When we think of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies we’re usually thinking of the twelve films the pair made for Universal in the 40s. Before this however they made two Sherlock Holmes films for 20th Century-Fox. These differed from the Universal films in being set in the 1890s. The second of the 20th Century-Fox movies was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which was released in 1939.
The movie opens with Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) in the dock, accused of murder. Moriarty’s criminal career is however far from over. Sherlock Holmes arrives to late with the evidence which would convict him - Moriarty is acquitted and is now a free man again - free to continue his nefarious plottings. And Moriarty’s latest plot is his most ambitious yet, but first he sets in motion a subsidiary plot to throw Holmes off the scent.
Rathbone has already settled comfortably into his role in this film. This is a Holmes possessed of steely determination but with a certain gruff kindliness. He makes some rather unkind remarks about Dr Watson’s competence, at one point describing him as an inveterate bungler, but it’s always with a twinkle in his eye and he always makes sure that Watson does not take his chaffing too seriously.
George Zucco is a suitably sinister but very smooth and cultured Moriarty. Zucco goes for subtle menace in his performance, to very good effect. He’s clearly dangerous and perverse but he’s also a very controlled character which makes him a convincingly formidable adversary. Ida Lupino, not yet a star, is a charming and appealing heroine.
It’s fun to see Rathbone and Bruce in period costume and the movie throws in all the elements one associates with the 1890s London of Sherlock Holmes - cobblestones, hansom cabs and of course fogs. Plenty of fogs. On the whole it’s a visually impressive movie with fairly high production values.
While it’s now very highly regarded this film did not please everyone at the time and it incurred the displeasure of the Conan Doyle Estate which led to Fox abandoning plans to continue the series.
The screenplay by William Absalom Drake and Edwin Blum was supposedly based on William Gillette’s 1899 play rather than directly on any of Conan Doyle’s stories but in fact the film ended up bearing no resemblance to the play. The final screenplay explained a number of puzzling plot points in further detail (such as Moriarty’s extraordinary means of providing himself with an alibi for the murder for which he stands trial at the beginning of the film). These explanations required a certain amount of expository dialogue so the decision to cut them was on balance quite sensible.
This movie is so good that one can’t help regretting that the Fox series was cut short. It would have been wonderful to see more of Rathbone as Holmes in authentic late Victorian settings (although of course the Universal movies which followed have their own distinctive charm). The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is great entertainment. Highly recommended.