Home > Reviews > Thoughts on the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films (spoilers)

Thoughts on the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films (spoilers)

I’ve been thinking lately about all the different versions of Sherlock Holmes I’ve seen in recent years, which led me to consider the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes series from 1939-46, none of which I’ve seen since they were aired on TV in my youth. I’ve long shied away from them because of their infamously revisionist take on Dr. Watson, turning him into a doddering old fool instead of the stalwart and capable partner of the canon and most modern adaptations. But recently I got to thinking that I should at least see them for comparison purposes, and as a key part of the history of Holmesian adaptations. They’re hard to find on DVD, but between YouTube, the Internet Archive, and the library’s streaming service, I was able to find them all online. Only a few of them are in public domain, but the copyright owners don’t seem all that concerned with enforcement, since there are multiple copies available on YouTube and elsewhere, with varying degrees of quality. So I figure they’re pretty much fair game, though I tried to favor the library versions where feasible (the first time I’ve actually “borrowed” streaming movies from the library). Indeed, the public-domain ones are embedded directly into their Wikipedia pages, though the editions available there are of low quality.

The first two Rathbone/Bruce films were big-budget efforts made by 20th Century Fox in 1939, and were all but unique among pre-1950 Holmes screen adaptations in being period pieces rather than updated to contemporary times, as I discussed on Locus Roundtable a few years ago. (The only other exception I know of onscreen was the 1916 silent film adaptation of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes play, although the radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which Rathbone and Bruce starred in throughout the same period as their movie series, was also set in the past.) The series was discontinued when World War II broke out, on the theory that audiences would be more interested in stories about chasing enemy spies and saboteurs rather than classic mysteries. When Universal picked up the rights in 1942 and brought back Rathbone and Bruce, they simply updated it to the present day so that Holmes was chasing enemy spies and saboteurs (why didn’t Fox think of that?).

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939): The first film hits the ground running, doing a pretty faithful adaptation of the famous novel and presenting Holmes and Watson as well-established figures. Even so, the introductory scene of Holmes and Watson does a fine job establishing the basics of what they do and what their personalities are, so novices can easily catch up. (Then again, it’s based quite closely on the novel’s opening scene, so the credit there goes to Doyle.) Rathbone is an excellent Holmes indeed — perhaps a bit more upbeat and charming than some versions, but good at conveying Holmes’s intellect, intensity, and sterner side. There’s a marvelous split-second expression of resigned impatience on Rathbone’s face when Holmes questions a hansom driver about the color of his passenger’s eyes and the driver lacks the observational skills to answer. As for Bruce, his infamous Watson characterization isn’t in place yet; since this is largely faithful to the book, Watson is capable, aggressive, and not without cleverness, though nowhere near Holmes’s level. But there are moments where Holmes takes his amusement at the expense of a flustered, annoyed Watson, and I can see how the later persona must have arisen from the filmmakers writing to the actor’s strengths and the nature of his chemistry with Rathbone. Still, I can’t say I’m massively impressed by Bruce yet.

As for the rest of the film, it plays to ’30s film conventions by focusing a lot on the romance between Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) and Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), who get first and third billing while Rathbone gets second and Bruce is relegated to the top of the diagonal list of supporting players (since Fox was unsure their star power was sufficient to carry a film). Greene and Barrie are adequate enough as romantic leads, but their interplay is still secondary to the mystery and suspense. The film reveals the killer’s identity surprisingly early, well before Holmes reveals it, but this is necessary to create suspense in the climax.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (’39) is nominally based on Gillette’s seminal stage play, but has little in common with it aside from featuring Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) as the villain and including the character of Billy the pageboy (Terry Kilburn), who was created for the play and later added to the canon. Otherwise it’s an original story in which Moriarty engineers a convoluted murder scheme as a “toy” to distract Holmes while the Professor goes after a much bigger prize. The woman at the center of the former scheme, Ann Brandon, is played by Ida Lupino, whose name I know mainly from her later work as a director and from appearances in The Twilight Zone and Columbo. At this age, she was quite lovely and also projected compelling strength and intelligence, reminding me of Carrie Fisher in her Princess Leia days. Her character is smart, perceptive, and courageous, insofar as a woman in a 1930s movie could be, which means she still had to do her share of screaming and fainting.

Anyway, this is a really good movie. The interplay between Holmes and Moriarty in their early scene together is delightful, marvelously setting up their oh-so-civilised rivalry and war of intellects. Zucco is effective as the Professor, but Rathbone is superb as Holmes, with the script allowing him to be more eccentric and obsessive in a very authentic way. It really is one of the classic screen portrayals of the character (and is also the film that popularized “Elementary, my dear Watson,” though not the first appearance of the phrase). On the other hand, Watson blossoms into full comic relief here, a greater departure from the source — but the comedy is effective and funny and not always at Watson’s expense, and the lighter moments it creates help make the film more well-rounded overall.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (’42): Even though most prior Holmes adaptations had been modernized, Universal felt the need to preface its first WWII-era Holmes film with a title card stressing that Holmes was “immortal” and “timeless.” Maybe that shows how much of an impression the first two Rathbone movies had made on the culture.

But it’s worth remembering that the last original Holmes story had been published only 15 years before this movie. That’s probably why the early Holmes movies were usually in modern settings — because at the time, it was still an ongoing or recent series and hadn’t yet come to be seen as a thing of the past. But what’s relevant here is that the Holmes canon overlaps the First World War. This film is a loose adaptation of “His Last Bow,” a 1917 story about an aging Holmes on the brink of retirement capturing a German spy on the eve of WWI. That story was a departure from the norm, the only canonical story told in omniscient third person and focused on espionage instead of mystery, and it’s thus believed to have been written as a patriotic propaganda piece to boost British morale. The Voice of Terror is very much in the same vein. It keeps little of the plot, aside from the name of the enemy spy (nearly) and the verbatim closing speech made by Holmes about England weathering “an east wind” and coming out stronger. But it’s very much a morale-boosting propaganda piece of the sort that was pretty much required for Hollywood films of this period.

The B-movie budget is immediately clear in the opening montage, which uses abundant stock footage to show a series of disastrous acts of sabotage supposedly perpetrated by the Nazis on the UK, with a gloating German propaganda broadcaster, the titular Voice of Terror, describing the horrors even as they happen, so as to demoralize British listeners. The narration is actually pretty chilling despite the stock footage. A lot of the film also happens on one set, the office of a secret intelligence council led by Reginald Denny’s Sir Evan, who’s called in Holmes to track down the VoT over the protests of his colleagues. Holmes is still essentially the same as before, though with a messier hairstyle for some reason. As with the later modernized Holmeses played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, he’s adapted to the cutting-edge technology of the era, using an oscilloscope to analyze the VoT’s broadcasts and having a flashlight mounted at the tip of his walking stick. Watson is greyer-haired and somewhat more useless, playing a minor role in the story aside from giving Holmes someone to talk to, correct, and laugh at. (Though there’s an odd bit where he stops Holmes from donning his deerstalker cap before going out, saying “You promised.” Of course, a proper British gentleman like Holmes would never have worn a deerstalker in the city, only in the country. But Holmes’s deerstalker and Watson’s bowler on the hat stand are an in-joke nod to their period origins, since they otherwise wear contemporary 1940s attire and headgear.)

The leading lady is Evelyn Ankers of The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and other Universal chillers. She plays a supposedly Cockney girl from the criminal classes, whom Holmes persuades to help him out of patriotism and who rallies her fellow lowlifes with a rousing speech about doing it for England, incongruously delivered in an accent more like an American gangster’s moll. She’s nice to look at, but she’s no Ida Lupino. She ends up seducing a German agent named Meade (Thomas Gomez) as part of Holmes’s plan, though how Holmes figures out who Meade is and where to find him is never explained. All in all, a decent film, but not a hugely impressive start to the Universal series.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (’42): This one sees Holmes not merely catching a spy, but working as one — using his talent for disguise and clever planning to sneak a Swiss scientist named Tobel (William Post Jr.) out from under the Gestapo’s noses and bring him to England, where he’s agreed to develop an advanced bomb sight for the RAF. But he insists on overseeing the work himself and keeping the technique secret, an arbitrary condition that serves only to drive the plot. When Tobel disappears, Holmes learnes that he left a message for the detective with his fiancee in London, Charlotte (Kaaren Verne), but it’s already been taken in secret by Professor Moriarty (or “Moriarity” according to the credits) — here played by Lionel Atwill, who was Dr. Mortimer in The Hound of the Baskervilles three years earlier. Holmes reconstructs the code from the underlying sheet of paper on the pad (lucky he wrote it in pencil), and it’s a code Holmesians know well. The film is nominally adapted from “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” but it’s really more of a sequel, since Tobel knew Holmes would recognize the code from his prior encounter with it.

There’s even more debonair battle-of-wits banter between Holmes and Moriarty this time, but I’m afraid I don’t find Atwill quite as impressive a Moriarty as George Zucco was, even though I’ve quite liked him in earlier roles. I guess I feel Atwill makes a better good guy than a bad guy, though he played plenty of both. I do enjoy their interplay, though, and I imagine it may well have been an influence on the Doctor and the Master in Doctor Who. As for Rathbone, he gets to play Holmes in a number of disguises, but the most problematical one is when he dons brownface to play a “Lascar” (South Asian sailor in British employ) named Ram Singh, for whom he uses an inexplicable accent that sounds more like Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster than anything from the Indian subcontinent.

The film also features this series’s debut of Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), whose relationship with Holmes is less adversarial here than in the canon, though it will grow more so in later films. Lestrade and Watson are both shown as clueless next to Holmes, but they do get to save Holmes’s life with a nice bit of observation and deduction (more Lestrade’s than Watson’s) when they realize he’s being carried off in a chest with a false bottom. And Watson gets a good moment when he recognizes and explains the Dancing Men code, though he fails to recognize the extra twist Tobel adds to it. Still, it’s a better showing for Watson than in the previous film or two.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (’43): This one involves the disappearance of a British courier carrying an important document to Washington, DC, prompting Holmes and Watson to fly to the US capital to find the missing item. The document is a classic Macguffin, in that it drives the whole story but we never learn what’s in it, beyond the fact that the freedom of the world depends on it falling into the right hands.

This is easily the best of the Universal series so far, with lively and clever plotting and fun characterization, starting with the opening sequence in which we’re introduced to the courier, gradually clued in that he’s not the innocent klutz he appears, and shown his interactions with the entertaining bunch of train passengers, notably Nancy Partridge (Marjorie Lord), to whom he casually hands off the document disguised in a matchbook once he realizes enemy agents are onto him. Later, in London, H&W examine the missing agent’s flat and Holmes deduces that he’s converted the document to microfilm and hid it in the matchbook (or “match folder” as they call it in the film). From then on, it’s a hunt for the missing matchbook, and the film has some devilishly clever and suspenseful sequences as the book casually changes hands among various characters, as matchbooks tended to do in the age of ubiquitous smoking. There’s a party sequence where it wanders by chance through many different hands, including an ironic moment where it’s briefly held by the person who was supposed to receive the document in the first place, before ending up back in Nancy’s possession where it started. Later, the villain casually and unknowingly takes possession of it, and Nancy has a nice moment where she silently deduces what’s happened and chooses not to tell, even under threat of torture. It’s nicely conveyed through pure expression and gaze.

This leads to a confrontation between Holmes and the villain Stanley, played by a returning George Zucco, who’s as effective a menace as he was as Moriarty. It’s very entertaining to see Rathbone and Zucco play off each other, and to see how Holmes brilliantly manipulates Stanley into giving him the matchbook. All in all, a very cleverly crafted and well-written tale, one of the two best in the series so far.

After these first three films, the Universal series shifted away from its focus on the war and back toward more conventional mysteries. So this seems like a good place to break.

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  1. August 29, 2017 at 11:56 am

    There are some Rathbone as homes radio dramas on the Internet archive as well.

    • August 29, 2017 at 12:07 pm

      I’ve already listened to a bit of the radio series. I’ll comment on that in a subsequent post.

  2. August 29, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    The entire Rathbone/Bruce series isn’t that hard to find on DVD, and from legit sources. Beautiful restorations appeared some years ago in a series of releases from MPI, and they were recently upgraded to a single Blu-Ray set, available at Best Buy, Amazon etc. Both sets have been very well reviewed and they look terrific to someone who first saw these films as a local tv station’s late night movies. Maybe a 4K release will eventually appear. I recognize the flaws but will always love these movies.

    • August 29, 2017 at 12:50 pm

      Good point, but I was speaking in terms of rental or borrowing options, which is all I can afford right now. I couldn’t seem to find many of them in my library’s catalog.

  3. August 31, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    There’s a very reasonably priced box set available in the UK, if you are able to play Region 2 DVDs. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sherlock-Holmes-Definitive-Collection-Remastered/dp/B0006M4S46/ref=cm_wl_huc_item

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