Between 1939 and 1946, two studios – Fox and Universal – produced fourteen Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Basil Rathbone as the great sleuth and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.
Although many actors have portrayed Holmes and Watson, I have always regarded these as the definitive characterizations. Rathbone, with his precise diction and aquiline profile, seemed born to play the part, and Nigel Bruce’s bumbling, amiable Watson, although not faithful to Conan Doyle, provided welcome comic relief and delightfully counterbalanced Holmes’ unrelenting self-assurance. Rathbone’s career, which had reached its apogee during the 1930’s (in 1939, he was the highest-paid freelance movie actor in the world, with a history of strong performances in such films as ANNA KARENINA, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and ROMEO AND JULIET) was never quite the same after the Holmes series ended; he later said that playing the master detective had irrevocably typecast him. That may have been true, but it also assured him an indelible place in movie history.
For years these films were a staple of local TV stations – Boston Channel 56 often showed a couple of them every Saturday night. Unfortunately, the available prints, as well as the VHS and later the DVD releases, were often in mediocre to execrable condition, much to the chagrin of movie buffs.
Those deficiencies were finally corrected about five years ago, when the UCLA Film and Television Archive, working with the best available materials, released all fourteen films on DVD (through MPI video) in beautifully restored editions. Although some of the films are in slightly better condition than others, all of them are far superior to anything previously available. Each film runs under ninety minutes and David Stuart Davies provides commentary. (Please note that I am unfamiliar with Mr. Davies, and I have not yet listened to any of his remarks.) Unfortunately, the release of these treasures garnered little attention, so permit me to offer a brief summary.
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
Fox released both these films in 1939, to critical and popular acclaim. These were “A” class productions. HOUND is probably the most famous of the Holmes stories; and although the movie has superb production values and a great cast, I think it moves a bit slowly. Watch for the final line of dialogue, a not very subtle reference to Holmes’ drug addiction. How that got past the censors is perhaps a greater mystery than any case Holmes ever had to solve!
ADVENTURES is, I think, based on a stage play rather than one of stories, and it is fast-paced, suspenseful, and a lot of fun. Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, plots to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Moriarty is played by British actor George Zucco, who after a distinguished stage career, found himself in Hollywood cast as assorted villains and especially mad scientists. Zucco makes a splendid Moriarty; the murderous professor rebukes his butler for allowing one of his prize orchids to die. (“You murdered a flower, Dawes; and to think that for merely killing a man I was locked up in a filthy prison for nearly a year.”) I have always loved Zucco: His suave, cultivated manner is undermined by just enough seediness to ensure (as I believe one critic wrote) that the characters he played would always be blackballed by the very best clubs.
Fox made no more Holmes films. In 1942, Universal picked up the series and made twelve films, also starring Rathbone and Bruce, from that year until 1946. These were “B” pictures, but the production values remained high (utilizing Universal’s vast array of standing sets), and the casts were made up of topnotch character actors. All of these movies except the first were directed by Roy William Neill, a master at wringing every bit of atmosphere, suspense, and excitement from modest budgets. Frank Skinner’s music effectively supports the action.
The Universal films relocate Holmes to the mid-20th century, and in several of them he matches wits with Nazi agents. They are, in order of original release date:
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON
SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON
SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH
PEARL OF DEATH
THE SCARLET CLAW
THE HOUSE OF FEAR
THE WOMAN IN GREEN
PURSUIT TO ALGIERS
TERROR BY NIGHT
DRESSED TO KILL
MPI sells the Universal films in box sets, four per set. The Fox-produced films are sold separately.
All the Universal films are worth owning, but in my opinion the best of the series are in the first two sets.
VOICE OF TERROR: Holmes battles Nazis. This marked the screen debut of veteran stage actor Thomas Gomez, whose later films include PHANTOM LADY and KEY LARGO. VOICE is blatant Hollywood wartime propaganda, but the cause was worthy and the movie is entertaining. (Good trivia question: Who provides the voice for “the voice of terror”?)
SECRET WEAPON: Professor Moriarty is back, determined to steal a new bombsight and sell it to the Germans. That wonderful British actor Lionel Atwill (sans mustache) makes a gleefully malevolent, sadistic Moriarty; one imagines him roasting ants with a magnifying glass as a boy.
WASHINGTON: Holmes bests fascism again, this time in the states, which also gives the film a chance to promote Anglo-American unity. George Zucco makes a welcome return appearance as a cad.
DEATH: A fairly conventional murder puzzle, set at Musgrave Manor. Very reminiscent of the Conan Doyle yarns.
PEARL: This involves the search for a rare and valuable pearl. The criminal mastermind employs a strangler played by Rondo Hatton, whose real life glandular disorder got him a brief career in the movies, but always as a grotesque killer.
SCARLET CLAW: Arguably the best of all the Holmes movies. Murders on the moors are committed by what the villagers believe to be a monster. Atmospheric, exciting, and even scary (for the time), this film is a reminder of the great Universal horror movies of the 1930’s.
SPIDER WOMAN: Great fun. Gail Sondergaard plays the title’s character, who puts poisonous arachnids to diabolic use. Sondergaard had a slinky, sinister, somewhat erotic mien that nearly got her the role of the wicked witch in THE WIZARD OF OZ, before the studio decided to make the character less sexy and cast Margaret Hamilton.
HOUSE OF FEAR: Another enjoyable but somewhat less imaginative mystery. Holmes is called upon by The Good Comrades to find out who is bumping them off one-by-one.
The last four films are pretty good, but not nearly as interesting as the first eight. THE WOMAN IN GREEN is worth noting because Moriarty returns for the last time in the person of the peerlessly arrogant Henry Daniell. In his autobiography, Rathbone called Daniell the best Moriarty. I don’t agree – he is a bit too restained; Zucco was more sinister and Atwill more twisted – but that marvelous actor is always worth watching, and – especially – worth hearing. He had a quiet, sophisticated, but terribly icy way of speaking that was truly memorable. If a dry martini could talk, I think it would sound just like Henry Daniell. (For his role as the villain in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, Christopher Guest was inspired by the late actor; he does a good job imitating Daniell’s frigid diction.)
All these DVDs are still available in some stores and on the Web. I recommend them to Holmes aficionados and mystery fans, and there is even enough chiaroscuro in many of them to give devotees of film noir a quick fix.