Basil Rathbone In Fourteen Sherlock Holmes Films, A series of fourteen films based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were released between 1939 and 1946; Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce played Holmes and Dr. John Watson, respectively. The first two films in the series were produced by 20th Century Fox and released in 1939. The studio stopped making the films after these, but Universal Studios acquired the rights from the Doyle estate and produced a further twelve films.
Although the films from 20th Century Fox had big budgets, high production values and were set in the Victorian era, Universal Studios updated the films to have Holmes investigating the Nazis, and produced them as B pictures with lower budgets. Both Rathbone and Bruce continued their roles when the series changed studios, as did Mary Gordon, who played the recurring character Mrs. Hudson.
In the 1970s four of the Universal-produced films fell into the public domain when their copyright was not renewed. These four films were restored and colourised. Some of the films in the series had become degraded over time, with some of the original negatives lost and others suffering from nitrate deterioration because of the unstable cellulose nitrate film. The UCLA Film and Television Archive restored the series, putting the films onto modern polyester film, in a process that was jointly paid for by UCLA, Warner Bros. and Hugh Hefner.
In 1938 Basil Rathbone was cast as Sherlock Holmes for the 20th Century Fox adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles; Nigel Bruce was chosen to play Dr. John Watson. On 2 October 1939, a month after the release of Adventures, Rathbone and Bruce resumed their roles on radio, in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with episodes written by Dennis Green and Anthony Boucher. Rathbone left the series in May 1946, while Bruce remained until 1947, with Tom Conway replacing Rathbone.
In February 1942, following negotiations with the Doyle estate, Universal Studios acquired the rights to the films and signed contracts with Rathbone and Bruce to continue their portrayals. Universal’s deal-worth $300,000-was for seven years, and they purchased the rights to 21 stories in the canon in a contract that stipulated that the company had to make three films a year, of which two had to be adaptations of Doyle’s stories. Universal decided to update the stories to a Second World War setting, and the first film, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror-based on Doyle’s 1917 story “His Last Bow”-was updated to a wartime setting, with Holmes attempting to capture a Nazi agent. The change of era for Holmes is explained in the opening titles, with a caption that informs viewers that Holmes is “ageless, invincible and unchanging”, going on to say that he was “solving significant problems of the present day”.
While the 20th Century Fox adaptations had high-production values and big budgets, the Universal films changed the approach of the series, and aimed “simply to be entertaining ‘B’ pictures”. The second film produced by Universal, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, was directed by Roy William Neill; he went on to direct the remaining ten films-and produce the final nine-in the Universal series.
Rathbone became frustrated with the role and left the series in 1946; he stated that his “first picture was, as it were, a negative from which I merely continued to produce endless positives of the same photograph”. Universal considered replacing him on screen with Tom Conway-as they subsequently did with the radio series-but instead decided to end the series, despite still having the rights for the next three years. In October 1946, shortly after the end of the series, Neill died of a heart attack.
The writer David Stuart Davies concluded that Basil Rathbone was “the actor who has come closest to creating the definitive Sherlock Holmes on screen”, also describing the choice as “inspired”. The historian David Parkinson agrees, and wrote that Bruce’s “avuncular presence provided the perfect counterbalance to Rathbone’s briskly omniscient sleuth”. Barnes notes that, despite the criticisms against him, Bruce rehabilitated Watson, who had been a marginal figure in the cinematic Holmes canon to that point: “after Bruce, it would be a near-unthinkable heresy to show Holmes without him”. With the combination of Rathbone and Bruce, the historian Jim Harmon considered that this was “near perfect casting”.
The series included continuity of two actors playing recurring characters: Mary Gordon, who played Mrs. Hudson, and Dennis Hoey, who portrayed Inspector Lestrade. Other recurring characters were played by numerous actors, with Professor Moriarty being played by three people: Lionel Atwill in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Henry Daniell in The Woman in Green and George Zucco in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.[a] Some supporting actors reappeared in a number of roles in what Davies called the series’ “own little repertory company of actors”; these included Harry Cording, who played seven roles in different films,[b] and Gerald Hamer and Harold De Becker, who both played four roles,[c] among others.