I finally got around to ordering The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a set of the 14 films that starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. I can absolutely say that Rathbone is my favorite Holmes, even overtaking good ol’ Bandersnatch Cumberbund. After being typecast for years as a fantastic villain in such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro, he got typecast all over again because he was just so darn perfect as Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature character. (No offense to Professor Challenger, the hairy little bastard.) Unfortunately since they didn’t know what to do with Watson, he became an increasing buffoon. Indeed, Bruce is at once revered and reviled in the pantheon of screen Watsons. On the one hand, he did give an indelible performance as Dr. Watson that actually manages to be endearing on occasion. Mostly because he and Rathbone have an admirable on-screen chemistry. On the other, he set the previously nonexistent template as the “dumbass Watson” that managed to hold on in pop culture long past when it should have considering that’s not the way the character comes across in the original stories.
The main thing is simply that these are, for the most part, great films that manage to entertain. The first two in the set, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are from Fox and they’re the only two that have not been restored by the UCLA film preservation department. Of the two, Adventures is rougher. While the image is sharp and it’s better than you’ll probably ever see again, there’s more than a handful of film defects. Scratches, dirt and God knows what else are so prevalent, that they’re pretty damned prevalent. What, you expected a humorous metaphor? It’s bizarre that Baskervilles was the first Holmes film to be set in the Victorian period. It’s even stranger to think that at the time the film was made, it was less than 40 years off the time that the film actually took place. But that only lasts for the first two films. Of the Fox films, Baskervilles is probably my favorite.
After that the Universal films kick in and we get to see something different and awesome; Sherlock Holmes fightin’ the Nazis! Indeed, part of what made Stephen Moffatt try setting his Sherlock series in the present day is the fact that it’d been done before. While there are definitely some Victorian stylizations made (horses occasionally appear, for example) and some of the stories are based on the original Doyle works, they take place in the era of which they were filmed and the first two of them, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, are completely enveloped in WWII. In these, as well as Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Holmes almost seems to be as much spy as sleuth. Eventually they do go back to being the kind of mystery you would expect to see Holmes in and the last one I’ve watched within the set so far, The Scarlet Claw, is an excellent original story of a murderer in Quebec as Holmes plays ghostbuster.
I’ve been mainlining these films like black tar heroin since my set arrived, probably in part because they are all only between an hour and eighty minutes long. Even the elaborate Fox pictures manage to move at a good clip, but the Universal films were considered to be high-profile b-pictures and are the shortest of the bunch. They are obviously cheaper, but some of them certainly manage to still put a lot of great atmosphere into the proceedings. The best Holmes movies from this era definitely make use of noir elements with their slightly stylized sets and their dark visuals. Of course the way it turns out, the best of the movies seem to be the ones in the worst shape. Scarlet Claw especially has some moments, most of which I assume happen around reel changes, that look like the film was attacked by shapeless black dots. In an introduction on the first disc to head off any complaints, the fella in charge of the restoration of the films, saving them from oblivion in some cases, says that they used the best elements available to them at the time. Some of them are 16mm blow ups simply because that’s all they could find. Some of them, like Washington and The Spider Woman, look pretty great for what they are. I mean, c’mon. Universal never intended for these to stand the test of time. That’s why they sold the rights to them of to another company and a few of them weren’t even kept under copyright. It really is a testament to the enduring power of the films and to Rathbone that many of them became late-night classics, showing on local channels like the Universal monsters series did. One thing the set does that I, as an anal bastard, really appreciate is restoring the Universal logo and in some cases even reattaching short PSAs from World War II that ask theater audiences to buy war bonds. Just one of those little touches that really shows they put an effort into these films. I can’t see there being a better release of these films and if you like them, just get the set.
On Saturday I made a snap decision to head to Kansas City to see an afternoon screening of The Iron Giant and man am I glad I did. Even though it’s on DVD I haven’t watched it in years and it was my first chance to see it on the big screen since I saw it twice during it’s initial release; once alone and the second time dragging my college buddy Joe and his brother to see it. So I think I accounted for about 10% of it’s total box office, as badly as Warner Bros. sold it back in the day. Given the fact that the visually arresting cult film still hasn’t found its way to blu ray despite it being directed by Brad Freakin’ Bird (his real middle name), the guy behind The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible 4, f’gosh sakes, shows they still don’t know what they have in their hands. I was at a Saturday matinee of a 15-year-old film that flopped, and it was a full house. And I only saw one kid in the audience. That should tell them something. I shouldn’t need to sell the movie to you. At this point, I don’t know what I would tell you that fans haven’t gushed about for the last decade and a half.
What I really loved about the screening is the amount of delighted tittering that came out during the credits when Vin Diesel was credited as the voice of The Giant. I have to wonder how many people never realized he was the throat behind the gravel. It is the reason I was championing him as the voice of Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. I won on that one. Not so much on Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon. I actually am a big fan of Bradley Cooper. I think him being dropped from Alias was when it started to peter out. I loved him as Face in The A-Team. He was great in The Hangover and Wet Hot American Summer. But he basically has two modes; super nice guy and smarmy asshole. And Rocket is neither of those things. I guess he could prove me wrong, but I was really hoping for David Tennent or even Jason Statham. I’m sure part of that comes from the fact that the Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 game has linked him to a cockney accent for the rest of my association with the character. I suppose it only has me so riled because every other casting decision has either been unexpectedly inspired or highly intriguing. Guess we’ll see. I think it’s the Marvel film I’m looking forward to most in Phase II. Aside from maybe the second Avengers.