A Study in Scarlet [film]

Review by
Robert W. Franson
& Jennifer M. Franson

a Sherlock Holmes mystery

Director: Edwin L. Marin
Writers: Robert Florey, Reginald Owen

  • June Clyde — Eileen Forrester
  • Alan Dinehart — Thaddeus Merrydew
  • Warburton Gamble — Dr. John H. Watson
  • J.M. Kerrigan — Jabez Wilson
  • Alan Mowbray — Inspector Lestrade
  • Reginald Owen — Sherlock Holmes
  • Anna May Wong — Mrs. Pyke

K.B.S. Productions: 1933
black & white

77 minutes December 2008

Not by Conan Doyle

The first disconcerting thing about this film titled A Study in Scarlet is that it bears no resemblance to A. Conan Doyle's story by that name.

This is all to the loss in the movie. Indeed, the short novel A Study in Scarlet is the first-published work with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, and is full of interesting details: how Holmes and Watson met, their move into 221B Baker Street, and a detailed explanation of Holmes' nascent Science of Deduction.

A jewel-thieves' tontine

What this film is about is the fallout from a major jewel theft some years before in China. Back in London, the criminals have bonded in a secret society while the jewels slowly are fenced and converted into cash. This Scarlet Ring keeps in touch via blatantly obvious cryptic messages in the newspapers.

The time bomb in the thieves' ointment is that their society is a tontine: if any member dies, his share will be parceled out among the survivors when the jewel sales are complete. To the surprise of no one except the victims, they begin to be murdered, one by one.

At this point we've become aware of the second problem with this movie: the writing. The plot doesn't hold together, and in fact the writing altogether — plot, setting, motivation, characterization, and dialogue — all are poor. This clearly is not Conan Doyle quality.

The third disastrous realization, growing out of the previous, is that the central and essential character of Sherlock Holmes is very badly presented. It surely is among the worst Holmes versions ever seen on screen, stiff and platitudinous. Actor Reginald Owen is credited with writing the continuity and dialogue. This failure is matched sadly by perhaps the worst Watson; a loyal dog for Holmes to talk to would have served as well.

A secret passage under an abandoned house (which somehow contains a maid-cook busily cooking a large dinner) is a mildly interesting feature, although underutilized by the plot.

Anna May Wong sets up Jabez Wilson

One bright spot in A Study in Scarlet is Anna May Wong in one of her characteristic "dragon lady" roles — in this case, the suspiciously dry-eyed widow of a murder victim. While the plot doesn't give her much to work with, the impeccably dressed Wong adds a note of exotic glamor that makes her, at least, a pleasure to watch.

As a final bizarre note, Jabez Wilson, the gullible pawnbroker from Doyle's short story "The Red-Headed League", appears here as a member of the secretive Scarlet Ring. The action of the movie has no connection to that story either, so this may just be the result of free association — "Red-Headed League" to "Scarlet Ring" is not a long semantic jump. Viewers annoyed by this odd admixture should give thanks that the screenwriter refrained from throwing in Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and the members of Alabama's Crimson Tide football team.


© 2008 Robert W. Franson
& Jennifer M. Franson

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