Watching 1939: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Release date: 
Sept. 1, 1939

Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Ida Lupino, Alan Marshal, Terry Kilburn, George Zucco, Henry Stephenson, E. E. Clive, Arthur Hohl, Mary Gordon, May Beatty, Peter Willes, Mary Forbes

20th Century Fox

Alfred L. Werker

Set in 1894, criminal Professor Moriarty (Zucco) is acquited of murder. Just as the trial ends, Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) has evidence, but it’s too late. Holmes compliments his criminal mind and Moriarty vows to himself that he’s going to give Holmes a puzzle. On the same day, Ann Brandon (Lupino) with a strange drawing she received. Since her father received the same drawing before he died, she’s worried that she and her brother are in danger. It’s all part of the web Moriarty weaved for Holmes.

1939 Notes:
• 1939 was the first time audiences saw Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. There were two Sherlock Holmes films released in 1939. The first was “The Hound of Baskervilles” and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” was second.
• Ida Lupino was in four films released in 1939. Her next film, “The Light that Failed” with Ronald Colman helped put her on the map for more serious roles.
• Nigel Bruce starred in three films in 1939; two of them were Sherlock Holmes films and the third was “The Rains Came.”
• Basil Rathbone starred in six films in 1939 and two of them were Sherlock Holmes.
• Terry Kilburn was in five films released in 1939.

Nigel Bruce, Basil Rathbone and Ida Lupino in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”

Other trivia: 
• One of 14 Sherlock Holmes movies made with Basil Rathbone from 1939 to 1946. After this film, the next Sherlock Holmes film wouldn’t be released until 1942.
• The last Sherlock Holmes film to be released by 20th Century Fox
• George Zucco was the first to play Moriarty in the Basil Rathbone series. Lionel Atwill played him in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) and Henry Daniel in The Woman in Green (1945).
• The movie is based on William Gillette’s 1899 play “Sherlock Holmes.”
• This film is not based on any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
The literary character of Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed many times since 1908 – beginning with a Hungarian film, “Sherlock Hochmes.” Many people have portrayed the detective from 1908 to present day – from John Barrymore to Robert Downey Jr.

But no actor is better known for playing Sherlock Holmes than Basil Rathbone, who began in the role in 1939.

“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” was the second time audiences saw Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. And in this film, we meet Sherlock Holmes’s archenemy, the criminal Prof. Moriarty, played by George Zucco.

In “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” Moriarty weaves a web of crime to throw Holmes off the track of his true crime. We think murder is the real crime and motive here, but it turns out to be a much larger theft plan.

“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” is exciting and also eerie in parts – particularly with a flute player who continuously plays an Incan death tune in the fog.

We now all know Ida Lupino as a great Warner Bros. star and director. But in 1939, she wasn’t yet the star we now know her as. Combined with “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Light that Failed” (1939), Lupino’s career got the boost it needed, and by 1940, she was receiving meaty roles at Warner Bros.

Lupino is a damsel in distress in this Holmes story, but she also shows her acting skills as her character feels she’s going crazy and is also in danger.

Mixed in with the mystery and eerie fog is a bit of humor. Holmes dons one of his disguises to keep an eye on his case while incognito. At a garden party, he is a performer with a striped jacket, fake nose and mustache – singing “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside.” Knowing it’s Rathbone, it’s entertaining and hilarious.

Of the two Sherlock Holmes films released in 1939, The Hound of Baskervilles is probably more interesting, but both are great fun.

After 1939, the next Holmes film wasn’t released until 1942 and by Universal rather than 20th Century Fox.

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