In 1915 British author Russell Thorndike released Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, the first in a series of adventure novels set in 18th-century England. The books’ protagonist was one Christopher Syn, a mild-mannered country vicar in the southeastern coastal village of Dymchurch who–unbeknownst to all but a few of his parishioners–once sailed the seven seas as a bloodthirsty pirate known as Captain Clegg. His law-breaking days weren’t entirely behind him, however, as shortly after assuming his new identity Syn took command of a band of local smugglers who were bringing liquor and other goods across the Channel from France to avoid paying customs taxes to King George III. The vicar had his men don eerie costumes with luminous paint and pose as the “Devil Riders” to frighten away the curious, while he, under the masked identity of the Scarecrow, helped them avoid the customs men and military.
Combining elements from true accounts of 1700s smugglers along the English coast with such literary forbearers as Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers and the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Dr. Syn books were popular enough in their ’30s heyday that it came as no surprise when Gaumont-British, the studio behind such early Hitchcock efforts as The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, produced a film version of the first volume in 1937. What may have surprised people, though, was their choice to play the dashing title antihero: not Errol Flynn, who shot to global fame two years prior in another pirate picture, Captain Blood, or such earlier screen swashbucklers as Leslie Howard of The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Count of Monte Cristo’s Robert Donat. Instead of these younger leading men, Gaumont tapped 69-year-old George Arliss, a veteran stage and film star best known for his portrayals of such historical figures as Alexander Hamilton, Cardinal Richelieu, Voltaire, and Benjamin Disraeli, for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award in 1930. This seemingly odd bit of casting, however, works in the favor of Doctor Syn, a stylish little actioner in the ’34 Pimpernel mold that relies more on melodrama than the scares featured in subsequent filmings of the story (more about that to come).
The movie opens in 1780, where a band of pirates is busy marooning a “traitor Mulatto” whose tongue’s been cut out, tying him to a tree on a deserted South Seas island while their commander Captain Clegg, his face never shown, watches from a longboat. Fast forward 20 years to the tiny hamlet of Dymchurch. The executed Clegg’s grave marker (“He confessed his sins with full repentance. But alas, they carried out the sentence”) is seen in the cemetery beside the local church, where Dr. Syn (Arliss) is leading his congregation in Sunday worship. The day’s sermon, however, is interrupted by news that a contingent of navy men is heading to town. The sailors, led by the outwardly affable Captain Collyer (Roy Emerton), are on the lookout for contraband liquor, but thanks to the heads-up from Syn and his right-hand man, town coffin-maker Mipps (George Merritt), there’s nary a drop to be found. That’s right: as is revealed early on in the movie (and even earlier in my lead paragraph), the good doctor is the brains behind the smuggling operation, and he dispatches his crew of masked “Night Phantoms” on a mission to move signposts and mile markers to send the captain and his mean on a “wild goose” march along the marshes. Collyer, however, has a “human bloodhound” to help them sniff out the illicit spirits…none other than the once-stranded Mulatto (Meinhart Maur), whose mute presence unnerves the seemingly unflappable Syn. Hmmm, you don’t suppose…?
The captain’s ongoing search is just one problem plaguing our vicar, however, as he also has to sort out a love triangle between members of his flock. Dennis Cobtree (John Loder), the stalwart son of the local squire (Athole Stewart), is in love with beautiful barmaid Imogene (Margaret Lockwood), an orphan looked after since infancy by Syn. Also interested is the fair Imogene is the smarmy village schoolmaster, Mr. Rash (Frederick Burtwell), who is part of Syn’s smuggling crew…and apparently has been skimming part of the illicit proceeds. The reverend does his best to play Cupid for Imogene and Dennis, with an interest in the barmaid’s happiness that seems almost paternal. Paternal? Say, didn’t Captain Collyer mention that “Imogene” also happened to be the name of the late Captain Clegg’s pirate ship? Hmmm, you don’t suppose….?
With a determined naval officer and a vengeance-seeking Mulatto on one end of his deception and a conniving teacher on the other, the stage is set for Syn’s dual life to become exposed. The clever ex-buccaneer still has a few tricks up his sleeve, though, and while he has to dodge a harpoon or two, nearly throttles Rash for threatening to expose his true identity and Imogene’s parentage, and winds up in the dock as Collyer accuses him of larceny and worse, there’s little doubt that the ever-resourceful Syn will somehow manage to outwit them all.
Viewers picking up Doctor Syn expecting a grand, sea-based pirate yarn will come away disappointed. This is a almost entirely landlocked drama that, like most of pre-WII British cinema, makes the most of its modest budget with a bit of exterior locations and a lot of exposition. The “marsh phantoms” themselves are only briefly seen in their skeleton masks and costumes (which, unfortunately, bear a certain similarity to Ku Klux Klan robes), and while Arliss apparently does disguise himself as a scarecrow in one scene, for reasons never fully explained, it’s only long enough for him to be shot in the arm by Collyer (an injury that you’re waiting during a courtroom scene to be brought up, but isn’t). Since most of the plot’s “secrets” are unveiled early on, the suspense in the film comes from anticipating the reveals rather than being surprised by them, but director Roy William Neill–who would employ similar maneuvers in Hollywood, where he helmed 11 of Universal’s Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes whodunits–manages to keep things moving at a brisk enough pace.
As the romantic leads, both Lockwood (who would go on to star in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and as the title bandit in The Wicked Lady) and Loder (whose U.S. work would include roles in How Green Was My Valley and Now, Voyager) acquit themselves nicely. On the other hand, a little of the comic relief of English funnyman Graham Moffatt, in an early role as teenage tavern worker/spying schoolboy Jerry Jerk, goes a long way. For modern American movie fans, there are more laughs to be had in the fact that the claret-loving village physician (Wilson Coleman), who tires to convince anyone who will listen that he’s seen “ghosts” on the marshes, is named Dr. Pepper.
The main thing this film has going for it is the sure-handed performance of George Arliss. In what would prove to be his screen swan song (after coming back to America for radio appearances, he would return to his native Britain in 1939 and remain there through World War II, passing away in 1946 at age 77), the sexagenarian star is the epitome of benevolence as Syn, but manages at the drop of a hat–or harpoon–to suggest the ruthlessness and determination, if not the overwhelming physical presence, of a pirate captain (maybe 20 years in the pulpit will do that to a man). It’s a testament to the Oscar-winning actor’s ability that this ’30s Doctor Syn holds up as a decent, if not particularly overwhelming, adventure tale. The thrills and chills lacking here, however, would be more in evidence a quarter-century later, with the release of two different film versions from two very different movie companies. The first of these, 1962’s Night Creatures, will be the focus of next week’s review. Until then, keep an eye out for the revenue men.