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Tag Archives: Nigel Bruce

Dressed to Kill (June 7, 1946)

Dressed to Kill was director Roy William Neill’s eleventh Sherlock Holmes film, and the fourteenth and final film starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his loyal sidekick Dr. John H. Watson.

This was the year that Rathbone said goodbye to the character. His last appearance on the Mutual Broadcasting System radio program The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was in “The Singular Affair of the Baconian Cipher,” broadcast on Monday, May 27, 1946. The next week’s time slot was filled with the summer replacement program The Casebook of Gregory Hood, which starred Gale Gordon as an antique dealer and gourmand living in San Francisco who solved mysteries in his spare time. Like the Sherlock Holmes program, the scripts were written by Holmes aficionados Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. The show was fun, but Gregory Hood was no Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes returned to the airwaves in October, on the American Broadcasting Company. Nigel Bruce reprised his role as Dr. Watson, but Tom Conway took over the role of Sherlock Holmes (although Bruce received top billing). Rathbone, who felt that his association with the character, whom he had played on a regular basis since 1939, was killing his career, so he returned to New York City and the theater. He won a Tony in 1947 for his role in the Broadway play The Heiress, but little significant stage work presented itself to him in the years to come. He had bad luck with films, as well. When The Heiress was made into a film in 1949, Rathbone hoped to appear again as Dr. Sloper, the role for which he had won a Tony, but the part ended up going to Ralph Richardson.

Whatever Rathbone’s feelings about his iconic performances as Holmes, there is no question that he left an indelible mark on the character. (He eventually returned to the role in 1953 when he appeared as Holmes in an episode of the Suspense TV show, as well as starring as Holmes in a play that was written by his wife, Ouida. The play received lukewarm reviews and closed after just three performances.)

In the first scene in Dressed to Kill in which Rathbone and Bruce appear, Rathbone waxes nostalgic about “the woman,” Irene Adler, a character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1891 story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” while Watson sits reading The Strand, the magazine in which Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories originally appeared. (Later in the film, a smoke bomb will prove the undoing of Watson, and Holmes will taunt him, since Watson described an identical ruse in the story he wrote called “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s an enjoyable bit of metafiction of the type Conan Doyle himself engaged in.)

The boys receive a visitor to 221b Baker Street, Julian “Stinky” Emery (Edmund Breon), an old friend of Watson’s. Emery is an avid collector of music boxes, and was robbed the night before. Curiously, the thief (or thieves) knocked him unconscious and then took just one music box, a trifling little thing that Emery had purchased earlier in the day at auction for just £2.

We, the viewers, know that Emery’s music box was one of three manufactured in Dartmoor Prison, so we know that the trio of miscreants tracking them down in London have an ulterior motive, in this case, finding where a pair of original Bank of England plates are hidden, which they will be able to use to produce £5 notes that are not “counterfeit” in the traditional sense. The three music boxes all seem to play the same tune, but with his fine ear for music, Holmes will note minor variations in the melodies, which is the key to the code.

Dressed to Kill features many plot elements that will be familiar to long-time viewers of the series. Mrs. Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) is a clever femme fatale in the mold of the eponymous antagonists of The Spider Woman (1944) and The Woman in Green (1945). And the plot device of a number of cheap trinkets holding a code was used before, and to better effect, in The Pearl of Death (1944).

Dressed to Kill is far from the best of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series, but it’s far from the worst. The Rathbone Holmes pictures are remarkably consistent and terrifically entertaining, however, so the worst picture in the series is still better than most mysteries from the ’40s.

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Terror by Night (Feb. 1, 1946)

Thrillers set on trains have a special place in my heart. It’s not only because I love to travel by train. It’s also because I think a passenger train is the perfect setting for a mystery. It provides a single location and a set cast of characters/suspects, just like any good English country manor, but with the added excitement of constant movement and breakneck speed.

A short list of my favorite thrillers set on trains would include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Narrow Margin (1952) (the 1990 remake featuring Gene Hackman is worth seeing, as well), and Horror Express (1972). But even lesser efforts set on trains delight me, such as the Michael Shayne mystery Sleepers West (1941) and the Steven Seagal slugfest Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995).

So when I saw that Roy William Neill’s tenth outing in the director’s chair for a Sherlock Holmes film (and the thirteenth film in the series overall) was set on a train, I was really looking forward to it.

Terror by Night, which stars Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his faithful friend Dr. Watson, does not disappoint. Loosely based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), and “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” from His Last Bow (1917), with a few elements taken from The Sign of Four (1890), Terror by Night follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to foil the theft of a diamond on a train bound for Scotland.

The diamond in question, the ridiculously ostentatious “Star of Rhodesia,” is owned by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), who is traveling with her fey son Roland (Geoffrey Steele). Also aboard the train is a young woman named Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey), who, in the first scene of the picture, has a special coffin prepared, supposedly to transport her mother’s body. The presence of a secret compartment in the coffin, however, alerts the viewer that Miss Vedder is probably up to no good.

Also aboard are an old friend of Dr. Watson’s from his time in India, Maj. Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray), the dependably lunkheaded Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), Prof. William Kilbane (Frederick Worlock), whom the blustery Watson interrogates in a comical scene, and a skittish married couple (Gerald Hamer and Janet Murdoch).

Universal Pictures’s Sherlock Holmes series is my favorite mystery series of the ’40s. Except for a few duds early in the series that focused too much on World War II-era propaganda, the Holmes pictures with Rathbone and Bruce and some of the most thoroughly enjoyable, clever, and fast-paced mysteries I’ve had the pleasure to see.

Pursuit to Algiers (Oct. 26, 1945)

Pursuit_to_AlgiersPursuit to Algiers, the twelfth film to star Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his boon companion Dr. John H. Watson, is a minor entry in the series, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. It’s the ninth Holmes picture directed by Roy William Neill, and his sure hand and professionalism are fully in evidence.

The film gets down to business in a wonderfully circuitous fashion, as Holmes and Watson are handed cryptic directions by a series of strangers. In each case, it takes Holmes a few beats to catch on, while Watson is oblivious the whole time. Eventually they are led to a group of men from an unnamed foreign country whose king has just been assassinated. They want Holmes to guard the life of the heir to the throne, Nikolas, who was educated in England. Holmes suggests that Nikolas pose as Watson’s nephew on a steamship voyage to Algiers. Once at sea, the film introduces a worthy cast of drawing room mystery characters, including a trio of sinister but quirky assassins.

Elements of Leonard Lee’s screenplay are taken from an otherwise unrecorded affair mentioned in the beginning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” in particular the use of the steamship Friesland. And at one point in the film, Watson begins to share with his fellow dinner guests aboard the ship his adventure with Holmes that involved the “Giant Rat of Sumatra,” which is mentioned in Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” These references are similar to what Anthony Boucher and Denis Green would occasionally do in their scripts for the radio show The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System, and, like the film series, starred Rathbone and Bruce. For instance, in one program, Holmes is willed a patch of land in gratitude for his successful work on a case, and he tells Watson he plans to retire there someday and keep bees. (In Conan Doyle’s stories and novels, the background of Holmes’s retirement in 1903 to the Sussex Downs, where he engaged in beekeeping, was never supplied.)

At times, Pursuit to Algiers comes dangerously close to being a musical, as one of the passengers on the ocean liner is a young and beautiful pianist named Sheila Woodbury (Marjorie Riordan), whom Dr. Watson makes a bit of a fool of himself over. It’s all in good fun, though, and Bruce’s “silly old goat” act is always fun to watch, even if his portrayal of Watson is a bit more ridiculous than Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character. Sheila plays several songs on the piano, including the beautiful “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” Watson even joins her at the piano toward the end of the picture for a lovely version of “Loch Lomond.” Director Neill always keeps things moving, however, and despite its minor status, Pursuit to Algiers is still a worthy entry in the Sherlock Holmes series.

The Woman in Green (July 27, 1945)

WomanGreenRoy William Neill’s The Woman in Green is the eleventh film Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made together in which they played Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively. It’s perhaps not the best in the series, but it presents an excellent mystery, and offers everything fans of the previous Sherlock Holmes films will look for. There are gruesome yet puzzling clues, a pretty young woman who comes to Holmes for help, a bewitching femme fatale, a clever blackmailing scheme that involves hypnosis, and Professor Moriarty behind it all.

This was only the third time that Moriarty, Holmes’s archenemy and “the Napoleon of crime,” showed up in the series. The first time was in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), when he was played by George Zucco. The second time was in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), when he was played by Lionel Atwill. Somewhat confusingly, all three men also appeared in different roles in Universal Pictures’ Sherlock Holmes series. Zucco and Daniell even appeared together as cooperating villains in Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943). If I had my druthers, Zucco would have played Moriarty in all three films, since he’s my personal favorite, but we can’t always get what we want. And apparently Rathbone named Daniell as his favorite Moriarty, so clearly it’s just a matter of taste. Daniell was certainly one of the more dependable Hollywood villains of the ’40s. He was smooth and sophisticated with just the right touch of menace.

When The Woman in Green begins, Moriarty is presumed dead, since he is believed to have been hanged in Montevideo. Meanwhile, Holmes has his hands full in London with a series of mysterious murders. Young women are being killed, and in each case one finger is missing from the corpse. Aside from that one detail, however, there is no connection between any of the murders, and Scotland Yard can’t make heads or tails of the case. When a young woman named Maude Fenwick (Eve Amber) comes to Holmes for help, however, things start falling into place. She’s worried about her father, Sir George Fenwick (Paul Cavanagh), who has been acting very strangely ever since he took up with an alluring and mysterious woman named Lydia (Hillary Brooke). When Maude catches her father trying to bury a finger in his garden, she realizes it’s time to enlist the help of the great detective.

The way the mystery unfolds is satisfying, if somewhat fanciful. One has to suspend some disbelief in order to go along for the ride, but what else is new?

Son of Lassie (April 20, 1945)

SonofLassieSon of Lassie could just as easily have been called Laddie Goes to War! In this follow-up to Lassie Come Home (1943), which starred Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, Lassie has a son, named Laddie. Laddie grows ups, as does young Joe Carraclough, who was played by McDowall in the first film, but is here replaced by future Rat Pack member and Kennedy spouse Peter Lawford, whose slightly deformed arm kept him out of World War II. Joe joins the army, and Laddie tries to join up with him, but he cringes the first time blank cartridges are fired at his face, which disqualifies him as a canine soldier. When Joe is taken prisoner of war in Norway, however, Laddie … well, I don’t want to give anything away. (But if you’ve ever seen a “boy and his dog” movie before, you can probably predict what will happen.)

Various locations in Canada and the Colorado Rockies were used to replicate Norway. Never having been to Norway, I can’t say how well the substitutions work, but they are gorgeous, and look like something out of a storybook. If all you’re looking for is a beautiful Technicolor travelogue, Son of Lassie fits the bill.

I, on the other hand, was looking for something more. I am a huge dog lover, but I found Laddie to be a charmless buffoon. Also, all collies look alike to me, so his scenes with his mother Lassie were really confusing. Interestingly–and I didn’t know this until after I saw this movie–both Lassie and Laddie were played by the same dog, Pal, the male collie who played Lassie in Lassie Come Home. (For the scenes in this film in which Laddie appears with his mother, another collie filled in as Lassie.) Apparently every single dog who has played Lassie on film has been a descendant of Pal. Perhaps Laddie’s general dopiness isn’t Pal’s fault. It could just be the way the character is written. The same could be said for Joe, who also comes off as a bit of a dope. On the other hand, they are well suited for each other. Both are naive and somewhat incompetent, not to mention the fact that they sleep together, eat together, and share a bond that would be homoerotic if they weren’t from different species. Son of Lassie is a decent flick for kids, especially kids who love dogs, but the flat acting and bad dialogue don’t make it a first choice to rent for adults.

The House of Fear (March 16, 1945)

Even when it’s pretty easy to figure out the solution to the mystery, as is the case here, the Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are well-oiled machines; exceedingly well-made, and a joy to watch. Directed by Roy William Neill, The House of Fear is loosely based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Five Orange Pips,” and is the tenth film that Rathbone and Bruce made together in the Sherlock Holmes series. It tells the farfetched story of a group of curmudgeonly old friends who call themselves “The Good Comrades,” and spend most of their time together as a club in a remote area of Scotland (in a creepy old castle, natch). After one man receives a single orange seed in an envelope at dinner one night, he is murdered. And then it happens again to another member of the club. And again. Oh, and did I mention that each member of The Good Comrades has an insurance policy with all the other members listed as beneficiaries? Sounds like a job for Sherlock Holmes…

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) was the first film that featured Rathbone as Holmes and Bruce as his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson, and it set the tone for the series beautifully. If you’re a fan of English mysteries, I can’t recommend it highly enough (even though it’s an American production, it gets most of the details right). Their second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) is also a doozy. It’s probably my favorite in the series, owing in no small part to George Zucco’s brilliant performance as the cunning Professor Moriarty. After the first two, I found the next few Rathbone/Bruce films, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), a bit of a letdown. The setting was changed to the present day, and the films contained a good amount of World War II-era propaganda. Worst of all, someone decided that Rathbone’s hair should be combed forward. This might seem like a minor detail, but Rathbone, with his aquiline nose and intense gaze, is the very embodiment of Holmes when his hair is slicked back. With his hair combed forward he looks as if he’s wearing a curly pageboy wig.

The series hit its stride again with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). Not only was Rathbone’s hair restored to its full Holmesian glory, the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” was adapted to a more temporally indeterminate setting. It may have been “the present day,” but the wartime propaganda was jettisoned, and aside from automobiles and telephones, it could have been the Victorian era. Holmes was Holmes again. This film and the three that followed in 1944, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of Death, are all fantastic.

In total, Rathbone and Bruce made 14 full-length features together as Holmes and Watson, and they appeared together for years on the Sherlock Holmes radio show. For many people, Rathbone and Bruce simply are Holmes and Watson. Rathbone was often cast as the villain, a role he played well (e.g., in The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938] opposite Errol Flynn), but when I think of Rathbone, I think of a brave, brilliant, and heroic detective.