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Garp's Franchise Film reviews
#31
'Sherlock Holmes in Washington' [1943]

This 1943 film could quite well have been re-titled 'Sherlock Holmes and the MacGuffin'. Here, Holmes is on the trail of missing documents vital to the war effort. His sleuthing takes him across the pond to Washington where he mixes with society ladies and shady antique dealers.

This is another of those not-really-Holmesian plots but it's a cracking film nonetheless. There's little in the way of expert deduction that your average cop couldn't have figured out but it's such a fun romp I honestly didn't care. It's also one of the funniest so far, with some great banter and rapport between Rathbone and Bruce.

The film introduces the characters and story well as we follow them from plane to train. There's an Agatha Cristie-like ensemble with fewer red herrings, and Holmes is nowhere to be seen for several scenes. This is one of those films where the audience know more than the characters and it's handled remarkably well. A scene in which a seemingly innocent object is passed around frivously holds great suspense.

The flag-waving is toned down even more in this film and I'm beginning to get used to Rathbone's hair. Conan Doyle may not recognise his creation in 'Sherlock Holmes in Washington' but I'm OK with that, so long as these films continued to be this brisk and entertaining.
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#32
BONUS: 'Sherlock Holmes' [1922]

John Barrymore stars as the titular hero in this 1922 silent film. It was restored with funding from Hugh Hefner, of all people, and features future stars such as William Powell, Roland Young and Hedda Hopper. It is based on a play by William Gillette.

The film dispenses with Conan Doyle canon from the start, showing Holmes and Watson as college friends (not dissimilar to 'Young Sherlock Holmes', actually.) However, little effort is made to de-age the stars, making them easily the oldest students on campus. More shenanigans ensue to get purists in a tizzy - Holmes falls in love at first sight, seemingly spending years moping over this lost love.

The plot is too fragile to properly withstand the whole film, making it quite a chore to get through, unfortunately. A prince - another old college friend - jilted his true love when he takes the crown. As is the wont of delicate ladies in the 20s, no doubt, she kills herself. Years later, the new King is being blackmailed. Throw Moriarty into the mix and you have a confusing and tedious mess.

Moriarty is made up like a cross between Fagin and Scrooge, for reasons that only become clear much later in the film when Holmes utilises one of his famous disguises. There are some good location shots - I love seeing old film of London - and Barrymore seems to fill Holmes' boots reasonably well. The restoration is well done; the intertitles look new and they solve the stabilization issue with a bouncing horizontal frame. It's little distracting but probably preferable to cutting off more of the image. 

I wish I liked this more. It's obvious a great deal of care was taken in making and especially restoring what is probably the earliest depiction of Holmes on screen that has survived. Unfortunately, the plot is dated, there are few high stakes and is dull overall. For Holmes completists and those interested in living historical documents.
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#33
'Sherlock Holmes faces death' [1943]

I feel ill-equipped to properly review this film. I dozed off more times than I care to mention while watching it. In fact, as I read the plot summary on Wikipedia, I realise there are great chunks of the thing I was merrily napping through.

Is this a reflection on the film itself? Partly. 'Sherlock Holmes faces death' is the first of the contemporary films to dispense with any Nazi bad guys, and I sort of missed them. Instead, we have a straight-up mystery on our hands, with greedy toffs and skulking butlers. On an evening when I wasn't so obviously knackered, I probably would have enjoyed it, but I couldn't help drifting off.

Uncharacteristically, Bruce's Watson irked me, being far too buffoonerish in this one for my liking. On the plus side, Rathbone had an altogether more acceptable haircut. It seems I missed a game of chess played with humans, which is a shame; I would have liked to have seen that. Oh well.
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#34
'The Spider Woman' [1943]

We live in interesting and unpredictable times. It is comforting, therefore, to learn that times were just as confused back in 1943, where Sherlock Holmes had to battle a mute hopping child catching flies, gas-producing sweet wrappers, a venomous spider and a pygmy while pretending to be Indian or dead.

I'm a sucker for bonkers plots and 'The Spider Woman' fits the bill in spades. I can't believe how much madness they managed to fit into a sprightly 62 minute film. The premise is that men are seemingly killing themselves unexpectedly during the night - the so-called 'Pyjama Suicides' (brilliant!). Holmes suspects murder, of course, and is willing to drown himself to prove it.

The title character is played by Gale Sondergaard in a wonderfully vampy way. Her banter with Rathbone is reminiscent of his verbal sparring with Moriarty in previous films, this time with a flirtatious edge. Rathbone gets to don a couple of disguises, his first being better than the dated stereotypical Indian. Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade has a more prominent role here; he and Bruce as Watson make a good double act.

All kudos, though, goes to Teddy Infuhr as the aforementioned mute hopping boy. Why does he hop? I don't know and I don't care; I'm just happy that he does, adding extra enjoyment to an already bizarre film. Apparently there was a spin-off - 'The Spider Woman Strikes Back' - with Sondergaard again in the lead role, though it is only loosely connected. I may have to seek it out, still, if only in the hope that little Teddy is still hopping and catching flies, ninja-like.
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#35
BONUS: 'The Spider Woman Strikes Back' [1946]

Gale Sondergaard returns as The Spider Woman in this connected-only-by-name follow-up to the 1943 Sherlock Holmes film. Brenda Joyce plays a young woman who is hired to be a companion to a wealthy 'blind' woman. The story is slow and dull, involving spiders (naturally), blood and 'Little Shop of Horrors' mini puppet plants.

I wasn't expecting much from this but it failed even to rise to that low bar. Alas, no mute hopping boys here, though Rondo Hatton is mute as the butler. Is he young Teddy all grown up, mutated by the spider/blood concoction? I like to think so. Otherwise there is nothing to hold anyone's interest here. I fell asleep, but of course. Pass.
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#36
'The Scarlet Claw' [1944]

Rathbone returns with a normal haircut in this 'Hound of the Baskervilles'-lite film. A supernatural terror has been ripping the throats out of sheep, and has now turned its attention towards humans. Holmes, however, suspects a more down-to-earth solution.

There is nothing wrong with this film as such. The characters are interesting and well acted. The mystery works, and the settings are appropriately foggy and spooky. Despite now having played the same role eight times, Rathbone is as sprightly and engaged as ever. Bruce's bluster somehow still manages to be charming here too.

Even so, I found the result a tad dull. The retread of 'Hound of the Baskervilles' (which even gets name-checked) is too obvious. We've seen this film before, and I liked it better the first time. After the bizarre 'Spider Woman', it feels a bit of a letdown, albeit a very well made one.
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#37
'The Pearl of Death' [1944]

'The Pearl of Death' is another bog-standard Hunt-The-MacGuffin tale elevated by excellent acting. Holmes bags the titular pearl, loses said pearl then finds it again, albeit with some fun disguises and actual sleuthing along the way.

Rathbone still shows no sign of fatigue although Bruce seems hammier than usual. Miles Mander is a standout as the slimy villain, ably assisted by Evelyn Ankers. Rondo Hatton plays The Creeper, a role he returned to twice in 'House of Horrors' and 'The Brute Man', both of which I hope to review. A close-up shot of his hand caused a jolt of recognition in me - there was something about it that dredged up a childhood scare, making me certain I must have seen this film at a tender age. Our minds work in strange ways.

Anyway, I liked it. No, it's not a must-see film, but it's an effective mystery with great performances, And how often do you get to see Holmes screw up royally? Just don't show this to very young children; it might get embedded in their psyche for decades.
It's not the years, it's the mileage.
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#38
BONUS: 'House of Horrors' [1946]

Rondo Hatton returns as The Creeper in this solidly B-movie quickie. The plot begins with an 'It's a Wonderful Life' type scene (albeit pre-dating that iconic film) in which a man on a bridge contemplating suicide decides to save a drowning man instead. That man turns out to be the disfigured Creeper, whom he befriends.

There isn't much in the way of backstory - The Creeper has previously been assumed dead, and how he ended up in the water isn't explained. Still, there he is, large as life and twice as intimidating. Our hero (or rather, ant-hero) is an artist much maligned by the critics. With an almost inhuman sidekick at his beck and call (one who owes him a life debt), he orders The Creeper to exact his revenge. Yes, this film has newspaper art critics as its victims.

Hatton plays The Creeper like Frankenstein's monster, both in rigid gait but also with a touch of pathos. Martin Kosleck does well as the totured artist, but other characters are broad caricatures very much at home in B movies. It's not the most exciting film to watch visually - the sets are minimalist - and the plot is simplistic, but it has no pretensions.
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#39
'The House of Fear' [1945]

Holmes and Watson leave their comfy Baker St pad to solve a mystery at an old Scottish mansion. A group of rich unattached men are being bumped off after receiving an envelope containing orange pips. As their numbers decrease, so do the list of suspects.

This is very much a whodunnit in the style of Agatha Christie, with shady characters, red herrings and the like. No pesky Nazis, no femme fatales, just a creepy old house and a dour Scottish housekeeper. Rathbone seems to be enjoying himself, almost unable to keep a straight face when listening to a drunken Scot in a pub (I couldn't be certain if Rathbone was staying in character here or not). Dennis Hoey makes an unlikely reappearance as Inspector Lestrade, traveling all the way from Scotland Yard to match wits with Holmes, and getting bested, of course.

Other actors do an adequate job of keeping the viewer guessing as to which is truly involved in the offings, and I was wrong-footed. It's a neat little mystery but unlike some top-class whodunnits, I can't see myself wanting to return to it to see where I was led astray. Still, certainly worth 69 minutes of your time, if you're in the mood.
It's not the years, it's the mileage.
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