Sherlock Holmes has been around for a long time. He made his first literary appearance in 1887 and his first leading role in a cinematic medium took place in 1900 in Mutoscope, a coin-in-the-slot viewing device. Over 70 actors have played him, and every one of them has put their own interpretation into the mix, and made the great detective palatable to their era.
Recently the contemporary Cumberbatch/Freeman incarnations of Holmes and Watson took a step back in time to the Victorian era, which makes the viewer assess how what is considered to be acceptable behaviour has changed over the decades. Can Holmes be more or less intellectually driven in the past? Is his mind stretched or diminished by the modern age? The comparison made for interesting watching, but the truth is that Steven Moffat’s Sherlock is not the first time that Holmes has travelled to a different era, being both contemporary and classic while being portrayed by the same actor. That actor was the amazing Basil Rathbone.
In 1939 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to make The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and they cast Rathbone as Holmes; the casting of Watson was particularly important, due to Watson being the driving force behind much of the on-screen investigating for that particular adventure, and that part went to Nigel Bruce. Fox were, apparently, unsure if this casting would work. The original poster shows top billing went to Richard Greene, the young actor playing Sir Henry Baskerville (he’s very good too, in fairness…).
Well, the executives at Fox needn’t have worried. Rathbone and Bruce were great casting, and brought the Holmes/Watson relationship to life in a way that pleased the public. Even though The Hound Of The Baskervilles stayed truthful to the era in which it was written (this was by no means the usual choice for cinematic Holmes stories, which were often brought up to match the period in which they were filmed) Holmes and Watson were very relatable. And also entertaining, with Bruce becoming the more comedic figure out of the two, but by placing Doctor Watson in that role it freed Holmes from the responsibility to entertain. Often so much is made of Holmes’ brilliance that he becomes not quite human, and the humour then springs from his lack of social skills. Not so here. He gets to tease Watson, and laugh a little at him, always in a kindly way. It’s this warm response that makes Rathbone’s Holmes my favourite to watch. He plays both the intellectual giant and the human being so well.
After The Hound Of The Baskervilles came another film in the same year – The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes. It isn’t a straight translation from a Conan Doyle story but contains elements of many and does this very successfully, bringing humour, creepiness, and great dialogue to the forefront. The line ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ makes its appearance here, as does a lot of violin playing, and a magnificent portrayal of Moriarty by George Zucco. Ida Lupino is also excellent, making this a strong film in terms of performances, which is not something that can always be said of the 1940s films.
It’s the light touches of characterisation that make this film particularly enjoyable, though, from the notion of Holmes playing his violin to flies trapped in a glass to find out which note annoys them (later recreated in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr.) to Moriarty lovingly tending his houseplants. Maybe Holmes is a little mean to Watson at times in this film, who is well on the way to becoming the bumbling fool that he plays occasionally later on in the series of films, but I find myself forgiving him on the grounds of his exuberance. Holmes leaps around a lot, and dashes across London; he also gives a performance of Beside The Seaside while in disguise as an entertainer that’s loads of fun.
But, at that point, the Fox run of Holmes and Watson adventures came to an end, and things got really interesting.
Due to problems with the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, Fox decided not to make any more Holmes/Watson films, but Universal acquired the rights and opted to make the most of the successful pairing of Rathbone and Bruce whilst updating to reflect contemporary issues. Sherlock Holmes therefore went into battle against the Nazis in Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (1942).
The changeover is bumpy to begin with. The films starts with the affirmation that Holmes is “ageless, invincible and unchanging” and then thrusts us into World War Two, and a radio broadcast by a Lord Haw-Haw type figure who is denting the confidence of the British public and revealing top secrets over the airwaves. Holmes and Watson are called upon to track down this voice of terror, and they enlist the help of the great British unwashed hordes to do so. It’s a piece of propaganda designed to make it clear that everyone is needed to fight the threat of Nazi Germany, and as such is fervent, loud, and action packed. It’s not my favourite of these films but it does show how effectively Conan Doyle’s creation could be roped into any setting.
After this adventure Holmes and Watson fought the Nazis twice more, in Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon (1943) and Sherlock Holmes In Washington (1943). Then he retired from public service and returned to working as a consulting detective on the usual private mysteries for which he is best known, starting with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), but he didn’t return to Victorian times. Instead Universal made twelve films in total, all of them in a contemporary setting, up until 1946. At that point Rathbone left, perhaps feeling that there was really no place left to go with the character, and the films came to an end. However, the later films in the series don’t show a real dip in quality, as you might expect; in fact, some of the last efforts are more enjoyable than the first, with the relationship between Holmes and Watson keeping its good-natured charm and the lack of need to be patriotic or saddled to a particular message really working in their favour.Bas
So the later films are absolutely worth watching, and have a confidence in the way they handle Holmes in the 1940s, being not exactly a man of his time nor one of Victorian sensibility, but reminding viewers of the best of both periods, perhaps. He remains unfailingly polite and good-mannered, and as sharp as we would expect, whether taking on mysterious ladies, seven feet tall back-breaking psychopaths, or master criminals such as Moriarty, of course. Perhaps this is because all the films were directed by one man – Roy William Neill. From Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon onwards he was at the helm, and produced most of them, too. It was Neill’s attention to detail and character that shone through; also he had a great way of framing villains to give them your utmost attention with his atmospheric close-ups.
Neill died in 1946, and no more Rathbone/Bruce films were made. But we are left with fourteen great pieces of entertainment to enjoy – every film was sharp, funny, frightening at times, and quick to watch. Many of them are barely longer than an hour in length. Maybe some of them were mysteries with a few too many holes to be examined closely, and maybe some of the supporting performances are a bit too loud for modern tastes, but Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce never faltered at making us believe in their relationship, and in a Holmes and Watson that were right and proper in their actions and beliefs. It goes to prove that the best characters are the ones that are adaptable without losing their appeal. We want to see Holmes solve the case with Watson by his side; whether that takes place as a comedy or a drama, in the Victorian era or in modern-day London, is fine by us – just as long as the performances are as good as the characters deserve.
Five of the best Rathbone/Bruce films:
1. The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939)
The best known of all the Conan Doyle stories, and the only Rathbone/Bruce film version that’s a faithful version, this is the least likely to grate if you don’t much like Watson as the bumbler. Rathbone needs no time to warm to the role of the great detective; he is immediately, fully in character and utterly convincing.
2. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
Moriarty’s first, and best, appearance in the films, making a real match for Holmes with a devilishly constructed plan to ruin the detective that involves a drawing of an albatross, a South American assassin, and the Crown Jewels.
3. The Scarlet Claw (1944)
The disguises are a strong element of these films; Rathbone actually does a great job of impersonating a range of characters. Acting and trickery are at the heart of The Scarlet Claw, in which the famous detective investigates a murder with a supernatural twist. The murder is gruesome and the fog is thick and swirling, but we’re not in England but Quebec, Canada. It just goes to show that it doesn’t have to be on home territory to work.
4. The Pearl Of Death (1944)
I must admit having a soft spot for this one, as it’s the one I remember clearly being terrified by when I was young. Based on the Conan Doyle story The Six Napoleons, we follow Holmes trying to link together a series of grisly murders committed by the ‘Creeper’ – a figure to give you nightmares. Inspector Lestrade adds extra comic value.
5. Dressed To Kill (1946)
The last of the Rathbone/Bruce films, this title has nothing to do with the hunt for three musical boxes that contain a secret. This contains my favourite Nigel Bruce moment, almost surreal in its humour, where he quacks like a duck to cheer up a girl who’s had her musical box stolen. She looks at him with such dejected annoyance. It’s brilliant. Holmes nearly gets hoodwinked by a mysterious woman and has some of his own ruses used against him, making for a very enjoyable mystery, and a fitting end to the films.