“They were the footprints, Mr. Holmes, of a gigantic hound!”
I don’t remember the first time I read The Hound of the Baskervilles as an impressionable youngster, but the mark it left on me was undeniable. It, and the canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, shaped me as a writer and infused my imagination with mist-tainted moors. Often in my literary career, when contemplating the right setting for a “last confrontation,” my mind has leapt to a foggy moor in England, populated by the shadows of evildoers. For that, I must thank Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his unforgettable sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.
Though I have seen almost every English-language version of Hound in existence, the Basil Rathbone film from 1939 remains one of my favorites. One of fourteen Holmes films starring the same acting duo, it is the best in the series—assisted by its Victorian setting and by being based on a novel rather than a “new” Holmes story. In case you are one of the handful of people who have never read the book or seen an adaptation of it, the story opens with the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, lord of a northern manor amid the “great Grimpton mire.” The lords of this manor have a habit of perishing under a family curse—a monstrous ghost-hound that stalks them to their deaths.
The estate goes to Sir Henry Baskerville, a foreigner who arrives to take possession of the manor, and whom Sherlock Holmes suspects “may also get murdered.” Busy in London on a more important case, he sends his best friend and flat-mate, Dr. John Watson, to the moor to investigate. There, Watson encounters suspicious behaviors from the locals and feels a chill from the eerie wind across the moor. Why, it almost sounds like a hound!
The book is an undisputed classic, even though it has “the least” amount of Sherlock Holmes than any other installment in the canon. It is sinister, evocative, eerie, and grisly. There is a shocking reveal involving someone Sir Henry considers a friend, disguise-related shenanigans, a hilarious moment when a cabbie informs Holmes of the name of the “famous detective” in his cab, and the great “beast-hound.” It’s a splendid book that always makes a brilliant movie, miniseries, or radio adaptation.
The climax of this book, and all the adaptations, is my favorite—a midnight stalk across the moors in the haze. Because the story is so strong, every adaptation that adheres at least somewhat faithfully to the source material is excellent, and the Rathbone-Bruce version is no exception. It has a marvelous cast of characters, from the eccentric “sue-happy” neighbor to the lovely but frightened Beryl Stapleton. Watson in this film is less “bumbling” than later installments, because he has to carry half the plot before Holmes reaches the moors.
The black and white production design suits this story; the time period and camera limitations give it a soft, otherworldly, Victorian glow. It’s beautiful, between candlelight flickers against dirty mullioned windows to the delicate embroidery on a gown, to Holmes in profile watching from the shadows. Though I enjoy a “modernized” Holmes occasionally, for me he belongs in a world of gaslight, hansom cabs, and horse-drawn carriages. He’s a romantic figure—soulful but detached, fond of his dear friend Watson, and possessed of a keen, scrutinizing mind attuned to murder.
Because of censorship the studio made a few changes to the plot. (I reveal spoilers below, so proceed at your own risk.) In the novel, we discover that Beryl Stapleton is only pretending to be Stapleton’s sister; she is his wife and has assisted him against her will. This explains his livid reaction when he finds her and Sir Henry on their walks across the moor. This would have tainted her in the eyes of 1930s censorship boards, so she remains his half-sister (therefore of no relation to Sir Henry and “not of” her brother’s murderous blood) and ignorant of his evil intentions.
The film introduces a séance, either as a tribute to the later fascination Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had with spiritualism, or because it appealed to a modern audience. The local doctor professes an interest in the occult. His wife is a medium whose attempts to reach out to the dead Sir Charles Baskerville elicit a series of eerie, surreal howls among the crags.
On-screen, when his plan to murder Sir Henry fails, Stapleton tries to poison him. Holmes prevents this, but Stapleton flees into the mire. In the book, it’s implied he drowns in the bog because it’s so foggy, he cannot see the usual path markers that would take him safely to where he kept the hound. Stapleton also tempoirarily traps Holmes—he finds the dog’s hideout, leaps into it to investigate, and Stapleton shuts the trapdoor. It’s an odd decision to make, since Holmes is far too clever to fall for that trick, but adds an element of apprehension.
One of the bigger changes also allows for greater suspense. In the book, Holmes and Watson set a trap and kill the hound before it even reaches Sir Henry, preventing him from being mauled almost to death, but on screen, they are late because of a carriage breakdown and must run through the crags, trying to track him by his screams as he fights off the beast. (Almost every adaptation since then has adopted this change.) In the novel, Stapleton coats his monstrous hound in phosphorous to make him seem supernatural, but the studio deemed that “Chief,” the 140 pound Great Dane cast in the role, was ferocious enough to frighten audiences without it. And he is terrifying.
Though making the film was sometimes difficult because of the fog machines, Rathbone and Bruce enjoyed the process. Rathbone asked Bruce to star with him, and they devised a method of dealing with their cranky director, Sidney Langfield, by “taking the entire film in a mood of light-hearted enjoyment,” which baffled Langfield. Used to actor-related huffs, quarreling over how to film certain scenes, and actors who did not care for each other, Langfield did not know what to make of their good-humored amiability. The duo would shake hands after each take and compliment each other’s performance. After a few days of this, Langfield “gave up losing his temper in sheer self defense.”
Some films from the 1930s have not aged well, but Hound has. It remains as wonderful as the day they filmed it. It’s a gorgeous, well-cast, moody experience whose differences from the novel are not so much as to frustrate a canon fan. And it’s scenes upon the eerie, gloomy moors are the first place my mind goes when thinking of Dartmoor.
I wrote this as part of The Code Classics Blogathon. Please click the below link to see more of the entries!