The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Universal Pictures Blogathon, currently being observed from October 29-31 and sponsored by
If you were making a living as a silver screen detective in the days of classic Hollywood…chances are that unless you were Nick or Nora Charles (MGM’s “Thin Man” couple) you were pretty much pounding a beat in the B-picture side of Celluloid City. Just about every studio had a second feature gumshoe—Columbia pretty much cornered the market on them, with the likes of Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf, Ellery Queen, etc.—but Universal Pictures, save for their “Crime Club” pictures in the 1930s, seemed to be the last out of the starting gate. This was subject to change in 1942, when the studio inked a $300,000 deal with the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate for the film rights to the Greatest Detective of All Time—Sherlock Holmes of 221-B Baker Street.
Universal’s Holmes series originated with a pair of features released by 20th Century-Fox in 1939: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These two films, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes with Nigel Bruce as Watson, were tremendously successful at the box office—so much so that Fox tried to negotiate with the Conan Doyle estate a contractual continuation with the characters, with the idea being that one Holmes picture would be made and released per year. But the estate insisted that the studio’s scripts remain faithful to the original stories (instead of inventing new ones), and negotiations broke down not long afterward.
But the 300 K that Universal ponied up to make more Holmes pictures included the rights to 21 of Sir Arthur’s short stories, several of which provided the grist for the Universal Holmes releases. To add a cherry to this hot fudge sundae, Messrs. Rathbone and Bruce were persuaded to reprise their roles in the new venture; Basil and Nigel had been playing the parts on radio since 1939, on a NBC/Blue program sponsored by Bromo Quinine (they’d get a new sponsor in Petri Wines—along with a new network, Mutual—in the fall of 1943).
The first of the twelve Universal Holmes ventures was released on September 18, 1942: Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. A title card at the beginning of the film reads thusly:
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.
That’s right, cartooners—Sherlock Holmes had been enlisted to fight for the Allied cause! This updating of the great detective’s environs from the late Victorian era to the twentieth century elicited a lot of howls from the dedicated disciples of the Conan Doyle “canon”…but when you stop and think that the story Voice of Terror is based on—“His Last Bow,” the first of the Conan Doyle stories to be adapted as part of the studio’s deal with the estate—it’s really not all that sacrilegious. “Bow” brings Holmes out of retirement (beekeeping, you know) in 1917 to nab a German spy during the First World War…so is it really that much of a stretch to have him dealing with the Hun again twenty-five years later?
In the hands of character great Nigel Bruce—and to be fair, this practice started in the 20th Century-Fox films as a way to provide contrast between the two men—he was transformed into a buffoonish fool who functioned as each film’s comic relief. My mother, a dedicated “Baker Street Irregular,” knows full well that the Watson of the movies is nothing at all like Conan Doyle’s creation…and yet she was always perfectly okay with it. “Look at it this way,” she once remarked, “when you’re standing next to a guy who’s as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes…doesn’t it stand to reason that you’re going to come across as the person who rode the short bus to school?”
It also served as the film debut of character actor Thomas Gomez, who’s a particularly nasty piece of work as a foreign agent tangling with our heroes. With the second entry, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), the series would be handled by Roy William Neill (Black Moon, The Black Room)—a B-picture veteran particularly adept at making the admittedly low-budget Holmes films look like stylish “A” efforts. (Neill would later take over producer chores on the Sherlock Holmes series as well.)
Instead, the scientist is captured by Sherlock’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill)—who apparently has no loyalty to his home country as far as the war’s concerned. In the Rathbone-Bruce films, Moriarty turns up three times: he’s played by Atwill in Secret Weapon, previously by George Zucco in Fox’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and by the great Henry Daniell in the later The Woman in Green (1945). I enjoy all three portrayals immensely, but I give Lionel the edge only because he has that wonderful response to Holmes’ detailed explanation of how he would do away with his arch enemy (he would rig up an apparatus that would slowly drain Moriarty’s blood): “The needle to the last…eh, Holmes?” (The Great Detective’s cocaine addiction is only hinted at in this film and at the end of Baskervilles: “Oh, Watson…the needle!”)
Secret Weapon also marked the first appearance of actor Dennis Hoey as Holmes’ Scotland Yard contact, Inspector Lestrade. Once again, liberties were taken with how Lestrade was originally portrayed in the Conan Doyle canon (where he was actually a bright, ambitious detective—and quite adept at office “politics” as well); in the Universal movies, Lestrade’s intellect was on a par with Watson’s. But Hoey was a wonderful addition to the movies (“That’s right, Mr. Holmes—and it’s no good sayin’ it ain’t!”) and when he’s not around (he appears in half of the films) he’s a missed presence.
(How’s that for a MacGuffin?) I find Washington to be one of the weaker Universal Holmes pictures…which is kind of odd, because it has some interesting set pieces and sequences (Watson’s fascination with chewing gum, the microfilm that’s passed back-and-forth between the characters because they’re unaware it’s concealed in a matchbook) and features two of the “Moriartys” as villains: Zucco and Daniell. (TDOY fave Clarence Muse also has a sizeable role as a train barman—it’s a thankless part, to be sure, but Muse works wonders with it.) But honest to my grandma: the last time I watched this one (some birthday largess from sister Debbie allowed me to purchase all of the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes flicks on Blu-ray) I slept through the last half. (My mother did, too—but that’s normal with her.)
But apart from the background of an ancestral home being used as a place of convalescence for British military officers (that’s why Watson’s on the scene; he’s an advising physician) Death returns to the familiar trappings of the Holmes stories by presenting a good old-fashioned murder mystery. (The Holmes films would function in a kind of quasi-Victorian universe with this and subsequent features.) It’s loosely based on Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual,” with Holmes and Watson investigating the deaths of a family who adhere to the titular duty. Death is another Universal Holmes I particular enjoy; its rather drab denouement doesn’t detract from the fine performances from the series’ regulars (including Mary Gordon as Mrs. Hudson—Gordon was also a carryover from the Fox films) and featured players like Hillary Brooke and Milburn Stone…plus a creepy Gothic atmosphere that makes good use of some old Frankenstein and Dracula sets.
Things kicked off with The Spider Woman (1944), my second favorite of the Universal Holmes films…and the reason for this can be summed up in two words: Gale Sondergaard. Sondergaard (as Adrea Spedding) is a super-villainess who proves to be a formidable opponent for our hero: she is the mastermind behind a series of “pajama suicides” that are running rampant through London. There’s an undeniably “high camp” element to Spider Woman—it plays at times like a condensed cliffhanger serial—but a more enjoyable entry in the Universal Holmes vehicles will be difficult to find. (There are overtones of Conan Doyle’s “The Adventures of the Dying Detective”—in which Holmes feigns a fatal illness to solve a case—and Spedding herself suggests “The Woman”: Irene Adler, the antagonist in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”) There’s a nod to the war in the climactic scene where Watson and Lestrade take aim at caricatures of Tojo, Mussolini and Hitler at a carnival’s shooting gallery…unaware that Holmes is bound and gagged behind one of them.
While I do like the film, I’m not as enraptured as others because I find the plot a bit unexceptional (once you learn the identity of the killer, you’re hard pressed to want to watch it again like some of the other Holmes movies). What elevates Claw to the position it enjoys is the first-rate direction by Neill, who harkens back to his earlier work on Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) to create a dandy, atmospheric entry that works as both mystery and horror film. (The fog-shrouded Canadian marshlands also suggest the moors from The Hound of the Baskervilles—truly, Neill knew the cardinal rule of making B-pictures: “Fog is your best friend.”)
Like Claw, it’s both mystery and horror movie: Holmes is on the trail of a priceless pearl that’s been squirreled away in one of six busts of Napoleon (the movie reworks Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”)…but he also runs afoul of a homicidal maniac known as “The Hoxton Creeper.” Pearl of Death wasn’t horror icon Rondo Hatton’s first movie but it’s unquestionably the one that put him on the map; before his untimely death in 1946 from acromegaly he would play “Creeper”-like characters in such films as House of Horrors and The Brute Man, both released after his death.
Also, there’s a delicious irony in that Mander’s Conover dies at the hand of The Creeper…and then later that same year is killed in Murder, My Sweet (1944) in a manner that some say inspired the Creeper killings in Pearl (Moose Malloy was known to snap a spine or two).
The House of Fear (1945) is another vehicle in which once you’ve sussed out the guilty party (the movie was adapted from Conan Doyle’s “The Five Orange Pips”) there’s really no need to revisit it (I could watch Pearl of Death a million times and never get tired of it). It does feature an endearingly eccentric performance from character actor Aubrey Mather, as well as nice turns from Holmes series stand-bys Paul Cavanaugh, Holmes Herbert and Gavin Muir. The Woman in Green (1945) spotlights the full-on villainy of Henry Daniell as Moriarty (with Hillary Brooke as his partner-in-crime), which a number of fans consider the best Moriarty portrayal of the Rathbone-Bruce features.
A promising start soon turns into a death spiral of boredom as Holmes and Watson are essentially hired to be bodyguards for a foreign monarch while matching wits with the most tedious aggregation of villains in the history of Universal’s series (they’re so colorless they’re rounded up off-camera). (I tried to re-watch this one before I wrote this for the blogathon…and I was in the arms of Morpheus before the damn thing ended.) Terror by Night (1946) is a bit of an improvement—it’s Dennis-Hoey-as-Lestrade’s swan song, and he’s allowed the rare moment of lucidity in helping Holmes defeat a would-be jewel thief—but situating the story against the background of a moving train does little to alleviate the sluggish pace of the film (even if it is only an hour long).
He had become so identified with the character that he purportedly lost out to favorite silver screen cad George Sanders for the role of Lord Henry Wotton in MGM’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). Dressed to Kill (1946) would be the final entry in the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes ledger, and though it’s not particularly held in high regard by a lot of people (I do agree that title is pretty lame) I have to confess a special fondness for it. The story—a search for missing bank plates whose location is concealed in the notes of several music boxes—is sort of a pastiche of past Sherlock Holmes features, with elements of Pearl of Death, Secret Weapon and Scarlet Claw cribbed to fashion what would be the detective’s curtain call. (The major asset of Dressed is a sensational performance from Patricia Morison—“the poor man’s Gale Sondergaard”—in a role not unlike Spider Woman’s Adrea Spedding.)
But tension between the show’s writers and producer made the experience an unhappy one for “Willy” and he relinquished the part to continue appearing in character roles in films until his death in 1953.
As for the man who’s perhaps best associated as the consulting detective from 221-B Baker Street, Basil Rathbone would play Holmes on only one other occasion: in a 1953 play (written by his wife Ouida) that had the ignominy to open and close on the same night. Rathbone would return to films (I particularly enjoy his comic villainy in Casanova’s Big Night and The Court Jester), and the Sherlock Holmes franchise would continue to win over audiences with reissues courtesy of Realart. Somewhere along the way, however, Universal sold the Holmes movies for some quick cash…and its subsequent custodians did not take as good care of them as they should have. When the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies were released to DVD by MPI Home Video in 2006, many of them were UCLA Film and Television Archive restorations funded by none other than Mr. Hugh Hefner himself. (Think about that the next time you crack an “I only read it for the articles” joke.)