Friday, July 13, 2007

The Celluloid Holmes

I first encountered Sherlock Holmes when I was around eight, and sad to say the relationship did not get off to a promising start. I was ill in bed, and my mother brought me home a book from the library which she thought might appeal, probably based on my interest in Nancy Drew and mysteries: a collection of stories about the great detective. I know I read one or two—'The Speckled Band' stuck in my head, as did 'Silver Blaze'—but they didn't make much of an impression. A year later I was involved in a radio play production of 'The Red-Headed League' for my grade five class, and was assigned the rather small role of Duncan Ross; but at the last minute the girl playing Holmes got a bad case of stage fright and begged for a smaller role, which request the teacher accommodated by having me switch roles with her. Even this was not enough to encourage me to seek out the stories; that had to wait a further two years, until grade seven, when our class was assigned 'The Speckled Band' to read and write about. My contribution was a stage play entitled The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, an unabashed rip-off of the plot of 'Speckled Band' with the surprise twist (spoiler alert!) that Holmes was actually in cahoots with the villain. The play was staged twice for the students of Emily Carr Middle School in Ottawa, with the author once more assuming the role of Holmes, after which the play was retired (although a copy does exist and is before me as I write, showing that I arrived at the title some years before Jeremy Paul did).

I don't know why—perhaps third time was indeed the charm—but I was hooked. I promptly went out and bought all the Holmes tales by Conan Doyle, and devoured them; but when they were done I wondered what to do. Fortunately, this was in 1976, when a Holmes revival was in full swing, and I soon realised there was a good deal of material out there about the great detective and his world. One intriguing fact, amongst many, was that there had been a large number of films made featuring Holmes, and I began to wonder how to go about finding them: a thing more easily wished for than accomplished in those far-off days before video, DVD, Netflix, and 300 channels of television.

One thing seemed to be agreed upon: that the best Holmes films made to date starred an actor named Basil Rathbone, and that the best of these was a version of The Hound of the Baskervilles made in 1939. All very well; but how to actually see it? Imagine my delight, then, when TV Guide for early December 1976 announced that the Rathbone Hound would be broadcast on CBS as their late movie on 14 December—starting at 12.30 a.m.

This was indeed a problem. In those pre-VCR days, a movie had to be viewed when it aired; and I was shrewd enough to realise that the chances of my parents letting a twelve-year-old stay up until 2.30 in the morning—on a school night—were slim. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and the question was asked; and after some deliberation my parents, realising that, unlikely as it seemed, this was important to me, agreed on a compromise: I could go to bed early and wake myself up at 12.15, then go to bed as soon as the movie was over (and no complaining about being tired next morning).

I jumped at the chance, and thus it was that in mid-December 1976 I woke myself up, crept downstairs with only Tabitha the cat for company, and, in the glow of the lights on the Christmas tree in the family room, immersed myself in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was probably my first 'grown up' film, my first black and white film, my first old film, and my first time staying up that late by myself, and I revelled in every second of it. As the images flickered out into the room I sat enraptured as the now familiar story played out, thrilling to the action. The clipping from TV Guide is before me as I write, and on the reverse, in my best grade seven handwriting, are the words 'Tabby came down with me and was startled when the hound was heard howling across the desolate moors as it did often. I loved the movie (so did Tabby).'

Thus began several love affairs: with staying up into the wee small hours, with old movies in general, and with the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes films in particular. Fortunately for me, a northern New York TV station began airing the Rathbone films late on Sunday nights shortly after that fateful December night, and my parents let me stay up to watch them (they began at the slightly more acceptable hour of 11.30 p.m.). Towards the end of the summer of 1977 we moved back to Vancouver, where I was overjoyed to see that ABC in Seattle was airing the Rathbone films on Monday evenings, again at 11.30 p.m., so I was able to continue to indulge my passion, even going to the extreme of using my trusty portable tape recorder to tape large sections of the films, which I listened to over and over and can still remember to this day (I was recently somewhat relieved to find out that I am not the only Sherlockian to have done this).

The Rathbone films—particularly the later, 'modernised' ones set during the Second World War—continue to divide Sherlockians to an extent. Rathbone's performance as Holmes is generally accepted as above criticism, but other aspects of the movies, particularly the (then) modern setting and Nigel Bruce's portrayal of Watson, continue to be a source of debate. As far as the WW II setting goes, my attitude is 'no harm done'; Conan Doyle had done much the same thing when he brought Holmes out of retirement to help the war effort in 1914, and if the detective could serve as a propaganda figure for one war, why not for another? Besides, as Kim Newman astutely pointed out a couple of years ago, the Second World War setting of these films is further away from us now than the Victorian period was in the 1940s, and thus the films have a period charm of their own which is almost as enchanting as that of the world where it is always 1895.

As for Bruce's portrayal of Watson: I'm on record as being an admirer of it. He may not be as strictly canonical as we might like, or are conditioned to after such fine Watsons as James Mason, David Burke, and Edward Hardwicke, but his is a warm portrayal, and there is a real affection between Rathbone and Bruce which convinces us these characters shared a deep and abiding friendship, even love, despite the fact that they inevitably get on each other's nerves. Besides, when you compare Bruce's portrayal of the good doctor with most of those which came before him, it quickly becomes apparent that Bruce was a huge step forward. His Watson displays courage and loyalty, and also a fair bit of intelligence; it is Watson, and not Holmes, who first deduces the solution of the mystery in The House of Fear, which is a major departure from previous Watsons, who look amazed when Holmes deduces what day of the week it is.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was such a success that the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, immediately followed it up with another film the same year: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which pitted Holmes against his arch-foe Professor Moriarty, memorably played by George Zucco ('smiling and smiling and being an absolute bounder', in the words of one critic). These two films were the only two set in the Victorian period (astonishingly, the Fox Hound was the first Holmes film to be set in the correct canonical era). After this Fox let the option to the character drop, and it was picked up by Universal, who made twelve contemporary films starring Rathbone and Bruce between 1942 and 1946.

Much has been written about these films, although the further we get from their making the more tenuous and scarce our actual links to them become. Imagine my amazement and delight, therefore, when a special guest was announced at the gala banquet we attended in Minneapolis last week for the 'Victorian Secrets and Edwardian Enigmas' Sherlock Holmes conference: Terry Kilburn, who, when he was twelve, appeared as Billy the Page in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Although somewhat frail now at age eighty, Mr Kilburn was happy to meet with admirers, and Christopher took a picture of Tim and me with him to commemorate the occasion. A living link with the past, and with the Holmes films I have loved so much for more than three decades now.

Curiously, I could have had another link with the films, had my maternal grandfather not been such a gentleman. Years ago he recounted to me how he had been in Victoria, British Columbia during the Second World War and had, while sitting in the lobby of the venerable Empress Hotel, heard a familiar voice. Looking round, Grandpa immediately recognised the speaker as Nigel Bruce, with whose face and voice he was familiar. 'I didn't want to go up to him and say anything,' my grandfather said to me, 'as I didn't want to be rude and intrude; but if I had known then that one day my granddaughter would be such an admirer, I would have done.'

I still have my tape recordings of the Rathbone films somewhere, as well as LP recordings of them; but fortunately technology now allows me to watch them anytime I choose, courtesy of DVD. It's wonderful to have them available to watch at any time, in beautifully crisp prints; but somehow they don't look quite right unless viewed late at night when the house is still and the lights are off and everyone else is in bed. If only Tabby were still here to enjoy them with me, and hear the hound baying across the desolate moors once more!

All the Fun of the Fair

When I was a child, one of the red letter days of the year was the annual Pacific National Exhibition, which was held for the last two weeks of August at Hastings Park in the eastern end of Vancouver. Every June, when the final report card came from school, there was a pass for a free child's admission enclosed, and it was a reminder to my brother and I (as if a reminder were needed) that the PNE was coming. (For years I assumed that we got these passes because our school was in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, and that the passes were confined to schools within easy reach of Vancouver; imagine my pleasant surprise and nostalgic delight when Tim got his last report card of his kindergarten year here in Ashcroft, 200 miles from Vancouver, five years ago, and a 'free admission' pass for the PNE fluttered out, a tradition that continues to this day.)

The PNE was my father's domain, and the night before our visit he would dust off the battered blue knapsack which, for 364 days of the year, hung on a nail in the laundry room. Next morning my mother would put in sandwiches (always egg salad, in my memory), and we would set off, by car to downtown Vancouver and thence by special PNE Express bus to the fairground. I suspect this served three purposes: free parking on a side street as opposed to paying for a lot near the PNE; no driving around searching for a place; and the buses deposited patrons at the end of the fairground furthest from the midway, which was of course the area that my brother and I most wanted to visit, and something that Dad always wanted to leave until he'd had a chance to look around.

We would pass through the turnstiles after relinquishing those treasured passes—Charlie must have felt something similar when he handed the golden ticket over to Willie Wonka—and then wait while Dad bought tickets for the prize draw ('Get your tickets here! Win a house, win a car!'). First stop was the Show Mart building, full of all manner of gadgets and items and cleaning products you didn't know existed, and certainly didn't realise you needed, and then next door to view exhibits built around that year's theme. The Show Mart building was fairly interesting, the theme exhibits less so (to John and me, at any rate), but we knew it was the price to be paid. Every time we emerged from the buildings, blinking into the sun, we would cast our eyes eastward towards the midway, from which faint screams could be heard even at that distance.

Then it was on to the Agrodome, bursting with animals of all sorts. The PNE was originally an agricultural fair, and the Agrodome was a reminder of these roots, full of earnest children exhibiting their 4-H animals, milking demonstrations, pig races, an incubator full of baby chicks you could hold in your hand (these were a favourite), and Jersey cows the colour of coffee with cream, and possessed of huge brown eyes that looked patient and gentle. We would usually sit in the stands in the arena and eat our egg sandwiches, watching a horse show of some kind, inhaling the clean scent of straw and sawdust and the less clean—but not, somehow, unpleasant—scent of animals, and then Dad would wipe his hands and we would emerge into the sun once more.

We were, by this time, close enough to the midway to be able to hear the happy screams quite clearly, and pick out details of the Wild Mouse. However, there were still the Modern Living building and the B.C. Pavilion to look through; probably my father's favourite part of the exhibition. The former contained exhibits of household gadgets of all kinds, and Dad would end up with handfuls of pamphlets and brochures and samples, all of which carefully went into the knapsack, never to be seen again. The B.C. Pavilion contained—in another nod to the PNE's agricultural roots—entries in the craft and food competitions: case after case full of jams, jellies, needlepoint, quilts, flowers, vegetables: if it could be grown or eaten or created by hand, it was there. The Pavilion also boasted the Challenger Relief Map, a source of endless fascination for John and me. It was actually built to house the map, the brainchild, and creation, of the Challenger family of Vancouver, who had decided to build a scale replica in relief of the province of British Columbia. What began as (I presume) a fairly modest project turned into the largest relief map in the world, according to The Guinness Book of World Records: measuring 75' by 82', it occupied the centre of the Pavilion, and could be viewed from three levels, while a motorised bridge ran from side to side on the lowest level and accommodated a guide and anyone who wanted to hover over the province. Mountains, lakes, rivers, and streams were all delineated, and placards indicated towns and cities. It was an amazing sight to see, but unfortunately is not currently on public view; the city of Vancouver, honouring a commitment to return some of the PNE site to a public park, tore down many of the buildings, including the B.C. Pavilion, several years ago, and the map has been in storage ever since.

When we left the Pavilion we were so close to the midway we could almost taste it. By this time we were in the midst of a row of vendors selling every kind of food known to man: Buckeye Root Beer (sold out of kegs) and Tom Thumb donuts were great favourites, and we would usually get some at this point, the root beer icy cold, the donuts small and sweet and still hot. We would usually take a turn at the Mad Artist booth, squeezing paint onto a rapidly rotating rectangle of coated board to produce psychedelic artwork, and then while Dad held our masterpieces gingerly by one corner while the paint dried, we would advance to the midway proper, but not before detouring to take in the lumberjack show adjacent to the midway, where we would thrill to demonstrations of log-rolling, axe throwing, wood-cutting, and pole climbing. The act always contained a clown scaling one of the poles and balancing precariously on top while the ringmaster tried to talk him down; just as he seemed about to start back to the ground he would overbalance and fall, to the shocked screams of onlookers, only to be caught by a safety rope he had surreptitiously fastened to himself, a never-ending source of thrills and delight to my brother and me.

By now my father must have realised that the inevitable could not be postponed a moment longer, and we would be on the midway. The noise! The smell! The heat! To this day, the smell of fried onions takes me back instantly to the midway of the PNE on a hot August day (I'm sure it rained on occasion, this being Vancouver, but in my mind it is always hot and sunny at the PNE). Dad would purchase tickets for the two of us, and we would be off to the rides, clambering on board one after the other, Dad a constant presence (usually at a considerable distance below us) leaning against the metal fencing surrounding whatever ride we were on, while we exulted in the speed, the height, the giddiness, the sheer joy of being young and (relatively) fearless.

Last week I was in Minneapolis, at the Mall of America, with Tim, who was going on some rides; and while leaning on a fence watching him, I wondered when I had become my Dad, standing by rides watching my child. I did not feel old, precisely, but rather sad, as the realisation struck that I would never again experience the joy of the fair the same way I did when I was a child, and the way Tim does now. Yet while the rides at Mall of America are state of the art, and bright and clean in a way the PNE rides never seemed to be, there did not seem to be the same joy about them that I remember from my childhood. Perhaps the setting had something to do with that, although I think it more likely that it was the warnings which leached some of the delight from the scene. Every ride was preceded with a cheery yet faintly menacing recorded warning to, in essence, do nothing but sit there. The Wave Rider swing warning cautioned riders not to try to kick the swing in front of them, and I was appalled: that was half the fun of the Wave Rider, and the reason I always tried to get a swing that was some distance from my brother! The Bumper Cars ride warning told riders to avoid head-on collisions, and really, if you're not going to crash into people head-on while you're on the Bumper Cars, what's the point? Even the carousel warned riders to stay seated until the ride stopped, and not to stand up on the pedals or try to change seats mid-ride.

After we had had our fill of rides at the PNE there was an opportunity to play a few games of chance—Whack-a-Mole became a great favourite—and make a trip through the Haunted House. As someone who has always loved ghosts and ghost stories, this was a place of shivery delight, now long gone. One year—I was eight or nine at the time—my father stopped by the booth where radio station CKNW was broadcasting from, as he knew Merv Meadows, the announcer on duty, and to our delight my brother and I were put on the air to talk about the fair. I can't remember precisely what I said, although when asked what my favourite part of the PNE was I announced without hesitation 'The Haunted House'.

By then it would be getting late, and the lights on the midway would be coming on, bathing everything in a glow that was magical. We would walk back towards the entrance and stop at the Food Building for dinner: more Buckeye Root Beer for my brother, fresh lemonade for me, and something deep fried or barbecued which always seemed to be the perfect food for that time and place. Then it was back out through the gates, after one last glance back to the midway, and on to the bus and home, the fair over for another year.

We moved from Vancouver in 1973, and when we returned in 1977 I resumed my PNE attendance; but it wasn't quite the same. It wasn't long before my brother and I were able to go by ourselves, or with friends, and it somehow lost something without Dad standing by the railings, waiting. For two years in the early 1980s my father was an assistant to PNE President Erwin Swangard, and I went down with him to the fair on a few of those days, arriving well before the crowds did. I found I had more interest in the exhibits than in the rides, although it was still fun to wander the midway, listening to the shrieks of riders and the patter of the carnies. In 1997, the year we moved from England back to British Columbia, I took Christopher to the PNE in what turned out to be its last year in its old incarnation. I was eight months pregnant, so couldn't go on any rides, but I could still enjoy the sights and sounds as much as ever; and the Buckeye Root Beer was still there, as cold and delicious as ever.

The PNE is still going at Hastings Park—2007 marks its 100th anniversary—but many of the landmarks from my childhood are gone. Most of the permanent buildings have been torn down and their sites returned to parkland; the Haunted House, as mentioned, has vanished; the Mad Artist booths are nowhere to be found; the Challenger Relief Map is in a storage facility somewhere; and the rides have grown more flashy and heart-stopping (although none of them can, in my opinion, hold a candle to the 1958 wooden roller coaster, still going strong and designated a 'Coaster Classic' by ACE, the American Coaster Enthusiasts). But the ticket sellers still call out 'Win a house, win a car!' with all the fervour of their predecessors, and the Tom Thumb donuts (now called Those Little Donuts, apparently because no one could remember what they were called and instead referred to buying some of 'those little donuts') are still hot and sweet, and the shrieks from the midway are as as enticing as ever, and I sometimes wish I could be Tim's age again and visiting the PNE for all the fun of the fair on a hot August day when school still seems a distant prospect and a Sno-Cone and cotton candy are the height of gastronomic delight.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go: West Coast Amusements has rolled into town and set up a funfair down by the railway tracks in town, and I've promised Tim a trip. There'll be Sno-Cones and cotton candy, and rickety-looking rides that don't come with warnings before they judder to a start, and with luck the smell of fried onions. Can't wait!