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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes(1939)

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teaser The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Decades after his final portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's coldly logical detective, Basil Rathbone still remains the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes for many of the character's fans. There had been many screen incarnations before him (John Barrymore quite distinctively played the sleuth in the 1922 silent feature Sherlock Holmes) but most were forgotten when the gaunt, classically trained Rathbone, with his crisp diction and piercing eyes and aquiline features, stepped into the deerstalker cap for the 1939 thriller The Hound of the Baskervilles. Accompanied by Nigel Bruce as a portly Dr. Watson, Rathbone became the first screen version of Holmes to solve crimes in the flickering gaslight atmosphere of Victorian England, the era in which the original stories were set, and it was this incarnation in which he first uttered the signature line of the series: "Elementary, my dear Watson." (Though Conan Doyle never quite has Holmes deliver such a line in his stories, Holmes does say "Elementary" and refers to his companion as "My dear Watson" a few times in print.) Rathbone received second billing to Richard Greene, the handsome, dashing young actor who played the haunted Baskerville, in his first appearance as Holmes. However, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the film's immediate follow-up, he rose to top billing: the first for the respected stage star and screen character actor.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not based on any of Conan Doyle's original stories and, according to Holmes scholars, only nominally adapted from the credited stage play by William Gillette. The film pits Holmes against his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (played with cool cunning and obsessive drive by frequent screen heavy George Zucco), who escapes a murder charge in the opening scene and proceeds to bait Holmes with a challenge. "I'm going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you'll never suspect it until it's too late," he taunts the detective. "It'll be the end of you, Sherlock Holmes." Thus he begins a master plan that involves enigmatic letters, a flustered young beauty, a murdered aristocrat, a South American stalker (complete with an eerie wooden flute that haunts the victims) and the priceless (and fictional) Star of Delhi. Ida Lupino co-stars as the terrified young heiress worried that her brother has been marked for death, a case that Holmes takes up despite his promise to oversee the transfer of the jewel to the Tower of London. Needless to say, Moriarty's fingerprints are all over these seemingly disparate cases, but the mystery is just exactly how and why.

The elaborate scheme is more convoluted than Conan Doyle's elegantly constructed stories and Lupino's relentlessly suspicious fianc (Alan Marshal), who continues to make light of the death threats even after one has been carried out, is more narrative contrivance than logical storytelling. But they are minor issues in an eventful script and a handsomely mounted film. Victorian London is vividly (if quaintly) recreated on the 20th-Century-Fox backlot, with hansom cabs clopping down cobblestone streets and gaslight flickering in street lamps. The fog creeps into the nocturnal gloom as if on cue, blanketing the film in an ominous tension, and the climax sweeps us into the castle-like environs of the Tower of London, recreated for the film with all the gothic atmosphere of the costume adventures in which Rathbone played the dastardly aristocratic villain.

Rathbone embraces the character of Holmes from the opening scenes. His resemblance to the Sidney Paget illustrations in the original Strand publication is startling, but his incarnation is far more than visual. He brings to the screen the offhanded arrogance that Holmes so memorably displayed in the stories, and tempers it with his delight in conundrums and challenges. He's exacting, exasperating, charming, devoted to Watson and oblivious to all else while concentrating on an experiment. Rathbone makes Holmes' violin scratching an endearing eccentricity and carries off Holmes' predilection for disguises and role-playing with an actor's delight. In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes indulges in a flamboyant bit of social theater and Rathbone executes the scene with such flair that even diehard fans won't see through the disguise until he sloughs off the accent and gives the character away.

If Rathbone is celebrated as one of the great screen Holmes, fans have been less happy with Nigel Bruce, whose Dr. John Watson is something of a lovable buffoon. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes gives us Watson before he has tipped completely into caricature. He delivers moments of comic relief and Holmes chides him at times, but Watson is completely loyal and unfailingly helpful, and he is clear-headed enough to remind Holmes to keep his eyes on the Star of Delhi and not get distracted with the murders, a mystery that holds far more appeal to the detective. Rathbone defended Bruce's Watson in his autobiography: "There was an endearing quality to his performance that to a very large extent, I believe, humanized the relationship between Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes."

The film also revived the faltered career of ingnue Ida Lupino, whose Hollywood roles were dwindling. It was in fact a radio performance on Orson Welles' "Mercury Theatre of the Air" that brought her to the attention of a Fox casting agent, who was impressed with her clear voice and mid-Atlantic delivery. Curiously, the British born actress did not use her native accent in the London-set film, but delivers instead the same mid-Atlantic tenor of her earlier films. The role spurred her screen career back to life and she landed a contract at Warner Bros., a studio that saw the tough dame beneath the ingnue trappings and gave her defining roles in films such as High Sierra (1941) and The Man I Love (1947).

Through what can only be seen in retrospect as mishandling by Fox, this handsome studio production was relegated to second bill status upon release and considered a failure by the studio, which cancelled its planned series of Holmes adaptations. Yet Rathbone and Bruce proved popular enough to recreate the characters for a radio series and, in 1942, a revival of the screen series by Universal, which brought the character up to the present to solve mysteries in World War II-era England. For all the villains played by Rathbone in films such as The Sea Hawk (1940) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), he is still best remembered for his heroic Holmes.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)
Director: Alfred Werker
Screenplay: Edwin Blum; William Drake; William Gillette (play "Sherlock Holmes"); Arthur Conan Doyle (characters, uncredited)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Richard Day, Hans Peters
Music: Robert Russell Bennett, David Buttolph, Cyril J. Mockridge, David Raksin, Walter Scharf (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Robert Bischoff
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Ida Lupino (Ann Brandon), Alan Marshal (Jerrold Hunter), Terry Kilburn (Billy), George Zucco (Professor Moriarty), Henry Stephenson (Sir Ronald Ramsgate), E.E. Clive (Inspector Bristol), Arthur Hohl (Bassick), May Beatty (Mrs. Jameson), Peter Willes (Lloyd Brandon), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson).
BW-85m.

by Sean Axmaker

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