Posts Tagged ‘Basil Rathbone’

England’s Secret Weapon

“It is midnight. Clouds scud across the face of the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben begins its familiar chime . . . ”

So begins the Introduction to Amanda J Field’s book, England’s Secret Weapon, about the wartime films in which Basil Rathbone played Holmes.

This book provides a fresh insight into the performances that, for many, made Rathbone “The Definitive Holmes“.

Field is a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and a volunteer at the Portsmouth Museum where she is helping to catalogue Richard Lancelyn Green’s immense collection of memorabilia. Field is a film historian and the book is principally concerned with where the fourteen films fit within the times they were made and the films genres they represent.

But before that she provides a wonderful introduction to Holmes on the screen.

Holmes had been portrayed in various media (books, radio, films, etc.) for over forty years with at least twenty-two other actors taking on the role, each one adding something of their own to my original description, a deerstalker hat (drawn by Sidney Paget in an illustration in The Boscombe Valley Mystery), a calabash pipe (added by William Gillette), etc. But it was Basil Rathbone’s portrayal that for many became, and has remained, the standard against which all others are assessed. At the same time as these films were produced, Rathbone and Bruce continued to play us on the radio, with the result that Rathbone was more often referred to as Holmes by the general public than by his own name. I have referred to these radio broadcasts in my series about Holmes on the radio and in reviews of these broadcasts as issued in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volumes I, II and III.

Field’s analysis provides some interesting insights.

Firstly that each film used 221B as a sort of “time capsule” to represent the certainty surrounding Holmes and everything he stands for and we would retreat into the relative safety of our lodgings when necessary before venturing forth again to do battle with the foe. In discussing this with an associate, he drew a parallel with the BBC Doctor Who series in which the Doctor can always retreat to the Tardis for safety. There is also scenes in each of the films where there is a contrast between what the characters are wearing to reflect their different beliefs. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles where Dr Mortimer is meeting Sir Henry as he disembarked, Mortimer is wearing Victorian costume and Sir Henry is wearing more contemporary clothes.

Secondly she questions the assumption that Twentieth Century Fox had lost interest in Holmes after making  The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both set in Victorian times. It may have been more to do with the money-making aspirations of Arthur’s sons Denis and Adrian (who have been described as “spendthrift playboys”) than any lost of interest.

Most interesting of all is the separation of the fourteen films into four key themes:

  1. The Victorian setting of the first two films – The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  2. The war-themed films of 1942 and 1943 – Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes in Washington
  3. The gothic films – Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Scarlet Claw, and The House of Fear
  4. The appearance of the female villain – Spider Woman, The Pearl of Death, The Woman in Green and Dressed to Kill

These four groupings show an initial desire to bring Holmes to the screen in his normal historical settings and then to use his values as propaganda during the Second World War – cleverly keeping 221B within the Victorian setting to emphasise this. Then moving into horror as an escape from the war and finally recognising the changes in the role of women and their place in society following the war.

Her analysis shows there is much more to be read in these films than I had before realised, so I plan to view them again soon.

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume III

Volume III of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes brings us another mixture of stories from the Canon (The Man with the Twisted Lip and The Speckled Band) and pastiches including stories that I mentioned but never published (The Tankerville Club and The Camberwell Poisoners) and some completely new stories all from the prolific Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. The recordings are, as usual, complete with the war-time announcements, original narrations and radio commercials. The quality on some of them is not perfect (they are the same transcriptions that appeared on the original cassette versions) but this should not mar your enjoyment.

Again we have twelve broadcasts with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as me (never quite as bumbling as he was in the films) except for one story where Eric Snowden took Bruce’s place as he was ill. The details on the packaging lack the actual broadcast dates but I will fill those in for you.

Disc 1 – Introduced by Ben Wright

The Murder in the Casbah (based on a reference in SCAN and broadcast December 3rd 1945)

The Tankerville Club (based on a reference in FIVE and broadcast April 22nd 1946)

Disk 2 – Introduced by Harry Bartell

The Strange Case of the Murderer in Wax (based on a reference in SECO and broadcast January 7th 1946)

The Man with the Twisted Lip (broadcast May 6th 1946)

Disc 3 – Introduced by BenWright

The Guileless Gypsy (based on a reference in REDC and broadcast February 11th 1946)

The Camberwell Poisoners (based on a reference in FIVE although the disc and the box carry the title incorrectly as ‘The Camberville Poisoners’, and broadcast February 18th 1946)

Disc 4 – Introduced by Harry Bartell

The Terrifying Cats (based on a reference in BLAC and broadcast February 25th 1946. In this episode my part is taken by Eric Snowden as Nigel Bruce was ill. Snowden was later to play me in a later series with Ben Wright as Holmes). These facts are not disclosed on the CD or the box!

The Submarine Caves (based on a reference in BRUV and broadcast March 4th 1946)

Disc 5 – Introduced by Peggy Webber

The Living Doll (based on a reference in COPP and broadcast March 11th 1946)

The Disappearing Scientists (based on a reference in REIG and broadcast April 8th 1946)

Disc 6

The Adventure of the Speckled Band (broadcast November 11th 1945)

The Purloined Ruby (based on a reference in SECO and broadcast May 7th 1945)

I am still listening to these recordings and some of the extras are quite fascinating, including an interview with a certain Irene Norton nee Adler! I will provide more details as they come to light.

Holmes Christmas List 2010

As happened last year, with the case of the Blue Carbuncle just chronologically around the corner again and people beginning to think about gifts, Holmes has compiled his Christmas list.

He did not get everything that was on last year’s list but this year’s list is completely new. I have provided links to amazon.co.uk and amazon.com where possible.

1. Top of the list this year is the DVD of the BBC Sherlockwith a contemporary take on the classic stories set in present-day London. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as me, his loyal friend. We couldn’t be more different, but Sherlock’s inspired leaps of intellect coupled with my pragmatism forges an unbreakable alliance.

Across three, 90-minute, thrilling, scary, action-packed and highly entertaining television movies, Sherlock and I navigate a maze of cryptic clues and lethal killers to get at the truth. Holmes has come out of the fog. With sparkling scripts and unforgettable performances from the two leads, this is Sherlock for a new generation. The DVD contains all 3 episodes and the original Pilot.

Amazon UK: Sherlock [DVD] and Sherlock [Blu-ray] , Amazon USA: Sherlock [DVD] and Sherlock [Blu-ray]

2. Linked to the BBC Sherlock is this neat, compact magnifying glass that every modern Sherlock needs. Watch Sherlock in A Study In Pink to see how he uses it. All you now need is the scarf, the coat and his endearing manner with all those about him and you’re set to go sleuthing this Christmas!

Amazon UK: Eschenbach Magnifying Glass

3. The Rediscovered Railway Mysteries, which I mentioned in Part 2 of Holmes on British Radio , has just been released. These are four new Holmes stories with a railway theme written by John  Taylor who wrote The Undiscovered Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. These new stories are “An Inscrutable Masquerade”, “The Conundrum of Coach 13”, “The Trinity Vicarage Larceny” and “The 10.59 Assassin”.

According to Taylor, in a drawer in my desk, I have a locked cedarwood chest containing notes referring to some of Holmes’ cases that, for one reason or another, never saw the light of day. Now, for the first time, I have decided to reveal the truth to the world. In these four thrilling stories, Holmes experiments with the science of ballistics, locates some missing gold bullion, investigates the theft of a large amount of money and solves the baffling mystery of the Stovey murder.

If all that wasn’t enough then the stories are read by the newest Sherlock – Benedict Cumberbatch. Just one question then. Why is Sherlock (Cumberbatch) reading these stories rather than me (Martin Freeman)?

Amazon UK: The Rediscovered Railway Mysteries, Amazon USA: The Rediscovered Railway Mysteries (sorry but not available in the USA in time for Christmas but you could try The Unopened Casebook of Sherlock Holmes instead).

4. I have already reviewed this digitally-restored collection of the 14 films with Basil Rathbone as Holmes.

The multi-million pound restoration is discussed in a 5 minute featurette with Robert Gitt, Head Preservation Officer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Along with the beautifully restored films are audio commentaries by Sherlock Holmes Expert David Stuart Davies (author of numerous books on Holmes and Rathbone) on The Scarlet Claw, The Woman In Green, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is also an audio commentary by another Holmes Expert Richard Valley (acclaimed author and publisher of Scarlet Street Mystery Magazine who in Amazon’s review is said to be currently penning a book on Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes although he sadly died in 2007) on The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes.

Richard Valley has also provided production notes and the films are accompanied by photo galleries, movie posters and theatrical trailers.

Amazon UK: Sherlock Holmes – The Definitive Collection, Amazon USA: The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection (different packaging in the USA)

5. Again I have already reviewed Sherlock Holmes for Dummies and despite its American bias and a couple of errors (my wife becoming Mary Marston instead of Morstan and mistaking the blue plaque above the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street for a legitimate historical plaque) it is still a handy guide to the stories, Britain as it was at that time, the characters in the stories, our portrayals in films, on television and on the stage, etc.

Amazon UK: Sherlock Holmes for Dummies (paperback), Sherlock Holmes for Dummies (Kindle edition), Amazon USA: Sherlock Holmes for Dummies (paperback), Sherlock Holmes for Dummies (Kindle edition)

6. Continuing with the guides, I have now reviewed Close to Holmes – Alistair Duncan’s popular guide to Holmes and Conan Doyle’s London.

I have already reviewed his two other books, Eliminate the Impossible and The Norwood Author.

Close to Holmes is a handy guide that will just about fit in your pocket as you explore London as it is today and how it looked in the late nineteenth century to us and to my literary agent Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Alistair Duncan’s research is carefully done, as usual, and he treats us to pictures of many of the locations as they were and as they are now.

Amazon UK: Close to Holmes (paperback), Close to Holmes (Kindle edition), Amazon USA: Close to Holmes (paperback), Close to Holmes (Kindle edition)

7. The second edition of Christopher Redmond’s Sherlock Holmes Handbook sums up this Canadian scholar’s lifetime expertise about Holmes. The first edition appeared in 1993 and this new edition catches up on new films and books and the advent of the Internet.

It is still one of my favourite guides providing a summary of each story in the Canon, the characters in the stories, the cases I chose not to publish, our rooms at 221B, Holmes’s methods and so on. In the section on Crime and Punishment, as well as a summary of British law (and law enforcement) as it was then, there is a summary of other detectives’ work before, during and after Holmes’ career.

Amazon UK: Sherlock Holmes Handbook, Amazon USA: Sherlock Holmes Handbook

8. The exhaustively annotated, ten-volume edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Edgar Award winner Leslie S. Klinger ends with The Apocrypha of Sherlock Holmes.

As is well known, Holmes’ adventures have inspired a vast body of literature. Since the 1920s these “writings about The Writings” have contributed fascinating new insights into the stories, enhancing the pleasure of reading them.

This final volume of The Sherlock Holmes Reference Library covers more “adventures” of Sherlock Holmes than those that are contained in the sixty tales. This deposit of extra-Canonical material is known by Sherlockian scholars as The Apocrypha.

Amazon UK: This volume is not yet listed by amazon.co.uk, Amazon USA: The Apocrypha of Sherlock Holmes

9. Until Benedict Cumberbatch came along most people hailed Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes as the best ever.

Bending the Willow, David Stuart Davies wonderful tribute to Jeremy who said that he wanted his interpretation of Holmes to “bend the willow, but not break it.”

Apparently a second edition of this fascinating and perceptive study is available but I have not yet seen it. The second hand copies listed on Amazon are quite expensive so it may be worth contacting the publishers direct.

Amazon UK: Bending the Willow, Amazon USA: Bending the Willow

10. Finally the Sherlock Holmes film. This was originally top of the list but I am now undecided about this as my initial enthusiasm for it has dissipated in the wake of the BBC Sherlock. I now wonder if anyone will really be able to capture what Holmes and I were up to in Victorian times. Some of the liberties taken with the Canon now begin to jar – such as Holmes appearing never to have met my future wife when in reality we both met her at the same time in 221B at the start of The Sign of The Four. Still, it is a very enjoyable film and the new one in production has Leslie Klinger advising them and with the addition of Stephen Fry as Mycroft this should help to ensure greater fidelity.

Amazon UK: Sherlock Holmes [DVD], Sherlock Holmes [Blu-ray], Amazon USA: Sherlock Holmes [DVD], Sherlock Holmes [Blu-ray]

This was, as I predicted, a bumper year of Holmes books and other paraphernalia following the Sherlock Holmes film and Sherlock TV series and with follow-ups to both in production yet another bumper year may be soon upon us.

The Definitive Sherlock Holmes

With all the current debate about who is the definitive Holmes (Rathbone, Brett or Cumberbatch?), I thought it was worth reviewing Basil Rathbone’s fourteen films as the Great Detective which have been carefully restored in The Definitive Collection.

These films updated elements of the Canon to the early part of the 20th century (except for the first two which remain in the Victorian era and were the first films to portray us in Victorian times) in a similar way to the 21st century updating that has taken place in the BBC Sherlock series.

The fourteen films (in order of release) are:

  1. The Hound of the Baskervilles, based on the story of the same name. As this was Rathbone’s first film as Holmes, and he wasn’t as well known as Richard Greene (who played Sir Hennry Baskerville), he only achieved second billing! In The Definitive Collection, this film also has an added commentary version by David Stuart Davies providing lots of useful background to the film, the script, the actors, the scenery, the clothes, the music (or lack of it!) and to Rathbone’s portrayal.
  2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was supposedly based on the stage play by William Gillette but little of the original plot remains apart from the conflict between  Holmes and Moriarty. This film also has a version with a commentary by Richard Valley (wrongly credited to David Stuart Davies on the DVD packaging).
  3. Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror is based on His Last Bow.
  4. Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon is inspired, rather than based on, The Dancing Men.
  5. Sherlock Holmes in Washington
  6. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is based on The Musgrave Ritual and there is a version with audio commentary by David Stuart Davies (the packaging this time saying it is by Richard Valley). This film brings back the familiar dark mystery for Holmes to solve.
  7. The Spider Woman starts with the demise of Sherlock Holmes (similar to The Final Problem) and is followed by his surprise return (as in The Empty House). The following story is then based on elements from The Sign of Four and The Devil’s Foot. The theatrical trailer is included on the DVD.
  8. The Pearl of Death is based on The Six Napoleons. Again the theatrical trailer is included.
  9. The Scarlet Claw uses the device of a killer using a supernatural entity to cover up his crimes borrowed from The Hound of the Baskervilles. This has an audio commentary by David Stuart Davies and the theatrical trailer is included.
  10. The House of Fear is based on The Five Orange Pips. The theatrical trailer is included.
  11. Pursuit to Algiers. This is based on the affair concerning the steamship Friesland that I mentioned in The Norwood Builder.
  12. The Woman in Green is an adaptation of The Empty House but also includes elements from A Case of Identity and The Final Problem plus the first appearance of the Persian Slipper first mentioned in the Musgrave Ritual. This film has a version with an audio commentary by David Stuart Davies.
  13. Terror by Night is loosely based on The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax and the Blue Carbuncle. This includes the theatrical trailer.
  14. Dressed to Kill. This was known as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code in the UK. The theatrical trailer is included.

As well as the extras mentioned above The Definitive Collection also carries a “featurette” about the painstaking restoration of these films and how some missing elements were carefully replaced. Each film is accompanied by production notes by Sherlock Holmes devotee Richard Valley (who sadly died in 2007) and a photograph gallery.

Those who are critical of Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of me in these films should not forget that up until this point, Watson had either not appeared alongside Holmes or had been relegated to a minor role. Nigel Bruce ensured that from then on, Holmes would have his Watson and that it would always be a two-handed performance as it had mostly been in real life!

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Two volumes of Basil Rathbone as the “high strung crime solver” and Nigel Bruce as his “phlegmatic assistant” have been released on CD.

Each volume contains 12 stories, some with Canonical connections, marked below with a “C” if they are based on actual stories or with an “R” if they are merely cases that I mentioned in the stories.

Volume I comprises:

  1. The Unfortunate Tobacconist [R]
  2. The Paradol Chamber
  3. The Viennese Strangler
  4. The Notorious Canary Trainer [R] [L]
  5. The April Fool’s Day Adventure [L]
  6. The Strange Case of the Uneasy Easy Chair [L]
  7. The Strange Case of the Demon Barber [L]
  8. The Mystery of the Headless Monk [L]
  9. The Amateur Medicant Society [R] [L]
  10. The Case of the Vanishing White Elephant
  11. The Case of the Limping Ghost
  12. The Girl with the Gazelle [L]

Volume II comprises:

  1. The Case of the Out of Date Murder [L]
  2. The Waltz of Death
  3. Colonel Warburton’s Madness [R]
  4. The Iron Box [L]
  5. A Scandal in Bohemia [C]
  6. The Second Generation [L]
  7. In Flanders Fields
  8. The Eyes of Mr Leyton
  9. The Tell Tale Pigeon Feathers
  10. The Indescretion of Mr Edwards
  11. The Problem of Thor Bridge [C]
  12. The Double Zero

From October 1939 to July 1947 Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 220 episodes (though Bruce missed one due to illness). By 1947 Rathbone wanted to dissociate himself from the character of Holmes. Neverthe less he remains so closely associated with him that many still regard him as “the definitive Sherlock Holmes”.

Nigel Bruce continued for another two series with Tom Conway as Holmes.

These recordings include war-time announcements, original narrations and commercials for the shows sponsors.

There is a book by Ken Greewald who has taken some of these radio programmes and written them up as short stories. As well as the stories on the the CDs above (which I have marked with [L], the book also contains these three cases:

  • Murder Beyond the Mountains
  • The Case of the Baconian Cypher
  • The Case of the Camberwell Poisoners

The book is called “The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and has a picture of Nigel Rathbone on the cover. The book is out of print but a second hand copy should be easy to come by. I appear to have written a short introduction to the stories in the book!

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