THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) Reviews and overview

 

The Hound of the Baskervilles is a 1939 mystery thriller film set on the moors of Dartmoor where a supernatural beast seemingly lurks.

Directed by Sidney Lanfield from a screenplay written by Ernest Pascal (Destiny), based on the 1902 novel of the same name by Arthur Conan Doyle, the movie stars Richard Greene, Basil Rathbone, Wendy Barrie, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill and John Carradine. Produced by Gene Markey and Darryl F. Zanuck.

Reviews:

“Although The Hound of the Baskervilles remains stubbornly set-bound, it still manages to generate a nice atmosphere which is due mostly to its insistence on depicting Dartmoor as a gloomy, perpetually mist-shrouded domain of escaped prisoners, scruffy hawkers and, of course, a ferocious hound with a habit of howling at the moon.” 20/20 Movie Reviews

“Dartmoor looks fantastic, like something Tim Burton would have created were he working in the ’30s. It’s clearly a set, but it’s dramatic and moody and completely effective. After the dull and poorly-designed interior scenes in London, it’s fantastic when the film finally moves down into Devon and things… well, don’t exactly get going, but at least there’s something to look at!” 100 Films in a Year

The Hound of the Baskervilles “improves” upon the original with such embellishments as turning the villain’s wife into his sister, and by interpolating a spooky séance sequence involving mystic Beryl Mercer. In other respects, it is doggedly (sorry!) faithful to Doyle, even allowing Holmes to bait the censor by asking Doctor Watson for “the needle” at fadeout time.” AllMovie

“This is one of the best screen adaptations of the Hound tale, heavy on Gothic touches, like crumbling Neolithic ruins, swirling fog, and an exceedingly creepy séance. It’s also the film that’s most faithful to Doyle’s original. Starting with the following film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the movies were either pick-and-choose hodgepodge amalgams of Doyle’s stories or almost entirely new creations.” Blu-ray.com

“Some critics object to director Lanfield’s horror approach to the story, but it works quite well and results in some atmospheric shots of the foggy moors around Baskerville Hall and a genuinely monstrous hound. On the downside, the resolution is a bit underwhelming and Holmes disappears for a long chunk of the second act, leaving Watson and Henry as the main characters.” The Duck Mafia

The Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t the best adaptation of the novel, nor is it the best of the Rathbone/Bruce films […] But it’s a lot of fun, established Rathbone as the definitive big-screen Holmes and Pascal’s script, while it makes many changes to the original, at least does get the broad strokes of Holmes and his world just about right.” The EOFFTV Review

” …one of the most horror-oriented of the Sherlock Holmes movies, partly due to the fact that the ancestral curse storyline is the stuff of horror, and partly due to the moody scenes on the moor. It’s also fairly faithful to the novel, though that does create one frustrating situation, and that is that Holmes himself is missing from the story for a good stretch of the running time.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

“This Hound […] strays from Doyle in some of its plot elements, and there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a stretch to describe it (or any 73-year-old thriller) as “scary,” but the 20th Century Fox production is still a treat. The sets, constructed in a gigantic Fox sound studio, are beyond cool. Surreal, murky, rocky and in black-and-white, the outdoor scenes do look artificial — but in a gothic fantasyland manner, teeming with ominous shadows and phantom-like mists.” The Grouchy Editor

“Probably the best film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, it remains an impressive handsomely mounted and certainly respectful treatment of the novel, even if it is a little too measured in its pacing and never quite makes the most of its potential. Ernest Pascal‘s literate script keeps quite close to the original novel and where innovations have been made, they are pertinent and effective.” HNN

“The clues seem irrelevant and the exposition of the mystery takes place in several static pieces of stodgy extract. However, the film has considerable atmosphere in its seances, fog-bound moor scenes and hansom cab pursuits. The moors have a moody gloominess, although ultimately are obviously stagebound. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce make a good pairing…” Moria

“This is the kind of story in which atmosphere is everything. Unfortunately, Sidney Lanfield, a director of indifferent light comedies and musical romances, was not up to the task. The film’s major success belongs not to him but to screenwriter Ernest Pascal, who adapted the original novelette, and to an experienced cast’s ensemble playing.” Reeling Back

“It’s one of the few stories of supernatural horror where the non-paranormal explanation isn’t a letdown because it just wouldn’t be satisfying if the world’s greatest detective didn’t solve the case, and this classy (if not completely faithful) production does the character justice. It’s a bit disappointing we don’t see the villain’s demise, but you can’t have everything.” The Spinning Image

“What this version does do well is the entirely expressionistic version of Dartmoor, a model sprawl of fog-licked hillocks, marshes, wizened trees and ancient ruins. The sequence in which Watson and Sir Henry delve into the foggy night in pursuit of the convict Selden (Nigel de Brulier) is a deliciously fog-bound, hazy adventure into the primeval, as too is the later scene of Seldon’s death, pushed from a cliff top by the marauding beast.” This Island Rod

“Lanfield’s direction is solid and careful as he unfolds the sinister tale. Carradine, Lowry, and particularly Atwill are all superb in their supporting roles. The Hound of the Baskervilles was always Rathbone’s favorite film, even though he considered it “a negative from which I merely continued to produce endless positives of the same photograph.” TV Guide

In 1939, the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin described the film as an “excellent film version of the novel.” The film’s elements “sustain the suspense until the exciting climax” and that “the atmosphere is extremely well-contrived”. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were praised for their roles, while “only Wendy Barrie seems lifeless as Beryl in a cast which is uniformly good.”

Main cast and characters:

Richard Greene … Sir Henry Baskerville
Basil Rathbone … Sherlock Holmes
Wendy Barrie … Beryl Stapleton
Nigel Bruce … Doctor Watson
Lionel Atwill … James Mortimer M.D.
John Carradine … Barryman
Barlowe Borland … Frankland
Beryl Mercer … Mrs Jennifer Mortimer
Morton Lowry … John Stapleton
Ralph Forbes … Sir Hugo Baskerville
E.E. Clive … Cabby
Eily Malyon … Mrs Barryman
Lionel Pape … Coroner
Nigel De Brulier … Convict (as Nigel de Brulier)
Mary Gordon … Mrs Hudson
Ian Maclaren … Sir Charles (as Ian MacLaren)

Filming locations:

20th Century Fox Studios – 10201 Pico Boulevard, Century City, Los Angeles, California

Technical details:

80 minutes
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1
Audio: Mono (Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)

Release:

Released in the USA by 20th Century Fox on March 31st 1939.

Fun facts:

Alfred L. Werker (director of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) worked on this film as the uncredited assistant director.

Fox was unsure of the potential of a film about Sherlock Holmes, so top billing went to Richard Greene and not to Rathbone.

This was the first Sherlock Holmes film to feature the famous detective in the correct Victorian setting. Previous Holmes’ movies were all set in contemporary times. However, Holmes and Watson would return to the “present” in 1942 when Universal Pictures picked up the rights.

The final line of the film is a rather blatant drugs reference and was censored in 1939. However, in 1975 a print was discovered that contained Holmes saying: “Oh Watson, the needle!”

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