Rixflix A to Z: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Director: Alfred L. Werker // 20th Century Fox; 1:25; b/w
Crew Notables: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (characters)
Cast Notables: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Ida Lupino (Ann Brandon), George Zucco (Professor Moriarty), Alan Marshal, Terry Kliburn, Henry Stephenson, E.E. Clive, Arthur Hohl, Holmes Herbert
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

As the steel of Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s sword was matched blow for slashing blow by the equally adept blade of Sir Robin of Locksley, my 10-year old brain could scarcely believe the good fortune I had stumbled upon. I had seen the actors playing these parts, Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn, pair off against each other originally on Christmas Eve a couple months before in Captain Blood, and now I was watching an even better fight between them in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Caught up in the action, I was, even in my hero-worshipping youth, saddened greatly at Robin’s killing thrust into the ribcage of the evil Sir Guy, for it meant not only that the end of the film was closing in, but that no longer would the sneering tones of Rathbone's voice add that extra dash of dastardly insult to his supremely villainous role.

At 10, I was already a fan of the great Basil Rathbone, and this only from seeing but a pair of the swashbucklers in which he thrived as a villain for much of his career. (The next Rathbone sword-flick to capture my attention, The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, would arrive into my life not long after this one.) I did not know anything about him, just that he was a fantastic villain, but even at this early stage of my movie-watching existence, I was beginning to recognize that the villains got to have all the real fun in the flickers. And it seemed that Rathbone truly relished the opportunity for malevolence; even if he didn’t truly relish it, it still appeared that way onscreen.

But then my mother, just after the movie ended, said something to me that opened another door: “You should see him play Sherlock Holmes.” She said “Sherlock Holmes” in her mock-English accent, which was usually Cockney-laced (which she may have picked up from My Fair Lady) no matter how the character actually talked or where they hailed from, and she said it in the same endearing manner in which she would invoke the names of Monty Python, Mary Poppins and Doctor Dolittle throughout my life, and the way that she currently speaks the name “Harry Potter”. And she was right: I did need to see him play Sherlock Holmes. The problem for me: Who was Sherlock Holmes?

At that point in my life, Sherlock Holmes only existed to me as the answer that I would get when I would ask where Sherlock Hemlock got his name. You know, the silly Muppet detective on Sesame Street who would spat out "Egad!" every time that he discovered a clue, and which usually led him ever closer towards solving a crime that he himself had committed, such as eating half of Ernie's peanut butter sandwich? (He would then abscond with the second half -- the brute...) I had heard the name referenced throughout my young life to that point, of course, usually in other mystery books like the Encyclopedia Brown series. But I had yet to read the Holmes books at that age, so I really had no idea who he really was, nor had I the compulsion to find out. Until Basil Rathbone showed up...

It then became crucial that I see one of his Holmes films right away (for my mother assured me that he had made many – there are actually fourteen, so she was right). Lucky for me, my first opportunity turned out to be the first film in the long series that he made starting in the late 30s and on through the 40s: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. By the time I saw the film, I had already read through one of his casebooks, and was starting on another. And it really wasn’t important to me that Rathbone be the perfect embodiment of Holmes; he was, quite simply, Sherlock Holmes.

These days, there are people who debate which actor was the best Holmes: Rathbone, Jeremy Brett (of the quite excellent television series, which covered rather faithfully the entire series of stories, long and short), or any number of one-shot actors who have filled the role in over a century of moviemaking. That Rathbone was not the first Holmes comes as a surprise to many people, as does the fact is he was not the first to play the character in a regular series. But he was the one who made the part his own, and burned his image indelibly onto the role forever more. Whether it is his face that we see on Holmes now, or the other way around is truly hard to say, so wrapped together are the two in Hollywood history. The Brett camp, amongst whom Jen considers herself an ally, consider him to be the closest to the literary character, but I truly couldn't care less.

Brett may be the closest portrayal, and the more I watch his show, the more I tend to agree with this opinion. But Holmes for me has never been one where the written version is a necessary element in enjoying the films. On film, perhaps because of its reliance on visual rather than mental stimulation, Holmes tends to work best handled as a superhero, let alone a thinking person's superhero. And once the Rathbone series left Fox after the initial two films and made the leap to series-conscious Universal, Holmes basically turned into a detective version of the Frankenstein Monster, appearing in film after film in increasingly desperate plots pitting him against outrageous villains never dreamed of in Doyle's stories, and, in the weirdest twist, picking up and resetting the characters of Holmes and Watson forty years into the future so that they may aid in a war-effort battle against Nazi agents.

And, of course, as a kid, I loved all of this folderol. It didn't matter; even though I was by then knee-deep in reading Doyle (and had started reading Agatha Christie, in addition to my burgeoning love for science-fiction), the fictional Holmes and the movie Holmes remained separate entities. Soon, I would see a variety of actors play the part (I am partial to Peter Cushing and Christopher Plummer, but mainly because I like them in general), and would eventually see Brett when he first hit American television. But no matter how many people I saw play the character, and no matter how many performances I might think were closer to the character, it was always Rathbone to me. And that's the way it shall always be.

Now, if only someone had thought to double-cast Rathbone as both Holmes and a sword-wielding Professor Moriarty in the same film, capturing both sides of Basil's onscreen split personality, then we would have had one for the ages. And then let's see the mighty Jeremy Brett pull that one off. I know Rathbone could...

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