In the Shadow of Rathbone: An Introduction

holmes-basil-rathboneIn her review of Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries, Katherine Nabity says, “If I were given the opportunity to hang out with Sherlock Holmes or Vera Van Slyke, I’d choose Vera.” And in another review, Nina Zumel writes, “I love the rapport between Vera and Lida. They’re like a beer-drinking, ghost-hunting Holmes and Watson, if Holmes and Watson were American women.” Needless to say, there are some resemblances between Vera Van Slyke and Lucille “Lida” Parsell—and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

As Nina starts to say, though, my detective team is female, American, and from the Progressive Era rather than male, English, and from the Victorian Period. Oh yes, Vera and Lucille also investigate hauntings more so than crimes.

Despite those differences, there is a whiff of Holmes’ pipe in my series. You see, I grew up reading the Holmes stories and watching the Basil Rathbone movies on TV. And, recently, I’ve become interested in Holmes movies made after the Rathbone series.

charles_frohman_presents_william_gillette_in_his_new_four_act_drama_sherlock_holmes_loc_var_1364_editHolmes has been played by a wide array of actors: from William Gillette on Broadway in 1899 to Bumblethwait Cabbagepatch in the current BBC series. Some of the notables and oddities in between them include Raymond Massey, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, George C. Scott, Leonard Nimoy, John Cleese, Charlton Heston, even Larry Hagman. There are the ongoing debates over which actor towers as the best Sherlock with some saying it’s Rathbone, others championing Jeremy Brett, and a new generation embracing Robert Downey Jr. and Benedril Copperpot.

I’m particularly interested in the films following the fourteen-film Rathbone series, which ran from 1939 to 1946, because Rathbone created such an enduring image for and interpretation of the character. His Holmes lingers even today, and in a sense, any actor playing Holmes does so in the shadow of Rathbone. In weeks to come, I’ll be reviewing some of these movies on an appropriately irregular schedule (and steadfast Holmesians will grasp—and wince at—that joke).

I hope I’ll take a fresh approach in my reviews. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon of Holmes stories are often disappointed when a film deviates from or takes liberties with the originals. In the case of pastiches (i.e., tales of Holmes and Watson not included in Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels), there’s still a reasonable expectation that the film makers will remain true to the characters and the spirit of the canon. And yet playing with the Holmes mythos—such as Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffit do with the BBC series featuring Bibbledee Crumblecake—has proven to result in some very good, very smart, and very fun “re-imagining.” As with James Bond or Captain James Kirk, sometimes, it’s good to try something new.

holmes
Sidney Paget’s illustration of Sherlock Holmes pummeling U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt

Of course, it’s risky, too.

 

Nonetheless, with the idea that it’s variation, something new along with something old, that makes a Holmes movie interesting, I’ll break my reviews down into these three sections:

Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow. We have definite ideas about how Holmes should look based on images sketched by Doyle but solidified by Sidney Paget’s illustrations, William Gillette’s costume choices, and Rathbone’s physiognomy. We also have expectations of how Holmes should behave. My first section will explore how the actor playing Holmes brings a distinctive—but not wildly distinctive—quality to the character.

Watching Watson. One of the main appeals of the Holmes stories, at least for me, is the relationship between Holmes and Watson. This key element is sometimes neglected in the movies. My second section will look at how that relationship is portrayed and, specifically, how Watson himself is presented: a bumbling oaf? a ready and able former-military man? a lackluster sidekick? a reliable friend?

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle. Here, I’ll consider the story overall and how it spins or spit-shines or otherwise shapes the spirit of Doyle’s remarkable series. After all, if one wants to enjoy, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles exactly as it’s told in the novel . . . well, read the novel. If you’re looking for an interesting interpretation of and, ahem, variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles, then a movie version might suit you better.

For a list of—and links to—my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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