In 1886, Arthur Conan Doyle was a twenty-seven-year old doctor and struggling writer when he decided to craft a novel built around a private detective who solves crimes using scientific observation and deductive reasoning. Sherlock Holmes was born, and in perfect synch with the arrival of cinema. By the time the last stories were published, in 1927, Sherlock Holmes was already a somewhat familiar sight on movie screens throughout Europe and North America.
Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, have proved to be protean figures, moving from short story to novel to the stage to the screen to radio to television, indeed, Holmes is sometimes cited as the fictional character to have appeared in the greatest number of cinematic adaptations. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Holmes adaptations were filmed in France, Denmark and Germany, as well as in England and the U.S. Since the coming of sound, while almost all film adaptations have come from English-speaking countries, there has been no shortage of them. Seen in retrospect, these adaptations are fascinating for the way they update the fictional detective to match their times, from Basil Rathbone’s wartime Holmes in 1940s-1960s whimsy to 1970s pastiche and paranoia. The latest version will be released this fall: Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, action film hero.
The other work of Conan Doyle’s to live a healthy life onscreen is his 1912 novel The Lost World, which has been adapted several times, inspiring films from King Kong to Jurassic Park (1993). This Harvard Film Archive series samples several cinematic incarnations of Conan Doyle’s talent as a storyteller and reveals the ways that Holmes has continued to live on in the popular imagination, nearly a century after the publication of the author’s last Holmes story.
Sherlock Holmes and Friends coincides with “Ever Westward”: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and American Culture, an exhibit at Harvard’s Houghton Library on display now through August 5. For more information, visit their website.
Special thanks: Peter Accardo, Houghton Library; Pat Doyen, George Eastman House; Jeffrey Nemerovski, CBS.
Directed by Sidney Lanfield. With Basil Rathbone, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie
US 1939, 35mm, b/w, 78 min.
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive
This classic Sherlock Holmes film from Hollywood’s annus mirabilis 1939 is remarkable for two reasons: it is the first to feature Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, and it is perhaps the film most faithful to a Conan Doyle original. Fox’s attention to recreating the novel’s tale of a family curse and a mythic creature on the moors extended to casting British actors in the lead roles and hiring a British screenwriter. Director Sidney Lanfield (best known for comedies) sustains the film’s taut atmosphere with his sparing use of music and a top-notch cast of character actors including John Carradine and Lionel Atwill. The film was successful enough to generate a follow-up later the same year; these two films in turn gave birth to the Rathbone/Bruce series for Universal in the 1940s.
Directed by Terence Fisher.
With Peter Cushing, André Morell, Christopher Lee
UK/US 1959, 35mm, color, 84 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Britain’s Hammer Films released a string of horror films prized for their brooding atmosphere. Accordingly, Hammer’s Holmes adaptation is based on the most Gothic of Conan Doyle’s writings. Terence Fisher is recognized as the most striking of the directors to work for Hammer; here he makes the most of the story’s supernatural aspects and the film’s setting on England’s atmospheric moors. Besides being the first Holmes movie shot in color, The Hound of the Baskervilles also features a fine Holmes in Peter Cushing, who had already starred in a handful of Hammer films as the nemesis of various supernatural villains played by Christopher Lee. Here Lee appears in a sympathetic role, as Sir Henry Baskerville, who turns to Holmes for help fighting a family curse.
Directed by Herbert Ross.
With Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Duvall
US/UK 1976, 35mm, color, 113 min.
Print from Universal Pictures
Since Conan Doyle’s death, the Holmes literature has expanded as other authors have penned pastiches, often constructed around imagined encounters between Holmes and other turn of the century figures. Perhaps the “golden age” of these imitations was the 1970s, thanks in large part to the success of Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Meyer imagined a tormented Holmes (played by Nicol Williamson) undergoing analysis to treat his cocaine addiction with none other than Sigmund Freud. Meyer scripted this lavish adaptation with an all-star cast, including Vanessa Redgrave and Laurence Olivier in supporting roles and a song by Stephen Sondheim.
Directed by Anthony Harvey.
With George C. Scott, Joanne Woodward, Jack Gilford
US 1971, 35mm, color, 88 min.
Print from Universal Pictures
They Might Be Giants grafts the Don Quixote story onto Holmes—in late-twentieth century Manhattan, where a mentally unbalanced judge has come to believe he is the singular detective. On the verge of being institutionalized, he becomes the patient of a sympathetic (female) psychiatrist named…Dr. Watson! Besides Don Quixote, They Might Be Giants also draws from The Madwoman of Chaillot in its tale of insanity as a form of protest against alienating modernity. While the film occasionally skirts uncomfortably close to outright whimsy, the lead performances by George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward ground the proceedings in an emotional reality that ultimately proves quite moving.
The House of Fear: Directed by R. William Neill.
With Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Aubrey Mather
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 69 min.
The Scarlet Claw: Directed by R. William Neill.
With Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Gerald Hamer
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 74 min.
Both prints courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive
Surely the most famous incarnation of Sherlock Holmes by a screen actor is that of Basil Rathbone, who played the detective in fourteen Hollywood films from 1939 to 1946. While Rathbone’s Holmes has been universally praised, the accompanying Dr. Watson has proved more controversial. Nigel Bruce’s Watson has been dismissed as a bumbler, light years from the stalwart army veteran imagined by Conan Doyle. Yet, as a comic foil, Bruce does quite well. In fact, Bruce’s success in the role may have rehabilitated Watson for the screen; the character is absent from a number of previous cinematic Holmes adaptations. After two films for Fox in 1939, Rathbone and Bruce revived their characterizations for a series of films at Universal released between 1942 and 1946, almost all directed by Roy William Neill. Tonight’s program offers two of the most highly regarded films from this series. The Scarlet Claw finds Holmes and Watson in Canada investigating a grisly murder in a film that resembles Universal’s classic horror films from the 1930s. The House of Fear is considered the most convincing mystery of the series, with its plot that echoes echoing Agatha Christie’s seminal And Then There Were None (1939). Both films preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Harry Hoyt.
With Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Wallace Beery
US 1925, 35mm, tinted, silent, 106 min.
Print courtesy of the George Eastman House
In 1912, Conan Doyle published The Lost World, the tale of a supposedly real expedition that had discovered dinosaurs living on a remote plateau in Venezuela. This film version is remembered primarily for its groundbreaking use of special effects; using stop-motion animation of models of prehistoric creatures, Willis H. O’Brien pioneered techniques that would be used for decades to come. Unfortunately, there seem to be no surviving prints of the film as it was initially released. Working from the available incomplete and foreign versions, as well as the film’s scenario, preservationists at the George Eastman House painstakingly recreated as much of the original version as they could. Preservation funded by The National Endowment for the Arts.