“THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLES” (1939) Review

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“THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLES” (1939) Review

The year 1939 proved to be a momentous time for fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The year marked the debut of two movies that featured the movie introduction of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the famous literary detective and his friend, Dr. John Watson.

There had been previous movie, stage and radio adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes. But despite the recent success of Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the roles of Holmes and Watson, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would become the first cinematic pair to truly become famous in the roles. They ended up portraying Holmes and Watson in fourteen movies for Twentieth Century Fox and Universal Pictures. And their first movie together was 1939’s “THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES”.

Based upon Doyle’s 1902 novel, “THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES” is about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson’s investigation into the legend of a supernatural hound, a beast that may be stalking a young heir on the fog-shrouded moorland that makes up his estate in Devonshire. The investigating pair receive a visit from a Dr. James Mortimer, who believes that the last heir of Baskerville Hall might be in danger from a legendary hound that may have killed many in the Baskerville line, including the family’s founder – Sir Hugo Baskerville – and Dr. Mortimer’s close friend, Sir Charles Baskerville. Holmes originally dismisses the so-called “demonic hound” as a fairy tale. But when Sir Henry arrives from Canada and receives a series of threats, Holmes sends Watson to accompany the young heir and Dr. Mortimer to Baskerville Hall, claiming that he is too busy to accompany them himself. Sir Henry quickly develops a romantic interest in Beryl Stapleton, the stepsister of his neighbor, a local naturalist named John Stapleton. The new arrivals also deal with the stranger behavior of Sir Henry’s servants, Mr. John and Mrs. Barryman; and an escapee from Dartmoor Prison lurking on the moor. Right before an attempt on Sir Henry’s life, Holmes finally makes his appearance in Devonshire. And Dr. Watson learns that he had been making his own inquiries for quite some time, while in disguise.

Ernest Pascal’s screenplay included at least one or two changes from Doyle’s novel. One, Sir Henry never became romantically involved with Beryl Stapleton. The butler’s name was changed from John Barrymore to Barryman, due to the existence of famous actor John Barrymore. And unlike the novel, the murderer’s fate was left unknown, despite Holmes’ assurances that the former would not get very far, due to constables being posted on the road. Aside from the previously mentioned, “THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES” remained faithful to the original novel. Even more importantly, the movie proved to be a surprise hit for the Twentieth Century Fox.

After watching “THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES”, it was easy to see why it became a hit. Directed by Sidney Lanfield, the movie is a well-paced and solid piece of entertainment filled with action, suspense, a little romance, and rich atmosphere. As much as I love murder mysteries, they have a tendency to drag a movie’s pacing at one point or another . . . despite the movie’s quality. My only real complaint about Pascal’s plot was the vague manner in which he left the murderer’s fate open. Why did he do it? And why did Lanfield and studio boss, Darryl F. Zanuck, allow Pascal to get away with this?

The suspenseful atmosphere re-created for the movie’s Devonshire setting could have easily done this. But Lanfield and the action featured in the plot prevented this from happening. And speaking of atmosphere, I have to congratulate art directors Richard Day and Hans Peters, along with set decorator Thomas Littlet and legendary cinematographer J. Peverell Marley for doing such an excellent job in not only re-creating the mysterious atmosphere of the Devonshire moors and more importantly, late Victorian England.

Basil Rathbone had been known for the villainous roles he had portrayed in many costume dramas in the 1930s. Before “THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES”, he had only portrayed one or two heroic types on screen – in 1938’s “THE DAWN PATROL” and 1939’s “SON OF FRANKENSTEIN”. For an actor known for portraying villains, it is ironic that his most well-known role would prove to be the heroic Sherlock Holmes. Not only did Rathbone seemed like the physical embodiment of the fictional sleuth, but he captured the character’s sharp intelligence, wit and strong will. And his screen chemistry with Nigel Bruce was spot on. They made a perfect screen team. What I enjoyed about Bruce’s portrayal of Dr. John Watson is that he was not the blustering buffoon that his character would become in the Universal Pictures. All right, Bruce’s Dr. Watson has a bit of bluster in his characterization. But his Watson was a sharp and observant man, whose comments about some of the suspects would prove to be accurate. And like Rathbone’s Holmes, he also had a nice, subtle wit.

The rest of the cast proved to be solid. Lionel Atwill gave a first-rate performance as Dr. James Mortimer, the man who hired Holmes to investigate the strange deaths around Baskerville Hall. Beryl Mercer gave a funny performance as Dr. Mercer’s dithery wife, who was into spiritualism and seances. Morton Lowry was both charming and intelligent as Sir Henry’s neighbor, who also harbored suspicions about the strange occurrences Wendy Barrie proved to be a sweet and charming Beryl Stapleton. Although I must honest that I found her character to be slightly one-dimensional at times. I could say the same about Richard Greene’s Sir Henry Baskerville, whose good looks and charming personality made the character seemed a little too ideal for my tastes. Greene was credited as the film’s lead character. But when the movie proved to be a surprise hit, Rathbone and Bruce – quite rightly – assumed the lead credits in future Sherlock Holmes films. John Carradine gave one of the movie’s better performances as Sir Henry’s mysterious and slightly sinister butler, John Barryman. Whereas Carradine was mysterious, actress Eily Malyon seemed fearful and secretive as Barryman’s emotional wife.

Unless one is a stickler for a movie strictly adhering to its novel source, any Sherlock Holmes fan would find “THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES” to be a very entertaining and atmospheric adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel. And both Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce ended up proving they were the right men at that time to portray Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

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“CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935) Review

“CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935) Review

Based upon the 1922 novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, the story of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” centered around an Irish-born physician living in an English town, who finds himself in trouble with the Court of King James II after aiding a wounded friend who had participated in the Mounmouth Rebellion of 1685. The 1935 film, released by Warner Brothers and First National Pictures, featured the first collaboration between stars Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, and director Michael Curtiz. 

When Jack Warner and studio production chief, first made plans to film Sabatini’s novel, they had planned for British actor, Robert Donat to portray the Irish-born doctor turned slave and pirate. But Donat proved to be unavailable and the then unknown Flynn ended up with the role. As everyone knows, not only did ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” prove to be a hit, the movie made instant stars out of Flynn and De Havilland.

Many years have passed since I last saw ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. Which would explain why I have never developed any strong feelings for this particular film, in compare to certain other Errol Flynn movies. After watching it recently, my opinion of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” has improved. Somewhat. Basically, I feel that it is a first-rate story filled with excellent characterizations, a strong narrative and some decent action. But I do not know if I can say that I love ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. The movie is not exactly Flynn, De Havilland and Curtiz at their best.

Once Peter Blood finds himself a slave in Jamaica, he plots with his fellow prisoners to escape the island via a ship. Before he can make his escape, Blood falls in love with his owner – Arabella Bishop, the niece of the planter he and his fellow slave work on. An attack by a Spanish pirate ship allows Blood and his friends to finally make their escape. They form a crew to become one of the most formidable group of pirates in the Caribbean. Blood eventually befriends a French pirate name Levasseur and the two become partners – an act that the Irishman comes to regret. The two eventually come to blows over Arabella, who has been captured by Levasseur. Accompanying Arabella is a royal courtier name Lord Willoughby with some interesting news for Blood.

One problem I have with the film is the lack of balance between the dramatic scenes and the action. Quite frankly,”CAPTAIN BLOOD” came off as a bit too heavy on conversation for a swashbuckler. I realize that screenwriter Casey Robinson was trying to stay faithful to Sabatini’s novel. But I suspect that this attempt may have slightly reduced the movie’s pacing – to its detriment. And most of the action sequences did not strike me as that impressive. Mind you, the sword duel between Blood and a French pirate named Captain Levasseur (portrayed by the always competent Basil Rathbone) over Arabella Bishop, Blood’s owner, struck me as impressive. Well . . . somewhat. Actually, I have seen better swordfights – especially those featured in 1938’s ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” and 1940’s ”THE SEA HAWK”. The most impressive action sequence in the movie featured Blood’s sea battle against two French ships attacking Port Royal in the movie’s finale. I have to give kudos to Curtiz for directing an action sequence that struck me as surprisingly realistic.

Another problem I had with “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was its portrayal of slavery in 17th century Jamaica. I found it amazing that most of the slaves in Port Royal were white. I am well aware that white slaves – or indentured servants – existed throughout the British Empire during that period. And I am also aware that those rebels convicted of treason against King James II during the Monmouth Rebellion, ended up as slaves in the Caribbean. But what happened to the black slaves in this movie? Jamaica and other British controlled islands in the Caribbean had received more African slaves than any other part of the Empire during the late 17th and 18th centures. I did managed to spot one or two amongst the slaves on Colonel Bishop’s estate. And he did have house slaves that were black. But at least one of them spoke with an American South dialect, prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. I realize that “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is a Hollywood film. But since most of the movie managed to either be historically correct . . . or at least close to being accurate, why did it fall short in its portrayal of Caribbean slavery?

On the other hand, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” featured some excellent dramatic scenes. And the best of the bunch featured Flynn. I was especially impressed by the scene that featured Blood and his fellow prisoners being sentenced to slavery in Jamaica by a very hostile judge, Blood’s hostile reaction to being purchased by Arabella, his discovery of the body of his friend Jeremy Pitt, the fallout between Blood and Lavasseur, the revelation by a royal courtier that the hated James II had been replaced by his daughter and son-in-law – Mary and William of Orange, and especially the last fight between him and Arabella before she is sent ashore to Port Royal near the end of the film. And Flynn was ably assisted in these scenes by De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander and Henry Stephenson.

Speaking of the film’s performances, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” possessed a number of good, solid performances by a supporting cast that included Guy Kibbee, Forrester Harvey, Frank McGlynn Sr. and Robert Barrat, who portrayed members of Blood’s crew. Also portraying a member of Blood’s crew was Ross Alexander. Many critics have claimed that if Alexander had not comitted suicide over a year following the movie’s release, he might have become an acclaimed screen actor. Quite frankly, I do not know. Alexander’s performance in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” seemed personable and competent, but I never really saw the magic. Although the cast members portraying Blood’s crew had their moments of humor, the prize for the funniest performance belonged to – in my opinion – George Steed as Jamaica’s Governor Steed, who suffered from a gouty foot.

Basil Rathbone only appeared in a handful of scenes in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” and was clearly not the main villain. But his performance as the lusty and avaricious Captain Levasseur was extremely memorable. More importantly, his Levasseur struck me as more human than his roles in both “ROBIN HOOD” and “THE MARK OF ZORRO”. I wish I could say the same about Lionel Atwill. Mind you, his performance as the brutal Colonel Bishop was solid, but there were times when it came across as unoriginal.

Olivia DeHavilland was superb in her first leading role as Arabella, the brutal Colonel Bishop’s niece and Peter Blood’s owner. Her character did not have a great impact upon the plot – aside from her capture by Levasseur leading to a duel between him and Blood. But her Arabella was no limpid damsel-in-distress, whose only role was to be the object of Blood’s desire. DeHavilland projected a great deal of energy, fire and wit into her performance. No wonder she and Flynn had such a strong screen chemistry.

But no matter how good the cast was, the real star behind “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was the Tasmanian born Errol Flynn. Jack Warner and Hal Wallis took a great chance in casting him in the lead, considering that he was a virtual unknown. And that gamble paid off tenfold. This is the fifth Flynn movie I have watched in great detail. To this day, I do not understand the old prevailing view that he was not much of an actor. Peter Blood was his first major role as a film actor and if I may be frank, Flynn gave one hell of a performance. Aside from a hammy moment when Blood finally declare his love for Arabella, Flynn’s acting was very natural. And like DeHavilland, he portrayed his character with a great deal of fire, energy and more importantly, anger. Flynn’s portrayal of the hot-headed Peter Blood is probably one of the better debut performances in Hollywood films.

Other reviewers of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” have commented favorably on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Honestly? I did not find it that memorable. In fact, I cannot remember anything about it. Just a lot of horns and strings. I am not carelessly putting down Korngold’s talent, because I was very impressed by his “ROBIN HOOD”score of three years later. I simply cannot say the same about his “CAPTAIN BLOOD” score. However, I was very impressed by the movie’s cinematography shot by Warner Brothers’ own Ernest Haller and Hal Mohr. I have mixed feelings about Anton Grot’s art direction. Granted, I was impressed by the sets for the Port Royal sequences. But the art design for the English sequences resembled fake set designs for a play and the sets for Blood’s ship lacked the claustrophobic feel of a real ship.

Granted, “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is not perfect. It has flaws that include an uneven pacing, questionable action sequences and an unmemorable score – at least for me. In fact, I have seen better blockbusters that starred Errol Flynn during that period. But I must admit that it is still a first-rate movie, even after 75 years. And it made for a dazzling debut for the Australian actor.