The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (US 1939)

Rathbone, Lupino and Bruce in a promo shot

I didn’t take too much notice of the Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson when I first came across them (on TV, I think). I didn’t really approve of updating the stories to include Nazis and ‘modern’ spies etc. What I didn’t realise was that the first two films were ‘A’ releases with significant budgets made by 20th Century Fox in 1939. Subsequently, Fox allowed their control over the rights to lapse for various reasons and they were taken up by Universal who began to produce a series of ‘B’ pictures with smaller production budgets in 1942. Eventually, Universal made a total of twelve films in which Rathbone and Bruce continued their characterisations up until 1946.

My interest in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is because the film featured Ida Lupino as the female lead. 1939 was a key year for 21 year-old Ida as she appeared in this and Lone Wolf Spy Hunt as well as her breakthrough ‘serious’ ‘A’ picture, The Light That Failed that opened on Christmas Eve. (Her fourth film that year was another Columbia ‘B’ picture, The Lady and the Mob released between Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.) See the ‘Ida Lupino Project page‘ on this blog.

Basil Rathbone as Holmes in disguise as a music hall entertainer

The investment in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is evident in several ways. Daryl F. Zanuck, Vice-President of production, appears to have taken a direct role in the production, though what he did exactly isn’t clear. The money is most obvious in the quality of the sets and the camerawork of Leon Shamroy. Shamroy was known for working with minimum lighting and the final chase sequence up the Tower of London is particularly fine. London is fog-bound as the hackney cabs race through the street sets designed by Richard Day and Hans Peters. There is plenty of music in the film credited to several composers and, something of a treat, Holmes in disguise as a music hall entertainer, sings ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ (actually not written until a few years after the narrative is set). The script was written by Edward Blum and William A. Drake (who had won an Oscar in 1932 for his script for Grand Hotel). The director Alfred W. Werker was seen as a safe studio director and this was considered one of his best films. Rathbone and Bruce are accomplished as the leads and would eventually become the benchmark for all future pairings. Ida’s part is substantial in terms of screen time and she was third-billed.

Ann Brandon consults Holmes and Watson

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes followed The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939 as the second 20th Century Fox Holmes and Watson film. (‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ was originally the title of the first collection of Holmes short stories published in 1892.) The film script was officially adapted from a play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first staged in 1899 but the the narrative as filmed bears little resemblance to what became a popular play. It revolves around the rivalry between Holmes and Professor Moriarty. As it begins, Moriarty is being acquitted of murder in a London court of 1894 and Holmes is too late to submit new evidence. The two men meet and Moriarty vows to find a way to defeat Holmes by carrying out an audacious criminal act that Holmes will be unable to prevent. This involves Moriarty setting up an elaborate murder plot which will intrigue Holmes and take up his time allowing Moriarty to carry out the ‘crime of the century’. The murder plot is set in train by a cryptic message sent to a pair of siblings whose father was killed on a specific date. The young woman Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) pleads with Holmes to take on her case and protect her brother. As the plot progresses, Ann becomes the main target for Moriarty’s diversionary attack. Once Holmes realises what Moriarty has done, the chase is on and the film finishes with that climactic chase at the Tower of London sees the end of Moriarty.

A production still with Ida Lupino seated and Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce standing behind her.

William Donati in his biography of Lupino tells us that it was a New York radio performance by Lupino opposite Orson Welles in a ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ mystery play which persuaded Twentieth Century Fox to offer her the role of Ann Brandon. Ida had just married the South African actor Louis Hayward and intriguingly The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured a cast list made up almost entirely of ‘British Empire actors’. Out of the twenty actors at the head of the cast list, only two weren’t born in the UK, South Africa, Australia or the British West Indies (and one of those was Greek). In this context, Ida was perfectly cast and she had no difficulty playing a young woman in late-Victorian London. 1938-9 was a difficult time for Ida. She had ended her contract with Paramount, deeming the roles she had been offered either by her own studio or on loans to other studios as not developing her career in any way. Instead of seeing her as an actor capable of diverse leading roles she was invariably cast in lower budget films as variations on the floosie or young ‘flighty thing’. Ida’s own response to this was to change her appearance, so out went the ‘painted doll face with the peroxide hair’ and in came a more natural look for a slimmed down Ida. The two Columbia ‘Bs’ she made in late 1938 and early 1939 were her first films for a year. When she finally got a part in a more prestigious pic like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes it was definitely a step up from her perspective.

I enjoyed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s good entertainment, handsomely mounted. Ida Lupino does a good job. True she doesn’t get a chance to really show the range of her talent, but the role is substantial and she matches the other established actors. The film was and remains very popular (it has an IMDb rating of 7.4). It did Ida no harm to be in a major studio production with high production values and from this point on, Ida Lupino moves towards being an ‘A’ List movie star. The next two films she worked on were crucially important.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    Roy is right, a good film. And the points on Ida Lupino’s career are interesting. I, in fact, enjoyed the whole series of Holmes and Watson in earlier years. Whilst most are ‘B’ pictures with some odd scripting the two familiar leads are always a pleasure.

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