Retro Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

This is probably the best film that ever starred Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. Released in 1939, both HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES are set in the proper Victorian era and both of these 20th Century Fox productions are far more lavishly mounted than the Universal Pictures series that followed in the 1940s (which updated the time frame to World War II). HOUND, which is generally regarded as a classic mystery-horror film, is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Doyle novel, but ADVENTURES is a mostly 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. Early in his career, Rathbone is at his incisive best as the deductive detective, bringing a zest and energy to his work; he also does well in Holmes disguises (especially as a garden party entertainer), and his interplay with bumbling Watson and the even more bumbling Scotland Yard detectives is brilliant. The often-criticized Bruce provides good comic relief as Watson. At this point, actor has not quite turned the doctor into 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.

Storyline and cast aside, what really makes ADVENTURES a joy to watch is the outstanding production values. Using its available back lot and all the quality that a major studio could manage, 20th Century Fox crafted a wonderful film that seems to capture the time and place of its Victorian England setting, replete with moody, mysterious shadows and atmospherically fog-found streets for the climax. Unlike the Universal productions that would follow, this is not a B-movie mystery made with modest means; this is a top-of-the line, first class production. With Rathbone at his finest, this result is not only the actor's finest outing in the role but also perhaps the best Holmes film ever made.

DVD DETAILS

The beautiful photography and production values of THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES are wonderfully preserved thanks to the pristine print and excellent transfer on the DVD from MPI. The film had not been available on home video for some, so its release on disc in 2004 was a boon to fans.

The DVD has only a few extra: some trailers (to Universal's Sherlock 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 much of the best information is already printed in the eight-page booklet that comes with the disc! Valley does not provide the kind of incisive analysis that Tim Lucas did for the excellent BLACK SUNDAY DVD a few years previously; instead, he 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, Valley does provide some interesting information. For instance, he points out that Billy (the page boy character who shows up in later Holmes stories) was actually invented by actor-playwright William Gillette for the stage play; Doyle only incorporated the character later.

Valley also does a good job of addressing the so-called "Nigel Bruce Problem" -- i.e., the complaint from hardcore fans that Bruce's portrayal of Watson is a betrayal of Doyle's stories. Whereas the literary character was a war veteran and dependable (if not brilliant ally) of Holmes, Bruce played Watson as a comic relief character. In the later films, his Watson would become an almost outright buffoon, but in ADVENTURES he's merely a bit slow on the uptake -- not that far removed from Doyle's conception, just slightly exaggerated to get a laugh.

In any case, Valley points out that, in ADVENTURES, Watson's unimaginative pragmatism actually turns out to be more justified that Holmes imaginative deductions; in fact, the whole plot turns on Moriarty's plot to lure Holmes away from the real crime by offering up a more intriguing line of detection to follow. In effect, if Holmes had listened to Watson, he might have seen through Moriarty's ploy much sooner. As Valley observes, this actually casts Watson in a very good light, in spite of the fun poked at the character.

Overall, 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.

TRIVIA

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."

This must be the only film in which Sherlock Holmes performs a song: disguised as an entertainer at a garden party, Basil Rathbone actually sings "By the Seaside."

Since Jeremy Brett played the character in the faithful British television series in the 1980s, Basil Rathbone's reputation as the undisputed definitive incarnation of Sherlock Holmes has taken a considerable hit. However, this reassessment is due in large part to the quality of the productions in which they appeared: the Brett television series (at least in its early years) tended to hew closely to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, whereas the majority of films starring Rathbone 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, the two excellent films in which Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred for Fox, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (both released in 1939) are more enough to guarantee Rathbone's continuing stature among Holmes fans.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). Directed by Alfred L. Werker. Screenplay by Edwin Blum, William Drake, from the play "Sherlock Holmes" by William Gillette, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Cast: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Ida Lupino, George Zucco, Terry Kilburn, Mary Gordon, E.E. Clive

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.