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Spotlight on: Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Baskervilles

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The Hound of the Baskervilles DVD Cover Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Each generation has its own Sherlock Holmes. I remember my father and uncle introducing me to theirs at an early age. Basil Rathbone embodied the practical side of Holmes: unafraid of physical work and with a booming voice that didn't suffer fools gladly -- and, oh, that profile! The radio series and films he (and Nigel Bruce as the stuttering, bumbling Watson) starred in tended to focus on the deductive aspect of his talents, with any seamier aspects censored, for the "benefit" of the public, by the overbearing Hays office. (But the studio still manages to slip in little in-jokes: The Hound of the Baskervilles' last line even manages to refer to Holmes' cocaine addiction.)

(One can assume that the previous generation would have recognized William Gillette as their Holmes. The renowned actor/playwright is credited with adding "Elementary, my dear Watson" to the lexicon in his popular play, Sherlock Holmes -- which was the source material for this film's sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles marks the first appearances of Rathbone and Bruce as the famous duo. This is primarily evident by their placement in the cast list (second and fourth, respectively) -- they were not yet more famous than their costars.

When Sir Charles Baskerville is killed by a wild dog on the moors outside Baskerville Manor, shouts of the curse of "the hound" arise. (I tell you, people have got to learn to stay off those English moors -- see The Wolf Man and An American Werewolf in London for further examples of moor-canine danger.) Friend of the family, Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill, who would later portray Professor Moriarty in the Secret Weapon entry in this series), asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate because next-in-line Sir Henry Baskerville is coming to live at the mansion, against all advice, and Mortimer feels that Henry's life is in danger.

Holmes sends Watson along with Mortimer while he stays behind to do further research and what follow is romance, intrigue, and a surprising (but wholly plausible) solution. For a film made in 1939 -- and especially compared to the quality of the trailers (of other Holmes films) included on the DVD -- The Hound of the Baskervilles is absolutely breathtaking. It has never looked better. The folks at MPI have really taken care with this transfer: the clarity is amazing. Only in a couple of the darker scenes are the black levels not up to par. But this is definitely the best-looking of the Rathbone/Bruce films that I have seen. It's enough to make me seek out the rest of the series.

I only wish they had taken as much care with the subtitles, which are wrong often enough to be confusing -- and in at least one case, inexcusably so. The Grimpen Mire, which figures greatly in the story -- vital as it is to some of the danger of the moors -- is invariably referred to in the subtitles as "the gimping mire," and this when the name is even seen onscreen in a letter! No research was required to get this right, simply a viewing of the film. There were a dozen or so other mistakes in the first half hour, and I stopped counting after that, but it was pretty steady throughout.

B-movie fans will relish a creepy supporting turn by John Carradine as "Barryman" (changed from the original "Barrymore" to avoid offending the acting clan, long considered Hollywood royalty). Carradine is probably best known for siring his own acting clan -- sons David (Kill Bill, Volume 2), Keith (Nashville), and Robert (Revenge of the Nerds) -- but he was a steadily-working actor in his own right for almost sixty years until his death in 1988, logging appearances in over 200 films.

Hound is the ideal introduction to both Holmes/Watson and the Rathbone/Bruce pairing (although their radio work is at least as entertaining, with Bruce taking the innovative role of storytelling host to the sponsor's representative). By the time he wrote the book, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was quote in his stride with it came to Holmes stories and this one is considered one of the best -- it's certainly the best-known. This gives Rathbone and Bruce some work to do in making their new acquaintance seem like a very old, if sometimes antagonistic, friendship -- and they are more than up to the challenge, beginning with the same level of development they would carry throughout the series. Apart from the color of Bruce's hair, these are very much the same Holmes and Watson that audiences would come to know and love on film and radio (after being brought to the present day, they even fought Nazis!), and that would come to be seen as the archetypal interpretations of the roles by which all others thereafter would be compared.

[The DVD also includes a photo gallery, an informative commentary by author and Holmes expert David Stuart Davies (Starring Sherlock Holmes) that was the source of many fascinating trivia tidbits involving the series and the actors, and trailers for other films in the series. A pretty solid offering for a fine film.]

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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