................ Bruce  
Denis Green ................. Jon  
Evan Thomas .............. Edwin  
Chief .............................. The Hound  

 

Interesting online reviews of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" can be found here:

"Rathbone's Finest Hour" -- an article by Pat Ward, member of The Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis scion society

 

Back to Sherlock Holmes films

 

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2011