In which we discuss Peter Pan and opera. Then Holmes and Watson journey to (of all places) Canada and investigate one of their darkest, most terrifying mysteries yet.
They (whoever they are) say that it’s all about who you know. If Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t already one of the most famous men in his day, then he wouldn’t have to worry about knowing the right people. He rubbed elbows with some of literature’s finest figures…
Nick: The names read off like a ‘who’s who’ of Victorian literature: Arthur Conan Doyle. Oscar Wilde. J.M. Barrie. Robert Louis Stevenson. Bram Stoker. All of them were friends. It sort of boggles the mind!
Cat: It does, but honestly? It is really satisfying to know that that’s true and that they were all buddies, some of them even all playing in the same cricket league at one point or another. I can only liken the feeling to when you watch a movie and there are two or more actors who either play best friends, or characters in a relationship - and then you find out that it’s true in real life, off screen. It just makes you feel like all is right in the world. Or, at least, it was, considering that was over a hundred years ago, but I digress.
|Oh, how we would have loved to have been flies on the wall|
Nick: Well, here’s the part which I enjoy the most (and you can surely fill me on more information as you are the resident J.M. Barrie expert in the room), but Doyle and Barrie actually - for a time - collaborated on an opera together. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during those collaborative sessions.
Cat: Yeah, funny story about that: so J.M. Barrie was working on an opera for awhile...and then kinda got sick of it and so frustrated that he handed it over to our friend, ACD, to finish it. Not entirely sure how that all went down creatively (I get the feeling that Barrie literally wanted this thing as far away from him as possible at this point), but the fact that that is a true story is as hilarious as it is awesome. I can only hope we’ll reach that level of friendship some day, Nick.
Nick: I do too and, honestly, I don’t think we’re far off from that point. Now, here is another question to which you can apply your Barrie knowledge: Does Barrie have the same sort of following as Doyle does? I mean, Peter Pan is a part of our culture in the same way that Sherlock Holmes is, but are there fan societies devoted to the work of J.M. Barrie and the boy who wouldn’t grow up? (I’m always looking to expand my nerdy knowledge.)
|J.M. Barrie - The Man Who Never Grew Up|
Cat: That I don’t know about. I mean, there’s me. And other souls who share the same fascination as me. But in terms of anything scholarly, I don’t know. If there are, then I want to join. There are a couple individuals who have focused a lot on Barrie himself and how Peter Pan fit into his life and all though! (For a class somewhat recently, I did a research project about Barrie’s life and this one website I found was sort of a motherload of J.M. Barrie knowledge: to keep from geeking out too much, it had digital copies of TONS of important documents relating to Barrie, including letters and other things. It was super cool. For those interested, this is the link.)
Nick: That sounds like the Peter Pan holy grail! I must make a confession: I was not raised on Disney movies as a child (when I was six my mother took me to see the original Dracula for Halloween which more-or-less influenced the rest of my life) so I do not know my Peter Pan mythos as well as the rest of the world. But, I can certainly appreciate the enthusiasm on the part of much of the world. We geeky obsessives do have to stick together.
Cat: We are kind of all we’ve got. :’)
Nick and Cat could go on for ages talking about these literary figures and their various exploits. However, there’s a movie to discuss today and it’s arguably the best of the Rathbone/Bruce series.
The Scarlet Claw (1944)
Major motion picture
Starring Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Gerald Hamer (Potts), Paul Cavanaugh (Lord Penrose), Arthur Hohl (Journet), Kay Harding (Marie Journet), Miles Mander (Judge Brisson)
74 minutes, black-and-white
Nick: Well, we’ve finally arrived at what many consider to be the high-point of the Rathbone/Bruce series. The Scarlet Claw is perhaps the finest film in the Universal Holmes series and it is surely the darkest and perhaps most polished production. It’s one of my favorites to be sure.
Cat: It was certainly quite good - and I was incredibly surprised to find out that it was not based on one of the cannon stories! (And no, I wouldn’t have known that right off the bat - I’m still learning here.)
Nick: Well, it may not have been based on one of the original stories, but the film owes a lot to The Hound of the Baskervilles. The tone for one is derived from the novel what with this film’s dark, cloying sense of foreboding and mystery. The fact that something supernatural could be responsible for the deaths in the Canadian village is not unlike Hound either, though that idea is sort of dropped halfway through. The biggest debt which The Scarlet Claw owes to Hound though is the fact that the legendary monster which is recreated by the murderer (who we’ll get to later) glows brightly with phosphorous. In the original novel, the hound is coated in phosphorous to make it glow and appear more ghostlike.
|It glows in the dark...and kills people|
Cat: It definitely does. And I felt, like with Hound, the possibility that something supernatural might be at work was handled just right: it never felt like it was turning into something like Scooby Doo or anything like that. (Though Scooby Doo rocks.) I, for one, really enjoyed that aspect especially. Since there wasn’t anything (aside from Hound for inspiration) to necessarily base this plot or tone off of, I felt like the filmmakers really handled that aspect very, very well.
We’re usually pretty spoiler heavy on this blog, but we feel the need to insert an extra spoiler warning in here as this film’s plot does contain some genuinely surprising twists. If you haven’t done yourself the pleasure of watching The Scarlet Claw yet, then please do before continuing...
Nick: The supernatural aspect is handled really well in this movie, but when that aspect of the plot is dispensed, I think the movie actually really hits its stride. The central concept - of the murderous actor adopting a number of disguises to commit his crimes - is a really neat idea and it’s handled really well. It’s a testament to actor Gerald Hamer that he is able to be on screen (with a close-up on his face) as he’s wearing a disguise and still manage to throw the viewer off the scent!
Cat: I’m not going to lie: I didn’t even try to keep up with figuring out whodunit once disguises were involved. My track record with seeing through disguises has honestly been a little all over the place. However, I entirely agree that both the concept and the execution here were really well done!
Nick: Well, for me at least, it’s fun to watch these movies with someone whose seeing-through- disguises track record is sketchy. I got to see many surprised reactions. Anyway, the disguise aspect of the plot does allow for one of the film’s highlights (and honestly one of the highlights of the entire series): The vengeful actor Ramson disguising himself as the housekeeper to Judge Brisson and brutally murdering him with a garden weeder. It’s a truly scary scene, and really lingers in the memory.
Cat: You’re just saying that because I’m melodramatic and gullible, Nick. (Glad I amuse though.) And that was CREEPY, okay? Super, super, really creepy - and I honestly kinda wish there were few more moments like that scattered throughout, because it was just that good. I think what was so effective about it was the way that it showed exactly why a murderer that adopts multiple disguises is such a terrifying concept.
Nick: It’s certainly the most overtly terrifying scene in the movie. I have read more than one Sherlock Holmes commentator compare the scene with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (in both the relative gruesomeness of the whole thing and a man adopting women’s clothing to do murder), and it’s an accurate description. It’s even more interesting to note that this movie came out 16 years before what is arguably Hitchcock’s most famous movie. But, while the murder scenes are perhaps most memorable about The Scarlet Claw, the sense of dread which pervades the film makes it feel even creepier. I mean, this movie kills off the central, innocent female character who is little more than a teenager. That was unheard of in 1944 and it makes this movie feel particularly nasty.
Cat: (Here is where Cat admits reluctantly that she actually has never seen Psycho and is in fact a tiny bit uncultured in the world of cinema, so she’s just going to go along with whatever Nick says.) That was just really sad, honestly. She totally didn’t deserve it! :’(
Nick: Our next blog can be devoted to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. (I can only imagine what’s going through Catharine’s head now.) But, yeah, this movie is bleak. You have never felt the need for some of Nigel Bruce’s comic relief more.
Cat: We really need to keep a running list going for our next potential blog. Yes, we’ve discussed this in great detail. And yes, almost everything is stuff Nick has seen that I have not. (I just can’t win, unless I want to try to convince Nick that a blog about Disney movies would give him the childhood that he missed out on. That debate is still an ongoing helplessly lost cause…) Nigel Bruce and his comic relief makes everything better. The one part that I took note of however that did not make everything all better was when Watson got a cold after a mishap on the marshes. I have never so strongly felt the need to travel back in time for the sake of giving someone a hug. I think this just strengthens my belief that all medical professionals make really lousy/pathetic patients.
Nick: That makes me very happy because only a few short months ago you were not the president of the Nigel Bruce Fan Club and now you wish to travel back in time and give him a hug! How wonderful! Well, let’s cheer ourselves up a bit: Canada. Who would ever have thought that Holmes and Watson would travel to the land of maple syrup and moose?
Cat: Why not though? If they can make it to Washington D.C., they can make it anywhere! Though I was greatly amused by the fact that the film opened with the Royal Canadian Occult Society. I don’t know how one goes about getting membership, but I want in. Just...Canada!
Nick: I have nothing against Canada (thought I should mention that). And I agree, of all places Holmes would go as a guest, the Royal Canadian Occult Society is certainly a curious one. And, I mean, the fact that Canada is the setting is pretty unimportant to the plot. For all intents-and-purposes, the setting could be in the English countryside. Although, the little Canadian town where the majority of the movie is set is called La Mort Rouge which literally translates to “The Red Death.” Actually (historical background time), this film started out as yet another Holmes vs. Moriarty movie simply entitled Sherlock Holmes in Canada. Along the way, just about everything about the film changed...except for the Canadian setting.
Cat: Aww man, really?! Not that I’m unhappy with the final product, but I can’t believe we missed out on another Rathbone Holmes vs. Moriarty movie! At least we still got Canada.
Nick: Well, don’t worry, Catharine. There’s one more Rathbone Holmes vs. Moriarty movie and it’s quite a doozy. Well, let’s talk about some of the actors real quick because I do think this is one of the most well acted films in the Universal series. I have to single out Arthur Hohl (who played spider expert Gilflower in The Spider Woman) as Journet, the reddest of red herrings. Hohl is really good; especially at the very end when he kills the murderer with his own murder weapon (the same weapon which killed Journet’s daughter). And, of course, the aforementioned Gerald Hamer as the killer is amazing. He’s really quite evil.
Cat: I actually particularly enjoyed Kay Harding’s performance as Marie. I thought she balanced between being mysteriously skittish about the matters at hand and sweet and endearing very well. And then they killed her. (Why is it every character I like ends up dead?)
Nick: That is a question I cannot possibly answer. But Kay Harding does a really good job in this movie. I don’t know any of her other movie credits off the top of my head, but she does make you sympathize with her character which makes her surprising death even worse.
Before we start up again on this film’s bleak moments, let’s move onto Final Thoughts:
Nick: While I don’t think I can call The Scarlet Claw my favorite of the Rathbone Holmes films, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was near the top. And it may very well be - in my mind - the best-looking and most handsomely produced film in the series. The story is original and dark and it is interesting to see Holmes cross paths with a truly psychopathic killer. As I mentioned when it comes to the death of Judge Brisson, this movie has scenes which linger long in the memory and can still raise goosebumps. (Just thinking about Holmes helplessly standing by as the Judge is murdered is a chilling thought.) The Scarlet Claw is just an all around really good entry in the series. Certainly one of my favorites. And you Catharine? Final Thoughts?
Cat: I think I’m very much in the same boat as you - while I can honestly say that I don’t think this particular flick has worked its way into my favorites, I certainly admire the evident creativity and hardwork. It’s well acted, extremely well written, and has what I think is a very unique mood. (Whether or not this is because the film is set in Canada is unknown...) I also do want to take a moment to highlight something that I thought was particularly cool that is, in my mind, a great example for how much attention the film received behind the scenes. During the initial “marsh manhunt” scene where Holmes and then Watson are chasing after the supposedly supernatural killer, they see him in all his glowing glory. The effect they use to light him up like a glowstick is brief, but really well done and really effective. There’s lots of little moments like that (for me, at least) throughout the movie that keep things interesting and engaging.
Nick: Yes! Wonderful shout out to the Special Effects department (headed by John P. Fulton who did some amazing things for Universal’s Invisible Man series.) Okay, so the moment of truth: How many deerstalkers does The Scarlet Claw receive?
Cat: Despite just singing the movie’s praises, I think I have to go with a very solid 4 out of 5 deerstalkers for The Scarlet Claw. While this movie was really good in my opinion, I feel like it’s something that is best appreciated when you’re more familiar with the Rathbone series. That’s not a bad thing though! But I do feel like that note is what’s holding me back from rating it higher. How about you, Nick? What’s your deerstalker rating?
Nick: This one is definitely one of the best of the series and, in all honesty, one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes film period. Not top five worthy, but certainly top ten. It’s a 4.5 out of 5 from me.
With another movie reviewed, Cat and I are off to emulate Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie and attempt to collaborate on an opera. How that will end is anyone’s guess...Actually, that’s a bad idea. We should stick to simply watching and discussing Sherlock Holmes films.
Next Time: A cursed pearl and snapped spines