“My interest is to bring the criminal to justice.” — Sherlock Holmes (Owen)
A Study in Scarlet came almost in the middle of Arthur Wontner’s five British Sherlock Holmes films, and would be the last American film about the detective until the first of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series, beginning in 1939 with The Hound of the Baskervilles. In the fourteen films divided between 20th Century-Fox and Universal, Rathbone became, many believe, the definitive Holmes.
But A Study in Scarlet, with Reginald Owen as Holmes, is not a totally inconsequential effort, though unfairly neglected and unappreciated. On the plus side, it has moments of convincing Holmsian deductions, a good rendition of an old plot and a certain dark ambiance. On the negative, the twentieth-century setting is off the image, with a thoroughly contemporary Holmes apartment that is uncharacteristically uncluttered. Even the detective’s address is misnumbered 221-A Baker Street instead of, correctly, 221-B.
In Sherlock Holmes (1932), the second of Clive Brook’s two screen impersonations of Holmes, Owen had played Dr. Watson, unfortunately in a blustery manner similar to Bruce. By contrast, in A Study in Scarlet Owen is a surprisingly restrained, almost docile Holmes. He eschews both Rathbone’s subtle put-downs of poor Watson and the physical eccentricities of Jeremy Britt, who would often sit with his feet on the sofa or lounge about in his evening robe, something the gentlemanly Owen would never do.
Although the movie is American produced and American directed (by Edwin L. Marin), many in the largely British cast will be unfamiliar to U.S. audiences. Less obscure actors, however, include Alan Mowbray, Halliwell Hobbes, Hobart Cavanaugh and J. M. Kerrigan. Olaf Hytten, who starred in six of the Rathbone films, has one scene in A Study in Scarlet as the ringleader’s butler.
Anna May Wong, the second-billed star and the first Chinese-American movie star, born in California, is on screen for only about ten minutes. As in many of her films, here she plays a sinister role, with malicious, squinting eyes, much like Gale Sondergaard when she plays Asians, though she had no Oriental parentage. Wong is probably best known for Shanghai Express (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich and, coincidentally, Clive Brook.
To Robert Florey’s screenplay, Owen contributed continuity and dialogue, capturing, to a large extent, the flavor of Holmsian speech. Florey is better remembered as a director, in a variety of genres—Meet Boston Blackie (1941), God Is My Co-Pilot (1945) and The Beast with Five Fingers (1946). The cinematography of Arthur Edeson (The Maltese Falcon , Casablanca ) adds appropriate atmosphere, as do the back-alley and creepy-house sets of Ralph DeLacy.
Primarily a song-writer and uncredited on screen, Van Burton more than likely didn’t write the only music in the film, the main title and the last seconds of the closing scene/“The End”—there is no end cast. The music is possibly the work of someone else, or from anonymous stock material.
A Study in Scarlet would have greatly benefited from a score. Its absence is especially acute in the scene where Holmes explores a creepy old house. He might well look over his shoulder and say, “Come on, fellows, where’s my musical support? I feel naked out here!” The movie-goer, by now, takes for granted the weight of a properly used score, neither too much nor too little, and always appropriate and beneficial. In that same year of 1933, Max Steiner created a milestone score for King Kong, the wall-to-wall music that would soon become more the standard, proving what music can add.
The film’s main title indicates the story is “suggested” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. In fact, the script has little, if anything, to do with the novel, and the plot device of warning a victim of his imminent demise is combined from two other detective stories.
In Doyle’s own The Dancing Men, the omen of death is orange pips in an envelope. Likewise, in the movie the intended victim receives, as in Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, a stanza from a famous nursery rhyme. The Christie novel, please note, came in 1939, six years afterthe film.
A Study in Scarlet begins with the discovery of the body of James Murphy in the locked compartment of a railway carriage at London’s Victoria Station. The death is ruled a suicide.
Responding to a newspaper ad, the six members of The Scarlet Ring meet in a dingy office in Limehouse to divide evenly the shares of another recently deceased member, Arthur Forrester. Also present is Forrester’s daughter, Eileen (June Clyde), who will receive her father’s share and automatically become a Ring member. Presiding is sly lawyer Thaddeus Merrydew (Alan Dinehart).
The widow Murphy (Doris Lloyd) calls at 221-B, requesting Holmes (Owen) recover for her the money Merrydew has seized for the Ring. She shows the detective a stanza of the nursery rhyme her husband had received: “Six little boys/Playing with a hive./A bumblebee stung one,/Then there were five.”
After she has left, Holmes tells Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble) that this is indeed “deep water,” that Merrydew is an arch criminal who has often slipped through his web. “London’s most dangerous crook,” he says, “the king of blackmailers, a gliding, sliding, venomous snake.”
Eileen is an unfortunate witness in Merrydew’s office to the murder of another member of the Ring, a Captain Pyke (Wyndham Standing). “Shot through the heart!” Merrydew says. Moments later, when the body has disappeared, the lawyer tells her it was undoubtedly removed by an accomplice. When the body is later dredged from the Thames, Pyke is identifiable only by his ring, his face battered beyond recognition. Found in his clothes is the next stanza of the nursery rhyme, the remaining little boys reduced by one.
Then follows the murder of another member of the Ring, Malcolm Dearing (Hobbes), who, before he is shot, utters, “No—it’s not possible!” For those skilled in unraveling the complexities of murder mysteries, this line might help to narrow the identity of the murderer.
After a methodical study of the victim’s room and a walk around the outside grounds, Holmes describes the murderer for Inspector Lestrade (Mowbray): “ . . . prime of life, six foot in height, has small feet, wears crab-toed boots, limps slightly on left foot and smokes cigars . . . ” A similar portrait can be found in Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, where Holmes deduces a tall man with a limp, “thick-soled shooting boots” and a smoker.
During the film, an unknown hand marks off each successive victim from a list of names, much as in John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). There the murderer eliminates any fellow prison camp inmates who might remember his betrayal of them when he comes to claim a wealthy inheritance.
Taking up his character’s penchant for disguises, Holmes assumes one and visits a pub to gain the confidence of still-alive Ring member, innkeeper Jabez Wilson (Kerrigan), a Doyle character name lifted from The Red-Headed League. Fortified with a gift of some liquor, Wilsondrives Holmes in a horse cart to The Grange, the home of Pyke. His widow (Wong) is away, but Holmes dupes the maid (Leila Bennett) into leaving the room, so he can search the house. He finds a hidden passage, the brand of cigars found outside Dearing’s home and a way to the outside.
Holmes places an ad in the paper requesting any information about The Scarlet Ring. In a pub, Wilson meets fellow member William Baker (Cecil Reynolds), both concerned that someone knows about the Ring. Merrydew, who is conveniently hiding, steps from the shadows and says the Ring will soon cease to exist, that from the Continent he’s expecting a million pounds, to be divided among the surviving members.
Later, at Merrydew’s, there’s a knock on the door. The person isn’t seen, but Merrydew, looking a little left of the camera, invites him in and announces that the Ring will meet that night at The Grange.
The police learn of the gathering and surround the place. When Holmes, Lestrade and Wilson arrive, they find Baker dead, also with another stanza of the nursery rhyme. Eileen, brought to the house by Mrs. Pyke, is abducted from her room by a man dressed in black. Ah Yet (Tetsu Komai), another Ring member, with Mrs. Pyke’s help, gains access to Wilson’s room and tries to knife him, but is shot by Holmes.
Eileen is freed, and the man in black captured and brought before Holmes. Holmes tears away his scarf and hat—Captain Pyke, not dead after all! Merrydew arrives, innocently explaining that, after all, he owns the mortgage on the house. Merrydew and Pyke and his wife are arrested for scheming to eliminate members of the Ring to claim the million pounds for themselves.
The romance between Eileen and John Stanford (John Warburton) is tepidly developed in the plot, but her announcement of their engagement provides an affable close to A Study in Scarlet.
“You must invite me to the wedding,” Holmes says to her.
“Perhaps you’ll give me away.”
“I appreciate the compliment, but I never give a lady away, except sometimes professionally.” He turns to Watson. “Come, doctor. They’ll send for you when they need you.”