Sunday, October 3, 2010

Study in Scarlet (1933)


I'm familiar with Reginald Owen from his work on "The Christmas Carol". I was intrigued by the idea of him taking on Sherlock Holmes. I'm not familiar with the original story that this film is based on, but things start off with murder - so the film makers are at least on the right track. Lets see how this latest offering from the 100 Mystery Classics box set stacks up.


When a widow comes to Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen) complaining that her husband died and all of his estate was going to a mysterious group called The Scarlet Circle, Holmes is intrigued. Turns out he already has suspicions about the sleazy lawyer Merrydew (Allan Dinehart). The plot thickens as more deaths occur and the lovely young Eileen (June Clyde) may be a witness. Holmes tracks down clues, dons disguises and even draws a pistol in his attempt to save lives and solve the mystery of the "Study in Scarlet".

Good Points:

  • Retains the personality and feel of Sherlock Holmes from the works of Doyle.
  • Moves at a pretty good pace
  • The ending held a few surprises

Bad Points:

  • Some of the humor falls flat
  • Owen's portrayal makes Holmes too cold
  • Watson seems to be a third wheel for most of the film.


This movie presented an intriguing mystery that did a good job of putting a good twist at the end. It was easy to spot the villain, but I didn't figure the entire mystery out. A few of the comic sequences didn't work for me and ended up slowing the film down a bit, but other than that this is an interesting take on the classic character. Worth seeking out if you can enjoy 30's style mystery.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 3

Sound: 2

Music: n/a

Acting: 3

Script: 4

Direction: 3

Entertainment: 3

Overall: 3

In-Depth Review

While I've never been a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, it's hard to not to be familiar with his adventures and perhaps seen some of his film or television exploits. My wife is the one who's read all of the Holmes stories and is fairly familiar with most of the incarnations of the detective. But she had never seen Owen's take on the character.

The first thing she pointed out was that Owen has Holmes smoking the type of pipe described in the books. The familiar curved pipe does not appear in the stories and was an addition made by a famous stage production. This was continued by Basil Rathbone in his movies and became the accepted type of pipe used nearly all incarnations of the character. But this 30's version uses the straight pipe from the books. Don’t you feel better now that you know that?

Things continue in that fashion from there. Owen makes Holmes brusque, calculating and a bit on the snobby side. He moves around the sets looking for clues like a hunter, moving from place to place with precision and determination. While he doesn't taunt Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble) or treat him like an imbecile, he does give off an air of superiority. He basically treats Watson like an apprentice of sorts. It's an interesting portrayal, and one that isn't too far from what I'm familiar with. My only issue is that this incarnation of Holmes may be too cold and even intimidating at times. Not the kind of man you'd feel comfortable hiring. I find Rathbone's take on the character a bit more engaging.

For the most part the rest of the cast is good. Dinehart provides us with a sleazy villain that you just want to get nabbed. If he had a moustache, he'd be twirling it. Gamble isn't given too much to do as Watson, but he doesn't play him like an idiot (as I've seen in several incarnations), so that's a step in the right direction. On the other hand, he doesn't really help too much either. He's just kind of there, taking up space. June Clyde is all right as Eileen Forrester, our damousel in distress. She's bland, but again, there isn't much for her to actually do. I was honestly surprised to see Anna May Wong playing Mrs. Pyke. It's not often you see actual Asian actresses in 30's movies. She's cast as the femme fatale, unfortunately she's not very good in the role.

One of the interesting points is that "A Study in Scarlet" is actually a contemporary take on Holmes. That means the movie takes place in 1933, so all the Victorian trappings are gone. All the men are wearing fedoras and the ladies look very nice in their depression era hats. Maybe this was done for budgetary reasons, and it proves an interesting point that Holmes as a character can work in any environment. For the most part the production level is solid visually, it's just a little odd to not have those Victorian touches.

The sound is a little rougher. Most of the time dialogue was clear, but there seemed to be issues with the microphones picking up every little creak in the set or squeak of a boot. This could make a few scenes tough to hear. On top of that, there is no score outside opening and closing titles. This is typical of 30's movies and I don't allow it to affect the score.

The script was interesting. According to IMDB, the plot for this movie has nothing to do with the actual story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead the writers come up with an interesting mystery that kept me guessing. It's obvious very quickly that Merrydew is up to no good. But it’s difficult to see just how he is involved. Once Holmes reveals the solution at the end, I saw how it all fit together, but the writers did a good job throwing you and Watson off the scent (but there are couple cheats here and there). The dialogue is pretty good, with the only weak part being the humor. Again with the comedy of booze. This seems to be a staple of 30's flicks and I have yet to find it funny. It shows up here and it does slow down the film a bit.

The direction is solid, with Edwin Marin keeping things moving and allowing the mystery to play out clearly enough so the audience can follow it. Things never get too inventive with camera angles or lighting, so atmosphere isn't a big deal here. It's a solid job, one that doesn't really hurt the film, but makes you wish a little style had been added.

The movie was entertaining, a good weekend movie for a lazy Sunday. While it may not be the quickest paced film, or even the most ingenious of mysteries, the final product will scratch that itch for Sherlock Holmes. Anyone looking for a change of pace should check out Reginald Owen's take on the famous detective.

James Lileks wasn't so hot on this one. Check out his review here.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this in many years, but my response was similar. The timelessness of Sherlock is shown in the Basil Rathbone series of films. The first two, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, are set in the 19th century while the rest are in the 1940s. No one seemed to care.