MPI // 1939 // 80 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // July 1st, 2004
The most celebrated tale of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's canon.
If you recall, I mentioned in my review of The Sherlock Holmes DVD Collection: Volume One that the two Holmes films made by Twentieth Century Fox were still controlled by Fox. It turns out I was wrong. MPI has licensed both films for a spiffy new DVD release. Here we turn our attention to the first and best of those films: The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The Baskerville family has allegedly been the victims of a curse. They tend to sudden deaths, supposedly via supernatural happenings. The story picks up as Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) returns to Dartmoor to claim the castle of his recently deceased uncle. Sightings of a ghostly hound bring the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Robin Hood) into the picture. Along with his friend and sidekick Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce, Suspicion), Holmes will uncover something that will not only change everything but will surprise even the most hardened of individuals.
Of all the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not one has been filmed as many times as The Hound of the Baskervilles. From the brilliant 1914 German silent to the horrible 1978 Dudley Moore–Peter Cook spoof, the results always varied. Some were effective, while most were terrible. Great liberties were taken with the source material. For example, the aforementioned 1978 film bears absolutely no resemblance to Doyle's story. While this 1939 American production has its share of changes, it is the most faithful adaptation in terms of tone and atmosphere if not exact events.
The American-made series of Sherlock Holmes films began in 1939, not at Universal but at Twentieth Century Fox. How the series was started is the subject of debate. One popular story claims that Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck ran into Basil Rathbone at a party and got the idea to cast him as Holmes then and there. A more substantiated story, backed up by both the David Stuart Davies commentary track and the DVD liner notes, gives credit to producer Gene Markey. Markey ran into Zanuck and suggested a series of Holmes films starring Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Whatever the true story is, we should get on our knees and give thanks that the stars were aligned in the heavens that year.
There are several differences between The Hound of the Baskervilles and the later Universal series. For Hound and its immediate follow-up, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the studio used the original Victorian setting of the Doyle works. While Basil Rathbone's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes remains essentially the same, Nigel Bruce plays Watson in a more serious, dry tone than he would in the Universal series. Keeping true to the original novel, Holmes is kept offscreen for the first half of the story. Later Holmes films would change the basic stories to allow Holmes to appear all the way through. The tone of the film is markedly darker than the more lighthearted tone of later films.
The performances are all stellar. Basil Rathbone remains the definitive Sherlock Holmes, even with many fine actors having appeared in the role in the past 65 years. He plays Holmes with dignity and intelligence rather than giving into the temptation to ham it up. He proves that audiences can accept an intelligent and unflappable figure with a textured, well-drawn performance. Nigel Bruce makes a good sidekick to Rathbone's Holmes. As I mentioned before, Watson is more sober-minded here, and his performance proves that Bruce could handle straight dramatic material. Richard Greene (Forever Amber) is top billed over Rathbone and Bruce, a fact that will no doubt leave many scratching their heads. He gives a fine performance as the mysterious and sympathetic Henry Baskerville. Also notable is John Carradine in a rare non-horror role as Baskerville butler Barryman (originally "Barrymore" in the novel but changed so as not to offend the Barrymore acting dynasty).
MPI has not spared any effort to give The Hound of the Baskervilles a top-notch DVD treatment. Their restorations of the twelve Universal-made Holmes films were superb, and they have done remarkable work here. For starters, they feature the uncut version of the film. For decades, the film had been trimmed to remove implications of Holmes's drug use. While those moments were restored for the original 1981 CBS Video release, the prints were in shoddy condition. MPI's restoration is stunningly beautiful. The crisp black-and-white photography has been restored to its original sheen. If you have only seen Hound on video or television, you owe it to yourself to see it on DVD. While some blemishes still remain and will most likely never disappear, the extraordinary depth of the original photography has been restored. Blacks and shadows are in perfect contrast. Whites are eerie and luminous. I could go on in my praise but I must move on.
Audio is a simple yet praiseworthy Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix. The Hound of the Baskervilles was released with monaural sound, so to issue the audio any other way would be insane. Those of you who are skeptical that mono can sound great should listen to this or any of the other Holmes discs to dispel that notion. Dialogue is easy to comprehend, and the beautiful and effective score is heard in all its triumphant glory. What more do you want me to say? Other than one glaring glitch that is most likely a flaw in the source material, this is a great sound mix.
MPI has even provided some extra content. Holmes historian David Stuart Davies is once again called into action to provide a feature-length commentary track. His tracks for previous Holmes discs were classics, but his track for The Hound of the Baskervilles is even better. Armed with enough inside information to fill a book, Davies combines his knowledge with a genial, easygoing delivery that will have you listening to this track again and again. MPI also treats us to several theatrical trailers, for both this film and other Holmes films. The trailers are in full frame and in rough shape, but it is better to have them this way than not at all. A lively photo gallery concludes the extra content.
MPI offers this classic gem for a $19.99 suggested retail price. I'm not asking you to rush out and buy this disc. I'm telling you to. The remarkable restoration is more than worth the money. Holmes fans will need no encouragement.
All parties are acquitted. I pronounce the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles closed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Feature Commentary with David Stuart Davies
* Theatrical Trailers
* Photo Gallery