On March 31st 1939 worldwide cinema audiences were introduced to Sherlock Holmes on the big screen. Basil Rathbone taking on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Victorian detective under the direction of Sidney Lanfield.
At the time of release Rathbone only received second billing, with the top honour going to Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville. In fact Sherlock Holmes was hardly even mentioned in much of the films publicity. However, this first film outing cemented Rathbone as the quintessential screen version of the detective, laying the template for many films to come. Rathbone himself, going on to make another 12 appearances as Sherlock Holmes on the big screen.
At 80 years old, the first cinematic leap into Sherlock Holmes still looks glorious, the moors bathed in stark and dream like darkness, playing homage the early Universal horror films of the 1930’s. With 20th Century Fox under the production of Darryl F Zanuck sticking to the Victorian era of the books. Delivering beautifully realised sets, horse and carts and foggy London streets alongside the isolation of the moors. Baskervilles visual style coupled with Lanfield’s theatre based directorial approach, creates a sense of mystery that still keeps a viewers attention 80 years on.
Rathbone’s first portrayal of Holmes lights up the screen, his effervescent personality captivating the audience while owning the character. His peddler disguise mid way through, still one of the high points of the film, showing Rathbone’s ability to portray multiple characters, alongside his roots in Shakespearian theatre.
Alongside Rathbone, Greene, Barrie, Lowry and Bruce all give solid performances with some truly wonderful comedic moments coming from Barlowe Borlands Mr Frankland. However, the films biggest weakness comes from the bumbling and underserved portrayal of Watson, one that would continue to haunt the character for many films to come.
Creating an atmosphere that still feels fresh and timeless when compared to many other films of the era. Lanfield’s version of Hound of Baskervilles is still the best cinematic adaptation of the book, despite a myriad of remakes over the years.