Many actors have tried, but none has surpassed Basil Rathbone’s embodiment of Sherlock Holmes. The razor-sharp profile, hawk nose and cocaine eyes seem torn straight from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle. This is, undeniably, one of the great pairings of actor and character in film history.
Odd to think, then, that the first Holmes film with Rathbone and his faithful Dr. Watson, Nigel Bruce, gave neither man starring credit. That honor on “The Hound of the Baskervilles” went to the romantic leading man, Richard Greene.
The lapse in logic was quickly corrected, with Rathbone and Bruce going on to top-bill 13 famed Holmes movies between 1939 and 1946.
There are great Sherlock Holmes films starring Rathbone and bad ones. In the four or five decades before 2003, however, they all looked ratty, with varying degrees of damage and distortion. Take a look at the original Holmes titles streaming on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service and you’ll see examples of the criminal neglect the movies suffered over the decades.
In 2003 and 2004, indie video label MPI began releasing the Holmes films on DVD. The UCLA Film and TV Archive spent a decade rescuing the Universal Holmes films from public domain hell, in a restoration that aimed to return them to 35mm theatrical condition using original elements and acetate copies. The results were indeed impressive, with shadows and light both elegant and edgy. Wear was within reason and the audio sufficed.
In 2006, the various MPI/Holmes releases were rounded up in a single box set. Now, five years later, Holmes and Watson go high-def, with MPI’s release of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection”” on Blu-ray. Basically, it’s the same set with some new extras. Some viewers report instances of damage on the Blu-rays that had been removed in the DVDs. Others find pleasure in the improved grain. If you own the DVDs, you wouldn’t go wrong staying with them. New buyers should go with MPI’s new Holmes Blu-rays.
The jewels here are “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” a pair of black-and-white beauties turned out by Fox in 1939 — before Universal took over and “modernized” the Doyle stories.
The Uni films have their moments — “Woman in Green,” for example, is grand and grisly entertainment — but there’s no topping the initial Fox releases, set in Victorian times.
Film historians’ commentaries cover some of the Holmes feature films, explaining, for instance, just how the 19th century detectives ended up battling Nazis in WWII.
“Baskervilles” remains one of the most famous and fondly remembered Holmes films, but it is largely Dr. Watson’s tale. Nigel Bruce’s Watson quickly became a buffoon in the series, but here he is not to be trifled with. (Rathbone later defended his friend and co-star against critics, saying a “less lovable” actor would have ruined the series.)
The restoration puts Fox’s amazing sets on full display, including the fog-engulfed moor where the hound fillets his victims. The commentator, chipper British author David Stuart Davies, churns out minutiae and unmasks plot inconsistencies.
“Adventures,” made a few months later, immortalized the line “Elementary, my dear Watson” — catchy, but never from Doyle’s pen. The film is based on a play by William Gillette, with two original but true-to-the-canon mysteries.
The movie opens with one of the series’ best moments as Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) exchange pleasantries and mortal threats as they share a carriage ride. Ida Lupino melts hearts in her last ingenue role.
Holmes magazine editor Richard Valley does a decent job on the commentary, but spends far too much time telling the life stories of all involved, even the bit players.
* * * * *
Rathbone and Bruce were an almost-impossible act to follow, but here’s a terrific Holmes adventure: “Murder by Decree” with Christopher Plummer and James Mason. It was directed by the guy who made “Porky’s,” go figure. Lionsgate rereleased the 1979 film a couple of years ago and Anchor Bay made the original DVD.
Check out Glenn Abel on Google+