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  • Sherlock Holmes in the Blitz November 3, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    ***Dedicated to Stu***

    Some wonderful lunchtimes in the last week re-watching the Basil Rathbone (Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Watson) Sherlock Holmes films, a series that begin in 1939 with the Hound of the Baskervilles and then went on to Dressed to Kill in 1946, with twelve films and numerous radio dramatisations intervening. Lovers of the Canon often despise the Rathbone-Bruce pairing because it was here that Dr Watson went from being a reliable narrator sitting at the feet of the master, to a stumbling, laugh-a-minute buffoon. The innovation relied on some of the imbecile detective side-kicks from the golden age of English detective novels, e.g. doltish Hastings: it was the logical conclusion of the expert-amateur partnership. But forget this controversy – and here’s to long life for Watson the well-meaning dunce – and turn instead to the curious settings of said films.

    All previous film dramatisations of Holmes had been set in the present, in the 1920s or the 1930s. For Edwardians the Victorians just weren’t far enough away to be ‘a foreign country’. But the Rathbone-Bruce Hound of the Baskervilles was the first to knowingly pick the past with smog in London and hansom cabs. The same was true of the second film: the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (also 1939) with its plot to steal the crown jewels. What does this mean? Well, think James Bond. From the beginning up until Sky Fall Bond is always in the present. By pushing back Holmes into the pea-soupers the makers were providing an interesting new take. It would be the equivalent of setting the next Bond film in the 1950s or 1960s as an espionage Mad Men.

    In any case, the third film in the series came in 1942 (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror) and was placed squarely in contemporary, wartime London with Holmes and Watson running after an underground Nazi radio station.  The change from a sinister Victorian London to the London of the Blitz, a change that persisted in the next films, is jarring but also affecting: one of the strongest shots in the entire Rathbone-Bruce series is 221B Baker Streets with sandbags placed around it in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, the next film in the series, which sees Holmes going briefly undercover in Switzerland. There are other fabulous moments: including the gentle mocking of Churchill at the end of the Red Claw, English criminals standing up to the Nazis in the Voice and Moriarty choosing money over country, proving that patriotism really isn’t the final refuge of the scoundrel. Then for those who prefer their wars post, there is the Attlee-sounding speech from the end of Terror by Night, which sees Holmes veer dangerously towards socialism or the promise to make the world safe for democracy (ahem) in Pursuit to Algiers.

    Would Arthur Conan-Doyle have approved? Almost certainly. After all, he himself had enlisted Holmes in the First World War. The final short story in the Canon is The Last Bow that see Watson and Holmes, as pensioners, bringing down a ‘Prussian’ spy ring in Britain on the eve of the Great War. It ends with shamelessly propagandistic lines that would be later used in the Voice of Terror (in Miss-Minerva-style in a bombed out church!):

    ‘There’s an east wind coming, Watson.’ ‘I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.’ ‘Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.’

    Of course, Sherlock Holmes was not the only Allied hero to be updated for the war effort: other examples drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. There is a memorable Tarzan Film (Tarzan Triumphs, link to great concluding scene) where Johnny Weismuller takes on the ‘Nazis’, a word that comically enough he can’t pronounce. Various Disney and other cartoon heroes lined up behind the American push for victory, including some painful anti-Japanese efforts and an interesting dissection of Nazi educational methods. Here are some more collected by Tim Brookes.

    And where do you get these fabulous films of another age? Beach used to stupidly pay twenty dollars a time on Amazon (sigh). Now he just watches them on youtube or better still downloads them free of charge from archive.org (relax Gods of Copyright they are all in the public domain): links below.

    (Note when I’ve linked to youtube I’ve always linked to the film split up into various parts to make watching easier. I always put a clip on pause and let it run for ten minutes and then while I’m watching it, let the next clip run and load. Sorry if this is ‘the bleeding obvious’, but it took me three years to get my head round it. There are various programs too to download from youtube, though be careful of spyware etc.)

    1. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

    2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

    3. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

    4. Sherlock and the Secret Weapon (1943)

    5. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

    6. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

    7. The Spider Woman (1944)

    8. The Scarlet Claw (1944)

    9. The Pearl of Death (1944)

    10. The House of Fear (1945)

    11. The Woman in Green (1945)

    12. Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

    13. Terror by Night (1946)

    14. Dressed to Kill (1946)

    Here is a stylish Rathbone-Bruce website with the radio recordings. And a real treat Basil Rathbone reading out several Holmes stories, though it seems the link has been taken down, sorry:


    KMH writes in: ‘The Holmes-Watson duo continues its transmutations. Now there is a program on TV where Holmes is a recovering heroin addict solving crimes in New York City called “Elementary.”  The interesting part of the show is Lucy Liu as Watson, a surgeon suspended for two months who has at least temporarily left the profession to help in the recovery of drug addicts. http://www.cbs.com/shows/elementary/ You can see past episodes on your computer.  I would prefer an older, more mature, less frenetic Holmes, but that may occur only if the program survives more than one season. Who knows what the next Holmes concept will be?’ As a partial answer to KMH’s question there is a BBC update of Holmes that has won lots of plaudits named Sherlock  Next up is Andy the Mad Monk who writes: Following your Sherlock during the Blitz theme, many comic book heros also took part in the war effort: Worth looking at some of the other Galleries as well.  Particularly look at this one:  Many of the racial stereotypes are very disturbing. Thanks Andy and KMH!