Wednesday, April 15, 2009

At the (old) movies: Holmes and Watson

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s latest presentation….

The main feature: “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (but not taxes – then again, that would be not so much a mystery movie as a horror picture), preceded by a short film from 1927 in which Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, addresses the audience – his only appearance on sound film.

Conan Doyle seems to be a pretty affable guy as he patiently discusses – doubtless for the umpty-umph time – the origins of his most famous character. “I’ve written a good deal more about him than I ever intended to,” he says with a good humor that, if I remember correctly, was not always present when someone mentioned the great detective in his presence – indeed, he’d unsuccessfully tried to kill Holmes off many years before this short film was made.

If Conan Doyle wasn’t too enthusiastic about Holmes’ life-after-supposed death, it’s obvious that he’s rarin’ to talk about the second focus of his brief talk: his interest in whether non-fictional characters live on after death and his belief that they do and his efforts to document this. Spiritualism was his chief interest near the end of his life, a topic that led to tension between him and Harry Houdini, who was just as convinced that spiritualism, at best, is hokum. But both sides in this debate can agree on one thing: Conan Doyle created two characters who remain immortal.

(And if you’re interested, you can watch the Conan Doyle featurette here.)

“Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (Universal, 1943) stars – who else? – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Rathbone’s Holmes was an adroit mixture of hauteur and humaneness – and was capable of making a mistake once in a while. And while some have criticized Bruce’s Watson as too much of a bumbler, Conan Doyle, in the featurette, does say that the good doctor is “rather stupid.” Even so, in the Universal films the scriptwriters occasionally throw Watson a bone – in one film literally, as Watson explains to Holmes that a skeleton is not that of a boy but a midget. (Or was it the other way around? Either way, you’d think Holmes would be at least as much of an expert on human anatomy as he is on footprints.)

Universal’s Rathbone-Holmes films (Fox had made two before the characters changed studios) were usually loosely based on a Conan Doyle story – in this case, “The Musgrave Ritual.” The original story, though good, wasn’t very cinematic, so the moviemakers took several elements of the story – a mysterious family ritual, a butler and a hidden treasure – and fashioned one of the better Holmes films.

It’s more than obvious that all is not well at Musgrave Manor – an abode that, even from the outside, makes that mansion from “Rebecca” look like Disneyland. Inside the manor, young Sally Musgrave is upset because her crabby brother, Geoffrey, doesn’t want her to marry an American airman. Old stick in the mud that he is, Geoffrey might have something of the point: The airman is played by a young Milburn Stone, and perhaps Geoffrey realizes that as Milburn ages he’ll eventually become the equally crotchety Doc on “Gunsmoke.” (It takes a crab to know a crab.)

Sally is played by the lovely Hillary Brooke, who would eventually move on to TV, where she not only never became Mrs. Doc but was perpetually pursued by, of all people, Lou Costello on "The Abbott and Costello Show." (The poor girl just couldn’t get a break.)

Musgrave Manor is very big place – not only does it also house another Musgrave brother, a housekeeper and a butler named Brunton (quite a ladies’ man in the original story but an old drunk here), but it’s also the temporary residence of a group of convalescing war veterans who are being looked after by Dr. Watson. (It seems odd that such a gloomy place would be chosen to house such patients, but apparently there was a housing shortage at home and the Black Hole of Calcutta was full up.)

Geoffrey and a couple of other people are murdered and Milburn is hauled off to jail before Holmes, elementarily enough, sets things straight.

Universal’s Holmes films often end with the Great Detective delivering a stirring little speech that is meant to improve wartime morale and accompanied by appropriately stirring music. It’s worth noting, in these times, that the audience at this particular showing laughed its collective derriere off at this film's last scene, in which Holmes tells Watson of “a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out. We're beginning to think of what we ‘owe’ the other fellow, not just what we're compelled to give him.”

“You may be right, Holmes.... I hope you are,” Watson says.

“And God willing,” Holmes responds, “we’ll live to see that day, Watson.”

Well … he did know a lot about footprints.

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