Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have been among my favorite literary pastimes since I was a child, spurred originally by the old movies starring Basil Rathbone as the great detective and Nigel Bruce as his faithful sidekick and chronicler, Dr. John Watson.
Growing up in the 1960s, television programming was filled with old movies, including the great Universal horror films, every science fiction movie from the 1950s, the old Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller, the Three Stooges shorts, and the Holmes films. Those movies all seemed to play all weekend long, every weekend.
Rathbone was and will always be the perfect Sherlock Holmes. Physically, he was spot on, looking exactly like Doyle described him, and even matching the original illustrations by Sidney Paget that accompanied Doyle’s stories in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Rathbone’s mannerisms, diction and confident approach to the role made him Holmes incarnate.
Today, the Holmes character is often updated to exist in modern times, but that choice is not that recent. After two Rathbone-Bruce 20th Century Fox films placing Holmes and Watson in the proper Victorian setting, both produced in 1939, Universal acquired the rights, hired the same actors, and beginning in 1942 promptly placed them in then-modern day World War II London. It was a practice being used for many characters and by many studios during the hyper-patriotic era. Henceforth, Universal adapted many of Doyle’s tales to include battles with the Nazis.
In his original stories, Doyle had made a couple of allusions to Holmes being a cocaine user, but the production codes of the 1940s prevented that theme from being overtly explored.
There are only two references in the Rathbone films, first at the conclusion of 1939’s “Hound of the Baskervilles,” when Holmes says to Watson during the final fadeout, “Oh Watson, the needle!” Then, in 1942’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon,” after Holmes suggests the method of his own demise – being bled to death – at the hands of Professor Moriarty, played by Lionel Atwill, Moriarty replies, “The needle to the end, eh Holmes?”
For years, Rathbone was Holmes as far the public was concerned, to the point that after his 14th outing – which coincided with a regular radio series in which Rathbone and Bruce also portrayed their trademark characters – the Shakespearean-trained Rathbone finally refused to do any more Holmes films, despite their continued popularity.
But it was too late to rescue him from the curse of typecasting, and the rest of his career was spent mostly on off-Broadway stage productions and low-budget films, with only a couple of exceptions.
For at least the next two decades, Rathbone remained the only Holmes as far as the public was concerned, and the popularity of the constantly replayed films on 1950s and ’60s television further cemented the notion.
In England in the 1960s, Peter Cushing starred as Holmes in a popular television series, but it wasn’t until Britain’s Granada Television version in the 1980s starring Jeremy Brett was picked up in America by PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery!” series that Rathbone’s firm identification as Holmes in the public’s mind was finally challenged.
The Brett films are well done and more faithful to the Doyle stories than anything before or since. But Brett’s portrayal is just a little too stuffy and even prissy for my tastes. As one reviewer noted, his expression always seemed to indicate that he was sitting on a needle.
Along with Dracula, Sherlock Holmes has probably been portrayed in films and television more than any other fictional character. One-shot movies have come and gone, starring everyone from the great silent-era actor John Barrymore to Michael Caine, Charlton Heston, Frank Langella, Christopher Lee, Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Plummer, to name a few.
As a character of fiction that is now actually in the public domain (Want to write and publish a Sherlock Holmes novel? Feel free), many liberties have been taken with the character in more recent years. The popular movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, while true to the original Victorian setting, basically transformed Holmes into a muscled action figure.
So popular does Holmes remain that there are two well-regarded television adaptations currently on the air, CBS’s “Elementary,” and the BBC’s “Sherlock Holmes,” airing in America, again courtesy of “Masterpiece Mystery!” on PBS.
Both shows place Holmes in modern times, with “Elementary” set in New York City, and “Sherlock Holmes” in modern-day London. The CBS show stars Jonny Lee Miller as a rather neurotic Holmes with heavy emphasis on his drug addiction, and transgenders Watson to a woman, which would be easier to complain about if she were not portrayed by the lovely Lucy Liu.
But “Sherlock Holmes” is the better of the two, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a young, humorous and, yes, drug-dependent Holmes, and Martin Freeman as a true-to-Doyle war veteran Watson who is sharp and resourceful, compared to the dim-bulb sidekick portrayed by Bruce in the 1940s Holmes movies, which provided considerable comic relief but was not what Doyle intended.
Books have been written attempting to deduce the continued popularity of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s not hard to fathom, really. Holmes, whether modernized or true to his roots, provides us with the assurance that we can solve life’s little mysteries and problems if we will only apply our logic and observational skills. He demonstrates that what often seems complex and bewildering is usually commonplace and simple, once we put aside our superstitions, fears and phobias.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.