Outside of his 1939 production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone were only tangentially linked to the stories of the canon, at best. In many instances, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories could be more accurately viewed as source material, rather than any real type of blueprint. They provided a framework, not any real form. But in 1944’s “The Pearl of Death,” when Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes advises Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson against hitting newspaper reporters in the teeth (an affectionate, though misguided, attempt at defending the Detective’s honor), there is more than an echo of Holmes’s original sentiment: “The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it."
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According to David Stuart Davies, author of Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, this particular Sherlock Holmes film by Universal was significant in other respects:
“'The Pearl of Death' is noteworthy in that it really saw the transition of Rathbone and Bruce into the characters they were playing. Universal practically eliminated the names Holmes and Watson from their advertising from this film onwards. Typical blurbs now ran: ‘Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Crack the Mystery of The Pearl of Death’ or ‘Rathbone & Bruce – The Masterminds Tackle The Master Crimes’. The names and identities of the actors had become so synonymous with those of the characters they were playing that as far as Universal was concerned—and the public too—using one name was as good as another” (57).
Of course, “The Pearl of Death” also features the ceramic busts of Napoleon, their methodical destruction, and the valuable pearl hidden inside one of them, in addition to new archenemies and their fearsome companions. The film also deviates in important ways. But the manner in which the film hearkens back to its source material is suggestive. When Watson asks Holmes if he is certain that the missing pearl is inside the final bust, Holmes dismissively says: “If it isn’t, I shall retire to Sussex and keep bees.” Such is typical of the type of tributes an avid Sherlock Holmes fan would find in “The Pearl of Death.” While some of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films seem to hearken back to the original stories in terms of only one plot point, character, or narrative device, this film seems to recognize the spirit of the original SIXN, and seeks to embody it globally.
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