In which we see why the Rathbone era works so well, why we love Nigel Bruce, and discover how “Who’s on First” is related to the great detective. Then, we discuss the future of Back on Baker Street.
Cat: So, with Dressed to Kill officially behind us, we have reached the end of the era of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. It feels a little strange to know that we’re now moving on from the duo that we’ve stuck with since January, but, to do the time we’ve spent with them justice, it seems only right that we talk a bit about this group of movies on the whole: all the good, the bad, and the ugly (which, for Nick, basically is code for Pursuit to Algiers). And it would seem like the best place to start with is perhaps the most important part of any Sherlock Holmes project: the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson.
Nick: And what a dynamic duo they are. Before Rathbone and Bruce took on the roles of Holmes and Watson, the detective and his colleague did not receive equal treatment on film. It was not uncommon for Watson to provide little - if any - contribution to the plot of a Sherlock Holmes movie before Rathbone and Bruce became synonymous with the characters. They really managed to breathe new life into these characters who had already had quite a following. I think it is far to say, Catharine, that you were fond of the Baz from the beginning?
Cat: YES, very much so. I’m not ashamed to say that I was very interested in his performance after just five minutes of him on screen. I found him to just be pretty awesome all-around, and after Hound, I was kinda hooked on his performance. (Nigel Bruce? Not quite so much.) I was very glad to see that he didn’t disappoint me once. I especially grew to love how he could present Holmes as brilliant and intelligent, but not obnoxious or a complete know-it-all or anything. (Keep in mind, I really only have Sherlock to compare him to - and I have to say, that’s not always true of that version of Holmes.) He had this charm to him that made him really compelling to follow. He had this way of rattling off deductions and explanations in a way that you just had to want to listen to him. I don’t know, Nick, the Baz just felt very, very right to me as Holmes - even from the beginning. You’ve obviously far more well-versed in the character and how others have portrayed him, so what are some of your thoughts on the Baz as Holmes?
Nick: I love Basil Rathbone and, for quite a long time, Basil Rathbone was my favorite Sherlock Holmes. I have since reshuffled my list, but the Baz still makes the top five. He really nailed the character, especially in the early films. I completely agree with you too: never did Rathbone’s Holmes seem overly obnoxious or sarcastic but he still managed to convey a sense of superiority and cold intellect which the character so needs. He was just so compelling to watch. Even when Rathbone was obviously done playing Holmes towards the end of the Universal series, you still could not help but look at him. He really had a wonderful screen presence. And, you know, I’m really glad to know that you eventually came around to liking Nigel Bruce. He will never be the definitive Watson (and you can argue that he did irreparable damage to the character of Dr. Watson), but he is really great in these movies. He’s a wonderful on-screen partner for Rathbone and he provides some wonderful lighter moments - especially in some of the series’ darker entries.
|Nigel Bruce cannot understand your initial disappointment|
Cat: Yes, my initial displeasure with Nigel Bruce as Watson was definitely no secret. (And I might have to take up that position in that argument, honestly.) But he really did make it hard to dislike him. Yes, he’s bumbling and not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, but I grew to love him as Watson. That’s not really how I want to see Watson portrayed as, and it wasn’t what I was used to. I kinda sort of can’t help but roll my eyes and groan when I see idiotic Watsons, but here’s why it works for Nigel Bruce: he’s still endearing and likeable. There’s a clear fondness between his Watson and Holmes; the on-screen chemistry between Bruce and Rathbone is amazing. (Though I will say this, when you really think about it, it’s hard to think of a logical reason that Holmes would pick this kind of a person to be his assistant and flatmate, beyond the fact that he clearly likes him. Thankfully, that’s never really an issue that the films force you to fixate on.) I don’t think I’d be able to appreciate a similar portrayal of Watson if it wasn’t Nigel Bruce, honestly. He just has a charm to him that is something that can’t necessarily be replicated, I think.
Nick: Oh, I completely agree! Nigel Bruce has an almost indescribably likable quality to him. Once you get used to his antics, he is so endearing and so likable that you are able to overlook the buffoonery. And, Catharine, you are by no means the first to question why Holmes would wish to spend time with a character like Bruce’s Watson. (Also, based off of his retelling of “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” in Pursuit to Algiers, it’s sort of a wonder that Watson was able to record Holmes’ cases for The Strand Magazine as well as he did!) Along the way, there will be other bumbling Watsons (some not as bad as Nigel Bruce, some a bit more risible), but none of them are as endearing as Nigel Bruce.
Cat: Good to know I’m not the only one who wondered that! And I had feared this would be the case, that Nigel Bruce was going to be the truly endearing idiot here. (Sigh.) I’m going to put forth a theory here and see if it holds to be true: all future bumbling Watsons try (consciously or unconsciously) to go off of what Nigel Bruce did that was so successful, but it won’t work as well because they just aren’t Nigel Bruce. And I’m just saying, if there are Lestrades who prove to be far more competent that Watsons, I’m going to be sad. (Arguably, Dennis Hoey’s Lestrade sometimes appeared to be a bit more capable at detective work, but still, at least they both looked ridiculous every other time!)
Nick: I can only think of one time when I ever thought that Lestrade seemed more competent than Watson. I will say nothing more, but know that such a freak occurrence does seem to exist in the long history of Sherlockian cinema!
Cat: Oh no… I can only imagine how strange a viewing that’ll be. But, on that note, shall we move our discussion to the reappearing characters and our thoughts on them?
Nick: Not a bad idea. The Rathbone/Bruce films had quite a supporting cast, and, while we have talked at length about Dennis Hoey’s Lestrade and the various Moriartys, I’d like to take a minute to highlight someone who also managed to add a bit of warmth to these movies: Mary Gordon’s Mrs. Hudson. Simply put, I think she was a delight! She may have never done much in these movies, but she was always a comforting presence and she gave the distinct impression that she was quite instrumental in keeping this version of 221b in one piece. (As we mentioned so long ago, I’m still angry that Universal had Lon Chaney Jr.’s Mummy kill Mary Gordon in the movie The Mummy’s Tomb. It’s truly shocking.) Mary Gordon is not quite the definitive Mrs. Hudson in my eyes, but in her own special way, she added a lot to the Rathbone/Bruce series.
|Mary Gordon - Keeping the peace at Baker Street since 1939|
Cat: I have to agree; her appearances, while brief and randomly scattered throughout the series, were very sweet. (I don’t think either of us made a note of this in our Dressed to Kill review, but I thought it was really wonderful that she got to show up in the last film! We got to see the whole “Baker Street Crew” all together one last time!) I truly love (and sympathize with) Mrs. Hudson, and Mary Gordon was quite simply adorable. She was really sweet and, even though not always seen, it was very easy to imagine that she was always downstairs during whatever case the audience got to see Holmes and Watson working out upstairs. (Honestly, I think it’s hard to even vaguely dislike Mrs. Hudson, in any form.)
Nick: I think you brought up a good point which applies to the Rathbone/Bruce series on a whole: these characters seem to have lives outside of the series. Whenever I watch a Sherlock Holmes movie, I always try to imagine that version of Holmes and Watson on some other case. If I can do that without too much trouble, I think that the movie/series has succeeded to some degree. And, your point about it being easy to picture Mrs. Hudson working downstairs while Holmes and Watson work to solve some mystery really solidifies in my mind that Rathbone’s and Bruce’s Holmes and Watson do seem to exist in their own world. For all of the incredible plotlines and character developments, this version of Holmes and Watson feel very real.
Cat: I agree with you 100% there! There is definitely a sense that the world and these characters exist beyond the runtime of the movies. (The only exception to that might be whenever mentions of Moriarty are made - while I could totally see Rathbone/Bruce going up against Moriarty on other occasions, I just don’t know which Moriarty they’re talking about!) All jokes aside, there is a definite realness to the characters and the world they reside in.
Nick: So, if there is something else worth discussing in this era: the overall feeling. I have seen the Rathbone/Bruce films included in lists of Universal’s other horror films and, aside from maybe portions of The Scarlet Claw and The Pearl of Death, I don’t know if I could ever call these movies horror films. Are you inclined to agree? (For the record, I’ve also seen people call 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles a horror movie and I find that rather difficult to get behind as well.)
Cat: I actually am. At the most, I think that I’d call some films of the era good suspense movies, but nothing I’d consider to be “horror”. But then again, I don’t know if I’d really call movies fixated on a series of murders to be horror unless it was scary; the Rathbone/Bruce movies really feel like really good crime/mystery movies, with suspenseful elements, more than anything to me.
Nick: And I think that really is what they were intended to be. Although, here’s an odd piece of information: more often than not, the Sherlock Holmes movies found themselves as the second half of a double-bill with Universal’s other big money-maker, the Abbott and Costello films! Now, I love Abbott and Costello, but that just seems like a really, really strange pairing.
Cat: That...really does? Huh. I don’t know, I think that, for me at least, it’s hard to think of the Sherlock Holmes movies being paired with anything like that, because they seem to be their own little unit. Does that make sense at all, Nick?
Nick: Oh, no, definitely! I would never think to pair the antics of Rathbone and Bruce with the very different antics of Abbott and Costello. Well, there’s one final bit that we need to discuss: the impact that these films had (both in their time and today). They were obviously commercial moneymakers (there are 14 films in the series, after all), but Rathbone and Bruce were really made movie stars through these movies. And, during World War II, they sold thousands of dollars worth of war bonds. Really, Basil Rathbone was the Benedict Cumberbatch of his day.
Cat: I’m just saying, if Basil Rathbone told me to buy war bonds, I would. But their impact is definitely there. Like you said earlier, Nigel Bruce arguably shaped how Watson is/was shown as a character. It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that Basil Rathbone essentially had the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch back in the day. Which, I think, brings up an interesting note (in my mind at least): like with Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock, the Basil Rathbone movies aren’t something that are meant to be enjoyed just by Sherlockians. They’re something that people with little to no real knowledge of the stories (like myself) can genuinely enjoy and be interested in. I don’t know about you, but I just think that’s really neat.
Nick: I definitely agree. 20th Century Fox and Universal really knew that they had a money-making series on their hands and they managed to cater it to all sorts: Sherlockians, casual movie fans, armchair detectives, etc. However, I think these movies had a real impact on genuine Sherlockians too. For every person who says that they read the original stories and picture/hear Jeremy Brett as Holmes, there is a number who would say the same for Rathbone. That’s quite a legacy there. And, I’d like to take a moment to quote from the truly invaluable book Universal Horrors (a must-have for any fan of Universal’s horror films) when discussing Rathbone and the Holmes series: “[Rathbone’s and Bruce’s] endearing charms have not been lost on generations of film fans. Until the popular television series with Jeremy Brett in the ‘90s, Basil Rathbone was virtually unrivaled as the quintessential incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective.”
Cat: Aw, that was beautiful, Nick. I have to say, whenever I get around to reading more of the original stories, it’ll be hard to not be hearing Basil Rathbone and co. in my head. Despite not being my first encounter with these characters, the Rathbone series has definitely furthered my appreciation for them.
Nick:. That is truly fantastic. That really is. Okay, because I’m that guy, I’m going to pose one of those questions: If you had to pick only three of the Rathbone/Bruce films (20th Century Fox or Universal), what would they be?
Cat: You just love posing difficult questions, don’t you? Hmm...I think I’d just pick Pursuit to Algiers three times. ;) Just kidding! (I won’t ever let that go.) Personally, I think I’d go with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon? (Runner up was Dressed to Kill - I can’t stress how much I loved Mrs. Courtney.) What about you, Nick?
Nick: Well, it’s nice that a fair number of the Rathbone films turn up in my list of all-time favorite Sherlock Holmes films. However, if I could pick only three, I would pick Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (really, I love that one), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (I don’t care what you may say - the song and dance scene is amazing), and The Pearl of Death (one of the best plots and surely some of the series’ finest villains).
Cat: Ooh, good picks. (I did consider putting Pearl of Death on my list.)
Now that we have looked back, we can only look ahead…
Nick: I can honestly say that this project has blossomed tremendously since we began and I never thought it would turn out so well! It’s actually sort of surreal.
Cat: It really is! I’ll never forget when you came up to me that day and very cryptically said, “Catharine, I have a proposition for you…” (and then we got interupted like three times before I could finally hear what you were trying to ask me). It’s exciting to see that we’ve already made it to the end of an era! I’m so fond of our little blog, I really am.
Nick: I am too! And, the conclusion of this chapter of Sherlockian history has come at a good time because (as we write this), in a manner of days we will be embarking on a new chapter in our lives as well. Yes, your humble bloggers are college bound! Therefore, it rather goes without saying that content will be a little less regular than it has been in the past months. That in no ways means that we are done with Back on Baker Street or The Great Sherlock Holmes Experiment.
Cat: Yes, as we said the last time we “disappeared” for a bit - assume us to be still here and active unless you hear otherwise! Because of the distance and general “world-changing” nature of college, we won’t be able to get together to watch movies and have our experiments nearly as often as we have. We’ll still be posting, just not our typical full-blown movie reviews.
Nick: So, what exactly can you expect from us? Well, fortunately for us a great number of the early-1930s Sherlock Holmes films which we passed over to get to The Hound of the Baskervilles have turned up on YouTube. So, with any luck some short reviews of Murder at the Baskervilles (1937), Sherlock Holmes (1932) and A Study in Scarlet (1933) will make it onto this blog. (A Study in Scarlet is a particular curiosity and features what is probably the worst disguise the detective has ever adopted!) In addition, the 1954-1955 Sherlock Holmes television series starring Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford can be found on the Interwebs, so maybe I’ll be able to cajole Catharine into watching some of those. What’s more, we’ll try to stay as up-to-date as possible with Sherlock Holmes-related news (such as Sherlock Series 4 trailers/teasers/discussion). It wouldn’t be surprising if a trailer reaction or two finds their way onto the blog. I am also nearly always reading something Sherlockian, so I will start a series of Back on Baker Street Book Reviews. I think Catharine has even said that she is willing (time permitting) to continue making her way through the Canon?
Cat: I have indeed. (Time permitting is an understatement; but, nonetheless, an attempt will be made!) So even if we’ve got to pause our major reviews and all that, plenty of Sherlock Holmes goodness will still be discussed and coming out in its place. That’s not to say we won’t pick up the experiments, of course - those are just something we’ll have to plan out a bit more than saying “Want to watch Sherlock Holmes for a few hours on Thursday?”. Of course, we’ll let you know when to be looking forward to those too. (And who knows? We might even be back and through another era before Sherlock season 4! Hey, with how long they take to come out, anything could happen!)
Nick: It is certainly true! And, fear not: the full reviews will return sometime in the future. I’m already counting down the days until we get to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) with Peter Cushing. Ugh...I think the wait will kill me.
Cat: I think you’ll live, Nick. I mean, I hope so. I’d have to go looking for another Sherlock Holmes blogging partner otherwise! (Do you have any idea how specific that is?)
Nick: Well, to speak immodestly, I’m not entirely sure that anyone could replace me!
Cat: No, I doubt that they could! So you better not go anywhere! We may have finished an era, but we’ve got a lot to do here. (Besides...I don’t know anyone else who loves Peter Cushing as much as you. If you died, I’m pretty sure you’d haunt me if I tried watching those movies with anyone but you….there’s a scary thought.)
Nick: You’d never be able to get rid of me or my running commentary. Never!
Cat: Is that a blessing or a curse? The world may never know...
The Game is Still Afoot Back on Baker Street...