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!

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