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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Game Afoot Again


Arthur Wontner Is 1931's Sherlock Holmes

Something of a fuddy-duddy that takes getting used to, Arthur Wontner would embody Sherlock Holmes for Britishers over a quintet of Doyle adaptations, and chances are we'd like him better given access to more of Wontner's SH output (one appears lost, others elusive in good prints). He's unfailingly polite (unlike aggressor Rathbone) and tactful to a fault with associates less bright. Crime's emissary is dreaded Prof. Moriarty, a master of disguise with headquarters in a cobbler's flat, humble digs a consequence of Twickenham budget constraint and locked- indoors shooting. Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour is best approached as an antique curio of primary interest to Doyle devotees and those striking off actor interprets of the famed sleuth, in this case my first, but hopefully not last, exposure to Wontner's SH. TCM played Fatal Hour, it appearing to derive from a single print found in the US after years of  the film gone missing. Being Public Domain, there are multiple disc versions in circulation.

8 Comments:

Blogger Michael said...

The later ones are a little bit better just because it's 1935, not 1931. But Wontner's Holmes, though the spitting image of the Paget illustrations (which Jeremy Brett also followed), is too avuncular-- there's none of the snappishness that is the other necessary half of Holmes' personality and makes him a difficult friend. I was quite the Sherlockian as a kid, and always heard Wontner talked up over Basil Rathbone (because he didn't fight Nazis and because his Watson wasn't a lovable moron), even bringing Holmes expert John Bennett Shaw to the film society I ran for a talk and screening of The Sign of Four, but as soon as Brett came along I think the love for Wontner among the diehards dried up.

It's ironic that he played Holmes so softly, because Wontner's few familiar later roles do have some of the bite his Holmes lacked, notably the sarcastic diplomat he plays in Colonel Blimp. He had a great one-scene moment at the end of Genevieve, as a man who had owned one of the old cars seen in the film long before and reminds the protagonist why he loved the car in the first place.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I saw one of the Wontner Holmes movies on TMC a few months back -- it could have been this one, I really can't be sure. It had all the hallmarks of the early UK talkies -- more static than their US counterparts, mediocre sound, stolid acting. Yet I got the feeling that Holmes, Watson and even Lestrade were closer to their literary creations than the Rathbone pictures, even though I've never read any of them.

10:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I had clear forgot about Wontner's part in "Genevieve," one of my favorite British pics from the 50's.

Too bad he didn't get the opportunity to play Holmes later in the 30's, or even the 40's.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Unlike the 20s and 30s when lots of people played the parts, Rathbone seems to have scared everyone else out of the Holmes business-- there's no English-language Holmes feature film after the last Rathbone-Bruce one in '46 until Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles in 1959.

Incidentally, the one Shaw showed (and thought was the best) wasn't The Sign of Four, it was The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, based on The Valley of Fear. The other one that seemed most fluid as filmmaking is Silver Blaze/Murder at the Baskervilles.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Eddie Selover said...

As a Holmes buff, I spent years reading tributes to Wontner, but time hasn't been kind to him. In one film (maybe Sign of Four, I'd have to check), his hair actually looks like it was *painted* on his head, like Groucho's mustache. Aside from being a shade too passive and whimsical, he's also too old for the part -- his voice is a problem. Personally I think Rathbone is still way in front in the Holmes sweepstakes, though Brett was fascinating before illness derailed him.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Okay, one last bit of Wontner trivia. He and Rathbone actually appeared in a play together once. Not only that... they were both arrested for being in the play! Here's the story (complete with picture of the two famous Holmeses together):

http://www.basilrathbone.net/theater/captive/captive.htm

3:11 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

A play which also featured the first Mrs. Bogart, Helen Menken.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Jim Lane said...

I've only seen one of the Wontner Holmses, 1935's The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, the VHS of which is squirrelled away somewhere out in the garage. I remember little of it beyond a hazy sense that it's not bad, and Wontner a decent enough Holmes.

But I distinctly remember that it has one of my favorite lines in any Sherlock Holmes story -- original, dramatized, or pastiche. Inspector Lestrade stops by Baker Street and asks Holmes to consult on a particularly knotty problem, saying: "If you'll come along with me, Mr. Holmes, I'll tell you everything I know on the way." To which Holmes responds: "Ah, so we won't be going far then?"

4:09 AM  

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