80 Years Ago in This Theatre: The Movies of 1939

Essays written by Richard von Busack


Tuesday and Wednesday

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre April 26-27, 1939.

Sherlock Holmes: a figure to rebuke critics who see but do not observe. Has the ancestral curse on the House of Baskervilles been revived? Punished centuries ago for their wantonness by a spectral hellhound, the Baskervilles continue to dwell in the moors, but the ‘sudden, violent and mysterious’ attack on Sir Charles Baskerville sends a call to 221b Baker Street. This was the debut of Basil Rathbone as Holmes. Even though this part has been great for any actor, and even though this paragon will be played by marvelous as yet unborn actors long after we’re dead, Rathbone seems the perfect version: ice cold and peremptory, bohemian and restless. Even if he was to get a far better director than Sidney Lanfield in subsequent episodes—I mean the deft film-noir pioneer Roy William Neill—there’s no substitute for the first time an actor sinks his teeth into a role. And Nigel Bruce in this version plays Watson as far closer to the man of action he was in the books, holding the line as Holmes goes undercover in disguise as some sort of Tom O’Bedlam bit as a peddler. Suspects abound: Lionel Atwill as “Dr. Mortimer” (an alias?!) as well as the traditional escaped lunatic who seems to be as common to the moors as wild ponies.

Plays Tuesday and Wednesday (November 12-13) at 7:30.

Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre May 7-9, 1939.

The phenomenal Canadian Deanna Durbin charmed 1930s audiences and was a mortgage lifter who saved Universal studios. In this chatty sequel to her hit Three Smart Girls about the foibles of a trio of sisters, Durbin sings that great dissolver of Irish people everywhere, “The Last Rose of Summer.”

Plays Tuesday and Wednesday (November 12-13) at 5:50 and 9:00.


Thursday and Friday

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre April 30-May 2, 1939.

Fred and Ginger’s last waltz. It’s a biopic of popular dancers of 105 years ago: “We were young, clean, married and well-mannered” —dancer Irene Castle describing her act with her ill-fated husband Vernon. This account of Irene’s partnership with her husband Vernon, quoted in John Mueller’s excellent book on Astaire and Rogers, shows why this last Fred and Ginger pairing is so uncharacteristic. The Castles and the Astaires (Fred and his sister Adele) had been mutual fans in the vaudeville of the nineteen-teens, but by the time this nostalgic film was made, the “Castle Walk” that the Castles had popularized was a bit forgotten. (Mueller notes that Fred was surprised that his own wife had never heard of them.) Thus, this musical sources a different kind of song and dance, as well as a quick union, instead of the beautiful prolonged strife of body and soul in the Astaire/Rogers partnership. Rather than Ginger’s suspicion of this ardent showbiz man, her fear of falling for a heel, the two bond fast in an alarming meet-cute over a drowning dog. Then an early marriage, and then a conquering of America, represented by Fred and Ginger capering over a giant map of the continental USA. Some of the best numbers here are solos: Fred in a sort of battle dance on a Connecticut railway platform to “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and Ginger clowning around to an antique novelty tune called “The Yama-Yama Song.”

Plays Thursday and Friday (November 14-15) at 7:30.

Never Say Die (1939)

Originally played Stanford Theatre July 3-4, 1939

At the spa of Bad Gasswasser, Switzerland, a peevish hypochondriac named Kidley (Bob Hope)—heir to the Kidley’s Beans fortune—is consulting a specialist about his stomach. The local doctor (Monty Woolley) goofs and switches the millionaire’s medical record with a dog’s. Bad news: the rich man is diagnosed with a case of “Acidus Canus”: stomach acid so powerful it can dissolve bones. According to the doctor, Kidley will literally digest himself from the inside out within one month. Bolstered with philosophical consolation from his manservant Jeepers (Ernest Cossart), Kidley involves himself in the case of another guest at the spa: an oil princess (Martha Raye) being forced into a marriage with a wastrel aristocrat named Prince Smirnoff (Alan Mowbray). The man she really loves is a bus driver back home in Texas (perennial hayseed Andy Devine).

Preston Sturges is one of three hands credited on the screenplay of this unjustly forgotten screwball comedy, derived from a 1912 farce. Never Say Die often seems more like Sturges in his prime than, say, some of Sturges’ lesser movies out past Unfaithfully Yours. Can it be that Sturges originated the gag here about “the pistol with the cross on the muzzle,” later stolen outright for the most famous scene in the Danny Kaye movie The Court Jester? No one would have noticed the joke was pinched, since Never Say Die was a flop, dumped after a one-week run in New York. Probably, it failed because of miscasting. Hope is obviously trying to do a Jack Benny part here—Benny was originally cast for it. The difference between the two personas—Benny’s pedantic fussiness vs. Hope’s nervous wisecracking—may have been enough to drive off the few who showed up. Still, Never Say Die deserves a new life. The Universal Studios Germanic Village sets, where the famous monsters roamed, have, like parts of Europe, a lot of fake-European charm. Gale Sondergaard plays a comic version of one of her usual man-killers. Raye—here, an overripe version of Ginger Rogers—does some more restrained comic acting for a change. What a life she had—as turbulent as Judy Garland’s; in fact, Garland stole one of Raye’s six husbands. Born backstage in a Montana theater, Raye ending her career in Sid and Marty Kroft productions such as H.R. Pufnstuf. While Hope is known for his USO work, Raye actually did combat nursing: wounded three times, she held an honorary rank as a lieutenant colonel in the Marines.

Plays Thursday and Friday (November 14-15) at 5:55 and 9:15.