Ida LupinoBasil RathboneHolmes HerbertGeorge Zucco
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
Medium: film
Year: 1939
Original stage play: 1899
Director: Alfred L. Werker
Writer: William Gillette, Edwin Blum, William A. Drake, Arthur Conan Doyle
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty, detective
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Ida Lupino, George Zucco, Alan Marshal, Terry Kilburn, Henry Stephenson, E.E. Clive, Arthur Hohl, May Beatty, Peter Willes, Mary Gordon, Holmes Herbert, Mary Forbes, Frank Dawson, Anthony Kemble-Cooper
Format: 85 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031022/
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 11 November 2008
Not a particularly memorable film, but that doesn't make it bad. On the contrary, it's the second of Fox's two films in this series and the last to be set in the correct era. 1894, to be precise. It doesn't look as glorious as The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it's still set in a faithfully recreated Victorian London with fog and horse-drawn cabs. It's a different kind of film from its successors. Bigger budget and a longer running time. I'm about to nitpick for a while, but I should say before I begin that it's an enjoyable film, I had a good time with it and I'd happily watch it again if the occasion arose.
You may be wondering about the rubbish title. Is it referring to the first Sir Arthur Conan Doyle anthology? Probably not. In fact the film claims to be based on an 1899 stage play by American actor-writer William Gillette, also known as the definitive Holmes of his generation. He sounds like an interesting chap, but apparently almost none of his work survives here. Moriarty has a sidekick called Bassick and Holmes has a page boy called Billy, who'd been played by Charlie Chaplin as a child actor during the stage play's original London run. That's about it. Everything else is new. However I'm not losing any sleep over this, since the play also had a romance and wedding plans for Sherlock! That was thanks to Doyle's most famous throwaway comment, by the way. Gillette had asked, "May I marry Holmes?" and the author replied, "You may marry or murder or do what you like with him." The lady is Alice Faulkner and she's not in this film.
However in addition to paying little heed to the works of William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this film manages not even to include all of itself! Apparently a significant chunk of plot exposition got omitted. The producers couldn't find a graceful way of including it. The situation is that our heroine, Ann Brandon, is living in terror of some unknown stalker who appears to have been following her family for years with murderous intent. All this also has some link with Moriarty. That might sound like an intriguing situation, but don't hold your breath waiting for its resolution. Up pops some Mexican fellow, gets clobbered by our heroes and then disappears again from the plot without further explanation. In the original script, he wasn't dismissed so casually. Instead we were to have learned that many years ago Brandon Sr. had killed this chap's father and stole the mine that made him rich. To be honest I have a feeling that even this might have seemed a tad on the lame side, although in fairness the Brandons are very much the B-story of this film. The danger they face is real, but Moriarty's using them as a decoy to distract Holmes from his own plans.
As you might have gathered, this film is a bit muddled. It opens with Moriarty literally getting away with murder, since the court couldn't find the flaw in his alibi. Holmes knows what it is, but he arrives too late. We soon discover that this Moriarty loves to brag, both to his subordinates and to Holmes as he explains exactly what's going to happen in the rest of the film. What's more, he's right. He does indeed present Holmes with two mysteries and things unfold exactly as predicted. It's rather impressive, except that as a result we always know that Ann Brandon and co. might as well have flashing lights over their heads saying "RED HERRING" and Holmes is doing exactly the wrong thing by entrusting the business of the Crown Jewels to Dr Watson.
George Zucco is the first of three Moriarties in these films. You might remember him as Professor Andoheb, High Priest of Karnak, in the (rubbish) Universal Mummy series. Incidentally he only got the part at the last minute, taking over from Lionel Atwill. Maybe the producers thought this was too soon after Atwill's turn as Dr Mortimer in The Hound of the Baskervilles? Well, he'd play Moriarty later in The Secret Weapon. As for Zucco, I've always thought he could be quite a good actor, but he's not at his best here. He starts out hidden under a beard and spectacles and he never quite breaks through them. He's memorable enough once shorn of the things, but in his early scenes he's an inoffensive-looking gentleman who isn't scary for a moment even when delivering the most blood-curdling threats.
Mind you, I admire his plan. This is a bold Moriarty, acting in person no less. The script makes him look impressive, except that it's a head-scratcher to see him sitting with the unguarded Crown Jewels for more than two hours doing nothing. We can even time it. The emerald is handed over at 10pm, then it's 11:53 when Ann Brandon goes upstairs and so surely at least midnight by the time we return to Moriarty. Presumably he'd been planning to escape in the small hours of the morning, but then again he'd have got away with it if he hadn't hung around there until Holmes turned up. Besides, are we supposed to believe that the Tower of London is less securely guarded in the middle of the night? I'm unconvinced. Besides, if the producers had wanted to emphasise that he was waiting for something, couldn't they have had him look at his watch and get out a book or something? That looked weird.
Other cast members include Gerald the lawyer with his moustache, who looks a little like Timothy Dalton. The script does such a good job of laying red herrings at his door that a number of people seem to have bought them to this day. Nigel Bruce made me laugh again as Dr Watson. He already has a lovely rapport with Rathbone, the two of them somehow making charming moments out of lines like, "I'm afraid you're an incorrigible bungler." I still don't quite understand how. More importantly though he's funny, which is always good for the comic relief. It's easy to see why his portrayal was so influential and he's just as much of a star of the series as Rathbone. I'm becoming a fan. My favourite line of his was "stupid fellow" after being asked why he was lying in the street, but I also laughed at "don't move."
Meanwhile Rathbone gets to wear a deerstalker, which looks more cool than you'd expect. Well, it is one of the most iconic images of Western culture. He also gets another wacky disguise and hams it up like there's no tomorrow. It's heart-warming to see someone having that much fun. I've seen it pointed out that "Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside" is an anachronism for a film set in 1894 since the song was written in 1907, but anyone who spotted that for themselves should probably be sterilised for the good of mankind.
Random observation. How'd it get so dark at lunchtime? Yes, it's foggy, but...
Overall, it's a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film. It's not the best in the series, despite the claims of strange people, but it's also nowhere near the worst. It does a few strange things, but nothing as obviously wrong-headed as the romance in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the speechifying in The Voice of Terror or the rampant cliche in The Secret Weapon. Despite scripting eccentricities, it's a solid, entertaining adventure in Victorian London with good production values and some pleasant actors. It also does a pretty good Moriarty, albeit not my favourite. Its Achilles heel is its scrappy script, but nonetheless it manages to overcome that to be a very nice production and well worth watching.