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Monday, January 25, 2010




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.

23 Comments:

Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I love it when you get into the early TV distribution side of theatrical features! Motion Pictures for Television (MPTV) and Associated Artists Productions (AAP) are familiar names to anyone who watched Adventures of Superman and old Warner Bros and Popeye cartoons, respectively, but their histories are fascinating.

MPTV was created from the merger of smaller outfits, including the holders of Eliot Hyman's original AAP library (Hyman sold out in '51) - a package of nearly 500 features from PRC, Monogram, Republic and Lippert - and Flamingo Films, owners of the Superman rights (which included the 17 Paramount cartoons) and the Eagle-Lion film library. The new conglomerate was headed by Matty Fox, with the Flamingo officers (including a young dynamo named Dave Wolper) serving under him.

You didn't specify when in 1954 MPTV acquired the Holmes features, but they didn't have them very long. The year was somthing of a watershed for the company. In January, the Flamingo officers pulled out, at first intending to join a new group, National Telefilm Associates (NTA), but that fell through in April and ultimately Flamingo was reformed with little more than their original properties - such was the power of Superman.

In July, Eliot Hyman, who'd been larely inactive except as a consultant for MPTV, opted to reform AAP, and bought the 12 Holmes features from MPTV at that time. Hyman added a package of 13 early '30's UA features originally produced by Artcinema Associates, and 37 programmer Westerns, mostly Tom Tyler's. With these, AAP kept its head above water until 1956 when it captured its crown jewel: WB's pre-48 library.

And what of MPTV? With so much of its library gone, in September Fox signed an exclusive distribution deal with a new sales and distribution consortium: U.M.& M., made up of United Film Service, Motion Picture Advertisers' Service and Minot Television. The first two were sales orgs that specialized in advertising for theaters, with sales offices between them that covered every major market in the US. At this point, MPTV went into TV series production, while U.M.&M. distributed MPTV's eight wholly-owned TV series, including Duffy's Tavern, Flash Gordon and the Ronald Howard Sherlock Holmes.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The Foxes were rescued for theatrical play first, before CBS; I saw BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES in a Boston theater. For a curtain-raiser, Fox even arranged with Blackhawk Films to include the (Blackhawk-titled) Fox Movietone interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, dating from 1927 if memory serves.

11:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for all that background on TV packaging, Michael. It's a favorite subject of mine and the distribution history of these Holmes films has always been a fascinating one for me.

11:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Scott --- I know some people who saw those 70's theatrical revivals, but the show never made it down here. The CBS broadcasts were my first time for both pics. I actually recorded "Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes" on the first VCR I ever had, and very soon after I got it. That would have likely been early 1979. I wish I had the CBS playdates on those two Fox titles, as these were big nights for a lot of Holmes fans.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose I should give these another try. The "Sherlock Holmes fights the Nazis" approach has always put me off (he'd have been over 80 years old by then!). I am much more enamored of the long-running radio version (broadcasting on American airwaves from the early 30s through 1949, and then sporadically cropping up in British versions over subsequent decades). Rathbone and Bruce reprised their theatrical roles on radio for about 6 years (you can find the surviving episodes on archive.org), and they are wonderfully set in the proper Victorian time frame. Yes, Bruce's Watson is ham-fisted and thick, but they're fun nonetheless. If the complete DVD set ever comes down in price I may grab it. (Right now it seems a wee bit steep for my budget. Guess I may just re-read the stories. Those are worth returning to again and again.)

Dr. OTR

12:07 PM  
Anonymous East Side said...

The '70s theatrical revival I caught featured "Baskervilles," the Doyle interview and Keaton's "Sherlock, Jr." A great afternoon at the movies!

I can't add anything to your first-rate essay, other than that my daughter has been a huge fan of these movies since she was ten or eleven. The remastering is just superb -- you can even make out the pattern their clothes during the opening credits. Special mention re: "Voice of Terror." That one has a genuine film noir feel to it, whether intended or not. And it was the only one in the series not directed by Roy William Neil. It wasn't until I saw it as an adult I realized the leading lady was a hooker -- who was shacking up with her husband's murderer (for a good cause, of course)!

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to know I'm among fellow fanatics here. I love a lot of films that don't deserve such love but the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes films do deserve both love and respect. The 12 done at Universal were all done on the cheap but all had a genuine English feel to them and they were tightly made little films. They hold up to multiple viewings. I am distressed that the available prints are so bad.

I talked to some of the folks at YCM Laboratories (a fine bunch of really knowledgeable film restorers) and they were complaining bitterly about not having access to the original negatives (many are be part of the UCLA collection and just needed to moved from Westwood to YCM’s place in North Hollywood) and therefore the restorations were not all they could have been. The worst problem is the sound. They insist on transferring the sound (monaural optical tracks with no compression) on equipment meant for Dolby optical stereo, compressed sound. You lose a lot of the information and decompression is run on sound without compression. So Universal Pictures tracks, which were pretty punchy and brassy, become muted and “tinny.” It’s even worse with Warner’s films that were always known for their punchy, ballsy, incredibly full sound are now muted versions of what we were used to hearing.

Bad, or less than optimal, prints aside the films themselves seem better than many A-budget films and I could watch ’em hundreds of times. I especially love the bit (in HOUSE OF FEAR, if memory serves) in which after taking a pretty bone-headed risk that is so foolish even Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson is a bit disappointed in Holmes. Holmes explains that the foolish risk was quite worth it to since he was able to save something very valuable to him; the life of his good friend and companion Dr. Watson. Nigel Bruce’s reaction is a joy to see as he is overcome with joy that Holmes values him so.

Spencer Gill (opticalguy1954@yahoo.com)

11:44 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I'd rather see Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill over Hound of the Baskervilles or Adventures of Sherlock Holmes any day.I love all the Universal's.."Adventures of" is great,but "Hound" is a bit of a bore..Spider Woman is my favorite of the Uni's..Yep give me Watson and Col Sebastian Moran bickering over what makes a better Curry or Holmes whistling "The Swagman"for the 115th time..
The MPI-UCLA restorations are now on affordable double feature DVDs,I recently picked up a couple for $9.00 at Wal-Mart

11:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very interesting stuff about the archives, Spencer. Thanks.

Christopher, I'd heard about the Holmes group being reissued on double-feature discs at a lower price. Now there is finally justification for the recent "Sherlock Holmes" movie.

Dr. OTR, I intend to revisit those radio Holmes programs soon. And to think there's so many of them!

East Side, I believe "Voice Of Terror" was the first Holmes I ever saw, and it has remained one of my very favorites of the series. The scene in the tavern with Harry Cording is among all-time greats for me.

9:00 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

The UCLA DVD box of SH is incredible.

I'm betting the features didn't look and sound this good when they were first released theatrically.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

I definitely agree that the Holmes scary entries are as wonderfully exciting, spooky and atmospheric as the 1930s Universal Horrors and as John points out often more so than the second wave of Universal horrors that began in the ‘40s.

As a connoisseur of horror-comedies (see my own blog-to-book project on the subject at http://scaredsillybypaulcastiglia.blogspot.com) I have deep affection for its cousin, the horror-mystery (indeed, some films like the 1941 Basil Rathbone “Black Cat” combine both genres into horror-comedy-mysteries).

Given that, “The Scarlet Claw” is my favorite Rathbone Holmes entry. And while nowhere near the same league as “Scarlet Claw,” I think a perfect triple feature would be “Scarlet” preceded by the Bonita Granville “Nancy Drew & the Hidden Staircase” and Sydney Toler as Charlie Chan in “Black Magic” (aka “Meeting at Midnight”). With the Flip the Frog cartoon “The Cuckoo Murder Case” as an extra added attraction.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Cliff Weimer said...

Yeah, I'm a big fan of these as well, and show a couple of 'em every year at our weekly movie parties, to great enjoyment by young and old.

Neither the article nor the comments posted so far, through, really do justice to what my kids love the most about the series: Nigel Bruce's unforgettable Dr. Watson. Yeah, the guy's a boob, sort of, but for sheer personality, ya can't beat him. Had Watson been treated any differently in these films, or played by C. Aubrey Smith or Montague Shaw, the films would be enjoyed the way the Mr. Moto or Boston Blackie films are, but LOVED? I don't THINK so...

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John,

As recent former "Prime Minister" of the Toledo Sherlock Holmes Society, the Stormy Petrels, I really enjoyed your thorough entry.
From the time in 1961 in my High School English Literature class, when I read "Adventure of the Speckled Band" I've been a major fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's work and Sherlock Holmes.
To me Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes--he quite accurately fills the written description of Holmes in looks and mannerisms.
The MPI DVD set has been out several years now, and I was one of the first to buy it--those movies look fantastic on a large theatre screen!

Actually, the new 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie will only bring more attention to this legendary character--and the one who played him so well.

Evan
Toledo

3:36 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mailed the following neat observations about Sherlock Holmes. I never realized that Rathbone hosted a local TV run of the series. Wouldn't it be great seeing that!:


A neat bit of trivia, pointed out at either the Classic Horror or Scarlet Street boards: In "Voice of Terror," you have a guest appearance by the Invisible Man (stock footage of a train wreck from that film includes a shot of a control lever moving without visible assistance).


In the late sixties KNTV San Jose ran the Universals on weekend afternoons with a live host sitting by a fireplace; that was my introduction to the series (although I had read several of the originals and was aware the Rathbone films existed). The host was one of those affable local-chat-show types; he wore a modern business suit and tossed off mild movie trivia. I recall reading somewhere that Rathbone himself hosted a television run on the East Coast, padding the schedule with cases by his "old friend Charlie Chan."


These are the only two cases I know of old mysteries getting anything like the horror flick treatment. Since it was so successful with horror films, you'd think there'd be more efforts to exploit the abundance of whodunits in a similar format. A trench-coated shamus pulling out a file about Michael Shayne, or a femme fatale in a swanky bar, purring an intro for Miss Marple.


Back to Holmes: Back in the days of VHS, Key Video (I think CBS was on the packaging somewhere) issued the whole series on individual tapes. They drifted out of print and became overpriced eBay items. Then it was just the PDs, which kept reappearing, with the same sorry dupes served up in "deluxe" wood or metal packages as well as the Whole Buncha Movies Really Cheap collections. For moxie, it was a tie between the ones carrying the logo for the "National Film Museum" and the edition that baldly claimed it was restored from the last intact prints known to exist.


Final digression: As much as I enjoy the Rathbone-Bruce radio shows -- especially the ones where Watson heartily endorses Petri Wines -- the BBC dramatizations with Clive Merrison and Michael Williams are a real treat for the orthodox Sherlockian. They require serious listening -- you can't really follow them while driving -- but usually deliver an amazing fidelity to the spirit and letter of the original stories with some inspired embellishments.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous tlrhb said...

Has anybody written extensively about Roy William Neill? Every time i watch his Holmes movies, I'm impressed anew about how he did so much with so little, especially in terms of lighting and atmosphere.

10:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Don't know of anything written on Roy William Neill. Pretty sure there are no books devoted to him, but maybe a long chapter somewhere?

11:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

To the point about Holmes fighting the Nazis-- realize that Conan Doyle had just died in 1930, and the last story was only a couple of years older than that. So Holmes and Conan Doyle were much closer to the time the later Rathbone movies were being made than, say, Ian Fleming (d. 1964 IIRC) and James Bond, and contemporary Holmes films were the norm-- in fact Hound of the Baskervilles was the first set explicitly in Victorian times, coming right on the heels of various Holmes films of the 1930s set at the times they were made (or at least in the same sort of Gothic indeterminate time that Frankenstein takes place in). It was only after WWII that Holmes finally became fixed as a Victorian character.

It's interesting to me to compare the transformation of Philip Marlowe from a contemporary character into one plainly set in the 1940s-50s; 1967's Marlowe has him set in the present day, 1973's The Long Goodbye does too but he's recognized as an anachronism by then; 1975's Farewell My Lovely sets him back in the period at last, using a period star (Robert Mitchum)-- but then three years later Mitchum plays him in contemporary London in The Big Sleep!

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

The worst problem is the sound. They insist on transferring the sound (monaural optical tracks with no compression) on equipment meant for Dolby optical stereo, compressed sound. You lose a lot of the information and decompression is run on sound without compression. So Universal Pictures tracks, which were pretty punchy and brassy, become muted and “tinny.” It’s even worse with Warner’s films that were always known for their punchy, ballsy, incredibly full sound are now muted versions of what we were used to hearing.

Definitely a scourge of DVD presentation and there's really no excuse for it. We are slaves to small-minded people who think the absolute worst thing in the world is "background hiss" when, in fact, the worst thing in the world is not being able to understand what actors are saying because the audio is compressed and "noise-reduced" beyond comprehensibility. I want to put my fist through the TV every time I run one of the old Ford at Fox films. The genius of Will Rogers rendered illegible by some 25 year old stooge clicking a mouse on boss' orders.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

couldn't agree more Chris..I miss the big booming sound of even the VHS's..I so often have my the volume up into the low 20s to teens just to hear anything..

11:26 PM  
Blogger David said...

John, this was a great article. I have always loved this series--thank God they have survived! I've been revisiting Chaney Jr., films (The Ghost of Frankenstein, Inner Sanctums, The Mummy films), as well as the Holmeses. How wonderfully atmospheric Universal's films (particularly the ones shot by George Robinson) were/are!

5:14 PM  
Blogger Erich Scholz said...

I got bit by the Rathbone/Bruce bug back in the early '80s when KENS in San Antonio used to run the films during its "Screaming Meemies" and "Nightmare Theater" era. The prints they screen on TCM are atrocious. The restored DVDs, however, are great. I own an original print of Hound on 16mm and agree it's a bit of a bore...although I loved it as a youngster for some reason. I loved the 30s Universal horrors so much and I think I just dug the atmosphere...

2:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films are definitly the best SH films ever made. Maybe not purely the storyline, but the two stars relationship and great characterizations really carried the movies along. I have watched all 14 over and over and I like each one. Basil Rathbone is assuredly my favorite actor!

5:42 PM  
Blogger Serial Fan said...

Where can I lear more about Flamingo Flilms and MPTV? I wanted to find out about the serials they distributed, how they got them, which ones, did they get them all at once, etc??

8:12 PM  

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