Eille Norwood has the distinction of being the only one of a multitude of silent screen Sherlocks to own the role the way the likes of Rathbone, Brett or Cumberbatch did – eclipsing other contemporary portrayals and becoming the default Holmes for a generation. William Gillette and John Barrymore were bigger stars, but one was recreating his stage hit and the other crammed a Sherlock into a much more complicated screen career – and both drew on Gillette’s play, which should really be seen as the first Holmes pastiche and attempt to add in elements Doyle didn’t include in his originals, rather than the original stories. Norwood and his preferred Watson (Hubert Willis) appeared in three series of short films based on the stories and Norwood starred in two feature films, based on The Hound of the Baskervilles (with the grey, dignified, unmoustached Willis) and The Sign of Four (with the younger Arthur Cullin stepping in to do the romance).
Norwood got the Doyle seal of approval and his performance is sincere, focused and respectful – plus he has the proper beaky nose and casts a striking silhouette, whether seen from a distance on the moors (played by the real Dartmoor, which has rarely been done) or in shadow over a shot of a witness telling his story (one of director Maurice Elvey’s striking touches). As with all Holmes films until 1939, the assumption is that the story takes place in the present – with a motorised bus trundling out to Baskerville Hall and Beryl (Catina Campbell) in bobbed hair and a beret among so many tweedy or stiff-collared men. The story is slimmed down but done straight, which means that Norwood is offscreen for a long stretch while Watson is supposedly handling the sleuthing – indeed, Watson gets to shoot the dog here, while Holmes is off having a fistfight with Stapleton (Lewis Gilbert) in the mire.
It seems that screenwriters William J. Elliott and Dorothy Westlake took it that everyone had read the twenty-year-old novel and don’t bother much with concealing the villain’s identity – he’s seen in a false beard spying on 221B Baker St as Dr Mortimer (Allan Jeayes) and Sir Henry (Rex McDougall) consult Holmes and his lookalike portrait as wicked Sir Hugo is prominently displayed. Most screen Stapletons are exaggeratedly decent chaps in their early scenes, a tipoff as to their ultimate guilt, but Gilbert plays him like a glowering brute of the sort often seen in films of this vintage – it’s not his scheming for the inheritance that makes us hate him, but that he beats up, knocks down and ties up his ‘sister’ (actually wife). Beryl is given some Pearl White-style escaping to do – burning the bonds with a knocked-over candle, tying the sheets into a rope. Barrymore (Fred Raynham), the butler, skulks in sinister fashion and signals to the doomed convict, who is his brother rather than brother-in-law here, but takes part in the rescue of Sir Henry from the dog, which is given an optical glow which comes and goes in the print I saw.
In contrast with Rathbone, who celebrates the solution of the case by demanding ‘the needle’, Norwood signs off by asking for a ‘whiskey and soda’. It’s too swift to be as atmospheric as it might be – the Dartmoor locations, augmented by a prop monolith, could have done with more exploring – but it does rattle along, proving this one of the most indestructible of all stories. Mme d’Esterre, the official Mrs Hudson of the series, appears briefly.