The Forgotten Holmes
Barry McCann remembers Arthur Wontner, the first Sherlock of the Talking Pictures era.
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”.