The For­got­ten Holmes

Barry McCann re­mem­bers Arthur Wont­ner, the first Sher­lock of the Talk­ing Pic­tures era.

Evergreen - - Contents - Barry McCann

ASK any­body who was the sound cin­ema’s first lon­grun­ning Sher­lock Holmes and the an­swer you will likely get is Basil Rath­bone. And it would be wrong.

Rath­bone is, in fact, the sec­ond res­i­dent Holmes of the talk­ing pic­tures, the first be­ing an ac­tor who played the de­tec­tive in five British films pro­duced dur­ing the 1930s – Arthur Wont­ner.

Born in Lon­don in 1875, Wont­ner was ac­tu­ally twelve years older than the de­tec­tive him­self, whose lit­er­ary de­but fol­lowed in 1887.

Dur­ing the 1920s Wont­ner sup­ple­mented his theatre work with oc­ca­sional film ap­pear­ances, in­clud­ing “Bon­nie Prince Char­lie” ( 1923), “The

Di­a­mond Man” ( 1924), “Eu­gene Aram” ( 1924) and “The In­fa­mous Lady” ( 1928). How­ever, it was not un­til the ar­rival of sound cin­ema that his big break re­ally came.

Iron­i­cally, Wont­ner was por­tray­ing Holmes’s pop­u­lar ri­val, Sex­ton Blake, at the Prince Ed­ward Theatre when his close re­sem­blance to Sid­ney Paget’s draw­ings of Sher­lock Holmes came to the at­ten­tion of Twick­en­ham Film Stu­dios. They promptly cast him in their 1931 ad­ven­ture “The Sleep­ing Car­di­nal”.

In­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of Co­nan Doyle’s “The Fi­nal Prob­lem” and “The Empty House”, the film also starred Nor­man McKin­nel as Moriarty, while Wat­son was played by Ian Flem­ing – no re­la­tion to James Bond’s cre­ator – who would re­turn to the part for all but one of the Wont­ner films.

Philip Hew­land also fea­tured as In­spec­tor Lestrade.

The pro­duc­tion was a stu­dio- bound af­fair on which Wont­ner later com­mented: “We used to start film­ing early in the morn­ing and con­tin­ued un­til pretty late at night, with very few breaks. Of course, we had to stop shoot­ing quite of­ten when a train went by, be­cause of the noise.

“But we couldn’t af­ford much time for re­takes, and there were no elab­o­rate re­hearsals or any­thing like that.”

Twick­en­ham up­dated the ac­tion to con­tem­po­rary times, which would be con­tin­ued through­out the se­ries and most of the later Basil Rath­bone films.

It also set the prece­dent of por­tray­ing Wat­son as rather buf­foon­ish, which would also be­come part of the cine­matic tra­di­tion.

Wont­ner him­self por­trayed a laid­back and more thought­ful pipe- smok­ing Holmes than the ath­letic char­ac­ter we are used to. He was fifty- six at the time, older than the de­tec­tive of the Co­nan Doyle sto­ries, who re­tired at fifty.

“The Sleep­ing Car­di­nal” proved a hit both in this coun­try and Amer­ica, where it was reti­tled “Sher­lock Holmes’ Fa­tal Hour”. It ran for over a month on Broad­way, win­ning the New York Crit­ics’ Cin­ema Prize as the best mys­tery drama.

“Pic­ture­goer Weekly” praised the choice of lead ac­tor, com­ment­ing, “Wont­ner’s ren­der­ing of Sher­lock Holmes is wholly con­vinc­ing, even to the small­est man­ner­isms.”

Twick­en­ham wasted no time in en­gag­ing him for a fol­low up.

“The Miss­ing Rem­brandt” fol­lowed in 1932.

Loosely based on “The Ad­ven­ture of Charles Au­gus­tus Mil­ver­ton”, the film al­tered and ex­panded the plot of the short story with the vil­lain, now named Baron von Gun­ter­mann ( Fran­cis L. Sul­li­van), not only a black­mailer but also an art thief.

Sadly, time proved to be the thief of >

this film, as it has since be­come lost, but it was suc­cess­ful enough in its day to at­tract the at­ten­tion of a ri­val stu­dio.

Twick­en­ham had not se­cured the ex­clu­sive screen rights to Holmes or had Wont­ner un­der con­tract. This left him free to ac­cept an of­fer from As­so­ci­ated Ra­dio Pic­tures to as­sume the lead in their ver­sion of “The Sign of Four”, which be­gan shoot­ing as soon as he fin­ished “The Miss­ing Rem­brandt”.

The pro­duc­tion had a larger bud­get than the Twick­en­ham films, and greater lo­ca­tion film­ing, in­clud­ing a cli­mac­tic boat chase on the River Thames.

It also gave Wont­ner a chance to give a more phys­i­cally ac­tive per­for­mance as op­posed to his usual in­tro­spec­tive char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion, lend­ing au­di­ences a taste of what would later fol­low with Basil Rath­bone.

The film also saw a love in­ter­est for Wat­son in the char­ac­ter of Mary Morstan ( Isla Be­van), and thus ac­tor Ian Hunter was se­lected to play a more ro­man­tic side­kick, while Ian Flem­ing sat this one out. Hunter’s char­ac­ter shared the buf­foon­ish ap­proach of both his pre­de­ces­sor and Wat­son- in- wait­ing, Nigel Bruce.

In 1935, Wont­ner re­turned to Twick­en­ham Stu­dios for “The Tri­umph of Sher­lock Holmes”, where he was re­united with Ian Flem­ing.

Charles Mor­timer re­placed Philip Hew­land as In­spec­tor Lestrade, while Lyn Hard­ing took over the role of Pro­fes­sor Moriarty, hav­ing played the vil­lain­ous Dr Grimesby Ry­lott to Ray­mond Massey’s Holmes in the 1931 ver­sion of “The Speck­led Band”.

Closely based on the novel “The Val­ley of Fear”, the film marked a turn­ing point in fi­nally ad­mit­ting to Wont­ner’s age by open­ing with a re­tired Holmes tend­ing to his bees. De­spite re­turn­ing to a more lan­guid ap­proach and stu­diobound set­ting, the ad­ven­ture cli­maxed with an ex­cit­ing gun bat­tle be­tween Holmes and Moriarty in­side a ru­ined tower in which the vil­lain is hit and falls to his ap­par­ent death. Once again the film re­ceived rave re­views, par­tic­u­larly Lyn Hard­ing’s Moriarty. Plans were promptly put afoot to res­ur­rect him for a re­match.

Re­leased in 1937, “Sil­ver Blaze” took the Co­nan Doyle story of the same name, with new lay­ers added to ex­pand it, for a fea­ture- length film.

These in­cluded the re­turn of

Hard­ing’s Moriarty, and Lestrade now played by John Turn­bull.

The film also in­cluded a re­union be­tween Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, de­spite the fact that Wont­ner had never played in a screen ver­sion of the most cel­e­brated of the Co­nan Doyle nov­els.

How­ever, this af­forded an­other chance to ac­knowl­edge the ad­vanc­ing years of Wont­ner’s Holmes by ref­er­enc­ing the events of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as hav­ing taken place many years ear­lier.

The film re­ceived a much cooler re­cep­tion upon its re­lease and is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the least ac­com­plished of the se­ries. Af­ter all, why would a world- class crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind like Moriarty be sud­denly con­cerned with pre­vent­ing a horse from en­ter­ing the big race?

Its State­side re­lease was stalled un­til 1941, when it was re­named “Mur­der at the Baskervilles” to cash in on Rath­bone’s 1939 “Hound of the Baskervilles”, but found it­self eclipsed by his new se­ries of films now well un­der­way.

The per­ceived fail­ure of “Sil­ver Blaze” per­suaded Twick­en­ham to call it a day on Sher­lock Holmes, though the fact Wont­ner was now sixty- two may have been a con­tribut­ing fac­tor.

But that was not the end of his as­so­ci­a­tion with the great de­tec­tive. In 1943 he played Holmes for the last time in a BBC adap­ta­tion of “The Boscombe Val­ley Mys­tery” with Car­leton Hobbs as Dr Wat­son, who later went on to play Holmes in a sep­a­rate ra­dio se­ries.

In 1951, he ap­peared along­side De­nis Co­nan Doyle in a news­reel en­ti­tled “The Re­turn of Sher­lock Holmes”, pro­duced both for the Fes­ti­val of Britain and the Sher­lock Holmes Ex­hi­bi­tion.

Arthur Wont­ner con­tin­ued to make ap­pear­ances in some no­table films in­clud­ing “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” ( 1943), “The Elu­sive Pim­per­nel” ( 1950),” Genevieve” ( 1953) and fi­nally in “Three Cases of Mur­der” ( 1955). He passed away on July 10, 1960.

In the years since, Arthur Wont­ner’s legacy as the sound cin­ema’s first Holmes in res­i­dence seems to have be­come for­got­ten, but for afi­ciona­dos he re­mains the ac­tor who re­sem­bled most the phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion of Co­nan Doyle’s cre­ation, or at least Sid­ney Paget’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of it.

The only re­gret is that Wont­ner was never af­forded the chance of a Holmes film set in the Vic­to­rian era, thus fa­cil­i­tat­ing a more de­fin­i­tive per­for­mance.

In­deed, in 1933, Sher­lock­ian Vin­cent Star­rett com­mented, “The great Sher­lock Holmes pic­ture has not as yet been made . . . But Mr Arthur Wont­ner is still avail­able. Will not some­one send a spe­cial, fast steamer for Mr Arthur Wont­ner?”

Wont­ner him­self later replied, “Well, they never did, you know, they never did.”

The film was formerly ti­tled “Sil­ver Blaze”.

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