By Doug Gibson
Recently, Scarlet: The Film Magazine, a twice-yearly publication that I highly recommend (its website is here) published a lengthy, fascinating piece from Frank Dello Stritto, a film scholar best known for his research on Bela Lugosi, on the Dr. Syn literature and movies. Dr. Syn has fallen into a memory hole, such as Svengali or the old play The Bat, but like those two literary offerings, it was extremely popular long ago and has had more than a couple of screen adaptations. (Dr. Syn, by the way, was a series of books by Russell Thorndike that dealt with a country parson in the southeast of England who in reality was a pirate, Captain Clegg, long thought dead.)
In the most popular book, "Dr. Syn: A Tale of Romney Marsh,' the good Dr. Syn is also leading a group of spirits smugglers. A squadron of British government soldiers are sent to investigate. Smuggling liquor, etc., is a serious business. It can lead to a death sentence. With the squadron is a creature called "the mulatto," who long ago had his tongue cut out, was tortured and left to die by Captain Clegg.
There's a lot more to the plot. Dr. Syn is trying to protect a young girl, Imogene, who loves a man above her station in life. He loves her too, so that helps. There's a brutish confederate of Syn's who wants Imogen for himself, and meanwhile, the soldiers, under Captain Collyer, are getting closer to discovering the spirits operation. It's quite an enjoyable cat-and-mouse game between Syn and Collyer.
In the Scarlet piece, Dello Strito reviews in detail three films that are derived from the Syn. novels. The first was made in 1937, "Dr. Syn." (here) It stars George Arliss, an elderly actor who apparently rivaled Lionel Barrymore in fame generations ago. Arliss is, indeed, a great actor. Although he's likely 20 years too old to play Syn/Clegg, he has tremendous screen presence and a voice that is both soothing and commanding. He has the ability to transform himself from a non-threatening, caring country parson to an angry, threatening force with the mere changing of his countenance, a quick movement, or a change in the timbre of his voice. It's quite impressive to witness.
And truthfully, Arliss is the only real reason to see "Dr. Syn." When he's not in it, it's mostly a creaky film with only adequate performances and little sustained drama. There is one great exception. The opening prologue scene, in which the mulatto is dragged to shore, his tongue cut off, and left to die lashed to a tree with a proclamation over his head. The scene is very strong and quite chilling for an era in Great Britain that frowned on horrific images in films.
You can see "Dr. Syn" on YouTube and it can be purchased easily. In fact, all of the Syn films, including the Hammer "Night Creatures," with Peter Cushing, and a Disney version with Patrick McGoohan, are available via YouTube. Watch the Arliss version above.