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Brett Vs. Rathbone: Watching The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Writing about the NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES yesterday inspired me to go out and buy a copy of a Holmes film I had been wanting to see again for some time: 1939’s THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.When I was a young fan, Rathbone was the embodiment of Sherlock Holmes; no one else could even touch him. Then in the 1980s, the British television series starring Jeremy Brett came out, and Rathbone’s reputation took a serious hit.

The Brett episodes were based faithfully on the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Brett was allowed to play up the full range of eccentricities that made Holmes such a memorable literary character. By comparison, Rathbone’s slew of feature films from the 1940s were typical Hollywood bastardizations, with the actor playing a somewhat watered down version of the famous sleuth.

But here’s the rub: the majority of films starring Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson were produced at Universal Studios, which updated the stories into the 1940s, molding them into film-noir-espionage-thrillers that often paid only lip service to the source material. However, before this process began, Rathbone and Bruce starring in two Holmes films for 20th Century Fox: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (both released in 1939).

Both of these films are set in the proper Victorian era, and both of them are far more lavishly produced than the Universal Pictures. HOUND, which is generally regarded as a classic mystery-horror film, is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Doyle novel, but ADVENTURES is pretty much an original tale that nonetheless capture much of the feel of the great detectives best literary adventures.

Supposedly based on the 1899 play SHERLOCK HOLMES by William Gillette (there is actually little connection), ADVENTURES tells the story of what happens after evil mastermind Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) escapes a murder conviction because Holmes arrives too late with evidence to overturn the Professor’s apparently airtight alibi. Sharing a cab ride home with his nemesis, Moriarty promises to Holmes that he will pull off the Crime of the Century right under the detective’s nose, thus ruining his reputation. The ensuing plot combines two mysteries: one being a decoy to distract Holmes (a murder); the other being the actual goal of Moriarty’s plans (the theft of the Royal Crown Jewels).

The two storylines intersect tolerably well. The murder mystery (with Ida Lupino as a young woman whose father and then brother are murdered) has all the elements of a classic Doyle story, including mysterious warnings of death and a strange foreign assassin apparently tied to the family’s past history. The robbery is to some degree less interesting, but that’s the point: Moriarty knows Holmes brain, always hungry for difficult problems to solve, will follow the former mystery and ignore the latter.

As a film ADVENTURES may not be perfect, but it is perhaps the best of the Holmes feature films. Rathbone is at his incisive best as Holmes, and the often-criticized Bruce provides good comic relief as Watson. At this point, Bruce has not quite become the buffoon he would portray in the later movies, and Watson’s bungling, which brings some rude remarks from Holmes, is much in keeping with the character’s portrayal in the Doyle stories. Lupino is a lovely leading lady, and Zucco is a fine Moriarty, a villain in the icy, calculating, British mold.

But what really makes this film a joy is the production values. ADVENTURES is beautiful to watch, thanks to the pristine print and excellent transfer on the new DVD from MPI. The film had not been available on home video until recently, so it’s a pleasure to finally be able to put a copy on the shelf.

The disc has only a few extra: some trailers (to the Universal Holmes films), a gallery of stills (set to music), and an audio commentary by Richard Valley (editor of Scarlet Street magazine).

Unfortunately, the audio commentary is only sporadically interesting, and many of the best parts are printed in the eight-page booklet that comes with the disc! Valley seems obsessed with providing lists of credits for every player who walks on screen; it’s the kind of information that belongs in a reference book or a website, not in an audio commentary. Also, he relies on reading pages from abandoned drafts of the script, and at times, he lapses into simply telling us what we’re seeing on the screen.

To be fair, he does provide some interesting information. For instance, I never realized until Valley pointed it out, that Billy (the page boy character who shows up in later Holmes stories) was actually invented by William Gillette for the stage play; Doyle only incorporated the character later. On the whole, however, Valley does not provide the kind of incisive analysis that Tim Lucas did for the excellent BLACK SUNDAY DVD a few years ago.

All in all, the ADVENTURES disc is worthwhile, in spite of the dearth of supplemental material, because the film itself is in many ways the apex of Rathbone’s career as Sherlock Holmes. Filled with wonderful costumes and sets that were the best Hollywood had to offer at the time, the film provides the actor with a wonderful stage on which to perform, and he takes full advantage, making the character live and breath in a way he never would again (at least not in the Universal films that followed).

If you like old mystery movies in general, or Holmes films in particular, you will definitely enjoy renting this one. If you’re a fan of Rathbone’s portrayal of the character, then this (along with HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES) is one of the two discs that is a must have.

(NOTE: The title ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was taken from the anthology that gathered up the first dozen Holmes short stories and published them in book form. This title was also used to for the DVD box set that collects first two seasons of episodes starring Jeremy Brett, culminating in his lethal encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach falls in “The Final Problem.”)

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.