Given Sherlock Holmes is an English creation, I thought Silver Blaze would be a solid, thoughtful portrayal of the Empire’s most famous son. He’s still the most famous, right? But it isn’t. Silver Blaze actually follows the Marx Brothers rule of giving the romantic leads more to do. Here it’s Judy Gunn and Arthur Macrae. He’s a wealthy young man with a gambling problem, she’s the young heiress who loves him (and forgives that gambling problem once she finds out about it). The romance isn’t compelling, nor are their troubles, but they’re film standards. It’s exactly what one would expect from a couple of their position. The unexpected diversion is the lengthy sequence laying out the scene of the crime before it happens. It goes on and on–and all of it is wasted time, as Holmes’s eventual solution reveals.
But these scenes are at least interesting. Is Macrae the killer, will Gunn accept him, will they find happiness? Those three questions are infinitely more interesting than what Holmes does in the film. And the long scene with the trainer’s household is good stuff. The British approach to Holmes, however, appears to turn him into a serial hero–complete with a supervillain (Lyn Harding) who has a secret hide-out. It’s Sherlock Holmes for kiddies, the Saturday morning crowd, which is fine if it’s how the entire film’s set-up… but Silver Blaze doesn’t start out so insipid.
There are some fantastic sequences from the filmmaking standpoint. The British filmmakers of the 1930s had a definite style and Silver Blaze does feature some of it. The scenes on the moor–though obviously on a set, it’s detailed in such a way to defy the viewer to disbelieve it. Unfortunately, the location scenes poorly mesh with the studio-shot outdoors scenes and it gives Blaze a frequently disjointed feel. There are also some great camera moves, which make up for director Bentley’s overuse of the indoors long shot–the actors having no idea what to do with their hands, particularly Ian Fleming as Dr. Watson (but the awkward hands are the least of Fleming’s performance’s problems). But there’s good sound design too, which is nice and effective… until it all comes apart.
Once Silver Blaze solves the original story and gets to the added elements (Harding as Professor Moriarty), it goes to pieces. With the exception of Sherlock Holmes making untoward comments to his housekeeper, there’s nothing good in the last ten minutes of the film–and a lot happens in the last ten minutes.
As Holmes, Arthur Wontner is middling. He can deliver the lines, but he never seems very smart. And he gets real annoying with all the catchphrases, which are the script’s fault, but something about Wontner’s delivery makes them even more annoying. Fleming is useless as Watson. Harding’s performance seems to be the basis for the Hamburgler. The supporting cast is mediocre, but generally fine.
The film’s compelling as a seventy-minute diversion–though I suppose if one knows the solution to the crime, there isn’t much to see. It’s never terrible until the end, when it just keeps getting worse and worse.
Directed by Thomas Bentley; screenplay by H. Fowler Mear and Arthur Macrae, based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle; director of photography, Sydney Blythe; edited by Michael C. Chorlton and Alan Smith; produced by Julius Hagen; released by Associated British Picture Corporation.
Starring Arthur Wontner (Sherlock Holmes), Ian Fleming (Dr. Watson), Lyn Harding (Prof. Moriarty), John Turnbull (Inspector Lestrade), Robert Horton (Col. Ross), Lawrence Grossmith (Sir Henry Baskerville), Judy Gunn (Diana Baskerville), Arthur Macrae (Jack Trevor), Arthur Goullet (Col. Moran), Martin Walker (James Straker), Eve Gray (Mrs. Straker), Gilbert Davis (Miles Stanford), Minnie Rayner (Mrs. Hudson), D.J. Williams (Silas Brown) and Ralph Truman (Bert Prince).