Thursday, November 19, 2009

Universal's Sherlock Holmes Series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce--A Top to Bottom Review

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made their debuts as Holmes and Watson in two 1939 films produced by 20th Century-Fox, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Set in Victorian times, these classy mysteries featured high-end production values befitting of literature’s most famous sleuth. Alas, Fox chose not to pursue a series and that opened the door for Universal, which approached Rathbone with a novel concept: Why not update Holmes to present-day and pit him against modern villains?

From 1942 through 1946, Universal produced the 12 “modern day” Sherlock Holmes films. These were “B” films with running times under 70 minutes. Director Roy William Neill, who specialized in getting the most out of his small budgets, helmed all the films except the first (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror). Mary Gordon appeared as the 221B Baker Street housekeeper Mrs. Hudson in most of the entries and Dennis Hoey made several appearances as a fairly inept version of Inspector Lestrade. Here are my ranking of all 12 series entries from best to worst.

1. The Scarlet Claw (1944) – One of the best of all Sherlock Holmes films, this smart little mystery finds Holmes and Watson chasing a “phantom” over the marshes of Canada. The murderer, a former thespian, is a master of disguises—which sets the stage for several tense sequences. Bruce adds just the right amount of humor in this one and Neill keeps the atmospheric proceedings moving at a snappy pace. This is easily my favorite Rathbone Holmes film, to include the more expensive Fox pictures.

2. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) – Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Musgrave Ritual” serves as the inspiration for this clever entry that finds Watson working at a country mansion being used as a convalescent home for soldiers. There are ancestral rituals, would-be ghosts, and—of course—murder. Best of all, there’s a giant chessboard on the floor that provides the key to the mystery. Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke) co-stars; look quickly for a young Peter Lawford.

3. The Pearl of Death (1944) – This entertaining adaptation of Conan Doyle’s “The Six Napoleons” features Rondo Hatton as the series’ most distinctive villain: The Oxton Creeper, who kills his victims by breaking their backs at the third vertebrae. Actually, the Creeper is a supporting player as Holmes and Watson investigate the theft of the Borgia Pearl. But Hatton does make a pretty scary killer and director Neill creates a chilling atmosphere.

4. House of Fear (1945) – At the Drearcliff estate in western Scotland, seven middle-aged men have formed a club called “The Good Comrades.” With no next of kin, each club member agrees to make his fellow members his beneficiaries in case of death…then two of them die after each receives an envelope with five orange seeds. The resolution may be a little disappointing, but this compact adaptation of Conan Doyles’s “The Adventures of the Five Orange Pips” is a bit of a pip itself.

5. The Spider Woman (1944) – The always reliable Gale Sondergaard elevates this entry as the sinister villainess behind the “pajama suicides.” Her verbal sparring with Rathbone accounts for several delightful scenes. It’s too bad she didn’t return for an encore (although she did star in The Spider Woman Strikes Back, as a different character in a non-Holmes film).

6. Terror By Night (1946) – A young man and his mother hire Holmes to accompany them on a train to Edinburgh and protect the Star of Rhodesia diamond. The villain turns out to be Colonel Sebastian Moran, whom Holmes describes as Professor Moriarty’s “most sinister, ruthless, and diabolically clever henchman.” It’s a solid entry, buoyed by the train setting and Watson’s chance to play the hero for once.

7. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) – Professor Moriarty makes his first appearance in the series in the guise of Lionel Atwill. Unfortunately, he’s not in much of the film. As a result, the film’s entertainment value rests mostly on Rathbone’s enjoyable disguises and an overly-complex cipher (the only part retained from the short story "The Adventure of the Dancing Men").

8. The Woman in Green (1945) – With Henry Daniell as über-villain Moriarity, this should have been an instant classic. Instead, it’s only a sporadically interesting yarn about a surprisingly grisly blackmail scheme that involves the murder and mutilation of random young women.

9. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) – Holmes battles the Nazis in the first of the Universal series. It’s an interesting premise: A Nazi radio broadcast predicts disasters—such as a train derailment—which then take place. Unfortunately, the film’s execution is pedestrian and its propaganda overdone. This film, like the others shot during World War II, ends with a stirring Rathbone speech about freedom and the defeat of evil.

10. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) – Holmes and Watson journey to the States to retrieve a valuable document stolen by enemy spies. Fortunately, this is the last film to pit Holmes against the Nazis. It’s a rather ho-hum affair, except for George Zucco as Holmes’s nemesis. Zucco portrayed Moriarity memorably in Fox’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

11. Dressed to Kill (1946) – The theft of an inexpensive music box intrigues Holmes enough to pursue a case that leads to a planned crime of far greater proportions. Except for Patricia Morison as the villain, there’s not much to recommend in this stale entry. It was Rathbone’s last appearance as Holmes on the big screen.

12. Pursuit to Algiers – Holmes and Watson accept the mission to protect a young royal heir who is returning from London to his (fictional) home of Rovenia. Most of the action takes place aboard a stagey ocean liner filled with supposedly mysterious suspects. There’s an obvious twist, which is sadly the best thing about this soggy tale.

If you're in the mood to read more about Mr. Holmes and Dr. Waton in the movies and on television, check out ClassicBecky's post Elementary, My Dear Fans. Just go to the index at the bottom right of the Cafe's main page and click on sherlock holmes.


  1. Rick, it was a joy to read this excellent article. It's right up my alley as you know. Oh why didn't 20th Century Fox keep the series going as A-list movies? I love the Holmes movies just because I love Rathbone and Bruce and everything. But what a waste not to have used these two wonderful actors in Conan Doyle's actual stories, set in Victorian England as they should be. What a treasure of movies that would have been. I didn't like that they moved him to modern day - the atmosphere of an era was such a huge part of the attraction of the stories. I always enjoyed the movies, but you are right on with your list. A couple of them I can't remember well enough to say, but in my opinion it's a good listing. Do you remember in at least one modern-day episode they had Holmes wear his hair in this really awful style, with curls coming onto his forehead. I thought I'd die when I saw that. I don't know who the hairdresser was, but that was a big honking mistake! Thanks for writing about this important slice of movie history.

  2. Rick, thank you for all of your research on this insightful article. I agree with you especially on "The Scarlett Claw" which is quite a clever story. I really enjoyed Gale Sondergard's "Spider Woman" as it is always fun to see someone engage Holmes intellectually. "Terror by Night" also is fun for me because I am a sucker for a story with a confined setting, like a train. Excellent job, my dear Richard! (said in homage to Elementary, my dear Watson!)

  3. It's nice to get compliments from two extremely knowledgeable film buffs! Becky, I think the Rathbone hair with the curls might have been SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON. I agree that a Victorian Holmes series would probably have been more fun...though I'm awfully fond of THE SCARLET CLAW just the way it is. You have good tastes, Toto (and I like train movies, too...especially VON RYAN'S EXPRESS...which has nothing to do with Holmes).

  4. Rick, Iam going to make a copy of your post and take it with me when I go shopping for DVDs.

  5. Thanks for a great list, Rick. I've only seen a couple of those in the list, but now I've got some movies to catch (starting with your #1, of course!).

  6. Rick I agree with your top 5 picks. I might slightly rearrange but they are clearly the top entries. I also agree that The Scarlet Claw was the best entry, many say The Pearl of Death but I disagree. The movie's clever tip of the hat to another mystery writer, GK Chesterton, in itself is interesting to me.

  7. Michael, glad you stopped by and hope you do again. Sark, any compliment from you is one to be cherished. Dawn, it's kinda pricey, but there's a boxed set of all the Rathbone-Bruce films. Gilby, you've intrigued me! What's the ranking of your top five?

  8. Rick here's my top 5: 1.) The Scarlet Claw; 2.) House of Fear; 3.)The Pearl of Death; 4.) The Spider Woman; and 5.)Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

  9. Why no mention of the Hound of the Baskerville,
    certainly one of the best Rathbone/Bruce entries.
    Anton Wontner was Holmes in an earlier movie that is called Murder at the Baskerville, an entirely different story centering on a racehorse theme. A very different Holmes, more subtle and warmer but nontheless excellent.

  10. Joe, thanks for the comment! I mentioned HOUSE OF THE BASKERVILLES in the opening paragraph. It's not part of the list because it was made by 20th Century-Fox and set in Victorian times. This article focused only on Universal's contemporary Holmes. But I agree that Rathbone's HOUND is very good and I think the follow-up, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, is even better,

  11. hi i am with out money but have some time were can i find the sherlock holmes movies i have not seen yet? is there a place but i cannot find it i have seen many just not all thank you for any help im new on the computer but i think im close.

  12. just go to and search for sherlock holmes films. several of the modern-day (1940s of course) are public domain and can be found there.