A series of fourteen US-produced 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 Doctor Watson respectively.
The first two films were produced by 20th Century Fox. The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939 was originally intended as a one-off production. However, as the release met with critical success in the US, the studio followed it up the same year with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which established what was to become a popular trend of combining elements from several Sherlock Holmes stories to create new tales. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was credited as an adaptation of William Gillette's 1899 play Sherlock Holmes, but bears little resemblance. The two 1939 Sherlock Holmes films were the first ones to be set in the Victorian era; all previous Holmes films had been set at the time of the respective films' release, up to and including the 1930s British series featuring Arthur Wontner.
Move to Universal
20th Century Fox dropped the series after the second film, Adventures. There is no clear reason for this, although Holmes scholars such as the late Richard Valley (editor of Scarlet Street magazine) and others have suggested that the poor critical reception for Hound in the United Kingdom may have been a factor. Due to the series' shift from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, the subsequent 12 films later produced by Universal Studios are not directly related to the first two Fox pictures (except in the casting of Rathbone and Bruce, as well as Mary Gordon as housekeeper Mrs Hudson), although the films are regarded as a single series.
Universal Studios purchased the rights to some of the short stories from the Conan Doyle estate in early 1942 and planned a new series of films, including both original scripts and loose adaptations of the canon. Rathbone and Bruce (who had continued playing Holmes and Watson in radio broadcasts after the films were discontinued by Fox) were the likely choice for the leading roles.
Universal shifted the setting from Victorian England to then present day 1940s – partly for budgetary reasons but also to give a modern action-adventure feel, in tune with popular contemporary tastes.
Following the entry of the United States into the Second World War, the first three Universal movies featured explicit anti-Nazi themes: Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Universal noted at the beginning of each film that Holmes remained "ageless" as they updated him to face 20th century villains — in this case, the Nazis.
These movies often paralleled real-life events. For example, in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Holmes battles a Nazi radio program, similar to the real-life "Germany Calling" broadcasts of the British traitor Lord Haw-Haw. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, the British and Germans fight to secure the "Tobel bombsight", analogous to the real-life Norden Bombsight. The Secret Weapon is gently patriotic towards England in its themes.
Starting with 1943's Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, all of the remaining films were directed by Roy William Neill.
Six additional films were made during World War II: Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl of Death, The House of Fear, and The Woman in Green (made after the end of European hostilities but prior to the Japanese surrender). These movies have no explicit war references and are 'standard' Holmes mysteries. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is set in a convalescent home for shell-shock victims, but the plot is not war-related. At the end of The Spider Woman appears a shooting gallery whose moving targets are effigies of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, but the plot is not war-related either. Holmes quotes Churchill regarding the vital role of Canada in Anglo-American relations at the end of The Scarlet Claw, which is similar to the final scene of Sherlock Holmes in Washington, but there is no direct reference to the war and no explicit anti-Nazi propaganda.
Even after the films ceased to be used for explicit propaganda purposes (both during the latter years of the war, when Allied victory seemed more assured, and after the war's conclusion), the writers of the Universal series never reverted to the Victorian setting of the two Fox productions and of the original Holmes' stories and characters.
The duo also made numerous radio recordings as Holmes and Watson, one of which was used in the Disney film The Great Mouse Detective, for the cameos of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Rathbone eventually tired of his role in fear of being typecast, though Bruce never did and was open to playing Watson further.
Differences between the books and films
Most of the movies took great liberties with the Sherlock Holmes canon:
- Beginning in 1942, Holmes was updated to fight modern villains, such as the Nazis. However, after the first three films, his enemies became much less politically oriented and the war was never specifically mentioned after Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943).
- Several Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories were often mixed to create a new narrative. Only The Hound of the Baskervilles closely followed its source material.
- Bruce's portrayal of Dr Watson as a doddering old fool is quite different from Conan Doyle's conception of him in the original stories, where he is a competent, if unexceptional, physician. The same is true of the Inspector Lestrade character, whose portrayal by actor Dennis Hoey is unlike the character in the Conan Doyle stories.
Mary Gordon played Mrs Hudson in all the films in which the character appears, and Dennis Hoey portrayed Inspector Lestrade in most of the Universal series.
Throughout the Universal series, supporting actors often reappeared in varying roles. For example, Harry Cording played:
- a dive patron in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror
- Jack Brady in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
- the roof henchman in The Spider Woman
- George Gelder in The Pearl of Death
- Captain Jack Simpson in The House of Fear
- Mock in Terror by Night
- Hamid in Dressed to Kill
Henry Daniell, Frederick Worlock, and Gerald Hamer also made several appearances in different roles throughout the life of the series. Evelyn Ankers, who gained fame as Universal's "scream queen," was both the Limehouse barmaid Kitty in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and the villainous Naomi Drake in The Pearl of Death.
Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty, was portrayed by three actors: Lionel Atwill in 1943's Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Henry Daniell in The Woman in Green, and George Zucco in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He "dies" violently in each of the three episodes, one of the few times that a villain dies repeatedly in a film series (though his death in The Woman in Green apparently had some permanency, as Holmes remarks in Terror By Night, "...Colonel Sebastian Moran was the most sinister, ruthless, and diabolically clever henchman of our late but unlamented friend, Professor Moriarty.").
List of films
|Sherlock Holmes movies|
|The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)|
|The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)|
|Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)|
|Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)|
|Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)|
|Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)|
|The Spider Woman (1944)|
|The Scarlet Claw (1944)|
|The Pearl of Death (1944)|
|The House of Fear (1945)|
|The Woman in Green (1945)|
|Pursuit to Algiers (1945)|
|Terror by Night (1946)|
|Dressed to Kill (1946)|