Continuing to look at popular movie series in Old Hollywood, I present Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. Between 1939 and 1946, there were fourteen Sherlock Holmes movies made. However, there is a little bit of a twist to them.
First off, casting. Tall, suave, handsome Rathbone was the perfect man to be Holmes. With his perfect British accent and his Shakespearean-honed talents, Rathbone transitioned gracefully from London stages to America’s silver screen. Nigel Bruce, however, was nothing like the Dr. Watson of the Conan Doyle stories. Instead, he played Dr. Watson as a clueless tag-along, a sort of mascot for Holmes, much like Pancho for the Cisco Kid (now there’s an obscure reference!)
Twentieth Century Fox made the first two of the Holmes movies in 1939, and both were adaptations of Conan Doyle stories: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Fox made these with care, using big budget and high production values, seeing these films as first-run movies, bill-toppers, if you will. However, Fox released the rights to the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Universal Studios then acquired those rights.
At this point, there is a change in the series. Whereas under Fox, the movies were ‘art house films’, Universal made the Holmes movies with low budgets, seeing these films as B movies, intended to be the second film in a double bill. Unlike today, when you go to see one movie (most recently we went to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron), back in the 40’s, it was an evening out in the theater. Two movies on a double bill, newsreel, cartoons, trailers and shorts.
Universal was able to get Rathbone and Bruce to play Holmes and Watson, which is amazing, when you consider the studio/star contracts in the 40’s. They made the films with low budgets, but the biggest thing that they did was to change the venue of Holmes. Instead of solving crimes and mysteries in his normal Victorian Era, Universal made Holmes a contemporary of the times, and had him fighting Nazies during WWII.
In spite of this, apparently, some of those B-movie Sherlock Holmes flicks were pretty good. I did a quick trip over to Rotten Tomatoes, the film review site, and was surprised to find that three of the Rathbone/Holmes movies have been reviewed, and have very high reviews from the critics. I’m crediting this almost entirely to Rathbone, the Shakespearean. To get an idea of the content of these movies, go was the trailers for some of them at Internet Archive.