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A look back at Sherlock Holmes on film and television

Basil Rathbone
MPI Home Video

In the past few years, Hollywood has rediscovered Sherlock Holmes. On the big screen, Robert Downey Jr. played the world’s most famous consulting detective in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), while Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller play modern-day Sherlocks on television. They are the latest in a long line of actors who have played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular character.

From 1931 to 1937, Arthur Wontner played Sherlock Holmes in a series of British films, starting with The Sleeping Cardinal (1931), known as Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Problem in the U.S. While one of the films is now considered lost, the other four in the series have fallen into the public domain and are well worth tracking down for Wontner’s spot-on portrayal of Holmes. The films themselves are a little slow, though each film improves upon the previous one, and the series ended on a high note in 1937 with Silver Blaze, based on one of the most famous Conan Doyle short stories. In most of the films, actor Ian Fleming, not to be confused with the famous creator of James Bond, costarred as Holmes’ friend and biographer Dr. John Watson.

Just two years later in 1939, Basil Rathbone starred as Holmes in 20th Century Fox’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, an atmospheric adaptation of Conan Doyle’s popular novel. Character actor Nigel Bruce costarred as Dr. Watson. The film was followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the same year with Rathbone and Bruce reprising their roles and George Zucco as the infamous villain Professor Moriarty. In 1942, Universal Studios, home of several popular movies series including the Abbott and Costello films and the Frankenstein films, added Rathbone and Bruce to their roster of stars and placed them in a new series of Sherlock Holmes films set in modern times. The first few films had Holmes and Watson applying their talents to help the war effort, but the later films, such as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), The Scarlet Claw (1944) and Terror by Night (1946) were straight mysteries. The popularity of the Universal Holmes films typecast the talented Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes for years, and even today, he is still Sherlock Holmes to generations who grew up watching the films on television.

Through the years, many famous actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes on television and in the movies, but it is actor Jeremy Brett whom many fans of the books and novels consider to have captured the true essence of the character in a British television series that ran from 1984 to 1994. Plans to film every one of Doyle’s classic tales fell through when Brett became too ill to continue the series. He died in 1995.

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