Anytime a major fictional character is played by more than one person, endless discussions will ensue regarding which actor was the standard by which all others should be measured. Sean Connery’s charm and poise seems to have cemented his status as the ultimate James Bond, but when discussions turn to Scrooge, Alastair Sim’s dynamic performance is often undervalued because of the antiquity of A Christmas Carol both in age and condition.
Later generations, more drawn to color film and special effects, tend to favor George C. Scott or Albert Finney. Likewise, when discussions turn to Sherlock Holmes, the quality and production of the more recent films featuring Jeremy Brett tend to tip the scales his way for many viewers. For as good as the films featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes might have been, the WWII era prints degenerated so much over the years that they became almost unwatchable.
But now thanks to MPI Home Video and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, movie lovers can enjoy the 14 original classics as crisp 35MM versions with subtitles, commentaries, photo galleries andor trailers.The first two films in the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were released in 1939 by Twentieth Century Fox before the remainder of the series moved to Universal Studios.
The Fox prints were in better shape and able to be digitally transferred with few problems, but the restoration efforts for some of the Universal films were Herculean. The Scarlet Claw (1944), in particular, had to be pieced together from several sources, but the result is so crisp and clear that it looks as pristine as it must have the day it first premiered in theatres 65 years ago. Now that the entire series will be available for proper viewing in a digital format, I suspect Mr. Rathbone will reclaim the title as the definitive interpreter of the role. Four of these films have just been re-released in two double feature sets - the three above-mentioned titles along with 1945’s Pursuit to Algiers.
Rathbone, who resembles the illustrations of Holmes from the original stories, plays up the character’s eccentricities and intelligence without flamboyance, although he will engage in physical activity in pursuit of justice. In fact, he’s occasionally reckless and often is within a whisker of a tragic move. Yet when at his best – face to face with an adversary, one mind battling another – it’s fascinating to watch him convey his superior intellect and chess-like manipulation without using physical gestures.
Rathbone was a classically trained Shakespearian actor who might also have been the most able fencer and sword-smith of his era’s action movies, so this is no small accomplishment. And much has been made of Nigel Bruce’s interpretation of Watson as a sometimes bumbling, often dim-witted companion; a far cry from the narrator of the books, who was an intelligent man of medicine. But while Watson often provides the comic relief in the films, he also is often is the voice of reason that reins Holmes in and keeps him focused on the main objective. He’s given enough scenes of straight drama to show that while Watson may be soft in heart, he is not always soft in the head.
But these were B-movies, after all, made during wartime and meant to provide distraction from the horror of the times. The fact that the series was a notch above many of the quickly made B-pictures of the time is a testament to the quality lead and supporting actors that formed the company throughout the years.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first movie in the series, and the only one to be sourced from an Arthur Conan Doyle novel. Holmes and Watson investigate an old family curse whereby the owner of the manor is destined to die violently at the hands of an ungodly beast, much like his ancestors have before him. Holmes makes light of the custom on the surface, but underneath he has observed enough strange behavior (and met enough strange locals!) that he realizes there is more than meets the eye. It’s one of the two films set in the appropriate time period, but most of the action takes place far from Holmes’ London address in a foggy, desolate moor.
Much like a classic haunted house story, eccentric characters are introduced, red herrings abound, and all is not as it appears. Director Sidney Lanfield keeps the action moving along, and though most of the activity takes place outside at night in deep fog, the action is clear and focused. The cast is universally strong and features John Carradine in a minor role as the eerie butler. It’s one of the best known stories in the Holmes canon.
Pursuit To Algiers is the second feature in this set, but like many of the later films finds the detective and his partner involved in international espionage. When the series moved to Universal a conscious effort was made to “modernize” Holmes, partially because the studio saw the character as timeless, and partially to echo the pro-Allies sentiment that was casually integrated into many of the studio films of the day. While about to embark on a hunting trip, Holmes and Watson are asked to help protect the life of a soon-to-be-crowned King, whose life is in danger (as heir to the throne) by the same people who assassinated his father. Naturally, Holmes’ ethical code trumps personal pleasure, and plans are made to accompany the young prince to his homeland and safety.
Much of the film takes place aboard a ship, whose finite confines house a cast of suspicious characters. And as it turns out, everyone does have a secret to hide. This is not one of the better films in the series, although there are some great lines, a twist ending… and Watson even gets to sing a song.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the other Fox title, headlines the second double feature. Aptly named, the script draws upon a play written by William Gillette as well as a couple of the Doyle stories, and features the first film appearance of Holmes’s legendary nemesis, Professor Moriarity (George Zucco). As the film begins, Holmes arrives at court too late to produce the evidence that would convict Moriarity, who calmly promises to ruin Holmes by pulling off “the crime of the century” right under his nose. Sure enough, an ingénue soon appears at Holmes’ flat with a cryptic drawing, the same etching that appeared before her father was killed a decade earlier.
Of course, this is part of Moriarity’s misdirection: to spin two crises at once knowing Holmes would pursue the more obtuse and challenging one. Although filmed on the studio back lot, it’s hard to not believe the whole escapade takes place on London’s cobblestone streets, and while the plot relies heavily on coincidence and great timing, what thriller doesn’t? Zucco is wonderful as the evil Moriarity, and a young Ida Lupino showed why she would soon be a star in Hollywood.
Many people, including this reviewer, rate the other half of this double feature, The Scarlet Claw as the best film in the series. The action takes place in a rural area near Quebec, where Holmes and Watson have journeyed to attend a meeting of the Royal Occult Society. This odd introduction frames both the location (a desolate rural setting in a marshy woods) and the plot (a supernatural beast is killing the members of the village). The villagers here are as trapped by fog and fear, and Holmes knows that what is behind the mythical beast is really the dark heart of a murderer who sits among them.
Although there are similarities between this film and The Hound of the Baskervilles, including an episode where Holmes feigns his departure to work on his hunch in secret, the tone and mood of this film is much darker. There is one scene in particular where a murder has taken place off-screen, juxtaposed against a drunken, jubilant celebration; it both motivates one character to action and also solidifies the fact that the murderer is every bit the monster he pretends to be. Roy William Neill not only directed and produced the film, but co-wrote the original screenplay, and cinematographer Paul Ivano’s use of shadow and contrast adds as much eerie atmosphere as the score and sound effects. The plot is intriguing, the suspense palpable, with the identity of the villain and the story behind the murders the icing on the cake.
Richard Valley provides the audio commentary for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, while David Stuart Davies handles the job on The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Scarlet Claw. Valley is informative, albeit sometimes too detailed on the filmographies of supporting players, but his knowledge about the gaps between page and screen versions is invaluable. Davies is more of a raconteur, inserting a few jokes within the script, but his efforts are certainly worth listening to as well for a deeper understanding of the films.
The photo galleries are short, and the trailer for The Scarlet Claw clearly illustrates just how much work the restoration team had to do to salvage the film. It would have been nice to have more features about the process itself, or perhaps some vintage clips of some of the stars discussing their work, but just having these films available at this level of quality is reason enough to rejoice. Worth getting, you ask? Why, that’s just… elementary!