Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939)

Professor Moriarty: “My whole success depends upon a peculiarity of Holmes’s brain, its perpetual restlessness, its constant struggle to escape boredom.

Bassick: “Holmes again?”

Professor Moriarty: “Always Holmes until the end.”

The man is a music hall singer – a vaudeville performer in a gaudy jacket, adorned with large stripes in an array of undoubtedly ostentatious colors. A straw boater with a large brim, adorned with a ribbon that coordinates with his jacket, is clutched between his gloved hands, and he uses it in a variety of theatrical flourishes during his performance. He sports a handlebar mustache – complete with extravagantly curled, upturned ends – and slickly-styled hair with a pronounced side-part and subtle fingerwave along the brow. He prances energetically about the stage at a garden party, clicking his heels and leaping at appropriate intervals, as he sings a rather nasally-pitched version of the popular British music hall song, “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside.” The singer trills and trumpets, and drums upon his boater when the moment calls for it. As a performer, he is utterly outlandish, wildly outrageous, and completely entertaining. He is also Sherlock Holmes – sporting one of his best disguises in his long career on film.

Photo Credit:
However, the song itself, “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside,” is an anachronism. Opening credits date the plot of the film as opening on May 9, 1894, but the song Sherlock Holmes so energetically performs was not written by John A. Glover-Kind until 1907, and was not popularized by the music hall performer Mark Sheridan until 1909. Likewise the 1939 film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. John Watson, is filled with moments that, while not necessarily anachronistic, certainly seem out of place or inconsistent. The film opens with Professor Moriarty on trial for the murder of a man named “Lorait,” but he is ultimately acquitted, much to the courtroom’s dismay. Moments later, Sherlock Holmes races into the courtroom, proclaiming that he has found incontrovertible evidence of Moriarty’s guilt. He is trailed closely by a man who never speaks a word, and is never introduced. According to Alan Barnes of Sherlock Holmes on Screen, the man was supposedly chief astronomer Dr. Gates (played by Ivan Simpson), who was meant to provide the evidence about which Holmes was so adamant. However it appears that the explanation, along with many other contextual scenes, was cut from the picture (20). According to Barnes:

“The first of three possible endings has Holmes explaining how the vengeful Mateo believed that Ann’s father had been responsible for the death of his own, and had stolen the mine that had made the Brandons rich; meanwhile, Brandon family lawyer Jerrold’s shifty behaviour had been caused by his desire to shield Ann from the truth about her dead father. None of this crucial background information is conveyed in the finished piece” (21).

There are other contextual anomalies in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson is inexplicably antagonistic toward the young page, Billy (Terry Kilburn – who, for some reason, receives top billing over George Zucco, the actor portraying Professor Moriarty), beginning by mocking the frilly, feminine apron that Mrs. Hudson has forced the boy to wear while doing chores. When Holmes good-naturedly points out the deficiencies in the boy’s housework (that Billy has swept the dust under the rug, rather than into the dustbin), the Doctor gives him an intimidating, unforgiving stare, while Billy stares back defensively. Watson is then positively hostile when Billy is able to provide a bit of opportune insight into a piece of evidence: “I’ve listened to seashells that made better sense.” The hostility isn’t solely confined to the Doctor, however. Sherlock Holmes behaves in an equally unfriendly fashion towards Watson, at one point calling him “an incorrigible bungler.” The Detective frequently interrupts his companion’s sentences, often providing his own piercing expression. At one point, Watson says, “You pushed me out of the room as if I were a child. What am I to make of this, Holmes?” And the audience may find themselves wondering the same thing. What are we to make of this?

But that doesn’t mean that the film is without its highlights. For every discordant note in the film, there is a harmonious one. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the second of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films made by the Rathbone-Bruce team. It was also the first film it which Rathbone and Bruce received top billing. For their first film, The Hound of the Baskervilles (also in 1939), Rathbone and Bruce were given second billing to their co-star, Richard Greene, who portrayed Sir Henry Baskerville. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was also the last film in the series made by 20th Century Fox, as afterwards the franchise would be acquired and produced by Universal Studios. It was also the last “period” film from the franchise; afterwards, a series of three Sherlock Holmes films set in World War II-era Britain, Europe, and the United States, were made, and followed nine contemporary films in non-wartime settings (sometimes embellished with gothic, not but strictly period, elements).

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes features George Zucco in the role of Professor James Moriarty (the 1942 film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon would feature Lionel Atwill in the role). Zucco’s Moriarty is sedately evil, with undercurrents of roiling menace. He is not a villain that chases after his victims; he waits for them to come to him – as they inevitably do. According to Alan Barnes, “The most measured of crazies, [George] Zucco’s Moriarty makes a significant impression, enjoying another standout scene in which he dares the bullied Dawes to let slip a razor while shaving him: ‘You’re a coward, Dawes. If you weren’t a coward you’d have cut my throat long ago…’” (21).

The film also contains an iconic scene. Watson arrives at Baker Street to find Sherlock Holmes in the sitting room, playing scales on his violin to a glass of trapped houseflies. He tells Watson that he is “observing the reaction of the common housefly on the chromatic scale,” and that once he is successful, homeowners will only need to play the correct note to rid the house of flies. The scene is replicated in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr., as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. Of course, Law’s Watson ultimately releases the carefully trapped flies as recompense for all the trouble his flatmate inflicts upon him. In another interesting contrast, George Zucco’s Moriarty is an avid horticulturist – even making murderous threats at his butler for failing to water one of his plants – while Guy Ritchie’s Professor Moriarty’s (played by Jared Harris in the 2011 film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) inattention to his box of flowers is a critical part of Moriarty’s downfall.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was supposedly based on the play by William Gillette, although little – if anything – of the original plot was carried over for the film. Instead the audience is treated to a series of notable scenes, often irreverent, but not without purpose. After all, what could be more memorable than Dr. Watson laying in an empty street – playing at a dead body for Sherlock Holmes’s investigation – and snidely calling a well-meaning, if persistently inquiring stranger a “Stupid fellow”? Anachronisms, contextual problems, and incomplete plotlines aside – much of Sherlock Holmes’s film legacy is owed to the Rathbone-Bruce films, and to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in particular. The film’s moments are renowned, and transcend whatever small clumsiness may assert itself, leaping easily into the twenty-first century.  


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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "The Red-Headed League," in which Sherlock Holmes investigates a seemingly irreverent case, with rather more sinister designs, and in which the Great Detective reminds the reader: “I begin to think, Watson, that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid."

The current story is "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor," in which Sherlock Holmes professes his affinity for all things American: “It is always a joy to meet an American, Mr. Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.”

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.