Writer: Roger Burford, from the novel by Russell Thorndike, with additional dialogue by Michael Hogan
Stars: George Arliss, Margaret Lockwood and John Loder
Alfred Hitchcock was hardly one to heap praise on his actors, whether or not his famous quote about actors being cattle was ever spoken or not. However, after working with Margaret Lockwood on The Lady Vanishes, he was highly complimentary of her talents. ‘She has an undoubted gift in expressing her beauty in terms of emotion,’ he told the press, ‘which is exceptionally well suited to the camera. Allied to this is the fact that she photographs more than normally easily, and has an extraordinary insight to get the feel of her lines, to live within them, so to speak, as long as the duration of the picture lasts.’ He was optimistic about her future as well, albeit in oddly paradoxical fashion: ‘It is not too much to expect that in Margaret Lockwood the British picture industry has a possibility of developing a star of hitherto un-anticipated possibilities.’ How an un-anticipated possibility could be thus anticipated, I have no idea but I’m not going to argue with the master, especially on what would have been Lockwood’s hundredth birthday.
To celebrate her career on such an auspicious day, I selected the first film adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s stories of the Kentish smuggler, Doctor Syn, made in 1937 by the British company, Gainsborough Pictures. Doctor Syn apparently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the thirties, the original novel of 1915 starting to generate sequels: two in 1935 and another in 1936, with three more following this film version. I picked it in part because it was a major stepping stone for Lockwood, who stepped in when Anna Lee dropped out and earned a three year contract with Gainsborough for her troubles, but also because it’s the last movie role for the fascinating actor, George Arliss, who was the first Briton to win an Academy Award and the first actor from anywhere to win for portraying a real person, Benjamin Disraeli. I’d like to see a lot more Arliss movies than I have, but two have especially remained with me over time for his performances in them: The Green Goddess and The Millionaire. He’s memorable here too.
It’s pretty clear that Dymchurch is a hotbed of smugglers. While we never actually see any smuggling, we certainly see the things they’ve been smuggling and we watch them talking over them about whether to dump all this fancy French liquor into the sea or run the risk of being rumbled by Captain Howard Collyer and hanged. Nobody hides behind masks; we know who these people are and we watch them move through their secret passages and run rings around the investigators. This isn’t a mystery, it’s more like the origin story of a folk hero. Dr. Syn explains that half the population of Dymchurch was sick and poor when he arrived to begin organised smuggling; now there are neither and there’s a new schoolhouse to boot. If anything is clearer than that Dymchurch is ripe with smugglers, it’s that people are pretty happy about its effects and the continuation of those effects is placed into jeopardy by the extra man that Collyer brings along with his sailors.
If the stirring up of a smuggling town by revenue agents and the real risk of exposure of Dr. Syn’s former life isn’t enough, we get a few subplots to keep this 78 minute feature brisk. Imogene, the daughter of a notorious pirate (not that she apparently knows it) and Denis, the son of Sir Anthony Cobtree, the local squire, are madly in love but clearly from different classes so their future isn’t certain. The aptly-named Samuel Rash, the local schoolmaster, is madly in love with Imogene; he’s ready to have their banns read even though she can’t bear to be around him. In fact, Rash isn’t too popular with anyone, it seems. He butts heads with Dr. Syn on how to keep Collyer and his men away from their goods. One of his students, the unfortunately named Jerry Jerk, hates him with a passion and that leads to both tension and hilarity later on. When the film bogs down in the middle, it’s Graham Moffatt who picks it back up again as Jerry. Most of his films were with Will Hay, but this is a welcome exception.
There’s much to enjoy here, even if the mystery isn’t remotely mysterious. It played to me as a quintessential slice of the British equivalent of Americana. I don’t know if there’s a word for such a thing, but this is so British through and through that it’s easy to see why Talbot Rothwell parodied it so capably in Carry On Dick, one of the better instalments in a series that consistently speared British organisations and institutions. I knew that the title, double entendre aside, referred to highwayman Dick Turpin, another inappropriate British folk hero, but the story is clearly hijacked from Dr. Syn. Sid James merely plays a highwayman who happens to be masquerading as a parson rather than a... no, I still won’t spoil the obvious reveal. I’ll let Capt. Collyer do that when the time is right, because thankfully Roy Emerton is a jovial captain who isn’t quite as dumb as he makes himself out to be. He could easily have played this like the usual inept authority figure but he’s thankfully much more of a worthy character.
I’ve been fascinated by Arliss ever since I saw The Millionaire, a 1931 pre-code that I watched for Jimmy Cagney but left as a fan of George Arliss. He’s an odd duck who doesn’t quite seem real. His head is too big for his body, which sometimes makes him appear to be a walking caricature, but we only laugh with him when he wants us to and we never laugh at him. He underplays for most of the film’s running time; he’s relentlessly calm, even when things aren’t going his way, and he lets others act around him and take the spotlight throughout. Yet we can’t stop watching him, because there’s a presence to him that’s impossible to miss. He’s always the most important person in the shot, whatever the scene and whatever he’s doing in it. As a man with a number of huge secrets, he’s the one who sits there and listens while others sit there and talk, but however quiet he gets and however close Capt. Collyer’s investigation gets, we never believe that he’s not in charge of the situation with a backup plan for his backup plan.