As threatened, I’ve been watching some of the old Basil Rathbone movies. Conveniently, I received the complete set of his Sherlock Holmes pictures as a gift at Christmas. So far, I’ve seen only the first two, made at Twentieth Century Fox in 1939 and the only entries in the series which take place in the Victorian period. The later films, set contemporaneously during World War II and made by Universal, are spoken of as variable in quality and tone, and, though at times inspired by canonical stories, are also wildly free with them. (This should give some Sherlockians, who often prefer Rathbone even to Brett, some pause for thought before they trash Guy Ritchie.)
These first two films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were actually unusual in the history of Holmes cinema up to that point – they were the first deliberately to evoke the authentic period. Those later Universal ‘travesties’ were in fact a sort of reversion to form – prior to 1939, most Holmes films had simply been set whenever the films were set. (Of course, this became more and more difficult to sustain the further that film makers found themselves from the nineteenth century.) The Hound of the Baskervilles is indeed a fairly faithful adaptation – it makes cuts to fit its brutally short running time of just eighty minutes, but even Nigel Bruce’s Watson – later infamously a bumbling comic foil – is allowed to inhabit the competent role Conan Doyle gave him. At the end of the story, Holmes insists he must retire for the evening – and calls Watson to bring him his needle. This is a quite astounding fidelity to the text for 1939.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is less faithful. Though it features Professor Moriarty, and closes with the villain falling from a great height, there is no Reichenbach and there is nothing approaching a plot similar to any of those in the collection which shares the film’s title. Instead, a rather good George Zucco has his Moriarty plan what Conan Doyle’s Holmes would have found a quite trifling crime, in order to distract from his grander scheme to, erm, steal the Crown Jewels. This Moriarty more resembles Rattigan from the infinitely more entertaining Basil The Great Mouse Detective. There are some excellent moments early on which do as much as anything in The Final Problem to establish the curious mix of rapport and revulsion that exists between Holmes and his nemesis, but otherwise the plot proceeds very plainly. Also, Rathbone dresses up as a music hall singer and performs ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’. For reals.
These films do atmosphere well – both develop a murky Victorian dread which works well for the stories, and the music in Adventures in particular is properly eery. Rathbone, of course, is acerbic, urbane and thoughtful as Holmes – though also, perhaps, a little too healthy and level-headed. Was Conan Doyle’s Holmes really so robust? Still, if it’s not quite what you might want from your Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles in particular is a decent 80 minutes of easy entertainment – and isn’t that at the very least a large part of what we should expect of the great detective?