A Study In Scarlet (1933)

‘Come, Watson, the games afoot!’

The widow of an apparent suicide brings in Sherlock Holmes when she is swindled by a shady lawyer. The great detective discovers that the murdered man was part of a secret society, whose members are dying one by one…

Detective mystery ‘suggested’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel. In fact it bares no resemblance to it all; the producers having merely bought the rights to the title. Instead we get a mixture of elements from ‘The Sign of the Four’, ‘The Five Orange Pips’ and ‘Charles Augustus Milverton.’

Holmes is played by Reginald Owen, who had previously played Watson opposite Clive Brook. Owen co-authored the final script with intended director Robert Florey, who had helmed the creepy Bela Lugosi vehicle ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1932). Unfortunately, the producers of the film gave the duo only a week to crowbar in a character for Anna May Wong, cinema’s first Chinese-American star, whose services they had managed to secure on short notice. As a result, the story is uneven at best; both convoluted and oddly transparent. Florey left the project after being offered a contract at another studio and Edwin L Marin was drafted in as a replacement. He’d also directed Lugosi in the much less impressive ‘The Death Kiss’ (1932).

Owen was hoping this would be the first in a series, but it was not to be. He was adequate in the role but failed to put his own stamp on the character and the studio had folded by the time the film was released. Additionally, Arthur Wotner was quite rightly regarded as the definitive Holmes of the time.

What interest the film holds today is mainly for its supporting cast. Wong had been relegated to generic ‘Dragon Lady’ parts by this time and, despite being a vocal opponent of racial stereotyping, she was criticised by her own community for appearing in such roles. Elsewhere we have some faces who turned up later in the Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series: playing Inspector Lestrade is Alan Mowbray, who features strongly as Major Duncan Bleak in ‘Terror By Night (1946) and Halliwell Hobbes, brilliant as the drunken butler in ‘Sherlock Holmes Faces Death’ (1943). Sitting in the local pub is Billy Bevan (and his impressive moustache) who also appeared in ‘Terror By Night’ (1946) and as a Police Constable in ‘The Pearl of Death’ (1946) (“…and I makes the pinch right ‘ere!”)

'Lord luv a duck, Mr. 'Omes, up the apples and pears...

‘Lord luv a duck, Mr. ‘Omes, up the apples and pears…

Despite a passing similarity to another Rathbone-Bruce entry, (‘The House of Fear’ (1945)) this is very tepid, rather dull material. Holmes comes across as merely a bit more competent than the official forces and the mystery is somewhat less than engaging. Watson is also a strangely colourless character and is given very little to do. Considering that Owen had played that role before, it’s surprising that he seems less than aware that the dynamic between the two characters is essential to their successful portrayal.

An interesting footnote is that the killer’s victims all receive a warning note in the form of a poem. Each verse begins with a line about a decreasing number of ‘little black boys’ and what they are up to. This is strikingly similar to the device used by Agatha Christie in her novel ‘And Then There Were None’/’Ten Little Indians’. Which wasn’t published until 1939…

Buy ‘A Study In Scarlet’ here

One thought on “A Study In Scarlet (1933)

  1. A Study in Scarlet (1933) Review – Pre-Code.Com

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