Saturday, March 31, 2012

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes



Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

There are few actors who have as fervent a fan following as Jeremy Brett and Sir Basil Rathbone is one of those privileged few.


Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were cast as the legendary duo in 14 films in the 1940s. Most of these movies were updated to reflect the times in which they were made rather than the Victorian times in which the novels were originally written. The makers wanted to make Sherlock a heroic figure during those tumultuous times faced by the Great Britain. Some of the movies, such as “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” and “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon” were in fact based on real-life events.


Rathbone was actively involved in World War II and had even donned disguises as part of his duties. These experiences no doubt made Rathbone the perfect choice to play Sherlock Holmes. His tall and gaunt appearance and aquiline features give the impression that he just leapt right out of Sidney Paget’s drawings. Rathbone’s deep voice and the mischievous twinkle in his eyes are only the icing on the cake.


One of the often overlooked Holmesian habits in the adaptations is his addiction to drugs. The needle is mentioned very briefly at the end of the adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The series makers obviously did not like the reception to this (seemingly unsavory) trait of Holmes and there is no mention of this in the next 13 movies in the series.


The actor playing Dr Watson always gets second billing and is very vital to the success of the series. Vitaly Solomin was as much a highlight of the Russian adaptation as Vasily Livanov himself. In the same vein, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke greatly enhance the appeal of the Granada series. As for Rathbone, he is saddled with the gentleman below:


Nigel Bruce as Dr John Watson
Nigel Bruce as some old bumbling fool called John Watson

Nigel Bruce (bless his soul) makes the most comical Watson I have ever seen and this is not a compliment at all.. Sir Doyle created Watson as a competent doctor and an able ally/friend of the Bohemian detective. Dr Watson is the everyman that readers can relate to and he is our guide to the enigma that is Sherlock Holmes.


Making Dr Watson a bumbling fool is in my humble opinion, a big disservice to the genius of Arthur Conan Doyle. But to be fair to Bruce, he does share excellent on-screen chemistry with Basil Rathbone and this results in some truly memorable moments, mostly at the expense of Bruce's Watson!


Thankfully, Mary Gordon is the canonical Mrs Hudson: caring, affectionate and grudgingly tolerant of her Bohemian tenant.

Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson
Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson
Scotland Yard detective Lestrade is portrayed by Dennis Hoey who is even taller than Rathbone. It is an amusing sight to watch a Lestrade taller than Holmes, as Lestrade is defined as being a man of small build in the canon.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson and Dennis Hoey as Lestrade
Dennis Hoey as Lestrade with Holmes

Of the 14 movies, the only one based on the Canon is the adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is one of the best adaptations of arguably the most famous Sherlock Holmes novel. Incidentally, this was the first movie to star Rathbone and Bruce as the famous residents of 221B Baker Street. Basil is in top form as Holmes here and it is sheer pleasure to watch him leave his imprint on the role.


The supporting cast is good and does justice to their respective roles. There are some deviations from the Canon, such as Beryl Stapleton being the step-sister of John Stapleton (she is his wife in the novel) and Dr Mortimer is quite aged (he is described as being quite young in the canon). There is a séance sequence, where Mrs Mortimer acts as the medium. This scene is a nice touch and adds to the atmosphere.


Most of the remaining movies are based on one or more of the canonical stories. “The Pearl of Death” is based on The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. “Sherlock Holmes faces death” is based on The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. “Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear” is based on The Five Orange Pips


Another significant fact is that there are a lot of recurring actors who portray various supporting roles in many of these 14 movies. I will not go into too many details, but suffice to say that it is quite disconcerting to watch no less than 3 different actors portray Professor Moriarty and interestingly he dies in each of these 3 incarnations!


Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

The series is still a recommended watch for the sole purpose of enjoying Basil Rathbone’s superb portrayal of the world's premier fictional detective.

Click here to read all my posts about Basil Rathbone.


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13 comments:

  1. A great post and I am 99% in agreement with the points raised. I only half agree on Nigel Bruce - yes, he was a million miles from the written character but I think he was prefect alongside Rathbone. Reusing supporting actors and not being consistent with Moriarty does seem odd but then I wonder if the makers knew these films would be watched for years to come. You know though - as good as Rathbone was I think his Watson helped him to shine.

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  2. Thanks Gary for raising the point about the great chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce. I believe these two gentlemen were friends in real life as well. The same is true of Livanov-Solomin and Brett-Burke/Hardwicke.

    One of the main ingredients of the phenomenal success of Sherlock Holmes is the camaraderie shared between Holmes and Watson.

    To me, any adaptation that nails this part is a winner. Which is why Livanov, Rathbone and Brett are my most favorite Holmes :)

    As for the recurring actors in the Rathbone series, I agree with you about the makers not foreseeing the kind of success and fame that Rathbone and Bruce would achieve.

    Kind of like how Sir Doyle himself did not envision the legendary status that his fictional detective would receive and gave him to the public domain. But for this carte blanche given by his creator, Sherlock Holmes would not be the cash cow that he is today for pretty much everyone under the sun..If only Sir Doyle, you had not done that, we would not have these travesties that only pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, but exist solely to mint money by exploiting the genius of your beloved creation :(

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  3. To make it clear, I have nothing against pastiches that respect the spirit of the canon. I enjoyed "The House of Silk" by Anthony Horowitz. I am now reading "Holmes on the Range" by Steve Hockensmith.

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  4. Thank You for commenting on my Arthur Wotner film. Sorry it wasn't Sherlockian essay, (like the author W.S. Baring Gould). Please feel welcome to visit again when updated and see what else I've found. There should be some links to old BBC radio broadcasts, such as Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, which was suprisingly good and a the BBC radio version of The Seven Percent Solution.
    Again, it was very nice to hear from you.

    "I perceive you've been in Afghanistan."

    Scott

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  5. @Scott Lord - Always a pleasure to visit a Sherlockian blog.

    Thank You for stopping by as well :)

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  6. Nice post and I would say I am in agreement with you. While I am sure Bruce brilliantly portrayed what he was given to work with, the damage that it did to Watson's character is, for me, too much. Luckily Granada, the BBC, and even Warner Bros. have put that to rest.

    Yes, I would also agree that a sort of off-screen chemistry has to be there for the visual, on-screen chemistry to work. Brett and his two Watsons definitely had it (though I am more partial to Hardwicke's Watson), Cumberbatch and Freeman also have it, and I also think that Rathbone and Bruce had it despite Watson's character assassination.

    I am making my way through the Peter Cushing adaptation and I can't seem to put my finger on exactly what bothers me about it yet, but I think one issue for me was a seeming lack of chemistry...I will have to finish it before I make final decision.

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    1. The issue with the Cushing adaptation might be the low budget sets used. Cushing did his best (as always) with his role.

      Cheers!

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  7. Basil Rathbone...the very best Holmes, in my opinion (not that I've seen them all). I think that I would like to have had the opportunity to lunch with him!

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    1. I too wish I had the chance to meet Mr. Rathbone :)

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  8. here's another vote for Rathbone and Bruce as the best Holmes/Watson team ever. but i think it's mostly a matter of which series one grew up with.

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    1. Well said about loving the series we tend to grow up with. Fortunately, I grew up reading the canon (before seeing any adaptation) and hence my first love always is and will be the canon :)

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  9. I'm sorry that:
    - these movies do not follow cannon
    - Watson is such a buffoon

    ... because I think Basil is my all-time favorite Holmes (although Ian Richardson comes close). He looks and sounds exactly like I imagined Holmes when reading the stories as a kid. I still have a soft spot for these movies, as absurd as they are.

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    1. Have you seen the the 1964-68 BBC series with Douglas Wilmer/Peter Cushing or the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes. I am interested to know your thoughts about these performances.

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