Starring: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson)
The Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films were my second encounter with Sir Arthur’s famous characters. This was not, though, the first time I’d seen Mr. Rathbone. I’d seen him years before as the superbly hammy pirate Levasseur in Captain Blood (1935), which, as far as I’m concerned, is the benchmark of pirate movies, to which all others should aspire.
These movies are just ok (there are 14 in all). The first of the films, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was the only one to be set in the Victorian era. The rest were adapted to the present day–i.e. the 30’s and 40’s. The idea of updating Holmes is fine, and is interesting in the case of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) when, instead of working just against Moriarty, he’s also trying to outwit Nazis and collaborators. This was supposedly made as an adaptation of “The Dancing Men”, except that the only part of that story to make it into the movie, as far as I can tell, was the actual dancing men code. Couldn’t there at least have been a Herr Slaney? Oh well.
Rathbone’s Holmes is almost an automaton, often an insufferably smug automaton. This I could get around if there was anything else to his portrayal of Holmes–his sentimental side, his depressed side…but there’s not much of that (of course, the writing and the style of the time has as much to do with that as anything). Meanwhile, Bruce’s Watson is embarrassing. They’ve dumbed him down so much that he’s nothing more than painful comic relief, and I don’t buy it that Holmes would keep such a windbag around. However, Lionel Atwill makes a good, snarling Moriarty (he’s also in Captain Blood, playing a very memorable character).
Some of the films are in the public domain, so you can find them online or collected on DVD for pretty cheap (though the complete collections get pricey) –but beware of bad transfers.
The Bottom Line: Watch if you’re a Holmes completist. Secret Weapon is worth checking out as an adaptation of an iconic character put into a major contemporaneous event. Other than that, I recommend you go watch Captain Blood instead (it’s got Errol Flynn!).
Next time: Jeremy Brett–getting to the good stuff!