It's a doodle. Lightweight ephemera. Call it what you will, this is not a film of the slightest import. It flits through its 65 minutes with the help of musical numbers, attempted romance, gentle comedy and about twenty minutes' worth of plot. Unusually for the world's most famous detective, he's not embroiled in a detective story. No one dies. He's not even trying to solve a crime. This time instead he's playing bodyguard, escorting the crown prince of Rovenia back to... um, the safety of the country where his father's just been assassinated. Well, maybe we shouldn't be thinking about that too hard.
It begins well, courtesy of a ludicrously clandestine way of setting up a meeting. I enjoyed that. It's the maddest sequence of the film and was at least something I'd never seen before. Watson's also at his funniest in those scenes, although I was disappointed to find that some later parts of the film concentrate on Watson at Holmes's expense. I have no objection in principle to following the sidekick's adventures, but it becomes a waste of time when he's been so firmly established to be a comedy buffoon. We know he won't achieve anything constructive. Nigel Bruce's role in these films is to bluster and perpetrate idiotic misunderstandings. Sure enough, he does. He's so reliable an anti-compass that you should be able to identify red herrings as such the moment Watson becomes suspicious of them.
Embarrassingly though the film took me in anyway by being so heavy-handed about setting up its suspects. It might have been a double-bluff, or alternatively the scriptwriter might simply have had the IQ of a boiled grape. Having seen other films in this series, I wasn't ruling out either option.
There's something that generous souls might call a romance between the two pretty young Americans. I'm stretching my definitions here, but only by I'm forgiving the attempt of one of those actors to do an English accent. Looking on imdb, I see the chap appeared in 23 films but only made it into the credits on three of them. His name's Leslie Vincent, for all you afficionados of nobodies out there. He's playing opposite one Majorie Riordan, who on the face of it would seem to have had an even more dismal career, but in fact comes across quite well and apparently walked away from the movie industry after becoming a studio contract player at Warner Brothers because she found it intellectually unsatisfying. She returned to graduate school, studied speech pathology and became a clinical psychologist.
There are songs. I'm sure I mentioned the songs. It might sound as if I'm scraping the bottom of a barrel here, but I can assure you that I'm merely taking it as it comes. The singing sounds lovely, but unfortunately I didn't believe for a moment that I was hearing the real voices of Majorie Riordan and Nigel Bruce. Yes, that's right. Why dub your Watson to make him a crooner? Furthermore, why this one?
There's... um, there must be something else to talk about. Oh yes, the plot. We have some villains who turn up halfway through, whom I quite liked. Unfortunately their comeuppance is merely reported to have taken place in a place we've never been at the hands of policemen we never see, in what might be the most low-key climax I've ever seen in a movie. Nevertheless they're still entertaining, with a deaf-mute muscleman, a fat man and a slimy little chap who's clearly been studying at the Peter Lorre school of soft-spoken creepiness. In fact there's a reason for that. Martin Kosleck really is impersonating Lorre! He and the fat chap are based on Kasper Gutman and Joel Cairo from The Maltese Falcon
, as played in the 1941 film adaptation by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Mind you, for this film they've cut out the homosexuality.
The script is original, but it includes a couple of nods. We sail on the SS. Friesland, as per one of Holmes's unrecorded cases in The Norwood Builder, and over dinner Watson tells everyone about the Giant Rat of Sumatra. In doing so he loses any facility with words that you might have expected from Holmes's literary chronicler, mind you. "Suddenly the door opened slowly." He's soon reduced to acting out his story with props on the dinner table. However you'll be pleased to know that at the end of that exciting adventure, "the freighter was towed out to sea and blown up."
Rathbone is Rathbone. He manages an eccentric pronunciation of necklace, but he also makes a decent fist of holding everything together in best "Peter Davison in Warriors of the Deep" fashion. Rathbone's Holmes is always taking his mission seriously, even when the script isn't.
Overall, this is a pleasant enough film, but one with no real ambitions to be anything other than a waste of time. It's gentle and well produced as these things go. It's also too lightweight to make any serious mistakes, so at least you won't be rolling your eyes at it. Incidentally the cast contains fewer series regulars than usual, with the only noteworthy examples being small roles for Gerald Hamer and Morton Lowry, whom we'd last seen as Stapledon back in The Hound of the Baskervilles
. This is probably the least of the Rathbone Holmes films, but it's a long way from being the worst.