Sherlock Holmes silhouette
Sherlock Holmes image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Not So Elementary: ‘The Sherlock Holmes Vault Collection’ Offers Rare Deductions

We thoroughly inspect the four 1930s features and bonuses in The Film Detective’s The Sherlock Holmes Vault Collection.

The Sherlock Holmes Vault Collection [Special Edition] [Blu-ray]
The Film Detective
12 December 2021

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes
Director: Leslie S. Hiscott

After the hit of Wontner and Hiscott’s first Holmes effort, a sequel was called for, so they re-teamed on The Missing Rembrandt (1932). Brought back were Fleming as Watson, Minnie Rayner as warm bustling landlady Mrs. Hudson, and even Jane Welsh as a different ingenue. Alas, the film echoes its title and is now a missing work. Then Wontner was lured to a rival studio for The Sign of Four (Graham Cutts, 1932), with Ian Hunter as Watson. That’s not here either.

Three years later, Wontner returned to Hiscott and Twickenham for The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, once again with Fleming’s Watson. This effort is a surprisingly close incarnation of Doyle’s 1915 novel The Valley of Fear. Whereas that novel quickly and ingeniously resolved the present-day murder and followed it with a backstory that covers half the book, this film version puts the lengthy flashback in the middle of the investigation, as told to our heroes by grieving widow Ettie Douglas (Jane Carr).

Hiscott’s visual sense has decidedly improved in three years, along with developing technology, for he uses consistently engaging choices to present both the current story and the flashback. Leslie Perrins, who played the victim in Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, plays the victim again (or does he?) but with more to do in the flashback. Making good villains in the flashback are wall-eyed Boss McGinty (Roy Emerton) and impetuous Ted Balding (Ben Welden).

As mentioned above, Doyle often shows greater interest in the action-packed backstories, and that’s true of this tale of an American criminal gang broken up by a Pinkerton detective. Here, Doyle gave a conservative interpretation of the contentious history of a union called the Molly Maguires and its battle with the Pinkerton Agency hired by the mining industry to infiltrate them. Film historian Jason A. Ney provides a helpful discussion of the events in his commentary track.

The novel mentions Moriarty around the edges, so the film beefs up his role (played by Lyn Harding) with scenes of on-screen scheming and a final confrontation that echoes “The Final Problem”. No continuity at all connects these events with Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, and the confrontation between Moriarty and Holmes in the latter’s apartment is basically a replay from the first film, now better handled.

Bonus films are the aforementioned Copper Beeches (Adrien Caillard, 1912) and one episode of the 1954 Sherlock Holmes TV series produced and directed by Sheldon Leonard. That series stars Ronald Howard as Holmes, with H. Marion Crawford as Watson.

Silver Blaze (1937)
Director: Thomas Bentley

Wontner’s fifth and final Holmes outing is based on the titular Doyle story, named after a prize racehorse that disappears. Once again Fleming is Watson, and once again Harding shows up as the mighty Moriarty, who apparently can die as often as Dracula without it making a difference.

This is especially curious because not only has Moriarty nothing to do with Doyle’s story, but it’s among those tales where the apparent crime is revealed as a very different event, requiring the arrest of nobody. This film couldn’t stand for that, so the writers concoct a real murder. Adding to the fun is that a character from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) gets dragged in, thus justifying a US reissue by Astor Pictures under the title Murder at the Baskervilles.

While this print looks as sharp as the box’s other Wontner films, I have a bit of bad news. The early scene in which Moriarty gloats over his new HQ with his aide Moran (Arthur Goullet) gets abruptly cut off as they’re inspecting the elevator shaft. If you look for the eyesore YouTube print that carries the Murder at the Baskervilles title, the scene extends to Moriarty saying, “Yes, I think we are secure from any interference here, Moran. It’s quite a fortress, a fortress that I fancy even Mr. Sherlock Holmes will find it difficult to storm.” Then the film cuts to the back of Holmes’ chair, which is where the Blu-ray continues.

Bonus shorts have nothing to do with Holmes aside from their titles: a cross-dressing slapstick called Cousins of Sherlocko (1913) and a Felix the Cat cartoon, Sure Luck Holmes (1928). Similarly unrelated is the Mutt and Jeff cartoon on the next disc, Slick Sleuths (1926), which at least has its heroes wearing deerstalkers; it claims to be in a color process, long since worn off.

A Study in Scarlet (1933)
Director: Edward L. Marin

The fourth and final disc in the box showcases an independent US production from Tiffany Pictures, evidently distributed by Sono Art after Tiffany went bankrupt. Transplanted British actor Reginald Owen stars as Holmes and receives a dialogue credit. His Holmes is more workmanlike than Wontner, though he has great fun with a disguise. The little-known Warburton Gamble plays a disposable Watson.

The title implies that this film is based on the very first Holmes novel, a fascinating “origin” that spends much of its length on another of Doyle’s beloved backstories of criminality among the primitive Americans. In this case, his unflattering story was inspired by Brigham Young’s Mormon settlement in Utah and allegations surrounding the Danite vigilantes. Doyle later apologized for this, as explained in the liner notes.

Scriptwriter Robert Florey, a future director of pulpy B movies and much spiffy TV, invented a new story from whole cloth. In so doing, he created a role for last-minute cast addition Anna May Wong, a shamefully underused talent whom he’d later direct in Daughter of Shanghai (1937), now drafted into the National Film Registry. A “name” star, she’s billed second in A Study in Scarlet and has an important role, though it’s another of her movies that makes us wish she had better vehicles for her fabulousness. She felt the same way.

Her character, Mrs. Pyke, is the smashingly stylish Chinese widow of one of the Caucasian British characters. Another busy Asian actor, Tetsu Komai, plays another member of the group. While Komai was Japanese, he often played Chinese and any number of ethnicities. This film’s Chinese characters aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, except for whatever detail it adds to the mention of the Limehouse area.

Florey’s most original impulse was the creation of a body-count plot involving a tontine and the use of the children’s rhyme Ten Little Indians, which is the milder alternative to a more offensive rhyme from minstrel shows. Florey invents a variant in which the lines refer to “little black boys”, which shows a desire to avoid slurs while still using the famous rhyme as a plot device.

Agatha Christie showed no such desire when she published her famous novel in 1939, six years after this film’s release. The US title of Christie’s novel is And Then There Were None while the original British title is the rhyme’s racial slur, with Ten Little Indians as a later alternative. To me, this strongly implies that Florey’s whole-cloth fabrication of a Holmes story influenced Christie. The lively commentary by authors Peter Atkins and David Breckman echoes this opinion. To be sure, Christie’s conception and working-out remain original.

Florey had directed a 1932 Tiffany picture and apparently was slated to do the same here before he moved on to better offers at Warner Brothers, so Edward L. Marin is the director. The already stellar Arthur Edeson is the cinematographer. He shot James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), another project Florey had worked on with a view to direct, and it’s fascinating to contemplate how they might have worked together on A Study in Scarlet.

Of all the features in the box, this has by far the most ragged print, and that makes it difficult to judge the attempted shadowy atmospheres. If this is restoration, prints must be lousy and call out for more elaborate efforts. Alas, the same seems true for all Tiffany’s output, as Wikipedia reports their negatives were all burned by MGM during the Atlanta sequence in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). Gone indeed.