The View from Sherlock Peoria
The Dressed To Kill Pre-show Notes
When you have your own ongoing Sherlock Holmes site, you occasionally get to do fun stuff like a short opening talk for a screening of an old Rathbone movie at a local retro theater. This Saturday night was one of those nights, and with season 2 of BBC's "SHERLOCK" close at hand here in America, it was a good time to try to tie the two together. Here's a version of my notes for the talk:
We’re going through a pretty good period for Sherlock Holmes right now. Two big Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock movies have done blockbuster business and there are plans for a third in which Holmes and Watson come to America. There is a very successful BBC series set in the modern day called “Sherlock,” whose second season is coming to America on PBS in May and a third season is going to be made. And there is a modern day Sherlock Holmes television show being made by CBS right now that will be coming on TV here next year.
The movie you’re about to see tonight comes at the tail end of another great period in Sherlock Holmes’s popularity. In 1946, “Dressed to Kill” was the last of the fourteen films in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce played Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson over the course of seven years and two movie studios. The two actors also played Holmes and Watson in a show on the NBC radio network in two hundred weekly broadcasts during those same seven years, so between doing up to three Holmes movies a year and all those radio shows, you can see how Basil Rathbone pretty much became the vision of Sherlock Holmes for a few generations of fans.
No one came close to touching Rathbone on Holmes until Jeremy Brett took the role in a popular British TV series in the 1980s, and even then the merits of both actors were argues over constantly among Holmes fans.
These days we have two Sherlocks that the fans can argue over, Robert Downey Jr. in the movies and Benedict Cumberbatch on the BBC television series, and from what I can see among the fans, Cumberbatch seems to be winning that battle. And what’s interesting to me is that I think Benedict Cumberbatch compares more closely to Basil Rathbone than Robert Downey Jr.
When you consider that most of Rathbone’s Holmes movies were done at a pace of two or three a year, it pretty much makes them the equivalent of the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series, as it’s being made by the BBC in sets of three movie length episodes a season.
It’s also interesting to note that while that new series on BBC is being called remarkable for putting Sherlock Holmes in the modern day, Basil Rathbone and company were also making movies about Sherlock Holmes in the modern day.
Their first two movies, for Twentieth Century Fox, were “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” and they were set in the same Victorian period as the original stories. But then when Universal bought the rights to Sherlock Holmes in 1942, right in the heart of World War II, they decided to bring the films into the modern day to be more relatable to their wartime audience.
It’s interesting to note that while Sherlock Holmes kept his traditional pipe and violin while being modernized, Rathbone’s Holmes starts to pick up his stereotypical deerstalker cap in the first of the series, only to have Watson protest, “Holmes, you promised!” At that point, Holmes puts down the deerstalker and picks up a fedora. Not only would Holmes change hats as the movie series went on, he also had a couple of very distracting hairstyles as he fought Nazis and otherwise became a man of the 1940s instead of the Victorian era.
If you consider that Conan Doyle wrote the original stories set in his current day of Victorian England, it becomes apparent that Sherlock Holmes is always a character of modern times, but he just has to catch up once every fifty years.
Tonight’s movie “Dressed to Kill,” takes place after the war years, and the plot is partially borrowed from the original story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” In England, the movie was released under the title, “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code.”
When it was done, Rathbone’s contract on both the Universal film series of Sherlocks and the NBC radio show ran out, and he started relating to Arthur Conan Doyle back in 1891, when Doyle was sick of Holmes and decided to try killing him off. People would see Rathbone on the street and happily greet him with, “Hi there, Sherlock! How’s Dr. Watson?” Unlike Doyle, however, Rathbone couldn’t kill Sherlock Holmes, so he decided to run away from him and quite playing Sherlock altogether. And he did.
Well, he did for five years. In 1951, Basil Rathbone suggested that his wife write a Sherlock Holmes play for him, which they eventually started in Boston and finally took to New York. Nigel Bruce had died by then, so Rathbone had to get another Watson, and the play did pretty much as you would expect a play to do that had been written by the lead actor’s wife. It closed after three performances.
So tonight’s movie really marks the end of an era. Sherlock Holmes had played an important part in movie theaters of the 1940s, giving audiences one more connection to our allies in Great Britain. But with the end of the war and the departure of Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes needed a little rest, as he has done many times since his original popularity a hundred and twenty years ago.
But as we’ve seen, he’s very good at making a comeback, like a good hero should be.
Enjoy the film.
Not ground-breaking, but a little light pre-show entertainment as such an occasion calls for. Best of all, I get to return to the scene of the crime for the season two SHERLOCK preview show this Thursday night!
Your humble correspondent,
Past 2012 Columns