Let’s digress a bit from Venice, Nathan Sutherland and Prog Rock for a bit.
If you follow this blog, you’ll know that old films are a hobby of mine (I should probably expand on that by saying that I define pretty much everything after 1970 as “a new film”) and over the past few months I’ve been rewatching the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, in order.
Now, many other Sherlocks are available. You may wish to make a case for Eille Norwood, Christopher Plummer, Benedict Cumberbatch, even Buster Keaton. But my three favourites have always been, in no particular order, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing.
None of them are quite perfect, however. As brilliant as he was, it’s distressingly obvious that Brett was seriously ill during the latter episodes of his series, which can make them a difficult watch. Cushing’s film of The Hound of the Baskervilles is a wonderful thing, yet the low budget of his later TV episodes is plain to see and even the actor was less than enamoured of them.
As for Rathbone – well, here we have two problems that, in all honesty, aren’t really problems at all.
First of all, “The Contemporary Setting Problem”. In 1939, 20th Century Fox produced two big-budget ‘A’ pictures – The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes before Universal acquired the rights, and put out 12 modestly-budgeted ‘B’s, all of them running at about the seventy minute mark. Universal also set the series in contemporary times, to the extent of having Holmes battle the Third Reich in the early films. But this really isn’t an issue – yes, it’s a bit strange seeing Holmes with a very unHolmesian haircut fighting Nazis, but – after the first three – the series goes all shadows and fog and genuinely looks timeless.
The second one, of course, is “The Watson Problem”. Nigel Bruce’s characterisation, it is said, is silly, buffoonish and far away from Conan Doyle’s conception of the brave, resourceful ex-soldier. This is true. But you know what? I don’t care. Bruce’s Watson is a bit of a silly arse, and all the more so as the series progresses. Yet he’s also brave, kind, warm and – most of all – enormous fun. And that, frankly, is enough for me.
So with the two problems that are not actually problems dealt with, let’s have a quick rattle through the whole series.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, 1939). Where it all begins. Tremendously atmospheric, with a terrific cast that includes Lionel Atwill and John Carradine; whilst Mary Gordon makes the first of her many appearances as Mrs Hudson. Rathbone nails the character of Holmes from the off, and Bruce’s Watson is actually played pretty straight here. The lack of a musical score is a bit odd though, and it has to be said that the juvenile leads (Rathbone was second billed to Richard Greene) are pretty wooden.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred L Werker, 1939). Moriarty plans to steal the Crown Jewels. Basil sings “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside”. Ida Lupino, no less, turns up as the heroine. This is enjoyable enough, but, really, it could have been so much better. There’s no getting away from the fact that it looks and feels stagey and, crucially, George Zucco’s brilliant Professor Moriarty is absent for much of the film.
So far, so quite good. There’s now a gap of three years, Universal acquire the rights, and then Basil and Nigel return to fight Nazis. I usually refer to the first three films as “The Bad Haircut Years”. If you’ve seen them, you’ll know why.
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (John Rawlins, 1942). And this, perhaps, is where the story really begins. Holmes battles to uncover “The Voice of Terror”, a Lord Haw-Haw figure who occasionally takes over the airways in order to predict imminent death and destruction. It’s an effective and surprisingly grim set up. The great Henry Daniell makes his first appearance in a Holmes film, as does Evelyn Ankers. (Digression : all gentlemen of a certain age with an interest in genre cinema will go all misty eyed when they see the words “Evelyn Ankers” in the credits. This is actually the law. She’s great in this, in a different type of role to the ones she was usually given. And, if she can’t *quite* pull off a convincing Cockney accent, we don’t care).
Note : all the following films in the series are directed by Roy William Neill. Just so you know, because otherwise it’s going to get a bit boring retyping “Roy William Neill” time and time again.
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942). Holmes helps a Swiss scientist evade a trap set by the Gestapo, in order to smuggle a bombsight – the eponymous Secret Weapon – into Britain. Moriarty (Lionel Atwill this time), of course, also has his eyes on it. Holmes gets to wear lots of disguises. There’s a classic “I could kill you now, but instead I will subject you to this ridiculously over-complicated means of execution” scene. And, best of all, Dennis Hoey’s wonderful Inspector Lestrade makes his first appearance.
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943). I think this is generally seen as being the weakest of the “Nazi Trilogy” but I think I actually prefer it to Secret Weapon. Holmes and Watson are in the USA, where the MacGuffin is a microfilm that all all costs must not fall into The Wrong Hands. The Wrong Hands, in this case, belong to George Zucco who gets far more to do here than in Adventures. Henry Daniell appears for the second time; and there’s much fun to be had as Watson experiments with bubble gum, struggles with the US sports pages, reads comic books and declares Flash Gordon to be ” a very capable fellow”.
And this brings an end to the “Nazi Trilogy” or, if you prefer, “The Bad Haircut Trilogy”. They’re all good fun but, from now on, Holmes would look like Holmes and the films themselves would feel more like Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). This is where the series really kicks into gear. It’s a pretty faithful version of “The Musgrave Ritual”, but Neill ramps up the atmosphere so what we have is a near-horror Old Dark House movie. Watson gets a little more agency than usual, and it’s nice to see that he actually has a life beyond Baker Street. Hillary Brooke and her impeccable English accent appear for the first time, Hoey’s Lestrade is back and – well, it’s just ever so well done.
The Spider Woman (1943). This cobbles together bits of The Final Problem, The Sign of Four, The Speckled Band and probably many others as well. It really shouldn’t work, but it does, mainly due to a bravura performance from the legendary Gail Sondergaard; and Bruce, who gets to show that Watson isn’t quite such a silly arse after all. The climax does rather depend on us believing that fairground shooting galleries used live ammunition during World War II, but the rest of it is so good we can let that one go.
The Scarlet Claw (1944). Ah, now we’re talking! This comprehensively out-Baskervilles Baskerville as Holmes and Watson battle possibly supernatural forces in a remote Canadian village. Terrifically atmospheric, all shadows and fog, and there’s a nice twist to the ending as well.
The Pearl of Death (1944). A retelling of “The Six Napoleons”, but we’re still firmly in horror territory as Rondo Hatton appears as the back-breaking “Hoxton Creeper” (“‘Oxton ‘Orror, I calls him”, says Lestrade). One of the high points of the series, with a splendid performance from Miles Mander at its centre. Oh, and Evelyn Ankers (did I mention Evelyn Ankers? Oh, I see I did) gets to play a villain and she’s ever so good at it and…and…okay…let’s move on.
The House of Fear (1945). “The Five Orange Pips”, relocated to a remote Scottish mansion. Like Faces Death, it’s an Old Dark House film and all the better for it. Secret passages, a sinister housekeeper, an ever-decreasing group of suspects – it’s all here. Oh, and Watson has a chat with an owl in a graveyard as well.
The Woman in Green (1945). This one has a very grim premise for the time : a serial killer is preying on young women, and removing a forefinger from each victim. Hillary Brooke and Henry Daniell are back, and Matthew Boulton’s Inspector Gregson replaces Hoey’s Lestrade. The plot does strain credulity, hinging as it does on Brooke’s Lydia Marlowe being able to hypnotise people into believing they’ve committed murder. No matter, it’s an excellent little thriller, and Daniell’s Moriarty is quite possibly the best in cinema.
Pursuit to Algiers (1945). Adventures on the High Seas, as Holmes plays deck quoits, Watson sings “Loch Lomond” and Sinister Agents of a Foreign Power abound. Annoyingly, Watson is about to regale us with the tale of The Giant Rat of Sumatra when Holmes notices that a party cracker has a bomb in it and so we never do find out just why the world was not yet ready for it.
Terror by Night (1946). This one seems to be a little unloved, but I really like movies set on trains and so, of course, I really like this one as well. Alan Mowbray makes for a good Colonel Sebastian Moran and, down amongst the smaller roles, is minor genre favourite Skelton Knaggs. Lestrade is back for the first time since House of Fear, but, sadly, this is his last hurrah as there’s only one film left…
Dressed to Kill (1946). Another variation on “The Six Napoleons”, this time featuring a hunt for three music boxes made by a convict in Dartmoor Prison which reveal the location of stolen plates for forging £5 notes (well, it was a lot of money in those days). Did prisoners really make music boxes? Perhaps they did. Things go a little bit meta when Patricia Morison’s villainess fools Watson by means of the exact same trick that he had just written up in his account of “A Scandal in Bohemia”. But never mind – he gets to solve the mystery anyway, albeit accidentally.
And that, sadly, was that. Nigel Bruce, I imagine, would have been happy to continue to his dying day, but Rathbone was tired of being stereotyped and decided he’d had enough. He would never get such a great role again. If the more recent films, perhaps, were not quite as good as that wonderful sequence from Faces Death to Pearl of Death, they were never less than entertaining. There were, I think, still a few years of magic left had Rathbone decided to continue. Yet, even though he was tiring of the part, there’s never, ever a sense that he’s just phoning it in.
Fourteen films, then. Some are better than others, sure, but in all honesty there’s not a bad one among them. What we have, perhaps most importantly, is the sense of being amongst friends, amongst a great ensemble cast that stretches over seven years and nearly twenty hours of viewing time. George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, and Henry Daniell. Mary Gordon and Dennis Hoey. Hillary Brooke and Evelyn Ankers (did I mention Evelyn Ankers?) It’s impossible not to feel a little cheered upon seeing their names in the credits. But above them all, of course, are Rathbone and Bruce, slipping into their familiar roles like comfy shoes, relaxed and happy in each other’s company like the great friends they were.
The series has been a pleasure to revisit. So join me, please, in raising a glass to Basil and Nigel : the original Dynamic Duo.
For a far more in-depth view of the films than I could ever hope to give, do check out Adam Roche’s wonderful “The Game is afoot”, a lovely, warm-hearted view of the whole series. Or, for a closer look at The Pearl of Death, listen to All the Best Lines, episode 9