Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sherlock Holmes On The Big Screen




Basil Rathbone (L) and Nigel Bruce

Basil Rathbone (L) and Nigel Bruce




There is little doubt the the best remembered duo to play Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on the big screen were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (who could hrrumph better than anyone alive).


So identified with these roles were they, they played the same parts on the radio for years.


But they were not the first pair, nor the last, to play these famous sleuths.


The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists more than 200 Sherlock Holmes appearances in movies and television, going back to 1905. But the list is most assuredly incomplete.


The first known appearance of Holmes on film is Sherlock Holmes Baffled, made by the Edison Company in 1900.  It ran less than 60 seconds.  


Many other 1 and 2 reel shorts would be produced over the next decade, some of them little more than slapstick comedies with Mack Sennett in the title role.


By the early 1920's, silent movies had grown in stature, and production values, and more serious fare was produced in the Holmes vein.  Stoll films in Britain produced 47 two-reelers of Sherlock Holmes between 1921 and 1923.






In 1922 the legendary John Barrymore played the role in a movie entitled Sherlock Holmes, with Roland Young as Watson. This was also the film debut of a very young William Powell.




One of the earliest `talkies' featuring Sherlock Holmes was made in 1931, and starred Raymond Massey (far better known for portraying Abraham Lincoln) as the deductive detective.


There is no creature in India called the Swamp Adder, and the real identity of the poisonous reptile in this story has been the object of speculation for more than 100 years.


The Speckled Band - Herbert Wilcox
Rare Sherlock Holmes film starring Raymond Massey as SHerlock Holmes. Lyn Harding who plays Dr Rylot later appeared as Moriarty in "Silver Blaze"/"Murder at the Baskervilles." 




Arthur Wontner is little remembered today, but he played Sherlock Holmes in 5 movies between 1931 and 1937.   Here are two of his efforts, the first from 1932, and the latter from 1934


The Sign Of Four
From IMDb: A young woman turns to Sherlock Holmes for protection when she's menaced by an escaped killer seeking missing treasure. However, when the woman is kidnapped, Holmes and Watson must penetrate the city's criminal underworld to find her. 


The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes - Julius Hagen
The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes stars the British Arthur Wontner, today a forgotten interpreter of Holmes who would soon be overshadowed by the glossy American productions starring the illustrious Basil Rathbone, for some people the greatest Holmes ever. Plot: Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Wontner) and Dr. Watson (Ian Fleming) come out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder. They find that a group of coalminers, called The Scowlers, are caught up in the mystery, along with the treacherous Pro... 




In 1933, Reginald Owen would take the helm in A Study In Scarlet, but just a year earlier, he'd played the role of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, with Clive Brook playing the lead.


A Study In Scarlet (1933)

From IMDb: In London, a secret society led by lawyer Thaddeus Merrydew collects the assets of any of its deceased members and divides them among the remaining members. Society members start dropping like flies. Sherlock Holmes is approached by member James Murphy's widow, who is miffed at being left penniless by her husband. When Captain Pyke is shot, Holmes keys in on his mysterious Chinese widow as well as the shady Merrydew...



The most popular films, however, were the 14 made by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.   


These films help propel Rathbone to genuine stardom.  A trained Shakespearean actor, and an expert swordsman, Rathbone's stock in trade during the 1930's was in playing suave villains in costume dramas and swashbucklers. 


In 1939, his career path would change when he was cast as Sherlock Holmes, and today he is best identified with that role.


The first two films of the series (and, arguably the best) were set in the Victorian age.   They were The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.


The remainder were updated and set in the early 1940's, with many references to WWII.   Despite this anachronistic slant, they were hugely popular with the audiences of the day, and are well remembered even 60+ years after they were made.


Three examples of which are:




Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
Based on the Sir Authur Conan Doyle story "The Dancing Men", Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are placed in WWII europe to help protect a scientist and his invention from the Nazis. Basil Rathbone .... Sherlock Holmes Nigel Bruce .... Dr. John H. Watson Lionel Atwill .... Professor Moriarty Kaaren Verne .... Charlotte Eberli William Post Jr. .... Dr. Franz Tobel Dennis Hoey .... Inspector Lestrade Holmes Herbert ......

Terror by Night - Howard Benedict
From IMDb: Holmes is hired by Roland Carstairs to prevent the theft of the Star of Rhodesia, an enormous diamond owned by Carstairs' mother, Lady Margaret. Believing the diamond will be stolen on a train trip from London to Edinburgh, Holmes deftly switches diamonds with Lady Margaret while in her compartment. Soon after, Roland is murdered and the fake diamond is stolen. Red herrings abound as Holmes, aided by Dr...

Dressed To Kill
Aka 'Sherlock Holmes in Dressed To Kill' - features Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. You can find more information regarding this film on its IMDb page.


Next time, Sherlock Holmes on the radio.

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