Sherlock Holmes Film Series Begins

Basil Rathbone starred in the first of fourteen films that made him the most popular Sherlock Holmes in cinema history.

Summary of Event

In the spring of 1939, American moviegoers of all ages were familiar with Sherlock Holmes as a film character. First popularized in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s through the novels and short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle, Arthur Conan Sherlock Holmes Holmes, Sherlock had been represented on silent film in Europe and the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century. After talking pictures were introduced in the late 1920’s, a number of Holmes films followed, the most popular of which was a highly successful five-film series starring British actor Arthur Wontner. Wontner, Arthur By 1939, Sherlock Holmes was still popular in print, had been represented successfully on stage, and had been portrayed in numerous radio versions. Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of the Baker Street sleuth was certainly no novelty. [kw]Sherlock Holmes Film Series Begins (Mar. 31, 1939)
[kw]Holmes Film Series Begins, Sherlock (Mar. 31, 1939)
[kw]Film Series Begins, Sherlock Holmes (Mar. 31, 1939)
Motion pictures;Sherlock Holmes series
Hound of the Baskervilles, The (film)
[g]United States;Mar. 31, 1939: Sherlock Holmes Film Series Begins[09970]
[c]Motion pictures;Mar. 31, 1939: Sherlock Holmes Film Series Begins[09970]
[c]Entertainment;Mar. 31, 1939: Sherlock Holmes Film Series Begins[09970]
Rathbone, Basil
Bruce, Nigel
Zanuck, Darryl F.
Lanfield, Sidney
Gordon, Mary

One of the most popular of the Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was familiar to many. Twentieth Century-Fox Twentieth Century-Fox[Twentieth Century Fox];Sherlock Holmes films made the story into a film that stuck fairly closely to its source (unlike later movies in the Rathbone series). The plot begins with the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall. It is rumored on the Dartmoor marshland that Sir Charles was killed by a supernatural hound that for centuries has been avenging the brutal murder of a young peasant woman by Sir Charles’s wicked seventeenth century ancestor Sir Hugo Baskerville. Upon the death of Sir Charles, young Sir Henry Baskerville inherits his uncle’s estate, and Holmes is called to investigate the danger that the avenging hound might present to Sir Henry. Holmes eventually discovers that the hound is merely a mortal beast trained by John Stapleton, a neighbor and distant Baskerville relative who had hoped to kill Sir Henry and claim the estate for himself. After Holmes solves the mystery, young Sir Henry is able to marry Stapleton’s stepsister Beryl, and the two are presumed to live quietly and happily forever.

Ultimately, the Doyle stories were designed to showcase the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes and to tantalize the audience with mystery and suspense. By highlighting the vicious canine, however, The Hound of the Baskervilles adds a touch of horror and the macabre to the detective mixture. The 1939 film version of Doyle’s classic emphasized the horror element. Twentieth Century-Fox advertised the film as “literature’s most shocking, spine-chilling mystery story,” pitting Holmes “against the giant, unearthly Beast from Hell that roams the fog-swept moor . . . terrorizing the countryside . . . striking horror into the hearts of two young lovers!” As the opening credits roll, the misty Dartmoor setting prepares the audience for what Watson later calls “the dreadful eeriness of this place.” Insert titles announce that “in all England there is no district more dismal than that vast expanse of primitive wasteland, the moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire,” and the action begins at night on the boggy Grimpen Mire with the terrified Sir Charles fleeing the howling of the hound. Then, when Sir Charles collapses from heart failure, a horrific, wild-eyed man scurries from the bushes to steal Sir Charles’s pocket watch. Although the film was shot entirely at the Twentieth Century-Fox studios, the atmosphere of the moors is genuinely eerie; when the audience finally sees the hound, however, it appears to be of normal size and is not sufficiently frightening.

Twentieth Century-Fox also emphasized the romantic element of Doyle’s story. In the end, Sir Henry Baskerville wins the heart of his beautiful neighbor, Miss Beryl Stapleton, and in advertisements for the film, the studio gave the lovers as much prominence as Holmes and Watson. Two actors known for playing romantic leads, Richard Greene and Wendy Barrie, were cast to play Sir Henry and Miss Stapleton, and the opening credits gave Greene top billing, followed by Rathbone and Barrie, with Nigel Bruce (as Dr. Watson) receiving secondary billing and separated in the credits from Rathbone. Emphasis on the romantic element was also reflected in Cyril Mockridge’s music for the opening credits. The music began by suggesting horror—ominous measures featuring brass instruments—then segued into several bars of sweeping, romantic violins before returning to the opening mood, which continued into the first scene on the moor.

Richard Greene’s romantic Sir Henry failed to dominate the screen. Instead, it was Rathbone’s brisk, electric, intense characterization of Holmes and Bruce’s languid, good-natured characterization of Watson that carried the picture, along with striking portrayals of numerous minor characters. For example, Lionel Atwill, who in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (film) would make a very effective Professor Moriarty, here created an effectively mysterious Dr. Mortimer. The slim and gravel-voiced John Carradine played the Baskervilles’ servant with a compelling and taciturn quality, and in a typically brief appearance, Mary Gordon created the role of Mrs. Hudson, which she would play throughout the series. The result was a rich fictive world dominated by the Rathbone/Bruce tandem and especially by the intensity of Rathbone as Holmes.

Five months later, in September, 1939, Twentieth Century-Fox capitalized on Rathbone and Bruce’s success by releasing a second Holmes film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (film) The two character actors were well on their way to becoming the most popular Holmes and Watson in cinema history. In this and subsequent films, Rathbone and Bruce received top billing and were featured as the stars; their personal status was emphasized even more than their roles as Holmes and Watson.

In October, 1939, Rathbone and Bruce began solidifying their new fame by repeating their roles for radio, and they went on to act in more than two hundred radio performances from 1939 through 1946. In September, 1942, Universal Pictures Universal Pictures;Sherlock Holmes films purchased the film rights to the Doyle short stories and began a series of twelve more Rathbone/Bruce films. The last of these was Dressed to Kill, and after it was released in 1946, Rathbone quit the series to return to New York and his first love, the stage. Although Rathbone had initially felt challenged by the Holmes role, he eventually tired of it, feeling that he was simply repeating himself rather than growing as an actor. Unfortunately, he had become so identified with the role that his career as an effective character actor was essentially destroyed. Children asking him for his autograph would often not know that Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character and that the man they addressed was really the actor Basil Rathbone, and Rathbone could not appear on screen without reminding audiences of Sherlock Holmes. In the late 1940’s in New York, Rathbone worked on stage, radio, and television with some success but without offsetting his typecasting as Holmes, and he even returned to the role in 1953 in a play and a television pilot, both of which were unsuccessful. He did not appear again in film until the middle 1950’s, and then with little success. By the early 1960’s, he was acting in cheap thrillers for American International Pictures, and he ended his film career by appearing in a pair of obscure films, Autopsy of a Ghost (1967) and Hillbillies in a Haunted House (1967). Although Rathbone achieved international fame as Sherlock Holmes, his acting career was finally severely limited by his phenomenal success in that role.


There had been many successful and popular portrayals of Sherlock Holmes before Rathbone’s appearance in The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939. William Gillette, Gillette, William H. A. Saintsbury, Eille Norwood, John Barrymore, Clive Brook, Raymond Massey, Arthur Wontner, and others had given significant performances as the great detective. Gillette, who acted until 1935, had played Holmes on stage, in film, and on radio for more than thirteen hundred performances and was considered by many in his heyday to be the definitive Sherlock Holmes. The British actor Eille Norwood had made forty-seven short, silent films in the early 1920’s as Holmes. By 1946, however, Rathbone’s performance in the series of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films had eclipsed all other portrayals.

In the decades following Rathbone’s 1946 departure from the Universal series, many other actors portrayed Holmes. Actors such as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Douglas Wilmer, Fritz Weaver, John Neville, Stewart Granger, John Wood, Nicol Williamson, Christopher Plummer, Roger Moore, Frank Langella, Ian Richardson, and others played Holmes on film, stage, and television. For forty years, however, no one threatened to dislodge Rathbone as the image of Sherlock Holmes until Jeremy Brett began his long and effective series of Holmes tales for England’s Granada Television in the mid-1980’s. For nearly half a century, Rathbone reigned supreme as the popular image of Sherlock Holmes.

Some of Rathbone’s popularity in the role must be attributed to his appearance. Tall and slender, with a strong nose, dark hair, piercing eyes, and a slightly receding hairline, Rathbone bore a striking resemblance to the image of Holmes created by the most famous and most influential of Doyle’s illustrators, Sidney Paget, Paget, Sidney who established the initial and most abiding portrait of Holmes in his many drawings for the original publication of Doyle’s stories in the Strand Magazine. As an excellent and experienced character actor, Rathbone also brought to the role an intensity coupled with a thoughtful intelligence and an aristocratic manner that perfectly suited the character.

Rathbone’s height, intense eyes, angular features, and lack of muscularity all suggested brains rather than brawn, and he brought to his portrayal of Holmes an aristocratic demeanor that had been honed in earlier roles, beginning with his portrayal of the stern Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield (1935) and including a bravura performance as the oily Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Also of no small consequence was Rathbone’s precise, deep, and crisp speaking voice, which seemed to capture the very sound of clear thinking. Rathbone’s aristocratic manner, so essential to the Sherlock Holmes character, would not be sufficiently recaptured until the advent of Jeremy Brett’s Brett, Jeremy Holmes in the mid-1980’s. As Rathbone had become the definitive Sherlock Holmes for movies, Brett promised finally to eclipse him by becoming the definitive Holmes in the next dominant popular medium—television.

In addition, Rathbone had an advantage over all previous and subsequent screen Sherlocks when he was paired with Nigel Bruce’s incomparable Dr. Watson, whose good-natured bumbling served as the perfect foil to Rathbone’s characterization. The Watson character has always proved deceptively difficult to play: A companion and contrast to Holmes, Watson tends to be sycophantic, prosaic, even dull, and many actors cannot bring any meaningful liveliness to the role. Bruce, however, managed to create a richly sentimental warmth in Watson that complemented a genuinely close relationship with Holmes, and in some respects Nigel Bruce’s Watson proved an even more indelible screen image than Rathbone’s Holmes.

Another factor contributing to Rathbone’s enormous popularity was the timing of the series, which coincided with U.S. involvement in World War II. Many of the films in the Universal series exploited the war consciousness, creating un-Doyle-like tales that set Holmes against Nazi spies, and a number of the films in the series ended with uplifting, jingoistic speeches such as the one that caps Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), in which Holmes quotes Winston Churchill: “In the days to come, the British and American people for their own safety and the good of all will walk together in majesty and justice and in peace.” Finally, the timing of the Rathbone series coincided perfectly with the advent of television as a powerful cultural force in the United States. As local stations sought films for their afternoon and late-night movie slots, the Rathbone series proved both useful and popular. Given that all the pre-1929 Holmes films were silent and thus not commercially viable, and because most of the pre-Rathbone sound versions were either lost or not readily available, the Rathbone series enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Consequently, the fourteen Rathbone/Bruce films became the most popular series of feature films ever shown on American television.

The Rathbone Holmes series is not generally thought of as cinematically innovative or daring, but in one way two of the films are almost shocking for their time. When Doyle created his detective hero at the end of the nineteenth century, he had made Holmes a narcotics addict who injected cocaine, heroin, morphine, and other drugs to combat the monotony of his daily routine. Only when challenged by a particularly difficult case did Holmes find life stimulating enough to make drugs unnecessary. At the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes has solved all the mysteries, trapped the murderer, and brought peace and justice to Baskerville Hall; he has declared it “a very interesting case for your annals, Watson.” Announcing that he has had a strenuous day and will now turn in, Holmes pauses at the door and, turning back to Watson, says, “Oh, Watson, the needle!” This was a startling line, given the conservatism and heavily censored nature of the film industry of the 1940’s. Holmes’s addiction would not be dealt with openly on film until the mid-1970’s, when The Seven Percent Solution (1976) unabashedly focused on Holmes’s drug use. There is another veiled reference to Holmes’s addiction in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (film) the second film in the Universal series. Near the end of the film, the evil Professor Moriarty has captured Holmes and has strapped him to an operating table; Moriarty plans to kill Holmes by draining his blood, drop by agonizing drop. Smiling, Moriarty says, “The needle till the end, eh?”

Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective genre in the 1840’s, and before the century was finished, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had made Sherlock Holmes the most compelling of all detective characters. As a kind of popular romantic hero, the detective character entertains audiences by surpassing the limits felt by ordinary people, but Sherlock Holmes’s intelligence made him especially appealing to popular audiences. Unlike such heroes as the cowboy of the American Western or the usual police detective, Holmes does not resort to weapons, violence, or physical prowess. He wins by using deductive reasoning that permits him to cull meaning from what seems prosaic and meaningless to everyone else. Motion pictures;Sherlock Holmes series
Hound of the Baskervilles, The (film)

Further Reading

  • Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History. London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2004. Wonderfully illustrated history of Holmes’s portrayals on screen. Breaks down the performances by category and provides some interesting analyses.
  • Davies, David Stuart. Holmes of the Movies: The Screen Career of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Bramhall House, 1968. Very readable survey of Holmes literature covers Doyle and the major actors who have portrayed Holmes. Devotes three chapters to Rathbone. Includes photographs and filmography but no index.
  • Eyles, Allen. Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. A sumptuously illustrated coffee-table book covering Holmes in all popular forms, including radio. One Rathbone chapter and a very useful chapter on recent Holmes figures. Includes index, academically slanted bibliography, chronological list of Doyle stories, and a valuable chronological list of performances. Eleven chapters, 144 pages.
  • Haydock, Ron. Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978. Sixteen-chapter survey devotes nearly three chapters to Rathbone and Bruce. Written in a very personal, chatty style; its main strength is its wealth of detail. Includes photographs, annotated bibliography, and index.
  • Pohle, Robert W., Jr., and Douglas C. Hart. Sherlock Holmes on the Screen: The Motion Picture Adventures of the World’s Most Popular Detective. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1977. Although dated, still very useful. Provides unusually thorough and specific details on scores of films. Features a long chapter on the Rathbone series. Includes many photographs, a list of Doyle stories, bibliography, and index.
  • Rathbone, Basil. In and Out of Character. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. Autobiography of eighteen chapters and 278 pages, in which, amazingly, Rathbone covers the Holmes series in a single ten-page chapter. This chapter, however, is essential reading, as it bristles with deep feeling. Includes an incisive analysis of the Sherlock phenomenon and reveals Rathbone’s ultimate disappointment that the series so seriously damaged his acting career.
  • Richardson, Ian, and David Stuart Davies. Starring Sherlock Holmes. London: Titan Books, 2003. An attractive and generally well-researched volume on all the Holmes performances. Pays special attention to those by Rathbone, Brett, and Peter Cushing.
  • Steinbrunner, Chris, and Norman Michaels. The Films of Sherlock Holmes. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1991. Excellent lengthy survey includes many illustrations. Devotes a full chapter to each Rathbone/Bruce film. One of the best books of its kind; unusually detailed, informative, and well written. However, it provides no index, bibliography, or other scholarly aids.

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