When you ask the general public about the actors who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes, nine out of ten will name Basil Rathbone. Rathbone made the part of Holmes his own - he was believable, unforgettable; to many people over many generations he was the authentic screen Holmes.
Only a few, like Peter Cushing and Robert Stephens, came close to Rathbone’s record until the time of Jeremy Brett. Rathbone played Holmes in fourteen films: two for Fox and the remainder for Universal. With Nigel Bruce he was highly successful in the team of Holmes and Watson. As we look back now on these films we can examine what made them so popular, why some Sherlockian critics feel uneasy with them and yet others still think Rathbone is the Holmes.
Exactly how did Rathbone and Bruce come to be cast as Holmes and Watson? The story goes like this: at a big Hollywood party, the founder of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, was in discussion with some of his people over the new property (Sherlock Holmes) he had bought. When the question came up as to who would play Holmes, Zanuck had said: "Simple - Basil Rathbone, and Nigel Bruce as Watson." Thus in the first months of 1939, Rathbone and Bruce became Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective and his companion. And it seems the general public’s acceptance went along with Rathbone’s and Bruce’s portrayals of the characters on the screen.
To Rathbone the chance to play Holmes was welcome. He was a fan of the stories. During his early career as a screen actor he had mainly played baddies, in such films as in the "The Adventures Of Robin Hood" (1938), "Captain Blood" (1935), "Anna Karenina" (1935) and "David Copperfield" (1935). Holmes gave him the chance at last to be a leading actor rather than a supporting role. On the other hand, Bruce had played typical stereotyped foolish Englishman seemingly in all his film appearances, such as "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (1935), Rebecca (1940), Lassie Come Home (1943), and Suspicion (1941).
So Fox began its big production film, "The Hound of the Baskervilles", in 1939. For the first time a Holmes film was being set in the proper Victorian period. I think this is one of the best versions of the Hound - for a start, the hound looks like it would kill. Rathbone and Bruce were not the stars of the film, though - that was a young English actor called Richard Greene (later to be known on television as Robin Hood, along with the sheriff played by Alan Wheatly, who was one of the first TV Holmes to appear in Britain.) However, when the film came out it was not Greene that public wanted to see more of, but Rathbone-Bruce. It also had the first appearance of Mrs Hudson, played by Mary Gordon, who continued in the role in the Universal series of the forties.
The Rathbone-Bruce team worked well together. Some may cringe at Bruce’s Watson, but there is at least one thing they did have going for them, which was Holmes’ and Watson’s undying friendship. The Hound was a great success, and a great personal success for Rathbone.
Fox quickly turned out a second feature in 1939, "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (based on William Gillette's famous play but bearing no resemblance to it), and Rathbone-Bruce this time got top billing. The film did not do well at the box office, and because of this Fox chose not to do any more. However I liked "The Adventures" - the plot was great and it had one of the best screen Moriartys ever: George Zucco.
It involves a pitched battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty. Moriarty sends Holmes a bizarre problem, or to quote from the film, "...I'll give him a toy to delight his heart..." It’s a drawing of a man with a strange bird hanging around his neck. The sister of the man that the note is sent to goes to see Holmes. Soon her brother is dead, and Holmes becomes so involved in her case that forgets to be on hand to see the 'The Star of Delhi' arriving at the Tower of London. Which is the way Moriarty wanted it, in his plan to steal the crown jewels. By the end of the film though Holmes has saved the sister from being murdered like her brother and rushes off to the Tower, knowing now it was Moriarty who had been behind it all. Finally as the two battle their way upwards to the Tower, Moriarty falls to his death.
This film was the last until 1959 to be set in the Victorian period. It also marked the begining of a new series of Rathbone-Bruce films set in the modern era, when the two moved from Fox to Universal.
It is these Universal films, often shown on late-night TV, that most people remember. A lot of Sherlockians will find them painful to watch, partly because of the the modern period. But for me they have some great moments, and they have also done the service of giving an awareness of Holmes and Watson to a wide public. Granted, not all of the twelve are good. They range from the weakest, which have Holmes fighting Nazis, to others which are pure classics of detective and mystery drama. The first film runs an introduction saying how Conan Doyle's character is timeless. This was Universal explanation for the updating.
The first three films are in a way a trilogy dealing with spies during WWII: Voice of Terror, Secret Weapon, and In Washington. The first in the series, "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" (1942), has Holmes pitted against a German spy for the Nazis, who calls himself ‘The 'Voice of Terror' for broadcasting in Britain acts of terror such as train crashes and fires. Holmes is called in by the inner council of the War Office. Soon he finds 'The Voice of Terror’ is actually a member of the inner council itself, a peer named Sir Evan Barham. Barham is not in fact Barham, though, but the German spy Von Bork. At the end of the film, Holmes has saved Britain from a German invasion. The story is loosely based on 'His Last Bow’. It’s one I find stands up to a fresh viewing, with all the mystery surrounding the identity of the voice of doom. In fact I did watch it again recently, and as I’d forgotten who the voice was, I found it exciting. I guess if a film manges to stir something in me then it’s done its job.
The second film, "Sherlock Holmes and Secret Weapon" (1942), has Holmes once again pitted against the Nazis. There is also his old enemy, the evil Prof. Moriarty, as a Nazi agent. This story is loosely based on the 'The Dancing Men', but only in the use of the drawings themselves. The plot of the film centres around stopping the Nazis getting their hands on a new bomb sight, wrapped in a code of dancing men, which then leads Holmes towards the capture of Moritary. The Moriarty this time was Lionel Atwill, who usually played the heavy in Universal films. Unlike Zucco, who had style, I don’t think Atwill pulled off a good Moritary. I felt he was weak - in fact this is one of the weakest films from the series. We are introduced to Holmes’ use of diguises, as he poses as a Swiss inventor, the criminal Lascar and old German bookseller. We are also introduced to Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), who plays the policeman as a thick-skull and becomes the comic relief together with Watson. The relationship between the three is rather fun to watch as the series progress. Hoey only appears in six films, but he is still the best remembered Lestrade.
The next takes Holmes out of London and into the United States in "Sherlock Holmes in Washington’ (1943), a film not based on any of the stories. For the third and last time, Holmes is up against a German spy ring. The group is after some secret documents, whose use in the wrong hands would be disastrous for Britain. The agent carrying them disappears after destroying them, having first made a microfilm copy and placed it in a American match folder. This leads Holmes and Watson across the Atlantic to find the vital microfilm and do battle with the spies. George Zucco is wonderful in the role as head of the ring and makes the film watchable.
The next nine deal with Holmes and Watson in mystery, murder and plots of all criminal kinds. Within these are I think some of the classic moments of the whole series; in fact some of the films are classics. The fourth is one such: "Sherlock Holmes Faces Death" (1943). The idea is based on the Musgrave Ritual, the difference being instead of Charles I's crown it is a ancient land grant. Holmes and Watson arrive at Musgrave Manor to find Inspector Lestrade waiting for them, at the first of a series of deaths. During the course of the film the ritual is read (This has also been changed from the ritual from the original story), and no one but Holmes can work out its meaning. In one of the more interesting scenes of the film, the ritual turns out to be describing moves in a chess game. Holmes arranges the members of the manor to play the pieces on a checked floor to find the secret of the murders, and arrest the murderer. No one in the film shines except Rathbone, Bruce, and of course Hoey as Lestrade.
The next eight films drop the prefix of Sherlock Holmes in the title. Now we come to one of the my all-time Rathbone-Bruce favourites, "The Spider Woman" (1944). This film has it all, a very good plot and a very good villainess in Gale Sondergaard, who always played characters with a sinister smile. Sondergaard had previously appeared with Rathbone in the film, "The Mark of Zorro" (1940) and had won an Oscar for her first film, "Anthony Adverse" (1936) with Fredrick March. However, during the fifties her career was harmed by the witch-hunts of anti-communist fury by Sentor Joe McCarthy. She died in 1985, having resumed her career in the late sixties.
The basis of the film concerns a series of deaths of men who are well-to-do and fond of the gambling tables, and who kill themselves in their pyjamas in what becomes known as the "Pyjama Suicides". The film opens to Holmes and Watson on holidays, with Holmes then faking his own death in order to investigate the sucides (which are fact are murders). Rathbone disguses himself as Rahjhi Singh, an Indian officer who is fond of the tables. Before long he meets the murderer, a female Moriarty, Andrea Spedding alias "The Spider Woman". As Holmes discovers, she selects her victims as those who need money and persuades them to pawn their life insurance to one of her accomplices, before killing them.
This she does by placing a small spider in their bedroom as they lie sleeping. Once the venom gets into its victim’s bloodstream, the excruciating agony drives the victim with to self destruction.The question remains how the spider gets into the rooms. By a pygmy, in fact, who can slip himself through small doorways. Ultimately the spider woman and her gang is rounded up.
The film is based on two stories: "The Final Problem" and "Sign of Four". One of the reasons I like "The Spider Woman" is for the way Rathbone, Bruce and Hoey work so well together. In one scene at the begining of the film when Holmes has disguised himself as a postman, Watson is about give away his scrapbooks and a pipe to Lestrade. And Gale Sondergaard plays a perfect villainess. Her character is the first from the series to have a spin-off, in "Spider Woman Strikes Back" (1946).
The next film, one I could sit and watch again and again, is indeed a classic Rathbone-Bruce: "The Scarlet Claw" (1944). For the second time, Holmes and Watson are taken out of London, this time into the Canadian backwoods. It’s a very dark film, filled with murder, mystery and a streak of revenge. Some strange apparition called La Morte Rouge (The Red Death) appearing at a village kills Lady Penrose. Holmes goes to the village to investigate the murder but encounters hostillity among the people. Soon, more murders take place, and the villagers place their blame on the monster of the village. However Holmes soon places the pieces together, surmising the murderer is an actor called Ramson, who killed another actor in a jealous rage over an actress, the actress having later married Lord Penrose. Holmes discovers the monster is Ramson himself in disguise as well as other inhabitants of the village. And of course, Holmes saves the day. By the way I will not tell what disguises that Ramson uses - that would spoil things.
Next, "The Pearl of Death" (1944) is based on the "The Six Napoleons". How the film differs from the story is by the change of villain - where one had the mafia, in the other it’s a gang headed by Giles Conover. Most of the story is the same: Conover has stolen the Black Pearl of the Borgias and hidden it in a bust of Napoleon. Holmes sets out to find it, during which time there is series of break-ins in which only busts of Napoleons are broken over the floor, and victims have their backs broken, a method used by the Hoxton Creeper. (The Creeper incidentally is played by actor Rondo Hatton, the only horror star to use no make-up on top of his grotesque features as he suffered from acromegaly, a disease which distorts and enlarges the facial features.)
Soon Holmes learns that six busts were made, and finding the name of the last person to have bought a bust he sets a trap for Conover and the Creeper. However when the Creeper overpowers him, the only thing that can save Holmes is the chance to talk his way out quickly, telling the Creeper that Conover will doublecross him and persuading him to kill Conover as he did the other victims. Hatton's character is the second to have a spin-off film from the series - he in fact appeared in two films, "The House of Horrors"(1945) and the "The Creeper"(1946).
The following film, "The House of Fear" (1945) is based on "The Five Orange Pips". This indeed is one of the most interesting films of the series, and leaves you guessing right up to the end. The story begins with an insurance agent visting Holmes and asking him to investigate strange happenings at Drearcliff, a seaside manor house, where a group of men has entered a life insurance policy, naming one another the beneficiaries. It seems two of the men had died six months earlier, murdered horribly after receiving an envelope in the mail an containing an orange pip. Holmes begins his investigation and finds things going increasingly wrong. During his stay at Drearcliff, four more die, leaving the seventh as the fall guy. Again Hoey appears as Lestrade, which is a delight. This film is one of Universal’s most effective Holmes films.
Towards the end of the series, the films were begining to run out of steam, and Rathbone was getting weary of the role. The next one, which I think is excellent, was also made in 1945: "The Woman in Green". It had the re-emergence of Moriarty, played this time by Henry Daniell. Daniell is one of the best screen Moriartys - he had touch of the power of evil. For Rathbone, Daniell was the best Moriarty he had encountered. The plot of the film is that young woman are murdered and found with their right thumbs cut off, and so Holmes is asked by Scotland Yard to help out. Holmes soon discovers that the evil Moriarty is behind it all, that it is a vehicle of blackmail, and that rich victims are chosen, hypnotised and drugged to wake up the next day to find a cut thumb inside their pocket, following which money is demanded of them. However Holmes stops Moriarty, and Moriarty falls to death rather than face a hanging. This film is a joy to watch - Daneill matches his Moriarty with great style against Rathbone's Holmes as the two play out the famous interchange from the story, "The Final Problem".
One of the weakest films from the series is Pursuit to Algiers (1945). The majority of the film is set on an ocean liner, within which Holmes is entrusted with protecting the heir to the mythical kingdom of Ravenia, east of Algiers, from assassins hired by his enemies. Holmes plans to fool the assassins by passing Watson's nephew off as the prince, while the real prince is the steward. The assassins kidnap the wrong man and are arrested. In "Pursuit" you can tell Rathbone is getting bored with the whole thing. The film is so heavily padded that two musical numbers were staged and Nigel Bruce had more than his usual number of comic scenes. However as with all films, whether they are good, bad or even stink, they at least have one or two highlights. The hightlight of this film is the way Holmes counters every move the villains make until the end of the film.
The final two films were made in1946, "Terror by Night" and "Dressed to Kill". In "Terror", the events take place on a train. Holmes with Watson are on board to see that the diamond, the Starof Rhodesia, returns safely to Scotland from London. But there is a murder and the diamond is stolen. Along on the trip is Lestrade, and once again Bruce and Hoey are great in their interaction. As Holmes begins his investigation he finds that the star has been taken by Moriarty's second in command, Colonel Moran, and that the colonel is behind the murder. This film is watchable.
The last film of the series, "Dressed to Kill" is another that I liked: it’s all about stolen music boxes and a criminal who has stolen the plates of the Bank of England, who in prisons makes music boxes, and within the music boxes leaves clues as to where he had hidden them. Holmes works out the mystery of the boxes, where the plates are and the identity of the outside gang.
With "Dressed toKill" there ends the Rathbone-Bruce partnership, at least on on film - they continued to portray Holmes and Watson on the radio a little while longer, until Rathbone’s contract had ended. Rathbone wanted a clean break from Holmes and films, so he returned to the stage while Bruce continued as Watson on the radio with a new Holmes, Tom Conway (George Sanders' brother), and also continued to play in b-grade films. Bruce died in October, 1953. What a sad loss.
Rathbone continued with his stage work. He did return to play Holmes twice, both in 1953: a stage play written by his wife which ran only three performaces and a short play on TV, "The Black Baronet". During the late fifties Rathbone returned to films, where he had begun as a villian. He appeared in some of my favourites films, such as "We're No Angels" (1955) with Bogart, "The Last Hurrah" (1958) with Spencer Tracy, and Danny Kaye's "Court Jester"(1956). In the sixties he appeared in two Roger Corman films, "Tales of Terror" (1962) and "The Comedy of Terror" (1964) with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.
Rathbone also appeared on television, in guest roles. One was a two part episode of "Dr.Kildare", which starred Richard Chamberlain and also had Raymond Massey (who had played Holmes in a 1930 film) as Dr.Gillespie. Rathbone died 21st of July 1967 of a heart attack, a day after he had visited his doctor for check-up and declared fully fit.
Personally, I like the Rathbone-Bruce films very much. I will continue to enjoy them whenever they come on the TV. For many, Rathbone and Bruce were the Holmes and Watson of their generation, and now in a way that generation seems to have been succeeded by a new one, discovering Rathbone-Bruce once more, and that’s great. For without Rathbone-Bruce, the following generation would not have had a blueprint for its own Holmes, the next Holmes on the screen. The Rathbone-Bruce films were much more than just Sherlock Holmes mysteries, they were films about the friendship of Holmes and Watson.
1946 was the year of the last big-screen Holmes to be made in America. Subsequently he was not to return until 1959, with two important changes to his image. This and more will be told in the last part of the series.
Bunson, Matthew E., Encyclopedia Sherlockiana, 1994.
Davies, David Stuart Holmes of the Movies, 1976.
Haining, Peter, Television Sherlock Holmes, 3rd ed., 1994.
Halliwell's Filmguide 10th ed edited by John Walker 1994
Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion 10th ed edited by John Walker 1993
Pointer, Michael, The Pictorial History of Sherlock Holmes, 1991.
© 1997 Damian Magee