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On the trail of the cinematic Sherlock Holmes

CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

Ahead of Robert Downey Jr.'s take on the sleuth, the Billy Wilder Theatre and the Paley Center plan to screen old favorites.

December 09, 2009
  • A TIMELESS PAIRING: Basil Rathbone, left, and Nigel Bruce, shown in 1944's "The Scarlet Claw," began their prolific stints as Sherlock Holmes and Watson in 1939.
A TIMELESS PAIRING: Basil Rathbone, left, and Nigel Bruce, shown in 1944's… (UCLA Film & Television Archive )

"Sherlock Holmes," the latest incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle's analytical, coke-loving sleuth, opens Christmas Day, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Baker Street detective and Jude Law as Watson, his cohort in crime-solving.

So it's elementary that the game is afoot to pay homage to previous cinematic Holmeses.

On Monday at the Billy Wilder Theatre in Westwood, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is screening 1944's "The Scarlet Claw" and "The Spider Woman," which star the most famous celluloid Holmes and Watson: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

On Tuesday, Lionsgate is releasing the DVD of the 1979 thriller "Murder by Decree," with Christopher Plummer and James Mason as the sleuthing duo. From Dec. 18 through 31, the Paley Center for Media Studies in Beverly Hills is presenting "The Blue Carbuncle," a yuletide episode of the respected 1984-94 PBS' "Mystery!: Sherlock Holmes" series starring Jeremy Brett. Finally, Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Christmas with its "Holmes for the Holidays" programming, which features 17 Holmes mysteries, including 13 starring Rathbone and Bruce.

Rathbone and Bruce began their stint as Holmes and Watson in 1939 when 20th Century Fox produced two handsome thrillers, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."

Three years later, the series moved to Universal, where the studio took the sleuths out of the Victorian era and put them in the middle of World War II and the Nazis.

Though Conan Doyle purists generally don't approve of these updated Holmes mysteries, they are still a lot of fun thanks to the chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce and the taut direction of Roy William Neill, who helmed the majority of these low-budget Universal productions.

"You have got to love Neill's lighting and his atmosphere in the films," says Jan-Christopher Horak, head of the UCLA archive. "They didn't spend a huge amount of time on them, but they look great."

Baby-boomer Horak grew up watching these movies. "To me, Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes," he says. "It was a real career-changing move for Rathbone. He had played mostly villains before that time, but he had the perfect personality to be this slightly acidic, always ironic, articulate, bon-mots-at-the-tip-of-his-tongue-while-he-was-sleuthing character."

"What is interesting is, at the time they were making these films, Rathbone and Bruce were also appearing in a radio series, and those were set in the original time period," says UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt, who restored the Universal series.

"They came to an end in 1946," Gitt says. "Roy William Neill died around the same time the contracts for the radio show were over and Rathbone wanted to get away from it."

Rathbone had nothing on Ellie Norwood. "He was the actor who played Sherlock Holmes the most," Horak says of Norwood. "He made something like 30 Sherlock Holmes films in the 1920s in England. He started with a serial in 1921 and then was cranking out six or seven or eight films a year."

The German cinema also embraced Holmes. "Germans loved Conan Doyle and Sherlock," says Horak. "There was a whole run of German films back in the teens. They even made a couple during the Nazi period. The French [also] made a respectable number of Sherlock films."

Writer-director Nicholas Meyer ( "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan") is one Holmes purist who has rarely liked the cinematic versions. In the 1970s, he wrote three Holmes novels that were true to the Conan Doyle canon: "The West End Horror," "The Canary Trainer" and "The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution." Meyer adapted the latter for the 1976 film version starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes.

"I suppose I rather like Billy Wilder's 'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,' " Meyer says, referring to the 1970 romantic thriller starring Robert Stephens. "I think it's such an uncharacteristic film for a cynic like Wilder. I think it has this Viennese melancholy romanticism along with his wit."

But for the most part, Meyer says, "When Hollywood tackles Holmes, I think they paint with a very broad and rather insensitive brush. Watson is always portrayed as an idiot, and I never understand why a genius needs to hang out with a buffoon."

With his novels, Meyer says, "I was really sort of intent on putting the needle back in the groove of the record where I thought it was suppose to be. Watson is an average man. I didn't want to take them out of the time period. And I wasn't afraid of but rather intrigued by Holmes' drug addiction."

So what does he think of the film version of "Seven Per-Cent Solution"?

"I think it's a pretty good movie," Meyer says. "I am sort of troubled with my screenplay, which seems too wordy. It may be wordy, but at least they are smart words."

susan.king@latimes.com

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