Our first Basil Rathbone Holmes film was produced by 20th Century Fox, not Universal as I had thought. The billing is unexpected as well: “With Richard Greene, Basil Rathbone, Wendy Barrie, And Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Barlowe Borland, Beryl Mercer, Morton Lowry, Ralph Forbes. Directed by Sidney Lanfield, Screen Play by Ernest Pascal.” Wow! Holmes with second billing and Watson with fourth!
The story takes place in 1889, mostly on the vast expanse of dismal wasteland, the moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire. We begin with a man, already very tired, running or staggering at night, gasping though a bleak landscape. It is Sir Charles Baskerville (Ian MacLaren), running from a baying, howling animal which we hear but do not see. He clutches his chest and falls, dead of an apparent heart attack, and a bearded convict (Nigel de Brulier) emerges from hiding to take either a watch or a wallet from the dead man’s coat.
At the coroner’s hearing the coroner (Lionel Pape) hears testimony from Sir Charles’s butler Barryman (John Carradine) and from his physician Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill). The other people present are Sir Charles’s cook Mrs. Barryman (Eily Malyon), and his few neighbors, Mr. Frankland (Barlowe Borland), John and Beryl Stapleton, step-siblings (Morton Lowry and Wendy Barrie), and the doctor’s wife Mrs. Jennifer Mortimer (Beryl Mercer). Berryman testifies about finding the body, and Dr. Mortimer testifies that Sir Charles had been of a nervous disposition lately and was surely the victim of heart failure. Mr. Frankland refuses to testify but is very vocal, making the assertion that Sir Charles was definitely murdered, and that one or more of the others in the room know the truth of his words. The official ruling, however, is heart failure.
In Baker Street someone is reading and clipping from the newspaper.
SIR HENRY BASKERVILLE ARRIVING FROM CANADA
Young Heir Will Assume Title and Estates
DEATH OF THE LATE SIR CHARLES BASKERVILLE STILL A MYSTERY
Doctor Watson is the reader/clipper, and he asks Sherlock Holmes why he wants all these clippings about this Baskerville fellow. Holmes replies that it is his conjecture that the new heir to the Baskerville estate will be murdered, possibly even before he leaves London for Dartmoor. Mrs. Hudson (Mary Gordon) comes in carrying a walking stick and tells Holmes that a man came to see him while he was out and then forgot his stick. Holmes takes this an an opportunity to resume training Watson in observation and interpretation. Watson states his conclusions and Holmes praises some, but corrects most. This scene is very well-written and well-acted.
Dr. Mortimer returns and asks Holmes for help, saying he fears for Sir Henry’s life, and asking Holmes to come with him to meet the young man. Sir Henry’s arrival at the boat dock shows him to be a genuinely nice person and a good tipper. They go to the hotel to meet Sir Henry and learn that one of his brand-new boots has been stolen. Later it is returned and one of his old boots goes missing. Holmes agrees to investigate, but sends Watson on the train with Mortimer and Baskerville, saying he has urgent business which he will have to complete before he can leave London. So this becomes Watson’s case.
Very good script and direction and very good performances from everyone involved make this a must-see. And of course the first appearance of Rathbone and Bruce in the roles that they continued to play for thirteen more films makes this film as important as it is entertaining.