Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1939)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), directed by Sidney Lanfield.

The first Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. A loose adaptation, it still gets many things right and I think it is the best film version. Much as I like Jeremy Brett, Rathbone might be the best Holmes and the one most like the original stories.

The dark and brooding atmosphere is excellent. The sound-stage moors, always foggy and where "the powers of evil are exalted", are pretty amazing, both dramatic and dream-like. They have neolithic ruins, modern cemeteries, and the Great Grimpen Mire.

With Richard Greene and John Carradine.

When I first read the story I had somehow forgotten the film versions and presumed the Hound was a hoax of some sort. When it actually appeared: that was a thrill.


This is an opportunity for some Holmes notes.

I didn't follow discussions about the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr, but I presume there was much debate about similarities and differences between it and the written stories and other film and TV versions.

I read through the original stories recently and noted down some things that I did not remember about Sherlock Holmes:

He was a proficient in boxing, fencing, and single-stick.

Watson said he was one of the three finest boxers in his weight class he had ever seen. He was six feet tall and lean; I'm not sure what class that was.

The stories don't specify bareknuckles boxing. That became illegal just a few years before the stories were written.

McMurdo, the spitting boxer from the Ritchie film, appears in the The Sign of the Four:


[Holmes]: "I don't think you can have forgotten me. Don't you remember that amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison's rooms on the night of your benefit four years back?"

"Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!" roared the prize-fighter. "God's truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o' standin' there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I'd ha' known you without a question. Ah, you're one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy."

"You see, Watson, if all else fails me, I have still one of the scientific professions open to me," said Holmes, laughing.

Contrary to the movie, they first met Watson's future wife, Mary Morstan, as their client in The Sign of the Four. She died during that period after The Final Problem when Holmes was away, pretending to be dead.

In a lot of the stories Watson is not living at Baker Street, but elsewhere with his wife, or on his own. He isn't even in some stories; Holmes relates them to him afterwards. A couple of the stories are written from Holmes' point of view.

Holmes was in active practice for 23 years. A lot of the villains escape justice, and some of his clients are killed before Holmes can save them. Watson has large files of unsolved cases, and some solved ones that can't be revealed. In one story he issues a warning to an unnamed reader who has been trying to get the papers and destroy them: knock it off or we'll deal with you.

One story features the Ku Klux Klan, and another investigates a vampire. In one case of Edwardian viagra, a man trying to recover his virility is transformed and deranged by taking extracts of monkey glands.

Mycroft says Sherlock will be on the Honors List for retrieving the Bruce Partington submarine plans, indicating an order, decoration, or medal. Maybe a knighthood? Sherlock says he's in it for the game, not the glory. The Queen gives him an emerald tie-pin instead. In a later story Holmes turns down a knighthood, but Watson cannot reveal the details of the case.

He had a cocaine problem in the early years, but Watson helped him get off it. In the later stories Watson worries about Holmes only when he is bored from lack of work.

Watson said Holmes had a constitution of iron, allowing him to go for days without food or sleep while he was on a case. He was beaten badly once and in bed for a week. Watson was grazed by a bullet once.

I don't recall them killing anyone, apart from Tonga in The Sign of the Four. And Prof Moriarity. And the Hound, of course.

In the Ritchie film Watson complains that Holmes is unhygenic, but in the stories he is "clean as a cat." Of course he can be as grubby as necessary while in disguise on the job. And his rooms are often disordered. And he does shoot a pistol in the rooms, writing "VR" (Victoria Regina) on the wall. He pays very high rent.

Holmes would wiggle in his chair when excited. He did not often laugh aloud but had a characteristic silent laugh. He could make visitors, especially women, feel at ease when talking to them. And he was not immune to flattery.

In the first story, A Study in Scarlet, they test a poison by killing Mrs Hudson's dog. She had asked Watson to do it because the animal was old and ailing. There is a passing reference in the recent movie: "You've killed the dog. Again."

Holmes prevented a couple of wars by recovering stolen diplomatic papers.

When he was done (more or less) with detecting he retired to the Sussex coast and became an expert beekeeper, writing books on the topic. (This is where Laurie R. King's Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series picks up). After they had not seen one another for many years, Holmes and Watson reunite on the eve of WW1 when the Prime Minister asks Holmes to penetrate a German spy ring (in His Last Bow).

Lestrade is the Scotland Yard inspector used in most movies, but in the stories there were an assortment of others.

Holmes always read the "agony columns" in newspapers (personal ads, missing persons).

He was particularly proud of his burglary skills. He burgled Prof Moriarity's office just to have a look at his papers.

Moriarity was introduced and killed in the same story: The Final Problem. He is described again in the book length The Valley of Fear which was written later but set earlier.

Holmes always stressed that he did not work for the police. He was content to be his own judge and jury and would sometimes let people go. But in the case of a murderer he had no compunction about handing him over to the official hangman.