Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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.

Holmes of course knows nothing of the Professor’s plans although he certainly expects further trouble from that quarter. At the moment his priority is the case submitted to him by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino). Miss Brandon is convinced that her brother is going to be murdered, just as her father was murdered years earlier in South America. The behaviour of her fiancé Jerrold Hunter is also troubling her. He dismisses the threats against her brother as a mere prank but Holmes thinks otherwise. He is sure the matter is both urgent and terribly serious, so serious that he has little time to devote to another case - he has been asked to help protect a priceless emerald that has been added to the Crown Jewels.

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.

Nigel Bruce’s performances as Watson have always excited a certain amount of controversy with fans about equally divided between those who find his Watson to be too much of a bumbling fool played purely for laughs and those who enjoy Bruce’s undoubted comic skills and his good-natured likeability. Personally I think he pushes things a little too far in some of the films but the odd chemistry between the two leads mostly works rather well. Bruce is nothing like the Dr Watson of Conan Doyle’s stories but while turning Watson into a comic relief character annoys many people he is at least genuinely amusing and the banter between Holmes and Watson is delightful.

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.

Alfred L. Werker’s career as a director wasn’t particularly distinguished although he did make a couple of very fine film noir offerings. Werker does a very solid job indeed with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

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.

The DVD transfer in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection boxed set is pretty good. There are a few very fine speckles but the image is clear and sharp with good contrast. And there are plenty of extras including an excellent audio commentary.

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.

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