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Study in Scarlet, A (1933)
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by Jay Seaver

"A study in missed opportunities."
2 stars

One would imagine "A Study in Scarlet" to be one of the most frequently adapted Sherlock Holmes stories. It's novel-length, the first one written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and the one where Holmes first made the acquaintance of Dr. John H. Watson. Adaptations are rare, though; even the very faithful television series starring Jeremy Brett skipped over it. And, of course, there's an argument to be made that even this 1933 film doesn't actually have much to do with it.

We start in London's Victoria Station; the sleeping compartment of a train is locked up tight, and when the conductor breaks in, he finds the body of a man who apparently hanged himself. Later, across town, Miss Eileen Forrester (June Clyde) arrives with her fiancé for a meeting of the secret society to which the dead man and her own late father belonged. The group's leader, Merrydew (Alan Dinehart) declares that the dead man's share of the group's wealth will be divided among the seven remaining members. This doesn't sit so well with the widow, who takes the matter to Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen) and Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble). It may soon have to be divided in even fewer shares, and the widow of the next man to fall, Mrs. Pyke (Anna May Wong), seems rather cool to the interest of Holmes and the police.

It has been some time since I've read the original novel, but I remember it well enough to note that all of its more famous elements are missing: We do not see Holmes and Watson meet and take up residence at 221B Baker Street (the movie gives their address as 221A, for that matter), the German word for "revenge" is not scrawled upon the wall in blood, and the solution of the crime is not interrupted for a long flashback. KBS Productions apparently only secured the rights to the title "A Study in Scarlet", as opposed to the actual story.

That's not necessarily a deal-killer; numerous James Bond movies have had only the most tenuous connection to their namesakes. Unfortunately, the story we get often does not feel very well thought-out at all. There are too many characters, few of them really interesting enough to serve as either victims, villains, or red herrings. The actual villains are mostly obvious enough from the start, and the pacing seems very awkward: It feels as though the film opens with a flurry of murders and then plods along until Holmes announces his findings, rather than building tension or suspense. The last minute twist seems unfair, even considering that "fair play" was never the model for Sherlock Holmes stories or murder mysteries in general at this point in time.

The split of the writing credits is interesting. Robert Florey is credited with the screenplay, while star Reginald Owen has a credit for "continuity & dialogue". It's one of two writing credits the character actor had in his long career, and it gives him a stronger role than most actors in determining the personality of his character. He had also played Watson in another film just a year earlier and had hoped for Scarlet to be the first in a series. With all this in mind, his take on Holmes actually winds up being more sedate than others'; his Sherlock can engage in a conversation without barking or sneering, though he's still always the smartest guy in the room and well aware of that fact. He's confident enough in his portrayal that he doesn't have to remind the audience that he's playing Sherlock Holmes every minute he's on-screen.

The rest of the cast, unfortunately, isn't as good. Warburton Gamble is the sort of Watson who is just there to be talked to; June Clyde and John Warburton are a generically nice young couple; Alan Dinehart is pure smarm as corrupt lawyer Merrydew. Anna May Wong does lend a little class to the film as Mrs. Pyke; it's an ice queen role, but the actress manages to invest it with a history. There are also a number of broad comic relief characters that show up in the middle, padding the film out a bit.

It's a shame that this version of "A Study in Scarlet" turned out so disappointing; it's easy to get the impression that Owen was a fan who tried to play Holmes as a believable character, and maybe with a better story this could have been the start of a series to rival those starring Wontner and Rathbone. That didn't happen, though, and on its own, "Scarlet" wound up sinking into relatively deserved obscurity.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20006&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/04/09 00:00:00
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User Comments

12/22/11 Craig D. Owen and Wong are good but the mystery is dull 3 stars
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