The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Country: United States
Director: Sidney Lanfield
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Lionel Atwill, John Carridine, E.E. Clive
Based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films that Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in together. The first two films being for 20th Century Fox, and the others being for Universal.

If you asked me, what was the best version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, I would steer you towards the 1959 Hammer version starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. But if you wanted to take umbridge and suggest that this, the Basil Rathbone version was the best, I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. This is a fine, and atmospheric retelling of the tale. I cannot tell you how many versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles exist. I have about five versions in my collection, and can think of at least four others…and my knowledge does not extend to those German versions. The first version was made in 1914 and starred Alwin Neuss as Holmes, and (as far as I am aware), the most recent version was a BBC production made in 2002 and starred Australian actor Richard Roxburgh as Holmes. I like Roxburgh (if you haven’t seen the television series, Blue Murder, check it out — Roxburgh is amazing as ‘The Dodger’), but he was sadly miscast as Holmes.

The film opens in 1889 on the moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire. Sir Charles Baskerville is running for his life through the thick fog. A hound howls in the distance. Sir Charles runs through the gate of his estate and then keels over, most likely from a heart attack, due to fright. From out of the tangled undergrowth an unkempt beast of a man steps out and tries to remove Sir Charles’ pocket watch, but is scared away by another voice coming from Baskerville Hall, which is Sir Charles mansion on the moors.

An inquest is called into the strange death of Sir Charles Baskerville, and Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), who was Sir Charles physician and friend, confirms that the death was caused by heart failure.

Later, Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) arrives from Canada to assume the Baskerville title and claim the estate. At that time, Dr. Mortimer pays a visit on Sherlock Holmes at his modest Baker Street lodgings. He explains that he fears for Sir Henry’s life, as all the recent ancestors of the Baskerville line have died sudden and violent deaths. He also relates that beside Sir Charles’ body there were the footprints of a giant Hound. This in itself would not seem significant if it were not for another document that Dr. Mortimer has found which outlines the ‘Baskerville Curse’.

This document retells the tale of Sir Hugo Baskerville — a cruel, violent and unpleasant man — who invoked the curse in 1640. It was told that Sir Hugo died at the jaws of a giant hound. Holmes agrees to take on the case, but presently he has other matters to attend to. So he sends, Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) off to Baskerville Hall, with Sir Henry, in his stead.

One of the things that any version of The Hound of The Baskervilles has to contend with is that for the middle third of the story, Holmes is removed from the story. For this to work, then the casting has to include a strong Dr. Watson and a charismatic Sir Henry. In this version we have Nigel Bruce as Watson. I would be among the first to berate Bruce’s performance as Watson, because he turned the role into a bumbling comic-relief sidekick, but in all honesty, in this the first on the Rathbone, Bruce films, Nigel Bruce is not too bad at all. Sure, he has one or two moments of buffoonery with Holmes — which are played to show off Holmes’ deductive skills — but when Watson is on his own at Baskerville Hall, he seems almost competent. Richard Greene is a boon as Sir Henry. He is dashing, good looking — of course he would become Robin Hood — and plays the strong willed Baskerville to perfection.

Basil Rathbone is such an intriguing actor. As Sherlock Holmes he proves what a charismatic leading man he could be. But, of course, his most memorable roles are all as villains; in Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, and of course as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein in the Universal monster feature, The Son of Frankenstein (was Rathbone really that good at darts?). Rathbone was a man that cinema audiences loved to hate.

What makes this version of The Hound of the Baskervilles so strong and superior to Rathbone and Bruce’s other Sherlock Holmes films (although many people rate The Scarlett Claw very highly), is that it is the only one that is directly adapted from one of Conan Doyle’s stories. The other films are all either inspired by Conan Doyle or based on characters created by Conan Doyle. Still, I think if you are a Holmes fan, you should watch all of Rathbone’s Holmes films. Even the weaker ones are a great deal of fun. But if you had to pick one, I guess It would have to be this one. It represents everything Holmes films are all about. It’s a great adaptation of a Conan Doyle story, and features the two actors who are most commonly associated with Holmes and Watson. I don’t like to bandy this word around loosely, but this film is a ‘classic’.

2 Comments Posted in Film and Cinema
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2 Comments

  1. I agree – the Rathbone Hound is excellent and is my personal favorite. But I recently did a study and ranking of the best Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies and found that the critics generally agree his next film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, to be the best. They even rated another of his films very close to the Hound.

    I guess the good news is that there are at least three excellent Rathbone Holmes pix everyone should watch, and with the recent double-feature DVD releases you can get the best three plus an extra at low prices.

  2. Thanks Randall.

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