The Sign 0f Four (1932), with Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Hunter as Watson is an interesting tweak on the original story. Ian Fleming had been Wontner’s usual Watson. The story was “updated”, that is, it was moved from 1887 to 1932. The story does not suffer for the change as, to a modern audience, the 1932 taxi cabs sure look pretty ancient. The river chase is with speedboats instead of steam launches but this too does not really detract.
The other changes to the story include: a tattooed fellow escapee to work with Small (along with Tonga), Miss Morstan owns a flower shop and Major Sholto murders Captain Morstan upon their finding of the treasure. Of course, Small escapes from the Andaman Islands penal colony and comes looking for Sholto. FYI the Andaman Islands are a territory of India, and though in the Bay of Bengal, lies not far off the coast Burma. (A long way from India.) The rest of the plot is pretty well out of the Doyle story and Arthur Wontner does his usual good job as Sherlock Holmes. There is one final plot twist but I won’t give it away as that would be too much of a spoiler. Oh, the one disappointment was no Toby or Irregulars.
Ian Hunter makes a very good Doctor Watson and it is really too bad that he did not go on to reprise the role. This was his only outing as our favorite physician even though he had almost 100 movie credits. Hunter is witty, has a good sense of pace and timing, and is not intimidated by Holmes. Of course he messes up as Watson is bound to do, but he does not play the buffoon or the over-smitten lover. All in all Hunter does a sound job with my favorite character. The movie is available free online at www.imdb.com/video/hulu/vi504970009 on the internet or you can add it to your collection for about $1.50 plus postage from Amazon.com.
Ian Hunter was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 13 June 1900. Here is where he spent his youth and in his teens he moved with his family to England where he started becoming involved in acting. With the Great War on, as soon as he turned 17, in 1917, he enlisted and was off to the front for the last year of the war. By 1919Hunter was back in the theater and 1924 say his first foray into the movies with the silent film “Not For Sale”.
Hunter spent the rest of his career switching between movies, stage and TV both in the US and in the UK. Among his best known roles were as King Richard in the 1938 Errol Flynn classic “Robin Hood” and as Shirley Temple’s father in “The Little Princess”. I remember him not only from the big screen Robin Hood, but as Sir Richard of Lea in the 1955-58 Robin Hood series with Richard Green. Hunter was married to his wife Catherine and they had two sons. He died 23 September 1975 in London England.