Atmospherically, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is arguably the best of the 14 Holmes films, and the only one based specifically on a Conan Doyle story. It, and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," are the only two "period" films in the series and run longer, the remainder taking place in then modern-day England and America of the late 30s and early 40s and run about 90 minutes each. In both "Hound" and "Adventures," Holmes dons his deerstalker cap, popularized by original Strand Magazine illustrator Sidney Paget who made the image synonymous with the great detective. It is interesting to note that in the first of the non-period films in the series, Holmes reaches for his handy deerstalker, but is stopped by Watson. "Holmes," Watson said, "you promised." Leaving the deerstalker on the peg, Holmes grabs a "modern" hat instead.
Rathbone is especially sharp in "Hound of the Baskervilles," and is partnered by Bruce, who plays a bumbling Watson throughout the 14 films that was not Conan Doyle's vision of the great
sleuth's biographical "Boswell." Nonetheless, the pairing is hugely entertaining and satisfying.
The creation of the moor, the sinister grimpen mire and truly terrifying hound remains fantastic and does much to engender this story as one of Conan Doyle's most popular with modern-day
readers and viewers alike.
The final scene represents the only reference any of the 14 films made to Holmes' "seven-percent" cocaine habit as Rathbone asks Bruce to retrieve "the needle." The scene, criticized as too risque by 1939 audiences, caused the film's producers to make a conscious decision to omit any additional mention of Holmes' recreational drug use in future outings.
I only wish that Rathbone and Bruce had lived to see their great work released to new audiences in this pristine DVD condition.
Odd to think, then, that the first Holmes film with Rathbone and his faithful Dr. Watson, Nigel Bruce, gave neither man starring credit. That honor on "The Hound of the Baskervilles" went to the romantic leading man, Richard Greene.
The lapse in logic was quickly corrected, with Rathbone and Bruce going on to top-bill 13 famed Holmes movies from 1939-46.
The UCLA Film and TV Archive has rescued the films from public domain hell, in a restoration that aims to return them to 35mm theatrical condition using original elements and acetate copies. The results as seen on MPI's DVDs are indeed impressive, with shadows and light elegant and edgy. Wear is within reason, and the audio suffices.
Film historians' commentaries have been added to some of the feature films, explaining, for instance, just how the 19th century detectives ended up battling Nazis in WWII.
The MPI collection -- whose titles are available separately and in sets -- started rolling out in the fall. The series concludes at the beginning, with "Baskervilles" and "Adventures," both made by Fox before Universal took over and "modernized" the Doyle stories. The Uni films have their moments -- "Woman in Green," for example, is grand and grisly entertainment -- but there's no topping these initial releases, set in Victorian times.
"Baskervilles" remains one of the most famous and fondly remembered Holmes films, but it is largely Dr. Watson's tale. Nigel Bruce's Watson quickly became a buffoon in the series, but here he is not to be trifled with. (Rathbone later defended his friend and co-star against critics, saying a "less lovable" actor would have ruined the series.)
The restoration puts Fox's amazing sets on full display, including the fog-engulfed moor where the hound fillets his victims. The commentator, chipper British author David Stuart Davies, churns out minutiae and unmasks plot inconsistencies.