By Stephanie Star Smith
December 12, 2002
If ever an actor was born to play a role, then surely it was Basil Rathbone for Sherlock Holmes.
Anyone who has seen the original Sidney Paget drawings that ran in the Strand magazine along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's timeless prose can't help but remark about the almost eerie resemblance between the Holmes depicted there and Rathbone. Add in the fact that Rathbone was born in 1892, when Sherlock was just becoming the fixture of English literature that he is today, and one could make a case that Rathbone was fated to be Holmes.
Basil Rathbone was a classically-trained actor who initially became famous in Hollywood playing villains, most notably Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Richard III in Tower of London. But most of the public knows him to this day as the most famous resident of Baker Street, a role he first assayed in The Hound of the Baskervilles. And although the actor eventually felt as trapped by Sherlock as Holmes' creator did, there's no denying that Rathbone phoning in the part (which he unfortunately did in a few of the films) still provides a far more compelling performance than many a thespian who has attempted to portray the world's first - and arguably most famous - consulting detective.
The Hound of the Baskervilles rates right up there with Dracula and Frankenstein as one of the most-filmed tales from English-language literature. The story has seen seven theatrical films and six television versions, plus countless stage adaptations, both amateur and professional. But for many, the best is this 1939 gem from 20th Century Fox. This version marks the first time Rathbone and Nigel Bruce portrayed Holmes and his Bosworth, Dr Watson. This was also before Universal took over the franchise and decided to dumb down Watson to the point of ludicrousness (although 20th only did slightly better with Watson's character in their follow-up to Hound, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), making Bruce's portrayal much more in keeping with the Watson in the Holmes canon. This could well be a function of the fact that it's nearly impossible to have Watson the Dolt in the context of Hound, given he is at the forefront of the action for about a quarter of the tale.
Hollywood did some other tinkering with the novel's plot, most notably introducing romance into the story by turning Jack and Beryl Stapleton, Sir Henry Baskerville's neighbors, into actual siblings, rather than a husband and wife masquerading as same. No doubt the Hayes Code played a part in this alteration as well, as I'm fairly sure a husband forcing his wife to pretend to be single in order to lure another to a violent death wasn't allowed under the Code. But even given the minor changes, this Hound is still fairly faithful to the original text, and a wonderful debut vehicle for the Rathbone/Bruce teaming.
So why should a film more than a half-century old that's based on a 100-year-old novel be of interest to 21st-century audiences?
If you've never read a Sherlock Holmes story or novel, or seen Holmes film, then Hound of the Baskervilles is the perfect place to start. Hound is what the British call a ripping yarn. It's got suspense, intrigue, people doing mysterious things, hidden motives, possible supernatural overtones, a McGuffin or two; in short, it's everything a detective story should be and more. And this version is not only a wonderfully-filmed movie, it manages to maintain suspense even for those familiar with the tale.
Then there's Rathbone as Holmes. If you have any interest in Holmes at all, and you've never seen a Rathbone film...well, all I can say is you've missed one of hell of a performance. This is sort to akin to the Bond franchise in a sense, in that each actor who has portrayed Holmes has his supporters, particularly Jeremy Brett, who took on the role in the Granada Television productions of the short stories and novels in the '80s. While I certainly agree that Brett did an excellent job with the portrayal, there's still no one who can hold a candle to Rathbone. And Hound rates as one of his most energetic and engaged performances as the immortal detective. Rathbone does more than simply play Holmes; he embodies the role, as though he were actually walking the streets of Victorian London and tracking his prey on the Devonshire moors. The preening Method actors of today could take a few lessons from Basil Rathbone on how to "live the character".
I'm also going to court cries of heresy from Sherlockians here by citing Nigel Bruce's Dr Watson as another reason to check out Hound. While I agree wholeheartedly with the hue-and-cry over the lobotomizing of Watson in the Universal films, I take issue with those who lay the blame on the actor's shoulders. Particularly given what a marvelous job he does in Hound - and to a lesser extent, in Adventures - I think it's a shame to overlook the chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce, and the latter's able interpretation of the good doctor in 20th Century Fox's films simply because Universal decided that they had to make Watson into a dim-witted boob whom John Holmes, much less Sherlock, would have found unbearably tiresome company in very short order. Some misguided studio exec likely thought that making Watson exponentially more idiotic would somehow make Holmes appear that much more the genius, little realizing it had the opposite effect of causing audiences to question Holmes' sanity for spending such large amounts of time with such a dim bulb. I'm off my soapbox now, so I'll just point out that Bruce and Watson fare far better in Hound.
But probably the best reason to watch The Hound of the Baskervilles is because it's a well-done entry into the mystery genre, with great acting and wonderful photography. The 1939 Hound evokes perfectly the mythical England where hansom cabs still travel the fog-filled streets, and where it is always 1895.