Hugh Hefner restores Sherlock Holmes film to glory
Hugh Hefner was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan before his death and threw money at the UCLA film archive to restore many of the Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce movies to spectacular condition. The Scarlet Claw (1944) was in very poor condition and Hefner covered 50 percent of the costs from 1993 to 1995, when the UCLA Archive restored it, along with other Rathbone Sherlock films from the 30s and 40s. The first six Sherlock Holmes films were completed after four years and put into a DVD master collection.
The Scarlet Claw is the eighth Rathbone/Bruce collaboration in the Holmes series, but this one was distributed by Universal pictures. Universal made twelve Holmes movies in total, quite a large number, and they each vary in quality. I’m not sure which are best, but the first couple by Fox set the standard, so Universal had a high mark to reach by the time they made theirs.
This film may as well be blamed for plagiarism, because many elements in The Scarlet Claw are copied directly from Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. There’s a monster, an escape convict, and a deadly marsh, all very similar elements as compared to Hound. It is not original in the least, but the location and the characters at least prevent it from being a rerun.
The reason I like Fox’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) is that it tries to be the Victorian era Sherlock Holmes, complete with all the elements we love. Not so with Universal’s Holmes films, which are set during World War II. This story isn’t even set in London. It takes place in Montreal, of all places.
There are some things to like about this film, but several are jarringly stupid. However, there are less stupid things than in most Basil Rathbone films, so at least that’s something, I guess. To be honest, I’d rather watch a Jeremy Brett episode than a Basil Rathbone film, but I sometimes I watch Rathbone for a change of pace. Basil Rathbone always tries his best and you can often see when he is really giving it his all. He’s a stage actor like Jeremy Brett, and his best performance was probably in The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. He doesn’t have the greatest “range” in the world and the latter part of his career was filled with horrible movies, but there are worse actors, I would say.
To begin his case, Holmes gets a letter from Lady Penrose, who has already died, and he investigates her death. That’s pretty much the plot of this movie. The change in scenery from London to Montreal gives Holmes and Watson a chance to move around in a new environment, which is why it’s so disappointing they repeat some of the same things from Hound. The architecture is pretty well-done, but there’s a typical marsh, as seen in every other mystery movie. Lord Penrose attributes his wife’s death to a spiritual animal, which is strange. Being a logical man, Holmes dismisses a supernatural explanation.
Nigel Bruce is again used in a comedy role, which is only outdone by other, even more stupid characters. For example, as Watson has a drink in the inn, a drunk man talks nonsensically about waiting for his bus. He slurs his speech and talks about the bus hooting and honking its horn, which is supposed to be funny, I guess. The comedy just plays to the lowest common denominator, and I’ve never liked it in any Basil Rathbone movie, much less this one.
Holmes investigates the ghostly monster, which is the same thing he did in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was also a movie starring Basil Rathbone. I wonder if Rathbone had flashbacks. In any case, he wanders through a marsh instead of a moor, and scary music plays. Holmes takes a shot at a spirit doing a run-by, but Watson bumbles in and prevents a chase. Holmes recovers a piece of cloth covered in fluorescent paint and knows at once that a man was running around posing as the so-called monster, debunking the supernatural monster at the 30 minute mark.
Holmes uncovers the plot of Alistar Ramson, who has taken several identities in the village, to manipulate people and events. It is a bit far-fetched to think one man could disguise himself as many and no one would notice, but I guess that’s Universal for ya. Watson is used several more times to bumble through a scene and let the villain escape.
The last part of the movie is a find-the-hidden-villain caper, as he tries to hide in plain sight. Since Holmes doesn’t know what he really looks like, his disguise could be of anyone. It is an exciting premise and I think it works best in the final scene, where Holmes uses the inn-keeper as bait, because the murderer wants him dead like fred. I’m not sure if I believe Sherlock Holmes would use a man as bait this way, but he seems unable to catch him any other way.
After Holmes catches the villain, there is a Scooby-Doo ending, and the villain explains his plot. Afterward, he runs off like a scared rabbit, but Holmes whistles for the police, who surround the marsh. The man he has wronged kills him, perhaps in self-defense. Holmes and Watson head home, satisfied now that they’ve put an end to the man-in-disguise, his plots, and his monster.
This movie is a little better than most Rathbone movies, but not by much. The comedy is still pretty dumb and the acting is still pretty wooden, but the story is decent, which is something. In review of this film, Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune (May 20, 1944) said, “Basil Rathbone plays Holmes with a rather tired approach to the project of solving several murders in a village near Quebec. Nigel Bruce…does almost nothing to enliven the proceedings.”. I agree that this movie is pretty dry, but it is somewhat entertaining in parts, if that’s even a compliment.
Fortunately, this movie has been restored to pristine condition. I just wish there was a serious treatment of Sherlock Holmes by Basil Rathbone that really hits it out of the park, but this one certainly doesn’t do that. It repeats The Hound of the Baskervilles and inserts more stupid comedy to annoy me. Basil Rathbone was a decent actor and deserved more, but I can see why this movie was relegated to second-feature status.