“Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he’s ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day, he remains — as ever — the supreme master of deductive reasoning.”
In 1887, readers of the popular periodical Beeton’s Christmas Annual were to receive quite a special treat. There wasn’t much fanfare or hype to the event. Inside the pages of the magazine was a story called A Study In Scarlet. It was a detective story, perhaps like many published before, except for the detective himself, a certain Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Together with his faithful companion and chronicler Dr. Watson, Holmes would win the hearts of those holiday readers. It might have been an ordinary day, but the world was about to change. Sherlock Holmes would become the most famous detective in the world. His stories would remain in print nearly 130 years later. Over 100 films would be made featuring the character. There would be television shows and cartoon spoofs. No other character has appeared in more productions. When his creator dared to kill the beloved detective in order to move on to newer stories, his very life was threatened. It would seem that Doyle was on the verge of becoming a victim much like those in his stories. There was only one man who could save him from such a grim fate, and he did just that. It was Sherlock Holmes himself.
Today, Holmes has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence. There’s been a stage production of Hounds Of The Baskervilles. Robert Downey, Jr. played a more modern action-figure version of Holmes in a very successful blockbuster film. A sequel is on the way. It seems that Holmes has more lives than a cat. One of the most memorable portrayals of Holmes was provided by Basil Rathbone in a series of thriller mystery films from Universal. Nigel Bruce would play his assistant Watson. It is from Bruce that we actually get the rather rotund and comical vision of Watson that has survived today. Watson provided the comic relief in these films. The first three films brought the detective into the modern world. For the first time, Holmes would interact with automobiles, telephones, and airplanes. It was during the years of World War II, so the studio pitted Holmes against Nazi spies and plots to sabotage the Allied war effort. Later the duo returned to the more traditional crime stories, but remained in contemporary times. What started with two films made by 20th Century Fox grew to 14 with the remaining titles at Universal until 1951.
The folks at UCLA took it upon themselves to restore as much of the Universal films as they could. They sought out multiple prints and even added back title cards and other missing elements. The result is this fantastic collection of all 14 films in high definition. The films on the set are as follows:
The two 20th Century Fox films were not restored:
Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939):
Sir Henry Baskerville (Greene) is the last of his line and the next to be confronted with his family’s curse. After Sir Charles (Maclaren) meets a mysterious end, Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) believes that Sir Henry will be next. Together with his faithful companion, Dr. Watson (Bruce) Holmes departs for the Baskerville Estate deep in the moors. The natives believe a large devil dog prowls the moors and is responsible for killing the members of the Baskerville family. Holmes suspects a more human element and sets out to prove it before Sir Henry can be the next victim of the curse.
While a 20th Century Fox film, this movie sports several elements from the classical Universal era. The moor itself is the perfectly horrific atmosphere for the story. Rathbone dons the identity of Holmes for the first time and fresh off his role in Son Of Frankenstein where Lionel Atwill also starred with him. We also get horror greats John Carradine and E.E. Clive in wonderful roles. This is also one of the few original period Holmes stories and one taken directly from a Doyle story.
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (1939):
As the film begins, Holmes arrives too late with evidence that will convict his arch-enemy Moriarty (Zucco). The court releases the master criminal, and Holmes must now find a way to get him back in jail. Moriarty is prepared for Holmes and begins a deadly game of wits with the famous detective. When Ann (Lupino) comes to Holmes fearful that her brother is in danger, he is also torn by a police request to protect the crown jewels from a threat. Of course, the two cases are connected and an attempt to keep Holmes busy while Moriarty commits a new heist.
This last 20th Century Fox Holmes film was based on a play. There’s another strong horror connection here. Ida Lupino would go on to become a renowned director for such shows as Thriller. She was a rare strong female presence in that department for the day. George Zucco is a huge horror name as is E.E. Clive from such classics as The Invisible Man and The Bride Of Frankenstein.
The Universal Films:
The Voice Of Terror (1942):
Holmes is now in the contemporary world. It’s the 1940’s, and his universe is now filled with airplanes, motorcars and telephones. A mysterious radio voice breaks in on evening broadcasts and boasts of impending sabotage of the British by the Germans. It’s World War II, and the entity calls itself The Voice Of Terror. The object is to bring down the morale of the British people. The War Ministry calls in Sherlock Holmes to find the person or persons behind the broadcasts and the sabotage.
In the first Universal film Holmes begins a series of exploits that pit him against the Nazis. There’s plenty of patriotic propaganda here, and it’s quite obvious. The film also stars Evelyn Ankers from The Wolf Man and Henry Daniell from Karloff and Lugosi’s Robert Wise-directed The Body Snatcher. Daniell would appear in several of the Holmes films and even play Moriarty in the last film of the series. Reginald Denny was best knows for his portrayal of Algy Longworth in the Bulldog Drummond films.
Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon (1943):
Holmes faces the Nazis for the final time. Dr. Tobel (Post, Jr.) has invented a bombing weapon that could turn the tide of the war. He has placed the plans for the weapon in separate parts that he keeps with separate people. But agents of the Nazis are on to the secret and are racing Holmes to the final piece of the plans. But it’s not just the Nazis Holmes must contend with. They have teamed with the worst master criminal in history, none other than Professor Moriarty (Atwill).
This film was based very loosely on the Doyle story The Dancing Man. Lionel Atwill joins the franchise again. This time he plays Holmes rival Moriarty. Dennis Hoey plays Holmes police friend Inspector Lestrade. Hoey was also a Universal horror regular who appeared in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman. He would continue the role throughout the series when the character appeared.
Sherlock Holmes In Washington (1943):
A British courier has arrived in the United States carrying an important document for the war effort. If that information should fall into the wrong hands, it could spell disaster for the Allies. Traveling under the false name of John Grayson (Hamer) he is kidnapped on a train by William Easter (Daniell) and his thugs. But before he is taken, he manages to slip the document to Nancy Partridge (Lord) without her knowing it. The document is now a microfilm hidden in a pack of matches. Nancy is traveling to meet her fiancé Pete (Archer) so they can be married while he is on leave. When word reaches London that the agent is gone and the documents missing, they call in Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) to go to Washington and make sure that the pages don’t fall into the hands of dangerous spy ringmaster Heinrich Hinckel (Zucco). With deductive reasoning and outsmarting his foe, Holmes saves the day with the help of his friend Dr. Watson (Bruce) who is captivated by his visit to America.
While many argue about the use of Holmes in this World War II propaganda film, that doesn’t take away from some extraordinary performances here. Both Rathbone and Bruce have, by now, clearly defined their roles and have become them for millions of moviegoers who just couldn’t get enough of these films. There are some great performances by George Zucco and William Daniell here. Both make wonderful villains. Zucco was a veteran of many Universal horror films, and Daniell played the doctor against both Karloff and Lugosi in one of Val Lewton’s best films ever, The Body Snatcher. The music is also provided by Frank Skinner, who also provided the atmospheric melodies to Universal horror films, most notably The Wolf Man.
In the very next film, Universal would drop the Nazi angles and return Holmes to what he is best known for. Now he’s solving murders. The films still take place in the modern era, but the crime and the case take over importance here. Now Sherlock Holmes gets back to doing what he was created to do. The first of those films was…
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943):
Dr. Watson (Bruce) is working at a hospital where shell-shocked soldiers are sent to get some rest and relaxation. Suddenly, on a stormy night, the quiet is broken by a man who claims to have been accosted on his way to the house. The event leads to murder, and soon Watson realizes that he’s in over his head. Afraid that the crime will be pinned to one of his patients, he fetches his old friend Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) to solve the case.
This is not only a good Sherlock Holmes mystery that involves a family riddle and a hidden fortune. This is also a great Old Dark House film. It has all of the standard elements, including: a clock that strikes 13, a family curse, secret passageways, and, of course, a murderer among the inhabitants. Holmes must puzzle the meaning from an old family riddle that must be recited by each member of the family, next in line, when one of them dies. The personalities might not be as cleverly cast here. There are no famous villains, but the mystery is the game now. And the game truly is afoot.
The Spider Woman (1944):
Holmes is believed to have fallen from a riverbank and died. But of course it’s just one of his clever plans to solve another case. London has been under siege by a series of deaths that the papers have labeled The Pajama Murders. Men are found to have killed themselves unexpectedly in the middle of the night. Holmes suspects murder, and the game is indeed afoot. His own convenient death allows him to move about in disguise. But it doesn’t last long as he matches wits against the fiendish woman behind the killings.
The character of “the spider woman” was played by horror veteran Gale Sondergaard. The character would be played again, although not officially the same in The Spider Woman Strikes Back. It’s not a Holmes story and not really related. This film was based directly on a Doyle story.
Sherlock Holmes And The Scarlet Claw (1944):
Holmes is in Canada to address the Royal Occult Society and there meets Lord Penrose (Cavanaugh). Penrose believes in the supernatural, while Holmes argues there is usually a very human element to be found behind every mystery. While they are talking, Penrose receives word that his wife has just been killed. She appears to have been attacked by a wild animal and managed to crawl to the church and ring the bell before dying. Against the wishes of Penrose, Holmes decides to investigate the deaths, when he gets a note written by the murder victim before she died explaining she was frightened for her life. He remarks that it was the first time his services were retained by a corpse. No mention of how she might pay for his services. He finds it all eerily similar to his investigation into the Baskerville curse. The villagers believe a supernatural creature is responsible.
This film was originally to be entitled Sherlock Holmes In Canada and was to feature Moriarty. The story wasn’t finalized in this form until the actual first day of shooting. This is one of the more popular and best known from the Universal series. Ian Wolfe is best known to Star Trek fans as Mr. Atoz and Septimus from two episodes. He’s also a frequent guest star in the Holmes franchise. Gerald Hamer also appears as various characters in the franchise.
Sherlock Holmes And The Pearl Of Death (1944):
As the film begins, Holmes is already at work. He’s in disguise and thwarting the theft of a valuable pearl. But it’s Holmes’ own actions that cause it to be stolen at the museum. Now his pride is on the line. Holmes knows who took the pearl but can’t seem to find it until he hears about a rash of vandalism. It seems that someone is breaking into homes and smashing china and porcelain. He believes the incidents are connected to his case and sets a trap to catch the thief.
The story is based on the Doyle story The Six Napoleons. Evelyn Ankers returns to the series as Naomi Drake, who helps Holmes on the case. Rondo Hatton is best known for his giant hulking body and rather unattractive face. He uses both to good form as The Creeper. Hatton was from here in Tampa, Florida where Upcomingdiscs has its headquarters. He was best known for using that appearance in such films as The Brute Man (his last) and House Of Horrors, in both of which he played a character named The Creeper as he did here. His appearance was the result of his exposure to a poison gas which gave him acromegaly, which deforms the bones in the head and hands.
Sherlock Holmes And The House Of Fear (1945):
At a gathering of the social club called The Good Comrades, the meal is disturbed when their servant delivers an envelope to one of the member containing nothing but orange seeds. The member dies in a car crash the next night. When the pattern repeats itself, each receiving orange seeds in diminishing quantity to reflect the surviving membership, Holmes is brought in to solve the murder. The game is once again afoot as Holmes quickly deduces that each member had a recent life insurance policy that pays to the surviving members of the club.
This film was based directly on the Holmes story Five Orange Pips. It’s a Ten Little Indians style film with a bit of a twist ending that Holmes solves just in the nick of time.
The Woman In Green (1945):
Women are being brutally slaughtered throughout London. The police don’t have a clue except the killer takes one of the women’s fingers after each murder. With four murders already, Scotland Yard is stumped, and they turn to Sherlock Holmes to solve the case. Holmes suspects the evil Professor Moriarty (Daniel) is behind the crimes, but he isn’t acting alone this time.
Hilary Brooke is best known for being a part of many Abbott and Costello projects, including the television show.
Pursuit To Algiers (1945):
Holmes and Watson are on vacation when they begin to have some rather odd encounters that were orchestrated to bring them into their next case. The government wants Holmes to safely see a royal back to his native land. He and Watson will take a cruise with the royal and attempt to keep him safe from harm. It’s a game of who-can-you-trust as the royal is supposed to be disguised as Watson’s nephew.
This film is in the worst shape of the movies of the collection. It appears to have been taken from inferior sources, likely all that was available. Watson gets a love interest in this film, and Nigel Bruce has a wonderful time flirting.
Terror By Night (1946):
The Star Of Rhodesia is in London with owner Lady Carstairs (Forbes). The jewel was almost stolen in London, and the family wishes to take no chances on the trip back. They hire Holmes and Watson to escort the jewel on its train ride home. Of course, there is murder and deception at every turn, and even Inspector Lestrade can’t keep track of the growing list of suspects.
This is one of the most popular of the Universal films. Watson is in full swing as he tries to take the lead and finds himself in trouble with an unruly passenger who refuses to be interrogated by the man. In the end it’s Watson that finds himself being grilled by his suspect. It’s one of the best moments in the entire film series. It’s the last film with Hoey and Lestrade. Alan Mowbray along with Boris Karloff was one of the founding members of The Screen Actor’s Guild. Skleton Knaggs was another one of those horror actors with a creepy looking face. He can be found in films like House Of Dracula and The Invisible Man’s Revenge. He was often a hood in the Dick Tracy film series.
Dressed To Kill (1946):
Three seemingly worthless music boxes are the focus of robbery and murder. Holmes must figure out the code in a series of music boxes that might describe the location of counterfeiting plates. Each melody is the same with minor variations. The variations are the key, and Holmes must get to the last clue before the bad guys or the British economy might be ruined by the flawless plates.
This is the last of the Holmes films for Universal. The film has an atmosphere and cast of characters that plays very much like The Maltese Falcon. Watson’s friend Stinky is played brilliantly by Edmund Breon.
Each film is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio. The high definition image is brought to you by an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at a respectable 25-30 mbps. The movies are in black & white and certainly show some of their age. Still, the contrast is in good shape, which allows for good shadow definition. The blacks look rather solid. The print isn’t all that bad, considering the prints that I’ve seen of these films before. You have to take the good and the bad here for what it’s worth. The restoration is certainly evident more on some than others. The 20th Century Fox films have not been restored.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 does contain some hiss at times. You can hear everything without distortion. It’s the best you can hope for even with a complete restoration of these films. There is no distortion at all. Dialog comes through just fine.
Audio Commentary on select films by a Holmes expert who is incorrect on some of his Universal facts.
Newsreel footage of Doyle himself.
The films share plenty in common with the Universal horror films which were still going strong when the Holmes films began. Rathbone himself played a member of the Frankenstein family in Son Of Frankenstein. His Washington nemesis would play in House Of Frankenstein. It’s that old Universal atmospheric magic that is very much alive in its Holmes series. Certainly, the material is quite dated today. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be terribly entertaining. You gotta love this stuff. Why, that’s “elementary, my dear Watson”.