I investigate the 1939 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second Holmes feature starring Basil Rathbone as the brilliant master detective, for Turner Classic Movies. The film is one of TCM’s Christmas Day presents to viewers: it plays on Friday, December 25.
Decades after his final portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s coldly logical detective, Basil Rathbone still remains the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes for many of the character’s fans. There had been many screen incarnations before him (John Barrymore quite distinctively played the sleuth in the 1922 silent feature Sherlock Holmes) but most were forgotten when the gaunt, classically trained Rathbone, with his crisp diction and piercing eyes and aquiline features, stepped into the deerstalker cap for the 1939 thriller The Hound of the Baskervilles. Accompanied by Nigel Bruce as a portly Dr. Watson, Rathbone became the first screen version of Holmes to solve crimes in the flickering gaslight atmosphere of Victorian England, the era in which the original stories were set, and it was this incarnation in which he first uttered the signature line of the series: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (Though Conan Doyle never quite has Holmes deliver such a line in his stories, Holmes does say “Elementary” and refers to his companion as “My dear Watson” a few times in print.) Rathbone received second billing to Richard Greene, the handsome, dashing young actor who played the haunted Baskerville, in his first appearance as Holmes. However, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the film’s immediate follow-up, he rose to top billing: the first for the respected stage star and screen character actor.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not based on any of Conan Doyle’s original stories and, according to Holmes scholars, only nominally adapted from the credited stage play by William Gillette. The film pits Holmes against his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (played with cool cunning and obsessive drive by frequent screen heavy George Zucco), who escapes a murder charge in the opening scene and proceeds to bait Holmes with a challenge. “I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late,” he taunts the detective. “It’ll be the end of you, Sherlock Holmes.” Thus he begins a master plan that involves enigmatic letters, a flustered young beauty, a murdered aristocrat, a South American stalker (complete with an eerie wooden flute that haunts the victims) and the priceless (and fictional) Star of Delhi. Ida Lupino co-stars as the terrified young heiress worried that her brother has been marked for death, a case that Holmes takes up despite his promise to oversee the transfer of the jewel to the Tower of London. Needless to say, Moriarty’s fingerprints are all over these seemingly disparate cases, but the mystery is just exactly how and why.