A huge percentage of Sherlockians around my age (think Baby Boomers) first became acquainted with Sherlock Holmes from watching reruns of the Basil Rathbone – Nigel Bruce films on TV, but I am not one of them.
I’d already most or all of the Canon by the time I first saw the Universal films around 19645-65. I recall being appalled by the bumpkin masquerading as Watson. And moving the our heroes into the 1940s – what was that all about?
Since then, I’ve learned to love the Rathbone-Bruce movies, although preferring the first two period pieces from Twentieth Century Fox. Now Amanda J. Field’s England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes has increased my appreciation of their artistry.
Field’s 2008 book is academic in tone and annoying in some of its inaccuracies (such as saying the last Canonical story was published in 1926 rather than 1927 and that the Sir Henry-Beryl romance in The Hound of the Baskervilles was a Fox invention), but well worth reading.
The author divides the 14 movies into four periods: the two Victorian-setting films, the three war-themed films (in which Rathbone wears a bizarre hairstyle previously unknown to man), “the Gothic ambiance of the middle series,” and “the rise of the female villain in the latter years.”
In all periods, but to various degrees, one of Field’s major themes is the time warp of these films. Inside of 221 Baker Street, “it is always 1895” in terms of furnishings. “Even when not at 221,” Field writes, “Holmes and Watson always carry traces of the Victorian with them through their costume.” But their dress is neither entirely modern nor thoroughly old fashioned, making the time ambiguous – an “historical neverwhere,” writer Alan Barnes called it. The ambiguity is especially acute in such Gothic entries as The Scarlet Claw.
Field gives several of the films a “close reading,” with due praise for director Roy William Neill, a veteran of Universal horror films who made these B-movies into minor works of art. Reading this book made me want to watch them again for the umpteenth time.