My recent post on Nigel Bruce drew more positive reaction than anything else in the nine years of this blog. People love “Willie,” especially at The Rathbone Bruce Years Facebook Page.
So, I was in a Rathbone-Bruce mood when I picked up Sherlock Holmes: Behind the Canonical Screen, a collection of papers from the Baker Street Irregulars conference held at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in 2012. The volume was edited by Lyndsay Faye and Ashley D. Polasek.
Some purists understandably object to Bruce’s uncanonical portrayal of Watson as bumbler. But Jerry Kegley, in a paper called “Holmes Superbus, Watson Absurdus,” joins the ranks of those who note that “he brought Watson out of the shadows and ceased the notion of marginalizing the good doctor. For the first time on film, Watson was able to stand side by side with the great detective, a trend that has continued to this day.”
Jeffory Hart, in an insightful and witty survey of Holmesian cinema, makes a similar point: “Watson will never again be neglected, and we owe that to the popularity of Nigel Bruce.” And so does Russell Merritt in his paper on Sherlock in the silents: “After Nigel Bruce, Holmes without Watson is unimaginable. Before Bruce, he was entirely optional.”
Nevertheless, Timothy Greer, in an authoritative and beautifully written retrospective on the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, concurs with Bert Coules that, “Nigel Bruce as many outstanding qualities; being Dr. Watson is not among them.” Greer has high praise for Brett’s two Watsons, a judgment unlikely to find much dissent anywhere.
With reference to the Rathbone films in general, Greer says, “a great Holmes does not automatically a great Holmesian adaptation make.” I would go even further: In my opinion, there have been many great interpretations of Holmes but no perfect Holmesian adaptation.
There are many other delights in this book – 18 chapters in all. I particularly enjoyed the four transcripts of dialogues that took place at the conference. (The always engaging Nicholas Meyer memorably tells John Landis that Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes is “a sort of superhero beatnik.”)
For all the wide range of film- and TV-related topics covered in this book, most of the papers have one thing in common: at least a passing mention of the Rathbone-Bruce movies. The series constituted a milestone that is hard to ignore.