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Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror(1942)

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teaser Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

"SHERLOCK HOLMES, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains -- as ever -- the supreme master of deductive reasoning."
Opening title card for Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

Literature's greatest sleuth leapt into a modern world of Axis spies, radio propaganda and aerial warfare when Universal Pictures launched their 12-film series of Sherlock Holmes films with the 1942 thriller Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Although B pictures designed to fill out the lower half of a double bill, the Holmes series was first-class all the way, particularly in the performance of Basil Rathbone, who even six decades later remains the actor most associated with the role.

Rathbone had starred, with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, in two very popular 1939 films from 20th Century-Fox, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Both of those had been lavish productions set, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, in the late 19th century. With the outbreak of World War II, however, Fox executives decided the character was too quaint for an era of modern warfare. Though Fox chose not to continue the series, Rathbone, Bruce and Mary Gordon -- who had played their landlady, Mrs. Hudson -- continued playing their roles on the radio.

Universal was no stranger to updating classic characters and had scored at the box office by transporting the Frankenstein monster and Dracula into the modern era. The studio had been close to bankruptcy in the '30s, saved by a new series of horror films -- including the 1939 Son of Frankenstein, with Rathbone in the title role -- and the discovery of Deanna Durbin and Abbott and Costello. By the early '40s, the revitalized studio was trying to build up its B movie slate to provide support for its major films. They struck a deal with the Doyle estate for the rights to 21 of the stories over a seven-year period. As the Holmes series was assigned to the studio's B movie unit, Universal naturally decided to update them to avoid the cost of period sets and costumes. In addition, with Rathbone's and Bruce's continuing popularity on radio, they naturally turned to them to re-create the roles, signing Gordon as well.

Although Universal never made a true adaptation of any of the stories, they borrowed plot elements for all of them. For Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, they drew primarily on "His Last Bow," a 1917 story pitting Holmes against a German spy on the eve of World War I. Although the idea of Holmes helping the British government track down a spy -- and even the spy's name, von Bork -- were retained, most of the story was original, with the detective this time enlisted at the height of the war to help track down "The Voice of Terror," a German agent posing as a British noble in taunting radio broadcasts designed to break British morale. That plot twist was inspired by the activities of "Lord Haw-Haw," who actually was several different Nazi agents who, like Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose, hosted a radio show sending Axis propaganda to the Allies.

Before the film's release, there was concern among Holmes' many fans that updating the sleuth would constitute a betrayal of the character. Writing in the Hollywood Citizen News, Frederick C. Othman predicted, "These movie makers just seem to be going out of their way for trouble....good old Sherlock and Dr. Watson will probably have to go into hiding..." In an attempt to forestall objections, Universal hired one of the world's leading authorities on Holmesiana, Thomas McKnight, as technical director. They also took pains to feature Holmes' violin and magnifying glass in the films, although the character's traditional deerstalker cap was deemed too out of date. In Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, the writers even included a brief moment in which Holmes is about to grab his trademarked hat, only to be stopped by Watson, who encourages him to wear a more modern fedora instead.

Whatever the doubts of Holmes' fans, the film proved highly popular, most often paired on double bills with Abbott and Costello's Pardon My Sarong (1942). Most critics praised Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror for maintaining the spirit of the original, even in the midst of modernization, with The Hollywood Reporter suggesting "The Baker Street Irregulars [the Sherlock Holmes fan club] should admit to membership Lynn Riggs and Robert D. Andrews [the screenwriters] for the care with which Holmes is brought up to date without sacrifice for his methods of deduction that capture the imagination..." The New York Times' Bosley Crowther was among the few dissenters, writing, "It is surprising that Universal should take such cheap advantage of the present crisis to exploit an old, respected fiction character.... The late Conan Doyle, who obviously never wrote this story, as Universal claims, must be speculating sadly in his spirit world on this betrayal of trust." Wartime censorship kept the film out of Great Britain until 1943.

The film's success led Universal to follow it with 13 more low-budget features, most of them shot on standing sets, incorporating footage from earlier films (the train crash in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was lifted from 1933's The Invisible Man) and scored with stock music. Holmes, Watson and Gordon were essential parts of the series, while supporting players Henry Daniell and Hillary Brooke would return in two more films as different characters. Leading lady Evelyn Ankers, a veteran of Universal's horror films, would also return to the series as mistress of disguise Naomi Drake in The Pearl of Death (1944).

Producer: Howard Benedict
Director: John Rawlins
Screenplay: Robert D. Andrews, Lynn Riggs, John Bright
Based on the story "His Last Bow" by Arthur Conan Doyle
Cinematography: Elwood Bredell
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Charles Previn, Richard Hageman
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson), Evelyn Ankers (Kitty), Reginald Denny (Sir Evan Barham), Thomas Gomez (Meade), Henry Daniell (Alfred Lloyd), Montagu Love (Gen. Jerome Lawford), Edgar Barrier (Voice of Terror), Hillary Brooke (Jill Grandis), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson), Gavin Muir (BBC Radio Announcer).
BW-65m.

by Frank Miller

SOURCES:
Ron Haydock, Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen

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