Confessions Of An Unabashed Rathbone/Holmes Fan
Critical standards be hanged whenever I address Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes series. Currently engaged in re-viewing all fourteen, I must confess to being all for each and more so for all, as there’s not, for me, an outright dud in the lot. Most of you have taken these up, I’m sure. Who hasn’t that grew up with a television in the house? Maybe not for a while, though. TCM ran a batch for Christmas, finally licensing ones that aren’t PD. If you’ve not visited the series lately, go back and look again, because they hold up beautifully. The scary ones are more so than whatever monster shows Universal was doing at the time (did any Shock Theatres run The Scarlet Claw? If not, they should have). Here’s the thing with me and Sherlock, or maybe I should say Rathbone and me. I wanted to be this man. No, forget the past tense, I still do. He is devastatingly cool. Others have said he is snippy and arrogant with Dr. Watson. That never bothered me. Maybe because I knew Basil and Nigel Bruce were on-set pals and cooked up much of the repartee themselves. Sherlock Holmes was always easier going for this viewer than Charlie Chan. I didn’t have to follow narratives so closely with SH. Chan would invariably lose me with so many red herrings and complications. Maybe I'm confessing to plain stupidity, but mysteries go down better here when they're not so mysterious. With Holmes and Watson, the goal line was visible and it was usually a matter of tracking opponents we know and understand right from get-go. Revolving door suspects seldom cluttered their way. These two often as not spent half-a-dozen reels tracking simple quarry, be it a match folder, music boxes, or busts of Napoleon. Why they did so provided the bumps and saw us through narratives straightforward and always ripe for revisiting. Villainy was more colorful for not having to wait an hour to find who villains were. To observe commonplace Holmes rituals is as enjoyable as seeing him bust up crime. My pleasure's complete for Rathbone exclaiming Kippers! over his serving tray. I’ve promised myself for years to fix up a room just like 221 B Baker Street. Lots of devotees surely have. What am I waiting for?
Director of most Holmes entries Roy William Neill was under-appreciated then and more so now. He said it was atmosphere that made these pictures work, and so laid that on with a trowel. Script deficiencies matter less with Holmes than elsewhere. A dark house was never darker than ones Neill managed. I’ll bet he kept a fog machine running in his den at home. Had this director not passed so early (1946), there’d have been a second wind sure doing film noir, this suggested by promise of his last, Black Angel. Several of the Holmes stop short of being horror films, but only just. They frankly make better use of familiar icons than straight-up chillers did. Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Henry Daniell, and certainly Rathbone seldom had better dialogue or such fruitful situations as were provided by these. You could depend on a Universal Holmes to position its opponents head to head for verbal showdowns always the highlight of respective shows. I’d guess for players of Rathbone and Atwill’s experience, a last reel parry in Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon would be a child’s walk-through, but to contempo eyes, being so long deprived of classically trained thesps, they seem positively brilliant. I was never bothered by updates to wartime setting for Holmes at Universal. Impure as this was in the face of Conan Doyle, it did lend urgency to detecting that might seem prosaic against gaslit backgrounds. For at least a first brace of Universals, the very Empire itself was habitually at stake, and that couldn’t help but increase excitement for uncertain WWII audiences. Sherlock Holmes made a credible adversary for Axis powers, more so perhaps than Superman or Tarzan, and Universal’s 40’s London seems hardly removed from Doyle’s own conception.
The Universal Holmes group was customized for supporting positions. You’d generally find them beneath an Abbott and Costello or Montez/Hall. Those latter were the big noise on selling ends for a company struggling to break into first-run theatres with their attendant heady revenues. Holmes was generally dessert served after a main course of action, music, or comedy. Sometimes he even backed up stage shows, as here. Running times and negative costs made clear these were B’s for supporting position. A Sherlock Holmes seldom ventured far past an hour, ideal length for us now, as there’s never padding evident. Money that Universal spent clearly tabbed the series for lower-berths. Sherlock Holmes and The Voice Of Terror was first of the group (released September 1942) and cost $131,000. Expense crept up as further entries surfaced. The fourth, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, ran to $168,000 in negative costs, while The Scarlet Claw (May 1944) took $203,000 to finish. Even as the company’s purse strings held fast below "A" level, final product never reflected it. These were some of the most handsome program pictures around. Universal sold their Holmes group outright in 1954, first to James Mulvey, president of Samuel Goldwyn Productions, who in turn peddled them to Motion Pictures For Television, headed by Matty Fox. That year found Holmes all over home screens and stirring up resentment among exhibitors who kept score of studio backlog gone free tube routes. TV distributors sliced off logos and end title references to the original producer (as means of minimizing awareness that a major company was bargaining with television), but trade watchdogs like Harrison’s Reports were not fooled. Pete Harrison got what he called the no comment treatment upon inquiry to Universal executives, and warned that theatre owners probably will not soon forget those companies who are selling old pictures to a medium that offers free entertainment in direct competition with them.
Some of the negatives got lost among varied handlers passing them one to the other. Matty Fox ultimately sold the Holmes package to Eliot Hyman’s Associated Artists Productions, and AAP put several back into theatres, even as they continued playing free-vee. United Artists took over Holmes from AAP by the late fifties, with Four Star International succeeding them in May of 1965. The seventies found Leo Gutman, Inc. distributing the twelve. For all this handling and exchange of existing elements, it’s a wonder the Sherlock Holmes films survive at all. Thanks to multiple cooks in the stew, prints were easier got by collectors trolling among TV outlets just done with broadcast rights. I scored the twelve from a Greensboro station happy to get rid of burdens on their storage space. My willingness to carry this stuff off merely saved them a trip to the dumpster. 16mm Holmes prints were generally good. It was lousy dupes made off four having gone public domain that gave black eyes to the rest. One I remember as problematic, even in so-called "original" prints for television, was The Spider Woman, so far removed from its camera neg as to be almost unwatchable (fortunately, the DVD rectifies that problem). The two Fox features, Hound Of The Baskervilles and Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, were for years isolated from the rest and difficult to track down. Baskervilles had been sold to TV during the early fifties and appeared in syndication under the Hygo Television Films banner, and by 1959 turned up in a large Screen Gems package with 228 other titles, including Fox’s Charlie Chans. Hound Of The Baskervilles was later withdrawn from syndication over rights issues and remained in limbo for some time. The other Fox property, Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, initially played TV via Matty Fox’s Motion Pictures For Television during the mid-fifties, then was back among 20th packaging with others of their pre-48’s. It was quite the event when CBS rescued Hound Of The Baskervilles and Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes from obscurity for late-night network runs around 1979-80. Now the Universal twelve, plus the Fox pair, are neatly packaged on DVD after having been restored by UCLA’s film archive, funds for that provided in part by Hugh Hefner, one of classic film’s most generous benefactors.