In the annals of superior sleuthing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's evergreen creation, Sherlock Holmes easily ranks among the all-time greats. Holmes' brilliant powers of deduction coupled with his loftier intellect and Doyle’s clever craftiness in concocting mind-boggling crimes for his alter ego to meticulously solve were wildly popular bedtime reading around the gaslight at the turn of the 20th century. Few today are familiar with the ‘real’ Sherlock Holmes; Basil Rathbone’s iconic ‘reel’ turn as Holmes in a series of films made at 2oth Century-Fox and later Universal, as well as his enduring presence on the radio, creating an alternate and highly sanitized impression of this ingenious and complex Victorian figure, so described by the literary, Dr. John Watson as ‘a bohemian’, isolated by his smug amusement, though general disregard for the rest of humanity, and, a wanton indifference for playing by the rules; also, a chronic drug user with a sincere and occasionally dangerous fetish for injectable cocaine – ‘the seven percent solution’ – and morphine to stimulate his mind, calm his high-strung nerves between cases, but mostly to settle a nagging melancholia.
To satisfy Hollywood’s governing code of screen censorship, we lose almost all of these idiosyncratic traits in the cinematic Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone’s intriguing subtext to the interpretation, making Holmes one of the more frustratingly multifarious paragons to analyze with any degree of certainty; something of cultured deviant/renaissance man, mostly contented to keep to himself; mistrusting of practically everyone except Watson, whom he infrequently tolerates as mere comic sidekick; particularly contemptuous of women, who frequently prove incalculable figures of sin, corruption and death in these movies. It is often said an author reveals too much about himself by what he writes. If this is indeed the case, what are we to make of Conan Doyle’s Mr. Holmes; chivalrous to a fault, but cautious and critical of the ‘fairer sex’; unimpressed by feminine wiles and even described by Watson as having all the ‘inhuman’ lack of warmth of an abacus. Arguably, part of our enduring affections for Sherlock Holmes is predicated upon an everlasting hugger-mugger with this Teflon-coated inscrutability; Holmes, having distilled all human interaction with exacting precision to quantifiable variables that behave incontrovertibly as reoccurring values in a mathematical equation. Holmes’ audacity is frequently challenged by lesser minds – save the insidious Prof. James Moriarty (Lionel Atwell); arguably, Holmes’ equal in every way. Ultimately, Holmes’ genius for deconstructing crime proves infallible; his formidable powers of abductive reasoning married to a natural disregard for humanity at large, apart from their usefulness in his plug n’ play theoretical hypotheses.
Put bluntly, Doyle’s Sherlock is more than a bit of a bastard; his cinematic incarnation only marginally warmed up for his Hollywood close-up. Curiously, the real Doyle bore more of an uncanny physical resemblance to the fictional Dr. Watson as realized by Nigel Bruce. Watson is a benign orator in the novels; the literary equivalent of a Greek chorus and documentarian responsible for the chronicles of all but a handful of Holmes’ most celebrated cases; his reincarnation by Nigel Bruce increasingly played as a figure of fun or bumbling counterbalance to Rathbone’s immaculately put-together Sherlock. As for Basil Rathbone; in deportment and mannerisms he remains the epitome of Sidney Paget’s drawings from the first volumes of Conan Doyle’s published stories in the late 1890’s; Rathbone, the lanky South-African Englishman, once described by comedian, Carol Lombard as ‘two profiles pasted together’. The movie mythology of Sherlock Holmes, as crafted by Rathbone and Bruce has since dogged all subsequent actors endeavoring to play these parts; the deer stalker and pipe ensconced as part of the folklore. Rathbone’s iconography remains the template by which most every other actor endeavoring to make the part his own have inevitably taken their cue.
In truth, Arthur Conan Doyle only wrote his short stories and novels for personal amusement and to make a little money while attending school to become a physician. However, very early on, these lurid tales took on a life of their own, eventually establishing Doyle’s reputation as a literary figure - something he never quite came to terms with, even as his readership clamored for more Sherlock Holmes stories. But Doyle became increasingly insecure about his ability to maintain the quality of the series. Indeed, in 1893, the author murdered Holmes in his novel, The Final Problem. Alas, Doyle was so besieged by angry outcries from fans, who could not fathom even the possibility their beloved hero was no more, he was forced to resurrect the character anew in 1901's The Hound of the Baskervilles - arguably Holmes' most enduring and fondly remembered adventure, told as a prequel. In 1918, Conan Doyle died of pneumonia, seemingly putting a period to the franchise, though hardly to the appeal of the character. In fact, Holmes became the stuff of stage adaptations, and later, with the advent of the movies and television, a permanent fixture, perennially the darling of the crime solver sect; his only real competitor - Agatha Christie’s Belgium detective, Hercule Poirot. In retrospect, these two share some similarities; chiefly in their fastidious, priggish and solitary lifestyles; preferring the company of men, but only to stave off the specter of isolationism and simultaneously satisfy their need to exercise a restless intelligence, lauded over the common man.
By 1936, Hollywood had already dabbled in bringing Doyle’s monumental crime-solver to the screen; an early silent series, starring William Gillette proving of moderate interest with the paying public. An apocryphal story goes Fox movie mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck was attending a typical ‘gathering’ of the Hollywood clan for a house party when the proverbial ‘someone’ proposed the idea of a franchise to cement Holmes’ reputation in the movies. When Zanuck casually inquired who should play the lead, he was promptly told, ‘Basil Rathbone’. Whether true or absolute Hollywood hogwash, whatever the impetus for his casting, the rights to Conan Doyle's novels was secured by Zanuck not long thereafter; Zanuck ironically marking the series debut with the final adventure in Holmes’ literary canon; The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), almost immediately followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). It ought to have been the start of something big, except Zanuck was not prepared for the harsh response to the ‘Hound’ in the U.K.; critics, savaging his movie as two thirds Hollywoodized blarney. The picture made money at home, but it also cost considerably more to produce than Zanuck had initially anticipated; Richard Day and Hans Peters’ exquisite fog-laden recreations of Victorian era London, adding visualized dimension but also girth to the budget.
As The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was already well into production by the time The Hound of the Baskervilles had its premiere, Zanuck pursued the sequel with the same gusto. Curiously, while Zanuck owned the rights to make whatever Conan Doyle stories he so desired, the premise for the sequel was not inspired by any of Conan Doyle’s story, but the 1899 pastiche produced for the stage and starring William Gillette. Somewhere along the way, the play’s plot was jettisoned for a brand new scenario scripted by Edwin Blum and William Drake. A turbulent and costly incubation period followed; Zanuck repeatedly dissatisfied with the results and ordering director, Alfred L. Werker to shoot many retakes; adding more plot twists to some scenes, excising other elemental tidbits wholesale; the final movie something of an oddity and a claptrap – chiefly for its baffling complexities and dangling plot points, never entirely resolved by the final fade out.
Even with all its flaws and artistic revisions, both The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes remain, arguably, the greatest of all the Rathbone/Bruce movie adventures; Zanuck dropping the pair and plans for a series immediately after the latter’s debut; the franchise quickly picked up by Universal Studios, soon to add another twelve movies to the canon. Alas, none would keep Holmes and Watson happily ensconced in their Victorian milieu – Universal’s feeble attempts to remake Sherlock Holmes as a contemporary crusader against the threat of wartime Nazi invasion, poorly received by both fans and critics; the studio retreating into a sort of suspended animation for the rest of the series; borrowing bits and pieces from Conan Doyle’s original stories to create a rather cut rate and occasionally mangled series, more Hollywoodized tripe than anything else, and, set in some nondescript Gothic never-never-land; a deft – some would argue, daft – way to keep costs down by utilizing existing European sets built for their monster movies. In retrospect, the Universal films are an uneven lot; the best, arguably, 1944’s The Scarlet Claw; presumably, set in the remote enclave of La Mort Rouge, in Quebec, Canada; the plot, involving the death of a socialite by a supposedly ‘legendary’ monster roaming the boggy marshes – not unlike the mythical ‘hound’ haunting the moors in the first movie.
Throughout the 1940’s the new management at Universal remained rather misguided in their marketing of all their film ‘franchises’; oversaturating the market with monster mash-ups, Abbott and Costello comedies and the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock series. Between 1940 and 1946, Rathbone and Bruce appeared in twelve movies – or roughly, two per year; a breakneck schedule, only possible by expediting both the storylines and shortening the length of each movie’s run time to fit neatly on a double bill. Although Universal repeatedly promised to reinvest in Holmes and Watson as an A-list franchise, it remained B-grade fodder for the rest of its days. In hindsight, the studio knew not the goldmine it had, either in the enduring popularity of Conan Doyle’s creation, or in these two brilliant character actors; Rathbone and Bruce appearing simultaneously on the radio, costarring in tales more readily predicated on Conan Doyle’s original short stories. Over the years, purists of these stories have gradually come to tolerate – though likely never accept – Nigel Bruce’s characterization as Dr. John Watson. Bruce, one of the most sought after character actors of his generation, gives us Watson, increasingly as a bumbler.
Indeed, the Doyle masterpieces present the interpreter of Watson’s character with a distinct conundrum, as Watson is rarely fleshed out beyond the characterization of a sage orator of these tales. In the two movies made at Fox, Bruce’s Watson is represented as slightly younger and more intelligent; the willing partaker in Holmes’ investigations. In the Universal movies, however, he steadily devolves into a reluctant straggler-on; frequently nervous and prone to bouts of frightened humiliation; more like Sherlock’s pet, in need of perpetual care and feeding, than his contemporary on a merry lark in their search for the truth. And yet, Nigel Bruce makes the most of the material. If anything, his Watson is a hopeful, animated, and occasionally exuberant counterpoint to Rathbone’s stern, hawk-eyed and meticulous inquisitor. Moreover, the chemistry between Bruce and Rathbone is decidedly genuine and infectious. One can sense an almost intuitive compatibility between these two men, a bond of friendship that extended between Bruce and Rathbone for the rest of their days, amiably translated and/or rechanneled into their fictional counterparts.
For decades after their release, both Fox and Universal allowed the rights to these movies to lapse into public domain; sold wholesale to television in the mid-fifties and ruthlessly butchered thereafter by their new custodians to conform to commercial interruptions, who also unceremoniously lopped off the old Universal ‘glass globe’ logos preceding each main title. By the late 1970’s, Rathbone and Bruce’s Holmes and Watson were cherished figures to scores of generations who had never seen these movies during their first run – or even subsequent theatrical reissues. At this critical juncture, home video made it possible for a whole new generation to rediscover this dynamic duo anew; though, alas, in analog transfers that clearly illustrated what the ravages of time, improper storage and a wanton disregard for film preservation in general had done to these carefully crafted artifacts from Hollywood’s golden era. When MPI became the custodians of these movies, they enlisted noted UCLA film archivist/preservationist, Robert Gitt to the cause of searching for the missing film elements to make a last ditch effort to rescue these movies from oblivion. It would be another two decades before the advent of digital technologies could slowly begin to reverse – if not entirely correct – the aging process and revitalize these images, at least to a level of quality that would allow for their reconsideration in our present post-modern age. For the very first time, all 14 movies in the franchise are presented as one comprehensive collection herein. The results, while not perfect, are lightyears ahead of what anyone knowing the full history of these almost lost movies might have expected.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes and Watson receive a cryptic visit from Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) who is gravely concerned the new heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry (Richard Greene) is destined to suffer the same murderous fate as his ancestors because of the curse of the hound. After an attempt is made on Sir Henry's life in the streets of London, Holmes sends Watson and Sir Henry on ahead to the Baskerville estate where strange goings on and an ominous glow in the fog, result in more botched attempts on Henry's life among the craggy rocks of Dartmoor. Holmes shadows Watson and his ward in the disguise of an old peddler; the first of many impersonations Holmes will delve into throughout the rest of the franchise. While exploring the moors, Sir Henry becomes smitten with one of his neighbors, Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), whose brother, John (Morton Lowry) is keeping secrets. A flock of red herrings round out this deceptive journey; the estate's brooding butler, Barryman (John Carridine) – who seems to be skulking about with some deeply diabolical purpose, his oddly reticent wife (Eily Malyon) – peaking around corners and through keyholes, and, Mrs. Mortimer (Beryl Mercer) - the self-professed clairvoyant, attempting a séance to learn the real identity of Henry’s assailant.
Darryl F. Zanuck did not consider The Hound of the Baskervilles one of the studio's major releases. However, it was so wildly popular in the U.S. Zanuck immediately recast Rathbone and Bruce in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939); a valiant follow-up intended to mark the real start of what would become a future series for 20th Century Fox. On this second outing, Holmes arrives too late at the Old Bailey to expose evidence that would have convicted his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) of the crime of murder. Moriarty goads Holmes with the prospect he will concoct a crime so vial and perfectly executed it will leave Holmes' reputation as England’s premiere crime solver in tatters. In point of fact, Moriarty is setting up Holmes for a wild goose chase to deflect suspicion from his real – and much more straightforward - plan to steal the Crown Jewels. Holmes and Watson are visited by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) who worries her beloved brother, Lloyd (Peter Willes) will be murdered as their father was some ten years earlier. When Lloyd is discovered bludgeoned to death in the park, the prophecy seems to have come true. Holmes pursues the case, believing Ann is next to die. After hearing her screams, Holmes captures Gabriel Mateo (George Regas) an intruder who confesses to Holmes it was Moriarty who put him up to this revenge in order to settle an old score against Ann and Lloyd's late father. Racing to the Tower of London, Holmes finds Moriarty in the middle of his thievery and, in the resulting chaos, sends Moriarty to his presumed death.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was another resounding hit for Fox. But for reasons never fully explained, almost immediately Zanuck discarded future plans to develop the franchise. Universal Studios acquired the rights to Conan Doyle's stories and immediately set about cannibalizing their literary past, frequently combining several plots into a single film, writing new and overlapping scenarios to only superficially reference Doyle’s originals. Lost in this translation, and sorely missed, were the Victorian trappings – too rich and time-consuming for Universal’s quick and dirty shooting schedules. In the first three follow-ups, Universal also elected to give Holmes an inexplicably bizarre haircut – tussled curls whipped into a sort of ‘mad scientist’s’ frenzy. Worst of all, Universal decided to make Sherlock Holmes a contemporary hero, plunging these time-honored characters into the depths of current affair espionage – Holmes now a crime fighter, battling the Nazi threat on his home front and globetrotting to America to unravel the clues behind one of Washington’s most baffling mysteries. It didn’t work – particularly, for diehard fans of the series. Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon (1943) and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) were the slightest of Universal’s offerings. The first of these (actually the third movie in the franchise after ‘Hound’ and ‘Adventures’) is loosely inspired by Conan Doyle's 'His Last Bow'. The plot finds Holmes determined to unearth an organization of saboteurs using radio broadcasts to instill fear in Britain's population. In 'The Secret Weapon', Holmes smuggles a scientist to the West whose bomb-sight technologies are much sought after by Hitler's armies and the British Inner Security Council. 'In Washington' has Holmes and Watson hot on the trail of an abducted British secret agent smuggling microfilm with vital wartime information out of the country.
At the end of this trilogy, Universal was faced with a serious dilemma. Purists and casual fans alike absolutely hated what they had done with Holmes’ iconography. The franchise had veered so wildly off course it not only suffered an artistic failing, but equally lost its loyal base of movie-goers expecting to see a real Holmesian adventure; the studio’s miscalculations reflected in dwindling box office. Such debacles might have been enough to mothball Holmes and Watson altogether. And yet, the simultaneous radio broadcasts featuring Rathbone and Bruce performing reenactments based on Conan Doyle’s original tales continued to have a very strong following. The fault of Holmes and Watson on screen was therefore Universal’s exclusively to bear. Undaunted, Universal retooled the franchise yet again. Based on Conan Doyle's 'The Adventures of the Musgrave Ritual', Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) mercifully returned Britain's most amiable sleuth to his country of origin. Although the Victorian trappings remained absent (again, too expensive), Universal compensated marginally in its decision to invoke a gothic mood in its stead. In their fourth outing, Holmes helps Watson unearth the truth behind a remote military hospital where soldiers recovering from shell shock are reportedly plagued by ghosts. Although set in the present ‘Faces Death’ hints at least at some of the hallmarks established in the early Fox films - ominous fog banks and brooding manors full of suspicious characters. While not a stellar entry, ‘Faces Death’ nevertheless marked the beginnings of a turnaround and better days for Holmes and Watson at Universal.
In The Spider Woman (1944), Holmes fakes his own death to expose a series of supposed suicides as acts of murder perpetrated by Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard); a vial socialite using mind control to achieve the grisly demise of her victims. With its ever-clever shifting plot written by Bertrand Millhauser and a climactic race against time inside a carnival shooting gallery, The Spider Woman ranks as a deliciously diabolical entry. It was to be followed by the best of the Universal lot, The Scarlet Claw, and then, The Pearl of Death (1944); the latter, rather threadbare in plot, Holmes and Watson involved in the recovery of a stolen sacred gem, The Borgia Pearl, rumored to be cursed. Holmes impersonates a clergyman aboard an ocean liner to retrieve the pearl from jewel thief, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) and Giles Conover (Miles Manders) – both working in service of ‘The Creeper’ (Rondo Hatton); a murderous, subhuman, possessing the strength of ten men, who enjoys killing anyone who gets near the pearl by breaking their backs with his bare hands.
In retrospect, Universal was never a very forward-thinking studio when it came to their movie franchises. Unlike MGM’s careful spacing of at least a year between installments to their Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, Thin Man and Tarzan serials, Universal simply abused the good graces of its audience with a bombardment of like-minded product. Although this greed for profit did not seem to hurt the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes series at first, it inevitably did very little to sustain its overall integrity. The Holmes’ movies were ground out at an assembly line pace; two subsequent films bearing out this exhaustive mediocrity. The House of Fear (1945) has Holmes and Watson investigating seven men belonging to a secret society, living in a remote Scottish castle, picked off by a mysterious murderer one at a time. In The Woman in Green (1945) bodies turn up all over London with their fingers missing, the diabolical Professor Moriarty making his brief, if unwelcome return for the last time. Confined spaces helped to heighten the suspense in Pursuit to Algiers (1945) and Terror By Night (1946). In the first, Holmes and Watson escort a royal heir (Leslie Vincent) safely to his homeland after his plane is downed by saboteurs. Masquerading as Watson’s nephew, Nikolas, the future king skulks around the narrow passages of a decidedly cramped cruise ship while secret agents plot his demise. In the latter, Holmes pits his deductive prowess against an unseen thief, determined to solve a perilous jewel heist aboard a moving train. Both movies are particularly effective in establishing a heightened sense of claustrophobia. Regrettably, neither distinguishes itself as a standout.
At wars end, the movie-going culture experienced several seismic shifts; the first, a move away from the grand ole movie palaces in the inner cities to the modest Bijous and drive-ins located in the suburbs. Studios began to economize and streamline their output. Part of the reason was cost-overruns. Throughout the war years, a studio could pretty much invest very little to make B-grade serials, exploiting workaday contract players and, occasionally, A-list talent, utilizing sets and costumes left over from top-tier and more lavishly produced releases. By 1946, the public was demanding more from their entertainments; the late forties, a very turbulent time, as studios faced declining profits, and, government intervention ready to shatter their monopolies. Faced with dwindling returns, Universal elected to wrap up their Holmesian adventures with Dressed to Kill (1946); ironically, one of their better efforts. It did respectable box office, but nevertheless, marked a fond farewell to Rathbone and Bruce’s tenure: a rather stylish and superbly crafted murder mystery, inveigling Holmes and Watson to crack a secret code hidden in the melody of various collectible music boxes manufactured at Dartmouth prison.
One of the most successful franchises, and most enduring, the Sherlock Holmes adventures are best recalled today for their indelible chemistry between Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce; a little bit of Tracy and Hepburn, flashes of Abbott & Costello, and, imbued with an elusive/intangible magic all their own; rare then and virtually nonexistent today. To date, our intrinsic beguilement with Sherlock Holmes has not diminished. If anything, it has exponentially grown since Conan Doyle’s time; the character beloved, embraced and perennially reinvented on TV and in more movies; from Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett; from Jonny Lee Miller to Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch and Ian McKellen; Sherlock Holmes is both alive and well, and still invested in the intrigues of baffling cases. Will he ever cease to draw our attention? Not likely. After all, the reasons are all quite ‘elementary’!
MPI Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of The Complete Sherlock Holmes features all 14 movies in the Rathbone/Bruce catalog. All of the transfers have undergone a miraculous restoration effort, headed by UCLA Film and Television archivist/preservationist, Robert Gitt. What’s here is hardly perfect, but it remains light years ahead of the abysmal previous attempts to preserve these movies for future generations. Don’t expect perfection and you will be pleased with these results. Some titles have fared better than others; The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes offer particularly pleasing contrast and a very solidly refined gray scale. Dirt, scratches and other imperfections still exist, but their effect is, if not excusable, then decidedly forgivable, given MPI’s limited budget and the Herculean task of tackling all 14 movies at once; albeit, with the work done stretching well beyond a decade. A short featurette hosted by Gitt provides tantalizing background on the valiant research and efforts employed; The Scarlet Claw, cobbled together from surviving third generation prints, while portions of Pursuit to Algiers, The Spider Woman and The House of Fear have been augmented by inserts from work prints, and other less than stellar surviving elements; the Universal logo, wartime ‘war bond’ tags and, on several occasions, main titles, remastered from poorly contrasted and very grainy 16mm prints; hardly the best of all viable options. All of these elements have been given the utmost care by MPI; the latest digital tools applied to tweak, stabilize and homogenize their disparate quality. Given the virtual lack of preservation ethics applied to these movies over the years, with so few original camera negatives in existence from which to remaster a viable home video source, it is a minor miracle these films look as good as they do. In their present state of (dis)repair, virtually all of the Rathbone/Bruce movies are highly watchable. Some actually look spectacular.
The audio across the board is mono; hiss and pop, greatly tempered, though nevertheless present during quiescent moments. Even so, and again, given the advanced state of deterioration, the mastering herein has achieved peerless results. Extras are a bit scant. There are six audio commentaries, from noted Holmesian aficionados David Stuart Davies, David Gregory and Richard Valley, and, on Dressed to Kill, actress, Patricia Morison, the only surviving cast member from any of the Sherlock Holmes movies. We also get photo galleries, theatrical trailers, and finally, some rare, though abbreviated footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, shot in 1927. Parting thoughts: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are the best Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson ever – period! Their movies may be an uneven lot – artistically speaking – but cumulatively, they have cemented the avid moviegoer’s impressions of Conan Doyle’s master sleuth for the ages; marking the cinematic Holmes with an imperishable iconography. Not high art, mind you, but highly enjoyable movies nonetheless and, herein, presented in a manner befitting their age and unlikely survival. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Overall score 3.5
Overall score 3