The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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“Elementary My Dear Watson” owes its indelible stature in the lexicon hall of fame to this second installment in 20th Century Fox’s Sherlock Holmes series. The studio obviously did not gather the phrase to have that much resonance as they gave up on the franchise only to have it be picked up by Universal Pictures for many, many more outings. This would be the last one set in its original historical context and it’s unquestionably the gem of the lot.

Though the analogy breaks down, it was easy to see the first installment of Rathbone’s outing as Holmes like Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther (1963). You get a sense of a formidable character who is subsequently given greater fluidity and is, therefore, able to break into their own. A Shot in the Dark (1964) was far better than its predecessor because it gave Inspector Clouseau his own vehicle.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes proves to be a superior film for two such reasons. First, Rathbone and Bruce coming off their success are put front and center in this picture. But also while the first film was an adaptation of a Doyle story, this picture is an original narrative thus taking the characters from the page and extrapolating them onto the screen in new and intriguing ways.

In one sense, I’m glad for that change because whereas The Hound of the Baskervilles was much better as detailed by Doyle’s pen, this story is a creation blessed with an imagination. Taking all that is good about the original work and synthesizing it into something that never quite loses the spirit but on the contrary, builds on it all the better for distillation to the big screen.

The remarkable revelation is that the story does provide a true conundrum for Holmes as he battles it out with his arch nemesis Moriarty in a chess match of wits. While there are several moments that seem uncharacteristically on-the-nose for a man of his intellect, otherwise we relish the game and his astute observations.

It opens in a courtroom as Professor Moriarty is exonerated for a crime that everyone seems to agree that he committed. Only moments after the pronouncement Holmes rushes into the courtroom with the needed evidence. But it’s far too late. His rival has lived to scheme another day and what a scheme it is. He plans to pull off the crime of the century by distracting Holmes with two toys that he won’t be able to put down. He likens Holmes to a fickle little boy easily distracted and he plans to exploit his idle curiosity.

What unravels and what is articulated by the script is a lovely piece of intrigue that provides many distractions not only to Holmes but his audience as well. We know full-well that though they might appear completely unrelated, they’re indubitably tied together. It’s simply a matter of understanding how and for what purpose.

The first involves a young woman named Anne Bramdon (Ida Lupino). She comes to Mr. Holmes on the behalf of her older brother who has received an ominous note. The reason she’s worried is that her dear father received much the same message before he died under strange circumstances years before.

Although it ultimately takes a back seat to this more interesting case, Holmes is also counted on by his friend at the Tower of London to help with security in the transfer of a priceless diamond to be added to the Crown Jewels.

Holmes is caught up in this perplexing case in front of him as Bramdon’s frightened brother is attacked by a mysterious assailant and soon after the lady gets a note of her own telling her to attend a certain social gathering of a longtime friend. Holmes advises her to go as he will be there to protect her but of course, the date and time are the exact same as the jewel transfer. You see the point already.

Rathbone makes another stunning showing in disguise apprehending the killer and dashing off to thwart another crime as Moriarty cleverly infiltrates the Towers security no thanks to Watson. George Zucco seamlessly embodies an intellectual yet sociopathic mind filled with disdain for human life. He asserts in one such scene to his harried valet that killing a plant should be a far greater offense than taking human life. He proves overwhelmingly that a superior villain with brazen intentions elevates any story.

Director Alfred L. Werker shoots the finale with some amount of artistry that heightens the climax to an agreeable apex. It goes down as it must on the top of the Tower of London and what is curious but rather refreshing is that there are no back and forth monologues of doom and heroism. Actions speak for both our hero and villain. While London Fog now seems like free atmosphere and little else, the film is actually at its best in visual terms with well-lit Victorian interiors.

The finest success of this film was in projecting a certain image or reputation that extends far into the present age. Watson became an incorrigible bumbler. Holmes a cinematic detective both partially sanitized and still witty. Moriarty remains one of the standards for villains to this day. And with so many different iterations on these same characters, the influence on Robert Downey Jr. to the modernized Benedict Cumberbatch is equally evident. There are few qualms acknowledging the impact of such a sublime mystery adventure as this.

4/5 Star

Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The_Hound_of_the_Baskervilles_-_1939-_Poster.pngThough there’s not a shred of doubt this picture was filmed on a Hollywood backlot, our story takes place in 1889 on the Moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire. It’s all very British and when you do a quick scan of the most British figures coming out of literature and pop culture, you would probably find few higher on the list than Sherlock Holmes.

For better or for worse, this is one of the films we must thank for countless Sherlock Holmes archetypes as established by Basil Rathbone’s characterization. Joined by his oafish, vacuous-minded friend Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), Holmes looks to investigate the mysterious death of one Sir Hugo Baskerville which supposedly came to pass due to the curse of a demonic curr labeled “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Right at this very moment, his nephew Sir Henry (Richard Greene) is coming to take up residence at the supposedly deadly manor deep in the heart of Devonshire. Holmes asks for Watson to accompany him as he has important business of a different nature to attend to. It unfolds as a stylized gothic murder mystery with typical studio melodramatics that are still somehow invariably delectable.

Some might be especially surprised to find out about Holmes’ absence for much of the film’s middle though Rathbone makes a stunning reemergence just in time to do a bit more sleuthing and confirm his numerous empirical suspicions. Bruce proves just how vital he is because there must be a stooge to make the hero look all the more preeminent.

The picture is hardly a whodunit. Deciphering the guilty party is quite simple to guess, working with the tropes that we have in our toolkit. But in the habit of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s work, the enjoyment is in our hero’s highly-perceptive method of deduction.

While the short stories are probably more rich in this regard, what this film has in an iconic turn by Basil Rathbone — a man who was often made into a villain and yet was just as impeccably cast as a hero. However, to match the aesthetics at the time this picture has a broad menagerie of characters and the foggy atmosphere with the easily conjured shrouds of Gothic Hollywood.

We have shifty house servants, a deranged killer out on the loose, a husband and wife trained in the art of seances, and the crotchety old buffoon who is constantly threatening lawsuits. They are among the casts most colorful additions. Yes, we even get an appearance from the Hound, though, in fact, he’s actually a Great Dane.

It’s hardly an exercise to work your brain too strenuously but it’s a jolly fun piece of entertainment with several true moments of intrigue and menace. The pleasure is in its economy as well because the adventures of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Rathbone and Bruce proved so popular they were serialized on both radio and many more films to come.

Of course, when this effort came out, 20th Century Fox wasn’t so sure how their new hero would fare and so they conveniently cushioned his billing and his sidekick between the two love interests. I have nothing against Richard Greene or Wendy Barrie whatsoever but they are hardly the reason we turn out to see this picture.

Still, it seems necessary to at least acknowledge that one would do well to start with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work first and once you get a sense of them, enjoy this film without reservations. You can test the merits of Sherlock Holmes on this picture but you would do better not to. Because this is a Hollywood confection more than anything, proving to be a diverting adventure even as it helped usher in the accepted mythology of everyone’s favorite amateur detective for future generations.

3.5/5 Stars

If I Were King (1938)

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There’s a moment in the film that can’t help but draw us back to Genesis where Joseph (of technicolor dream coat fame) has risen in the ranks of Egypt and finds himself with the lives of his brothers in the palm of his hands. He’s able to toy with them while also blessing them immensely. It’s easy to see the hand of Providence at work. Nothing so meaningful happens in If I Were King but there is, nevertheless, a similar moment.

Ronald Colman plays the charming, most agreeable of vagabonds and that’s hardly a complaint. We might call into question the validity of his portrayal of such a mythic figure as Francois Villon but we can never doubt his pure charisma.

Francois Villon as witnessed in this film, directed by Frank Lloyd (Mutiny on the Bounty) is a glorified scoundrel who might be a far cry from the man who actually bore the name Francois Villon but, once more, do we care? Hardly.

Preston Sturges’ quill is in playfully fine form mixing eloquent verse with a lightness of being that’s able to upend typical medieval drama with its warring nations, kings, and battles. All of the aforementioned are present but they’re made rather more enjoyable. The tongue in cheek nature of it all enlivens any dips into needless melodrama.

Instead of stringing this man up for his obstination, insubordination, and theft the giggling king (Basil Rathbone) proceeds to make the same man commander of his armies for not only killing the most loathed traitor in the king’s ranks but also boasting he could do a far better job running the kingdom. The origins of a new medieval gameshow are afoot: King for a week.

Basil Rathbone shines in a particularly enjoyable performance for its various quirks including a cackling delivery that feels completely at odds with the persona he cultivated with the majority of his villainous roles. In other words, it’s a real corker.

Meanwhile, in his newfound place of power, the remade Grand Constable finds he has considerable influence. First, to free his friends from the caverns of the dungeon and being by the king’s side to advise him in his moment of crisis. You see, his generals don’t want to fight the militant Burgundians who are about to lay siege to his kingdom.

Villon receives a stroke of genius from the lovely lady in waiting (an exquisite Frances Dee clothed in royal opulence), unload all the kingdom’s food supplies to the poor so the feckless military leaders will get off their duffs and be stirred to action with their larders all but depleted. It’s a drastic and terribly outrageous solution but it does produce some results.

The earlier raucous swordfight within a tavern against the king’s constable is only surpassed and subsequently quashed by the sheer magnitude of the final conflict between the Burgundian marauders and the city’s protectorate — a sequence that was declared to use some 900 extras. It’s certainly no hoax watching the mad chaos of clattering steel.

It was some time into watching this medieval period piece that I realized if Hollywood were to remake such a film as this or one of a similar nature it seems like there would be an unspoken impetus to somber it up and make it into high drama.

All but gone are the days when period dramas could be fun with a touch of whimsy to go with the usual action, adventure, and romance. Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman, those charming heroes of old, are a forgotten breed of leading men and the last time I remember a film channeling this same enjoyment in such things was The Princess Bride now over 30 years ago.

In truth, I suppose the space for medieval heroes and swashbucklers has been edged out by newer and bigger blockbuster beasts. Namely, sci-fi and superhero mammoths that have taken over the main stage. And I have nothing particularly against said tent poles mind you, but I do long for more pictures like this one. Period pieces that don’t have to be so serious. They can have fun too (even if historical accuracy goes a bit to the wayside). That’s a pardonable offense when there’s no pretense for accuracy.

Because If I Were King is blessed by its rich and constantly comedic overtones. That is no doubt the gift of Preston Sturges. This picture can wear the strains poetry and still keep the mood a sprightly one. Films like this are something special.

4/5 Stars

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

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It’s no surprise that this adaptation begins with that oft-repeated bit of poetic parallelism. “It was the best of times it was the worst of times” etc. Of course, in its abridged format the opening suggests the universal quality of those iconic words. It was a period very much like the present.

The scene is set. What follows are images that prove to be deliciously atmospheric with a loving mixture of British colloquialism and Hollywood storytelling all stirred together in an agreeable period drama.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this film, directed by Jack Conway, is that it manages to capture some of the essence of Dickens’ novel even if it does not wholly enrapture me as the source material did those many years ago in my freshman honors English class.

The beauty of literature is that it allows you to create pictures in your head — to let your imagination run rampant — the magic of film is how it allows for such spectacles to be brought to us visually though they might come out imperfectly. Owing to length and practicality, it cannot completely transcribe every last detail onto the screen resorting to jumps in time and abridging of the text.

In fact, a slight criticism is that the film resorts to title cards too much. Still, there are some inspiring moments including the climactic storming of the Bastille sequences courtesy of that inspired combination of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. It’s simultaneously harrowing and marvelously condenses the sweeping forces of the mob rule’s swift rise during the French Revolution into a matter of brief images that overwhelm with their sheer scope and ferocity.

Also, whether this film succumbs to pure histrionics or is instead an impassioned interpretation of Charles Dickens’ material is up for debate but there is no denying that there is a pleasing texturing to many of the most prominent characterizations.

Though a minor part, Basil Rathbone that legendary villain turns in one of his myriad performances as a heartless French nobleman. Whereas Miss Pross is played with endearing yet resolute defiance by Edna May Oliver. Both Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay exude a certain geniality that we’ve come to attribute to the roles. They are less interesting but necessary for the story to have any magnitude.

The most telling difference in depictions for me was in the character of Mr. Lorry (Charles Gillingwater) likened to a crotchety old coot though Dickens paints a picture of him that feels much more reserved and similarly steadfast. I would know because out of all the many figures, I always resonated with him a man who remained a supporting player but nevertheless reflected fine qualities of loyalty and quiet integrity.

But of course, we must inevitably come to Sydney Carton. In the book, he transforms into our hero coming to the fore among a wide array of other characters but with Ronald Colman undoubtedly the biggest star in our film we are conveniently tipped off to his crucial importance and he is vital to the story.

It could have been all too probable that like The Prisoner of Zenda, Ronald Colman could have taken a double role because (SPOILER ALERT) Dickens’ original novel hinges on the likeness of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. But in this case, it’s almost a stroke of good fortune that Colman was only given one part.

In it, Ronald Colman plays the brilliant young solicitor who nevertheless spends most of his evenings with his snout in a bottle wasting so much of his talent toward purposeless diversions. He’s a charming fellow but he seems hardly a person of note. But that’s not the final word.

Colman is aptly able to focus all his energies on the man and he’s further allowed to embody one of the great redemption tales in all of English literature. It seems he knew it too, willingly relinquishing his iconic and beloved mustache in deference to the role which no doubt was one of the defining moments of his career.

There’s also no denying the transcendent themes that course through this narrative and reveal themselves much as we would expect. Because this is a story of ultimate sacrifice and a very overt evocation of the Christ story.

Thus, it seems no small coincidence that as Carton takes part in a selfless act that will define his life the trills of “Come All Ye Faithful” quietly play in the background. The inference is plain. Though, it’s a political fable as well a spiritual one, Carton’s words are what entrench themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some might vehemently disagree but this is a Christmas film if ever there was one. Because it points to hope even in the darkest times. That’s how those paradoxical lines can stand true. It was the worst of times but also the very best.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

the adventures of robin hood 1As a young boy, no hero was greater in my mind’s eye than Robin Hood and only Star Wars held a more honored spot in my childhood imagination. Because, to this day, Robin of Locksley remains the quintessential hero of mythical lore. Part historical truth mostly canonized myth and that’s the beauty of him. We can believe in him — see how he was in so many ways real but in the same instance larger than life.

To his credit, Erroll Flynn does a surprisingly phenomenal job in portraying the legendary outlaw in Lincoln green with a bit of British (Australian…) cheekiness, as well as bravado and charm. In fact, the film is full of so many wonderful elements from its engaging action sequences full of timeless spectacle and a plethora of characters who come right off the pages of the greatest Robin Hood narratives. Will Scarlett, Much the Miller, Friar Tuck and of course Little John still hold a great deal of esteem in my heart. While there are no men more villainous and corrupted than the likes of Prince John (Claude Rains), The Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).

Meanwhile, Michael Curtiz took the reigns of the film and makes it a lively swashbuckler that revels in a sense of good fun and that starts with Flynn’s performance radiating out from there. While this early use of three-strip Technicolor only serves to add yet another layer of elegance and vibrancy to the film’s look. It truly was made for color and every shade of Lincoln green and every bit of medieval opulence proves to be a feather in the film’s cap. It looks absolutely stunning and the same goes for young Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian.

Olivia_de_Havilland_and_Errol_Flynn_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailerFrom what I know from Robin Hood folklore, specifically Howard Pyle’s seminal edition, the film is surprisingly true to many of the origin stories and tales that have long since proliferated. As an audience, we become privy to the first meetings of Robin and the formidable Little John (Alan Hale) who lays him out in the local stream after a bout with quarterstaffs. Then, in another instance, Robin provokes the portly Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) who happens to be a master swordsman and a lover of good food and drink. Still, other vignettes include Robin’s successful masquerade as a lowly archer who wins the grand prize at the Sheriff of Nottingham’s Archery Tournament.

Of course, the most thrilling set pieces occur in Nottingham Castle, initially when Robin brazenly drops in on Prince John and his cronies bearing a deer over his shoulders. Admittedly I have Star Wars on the mind, but this sequence is rather reminiscent of Luke wandering into Jabba’s Palace.

Then, the climax comes later with the return of King Richard and Robin’s assault on the castle full of stellar swordplay and general chaos. The duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is especially thrilling and it holds up well even today because there is something so satisfying in watching them thrust and feint back and forth.

the adventures of robin hood 2For me, the reason very few heroes surpass Robin Hood is based on his innumerable qualities. He’s a superior fighter with bow, sword or staff. He’s blessed with a wonderful wit and impressive leadership capabilities. He wins over the girl with his charm. He gets to live out in the forest with his best friends, eating great food. But most of all, he’s a rebel with a heart of gold, robbing the rich to feed the poor.

He’s an embodiment of all things that a little boy dreams of as a kid and in many ways, he’s a fairy tale, but the kind of fairy tale that a boy readily conjures up in his own imagination. The villains are formidable and the action is unmistakable, but it’s all in good fun. That’s why the Adventures of Robin Hood remains an enduring folk tale of the cinema. Its hero transcends a single medium. Because he lives in the heart of many a young lad long after the title credits have rolled.

5/5 Stars

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

markofzorro1Madrid–when the Spanish Empire encompassed the globe and young blades were taught the fine and fashionable art of killing…

The mythology of Zorro most certainly starts with the swashbuckling silents of Douglas Fairbanks, but the character’s legacy would be carried forward into the 1940s. So much so that it even gave some inspiration to a young Bruce Wayne, along with numerous boys picking up comic books in his generation.

In all fairness, I don’t know a whole lot about director Rouben Mamoulian. I assumed his forte was costume dramas and stage production as he did do a lot on Broadway. And if that is true, The Mark of Zorro, while not seemingly the work of some creative mastermind, is invariably enjoyable. That is also to the credit of 1940s matinee idol and dashing leading man Tyrone Power. Although over his career and even in this film, he proves to be more than a handsome face. He seemed to hold his own up against Basil Rathbone when it came to swordplay and he danced between the superficial and heroic personas with relative ease. It brings to mind other such roles as Christopher Reeves in Superman (1978) for instance. That of course, brings up the need for an origin story.

markofzorro2In many ways, it feels anachronistic that Don Diego Vega makes the long voyage from Spain to Los Angeles California, but then in the 1800s Spain still had some presence on the West Coast. It’s there were Vega gives up his sword, rendezvous with his father and mother, while slowly taking on a second life. Zorro certainly has a wonderful double life going. By day a stuffy, foppish playboy fascinated with magic tricks and given to fatigue. Then, by night he dons the black mask and saber as “the fox” wholly prepared to rob from the oppressors and bring hope to the common man. He’s the Robin Hood of the Spanish settlements marking his territory with his iconic “Z” and simultaneously getting a bounty stuck on his head.

markofzorro3The corrupt tub of lard Luis Quintero pushed Vega’s father out of office with the help of his menacing right-hand man Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). On the surface, Don Diego plays into the older man’s hand, while at night he fools everyone including the local priest (Eugene Palette) with his masquerade.

Perhaps most importantly of all Zorro is able to romance the young ingenue Lolita Quintero by eventually letting her in on his little secret and taking down her nefarious uncle. But of course, everything must come down to some epic swordplay and heroics. Zorro and Pasquale eventually face on in an office sword fight that made me absolutely giddy with excitement. As he leads the revolt against the powers that be there is an obvious energy pulsing through the storyline. This is a pure cinematic action-adventure that glories in the age of swashbucklers.

True, we have a pair of tragic stars in Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. He died of a heart attack at the age of 44 and she died only a few years later at 41 years of age after a house fire. But, for the time being, they are young, vibrant, and full of life. Perfect protagonists in a film where love and justice reign supreme and heroes always conquer evil.

4/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1956)

ad192-thecourtjesterposterStarring Danny Kaye with Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, and Angela Lansbury, this comedy of errors has a man posing as a court jester in order to assist the true heir to regain his throne. After infiltrating the castle, Kaye unknowingly gets mixed up in a murder plot, falls under the spell of the witch, and must complete his mission, all the while posing as the funny man. However, he finds himself accidentally jousting for the king’s daughter as well as dueling while his beautiful accomplice tries to bail him out and save their plan. Despite all the mishaps, more often then not everything turns out right and that goes for the ending too. Danny Kaye is hilarious and some of the scenes are classic including the snapping spell and the chalice from the palace. It is certainly evident after watching this film that life could not better be!

4.5/5 Stars