The arrival of “Baskerville” on the stage of the Bellevue Little Theatre, which I am charged with reviewing, got me thinking about the old movie on which the stage comedy is based.
Among the many favors my father did me during my formative years was introducing me to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. This was rather gilding the lily on his part, as he had already introduced me to the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello and the Hope/Crosby road movies. What more can a man do for his son?
So there I sat, one evening long ago, watching 1939’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Entranced by the eerie fog and glowing gaslight of 1889 London, the razor sharp reasoning and brisk manner of Holmes, the bumbling affability of Dr. Watson and the misty moors of Devonshire, I joined, forever and inextricably, that tribe of devotees which regards any Sherlock Holmes not portrayed by Basil Rathbone (and any Watson not played by Nigel Bruce) as an abomination and a heresy.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” was the first time Rathbone and Bruce teamed up to portray Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal duo. Thirteen more films followed before “Dressed to Kill” (1946) brought their collaboration to a close.
It matters nothing that the first two of the 14 films were set in Victorian London (where Holmes belongs) and the ensuing 12 in the 1940s where Holmes added to his crusade against crime a further crusade against Nazi spies. All captured that classic Rathbonian air of eerie mystery, sometimes played to the backdrop of hooves and carriages, sometimes to the purring engine of Wolseley police cars.
Holmes, given his literary arrival at the peak of the old British Empire, must forever be associated with a world remembered for cavalry charges, dispatches from the front, the Scramble for Africa and a Boer War in which Winston Churchill first won global renown. He is caped, caned, hatted and piped, dutifully patriotic and the scourge of Scotland Yard whose upstart sons of the middle and lower classes are no match for his quasi-aristocratic genius.
There is something disconcerting about Sherlock’s’ deductive powers. It is certain that, after standing in his presence for 30 seconds, he will have identified all one’s faults and frailties and recognized every sin, mortal or venial, as well as what you ate for breakfast. There is no escape. He could extract the same information from a photograph.
Some years ago, recovering at home from a surgery, I secured a copy of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes.” These were the original Conan Doyle short stories, not his novels or the later 1940s movie inventions that did not appear until some 10 years after his death in 1930.
While I thought Sir Arthur a little unfair with his fantastical denouements, none of which could possibly be anticipated even by the most discerning reader, I could see why the stories caught the imagination of their Victorian readers.
Sherlock’s reassuring competence, the inevitably of justice, the trust (soon to wane) in upper crust accents, the sense that all was well and would forever remain well in the foggy, sceptered isle, all spoke of a permanent comfort at the apex of world power.
Little did they know, as Conan Doyle penned “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” in 1894, that Gavrilo Princip had been born and that their comfortable, ordered world would soon implode.