Thursday, August 19, 2004

Silver Blaze

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 August 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Some months ago, WGBH ran The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes and I mentioned that I'd be interested in seeing the other movies in which Arthur Wontner played Holmes. Like Triumph, Silver Blaze has at its core a relatively faithful adaptation of one of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and a decent Holmes/Watson pairing in Wortner and Ian Fleming; unfortunately, the adaptation is a little more problematic.

The main issue, I figure, is that when "Silver Blaze" was first published in 1892, it was a fifteen-page short story, including nine Sidney Paget illustrations. There's a rule of thumb that one page is equal to a minute of screen time, and even if you double that to take into account how dialogue-driven "Silver Blaze" is, that still means this story has to be padded to twice its length just to reach its short (especially for a modern audience) sixty-five minute run time. So we get Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran added to the story, a side-plot featuring Henry Baskerville (from the Hound of the Baskervilles), his daughter, and her fiancé. It's also modernized to the mid-thirties, with liberal use of automobiles and telephones.

Why the producers chose this particular story about a stolen racehorse to adapt is something of a puzzlement, given how ill-suited it is to being stretched to feature length. I suppose that this team had alreay adapted two of the four longer stories (The Valley of Fear and The Sign of Four), while another studio in England had done The Hound of the Baskervilles just five years earlier. Perhaps horse racing was undergoing a surge of popularity in the UK when this was made/released in 1937. It reached the US four years later, under the title Murder at the Baskervilles, presumably to cash in on the popularity of the Rathbone/Bruce version of Hound.

It doesn't help that the cast seems lethargic; Fleming's Watson isn't a buffoon, but his presence barely registers much of the time. There's no real enthusiasm to Wontner's portrayal of Holmes, with the actor just going through the motions most of the time. Lyn Harding chews the scenery in his second go-round as Moriarty, but like everyone else, he draws out his lines a bit, as if the cast and crew is desperate to get the run-time up over an hour.

The end result is a movie that scores two stars on a four star scale - not really actively bad or off-putting, but below average. There are better uses for one's time.

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