Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet” (1933) – reviewed by George

This film was released May 14, 1933. It has a Screenplay by Robert Florey and was Directed by Edwin L. Marin. The star, Reginald Owen, is credited with Continuity and Dialogue. This detail is interesting because the film is so unlike the novel it is named after. It is an American film, made at the Trinity Studios in California.

Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” refers to Holmes’s ability to follow a trail of blood, or even just a spot. At one point in the book he is trying to develop a test for the presence of hemoglobin. This is the book where “RACHE” is written on a wall in blood, and Lestrade says they have to look for a woman named Rachel, but Holmes says, no, it is the German word for “revenge”. It is also the Holmes tale in which Mormons figure prominently (Doyle later apologized for his inaccuracies).

The movie is about a secret society called The Scarlet Ring,  a sort of tontine which is presided over by a lawyer who does not share in the wealth, but certainly collects his fee. When a member of the society dies, that man’s wealth is divided among the surviving members. The film begins when a train has stopped in Victoria Station and railroad employees find a dead body in a locked compartment. The dead man, James Murphy, is a member of the Scarlet Ring and is the second to die, being preceded in death by Colonel Forrester. The authorities know nothing of this, and because the compartment was locked a finding of suicide is returned. Thaddeus Merrydew (Allan Dinehart), the Ring’s lawyer, calls a meeting and asks Eileen Forrester (June Clyde) to attend. At the meeting Merrydew announces the finding of suicide, the division of Murphy’s funds, and the substitution of Eileen as a member in her father’s place, apparently so that Eileen will not be ruined by having her inheritance eaten up by the Ring.. He also says that Mrs. Murphy (Doris Lloyd) is raising a stink over not getting any money and suggests that she, unpleasant woman that she is, should be considered responsible for her husband’s suicide.

The other strange change from the novel is the use of a British blackface song as a major plot point. This is a nursery-type rhyme. I will quote only one verse, the one referring to Murphy’s death: “Six Little Black Boys, Playing With A Hive, A Bumble-Bee Stung One, And Then There Were Five.” This is so much like Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” that I checked the publication date; her novel was published November 6, 1939. So she may have gotten the idea from this movie, certainly not the other way around. As much as I love Christie, I must say that there is one more plot point that she apparently got here, a surprise toward the end. Of course she may never have seen this film, but the similarities then become a huge coincidence.

The five left after Murphy’s death are Capt. Robin Pyke (Wyndham Standing), Malcolm Dearing (Halliwell Hobbes), William Baker (Cecil Reynolds), Jabez Wilson (J.M. Kerrigan), and Ah Yet (Tetsu Komal). Some will die before Holmes solves the case. The obvious suspect is Merrydew, but he is not the killer. And Tempe Pigott plays Mrs. Hudson, Alan Mowbray plays Lastrade (sic), and Warburton Gamble plays Dr. Watson. Mrs. Pyke is played by Anna May Wong, who gets second billing. John Warburton has the somewhat thankless role of Eileen’s friend John Stanford. And Olaf Hytten, who was Sheerluck Jones last week, plays Merrydew’s butler.

As Sherlock, Reginald Owen (perhaps you remember him as the Admiral who lived next door in “Mary Poppins” and kept firing off fireworks, or as Scrooge in the 1938 version of “A Christmas Carol”) is very effective: too smart for the room, yet with a good nature and a kindness not always detected in the various actors who have played the part. He is not the best (still Arthur Wontner), but he is quite good.
And we have at least two more versions of “A Study in Scarlet” to look forward to, the next from 1968, perhaps closer to the book.

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