Monday, November 17, 2003

"Quick, Watson...the needle!"

Sorry about the blogging being so light today--I was attempting to assist my father in some computer-related matters and then I just decided to say "ta heck wid it" and I plopped down in front of the DVD player and put in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943).

It's one of four movies offered in a box set called The Sherlock Holmes Collection, Volume 1, available from MPI Home Video--MPI has plans to release all twelve of the Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in three separate collections. Rathbone and Bruce, who began playing the celebrated sleuth and his doctor sidekick in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), also appeared in those roles in an entertaining old-time radio series from 1939-46. Of the many screen incarnations of Holmes, Basil Rathbone is undoubtedly my favorite--he's usually the person I think of when I'm reading one of the short stories; and please, spare me the "Well-the-movie-series-wasn't-that-faithful-to-the-Doyle-stories" harangue. I've heard it all before. Yes, I know Dr. Watson wasn't the bumbler that he is in the Universal films. I remember participating in a debate on Usenet one time about this; particularly with a guy who thought Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Holmes in the British television adaptation was the definitive portrayal--he may very well have been (although I always thought he was a little too manic, but I guess cocaine will do that to you) but that was television, and I was talking about the movies. My blog, my rules.

I love the Universal Holmes films because they transcend average B-pictures in so many different ways. The acting is pretty top-notch, the scripts are tight and tidy, and the direction by Roy William Neill (he directed 11 out of the 12 entries) is exquisite--considering the budgets he had to work with. (This is pretty much SOP for Neill, though; he directed a number of fine films on the skimpiest of budgets--The Black Room (1935) and Black Angel (1946) being just two good examples.) Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is loosely--very loosely--based on Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Musgrave Ritual" and it utilizes some left-over sets from Dracula (1931) to create a nice, spooky, atmospheric little thriller in an economical 68 minutes. (If you get a chance to see it, look for Milburn (Doc Adams) Stone from TV's Gunsmoke in a small role.)

MPI has done an incredible job with the restoration of these movies on DVD; and the interesting thing is that they received a little help from Hugh Hefner (yes, the same) who provided the funding to restore most of the Universal Holmes via the good people at the UCLA Film/Television Archive. (So now, Hef can be lauded for something far greater than introducing the phrase "I read it for the articles" to the American vernacular.) These films, which were released on VHS ages ago (via CBS/Fox Video), are exactly what old movies should be--fast, fun and entertaining. (The videos have been out of print for some time now, and one of the greatest joys of my life was finding The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) and The House of Fear (1945) in a used video store--unwrapped, for five dollars apiece. I danced a jig all the way home.) They're even better on DVD.

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