Inspired by this month’s Basil Rathbone movie marathon held on October 5 by TCM, I thought it would be fun to discuss one of the the most classic characters Rathbone would take on in his career, Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed by many actors over the last century, so it takes a lot to really stand out above the crowd. Basil Rathbone certainly wasn’t the first – there were Sherlocks as far back as the 30-second short silent film Sherlock Holmes Baffled, from 1900, as well as the much longer short film series released by Stoll Pictures in the early 1920s. However, I feel that it is relatively safe to say that Rathbone’s Holmes might be the earliest that has been retained in the larger public consciousness, as it is one of the earliest series with sound, as well as the longest full-length feature movie series to date, with 14 entries.
Unfortunately, not all of these movies were of equal quality – in particular, I’d say that the two first released, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both released in 1939) were the strongest – in my personal opinion. This is likely due to the differing production companies – 20th Century Fox released these two, while the rest were wartime (or shortly post-war) movies by Universal Pictures, often featuring a modern (well, modern at the time) Sherlock fighting Nazis. While the later films have their own charms, they suffered a bit from the modernization – too modernized to be true to the classic tales, too antiquated to be as accessible today.
I specifically re-watched The Hound of the Baskervilles for this article, and the only complaint I have is one also found in other adaptations and even the original material – there just isn’t enough Holmes. Holmes sends Watson off to Baskerville Hall early in the story, and only reappears toward the end of the work, leaving a largely Holmes-shaped hole in the middle of the work. It’s a good thing that Nigel Bruce plays such a good Watson, as he is required to handle a lot more of the heavy lifting in this particular tale than most – more on Bruce’s Watson later.
While I particularly enjoy the earlier two works in the series, if you watch those and want more, the next movie I would really recommend is The Scarlet Claw. Though not credited as being based on any specific Doyle story, it still somehow gives the strongest impression of being a Doyle-inspired piece. The ones I would least recommend are Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror,Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Sherlock Holmes hunting Nazis isn’t as entertaining as the concept may sound, and these early Universal movies in the series all feel a bit more rushed and cheaper to me than the Fox movies or the later Universal entries.
Regardless of which movie you watch, Basil Rathbone is of course excellent as Holmes, who he helps to largely define in film even today. Rathbone-as-Holmes displays the right degree of intellectual confidence leaning into arrogance, perfectly bringing the character of the eccentric investigator to the big screen. Clinically logical, bordering on cold, he’s just off-putting enough to truly bring the role to life.
But in many ways, his co-star, Nigel Bruce, playing Watson, is even more defining for the role. If anything, Bruce is perhaps a bit too perfect – he exemplifies a bumbling Watson, and as such has likely been the primary influence for the character in the many, many other adaptations that have been made since. This is definitely a necessary role, as it gives Holmes a ready target to describe the many masterful intellectual leaps that were required to reach the correct conclusions from minute observations. However, it does a bit of disservice to the original character of Watson, who is described as a classic Victorian gentleman by Doyle, an intelligent and athletic man in his own rights — if always outshone by the brilliant Holmes.
For fans of Rathbone’s Sherlock and Bruce’s Watson, it’s also worth noting that there’s more Holmes material out there starring them than the movies – they also starred together in a radio show with over 200 episodes from 1939 to 1947. Many of these, particularly the later episodes, can actually be found online on sites like YouTube.
(Note that if you do decide to pick up these movies, I would recommend The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection, which includes all the movies for a much lower price. Even if you don’t want most of the Universal pictures, you’re still probably getting the best value for money there rather than buying the movies one at a time.)