George Arliss as action hero? Not likely but Mr. A comes close with DR. SYN (1937), a corking good pirate yarn based on a popular novel by Russell Thorndyke. The novel is a thematic blend of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sigmund Freud that was so successful Thorndyke wrote several sequels. The novels still have quite a following in the UK. The story is set in Dymchurch, a seaside village in Kent, England, in the year 1800.
Mr. A plays the saintly vicar, Dr. Syn, who looks kindly on the blossoming romance between the orphan Imogene, played by Margaret Lockwood, and Denis Crabtree, son of the village squire, played by John Loder:
Dymchurch is plagued by nighttime apparitions of ghost riders on the nearby Romney Marsh but the main business of the villagers is a little fuzzy. Turns out the leading occupation is smuggling to avoid the exorbitant excise taxes imposed by the King. The ringleader is known only as “The Scarecrow.”
Dr. Syn becomes alarmed for his parishioners when a contingent of the King’s revenue patrol arrives at Dymchurch to investigate smuggling activities. Captain Collyer suspects that the nightly ghost riders are a cover for the smugglers and that Dr. Syn knows a lot more than he cares to tell:
Collyer learns that a number of the villagers were the crew of the notorious pirate, Captain Clegg, who was hanged twenty years earlier and lies buried in the churchyard cemetery – or does he? Dr. Syn alerts the sexton to spread the alarm:
The discovery of Mr. Rash’s corpse results in the convening of an inquest where Capt. Collyer cross-examines Dr. Syn and forces him to admit his true identity. Before he can be arrested, the villagers intervene to foil Collyer’s men:
With Collyer’s men in hot pursuit, Dr. Syn stops by the church long enough to marry Denis and Imogene, then rejoins his old crew on their old ship, which was kept ready and hidden in a nearby cove, where they sail away for further adventures.
DR. SYN is technically George Arliss’ final film, but we at the Arliss Archives prefer to regard it as Mr. A’s most recent film. On the set, Alan Whittaker is Mr. A’s stand-in, Maude Howell serves as associate director, and Mr. A is in his 70th year:
Queen Mary attended the film’s London premiere, and the New York Times gave DR. SYN an enthusiastic review stating that it was better than MGM’s TREASURE ISLAND (1934). The film is widely considered the best of Mr. A’s five British films and is available on home video in an acceptable (but not restored) dvd edition through various outlets including Amazon.