Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Back to Baker Street


The deerstalker hat. The calabash pipe. The tobacco in the Persian slipper. The foggy streets of London. Sitting by the fire at the rooms on Baker Street, waiting for the client to ascend the stairs and burst in the door...

Longtime blog readers and pals will attest that I am a huge fan of old black and white films from the 1940s and early '50s. (Pal Mike Herman teased me ceaselessly over just such a picture, "Christmas in Connecticut," that I wrote about during the holidays.)

That's OK. I don't mind. Cause these flicks are so much fun.

I love nothing more on a cold winter night than to curl up in the recliner, dim the lights and lose myself in one of those monochrome classics. Such it was last night, and the film was an installment in one of my all-time favorite series, the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes adventures.

A friend of mine -- who likes to be called the Giant Rat of Knoxville -- reminded me recently that I have poor-mouthed the wartime entries in the classic Holmes series. I merely said that I prefer Holmes where he belongs, back in Victorian England.

But I decided that was unfair and happened to catch one of the World War II pictures last night, "Sherlock Holmes in Washington." The plot is forgettable. Let's just say that Holmes and Watson have to travel to America to help retrieve a document that contains vital national secrets. In case you're wondering, everything works out OK in the end.

As with most of these period films, the fun lies in the journey. Rathbone is superb as the Master Sleuth. Jeremy Brett fans can say what they will, but Rathbone is the best Holmes. It isn't even close.

(For the record, I enjoy the early Grenada/Brett installments very much -- but his Holmes is just a bit too bizarre for my taste. The latter episodes are unwatchable.)

I've also always thought that Nigel Bruce was unfairly criticized for his portrayal of Dr. Watson. Yes, he's often assigned the comic relief in these films, and occasionally it's annoying. But his Watson shines with a warmth and puppy dog sincerity that other interpretations sorely lack.

And I must say I enjoyed Holmes' out-of-time adventure much better than I remembered. It isn't foggy London of the turn of the last century, but it's still a lot of fun.

At one time, Holmes held a Guinness world record for being the most portrayed character in TV and film. And it's easy to see why. Whether it's Victorian London, wartime America, or, yes, here in the early 21st century, the great detective, his hat and pipe, and his faithful sidekick Watson possess something that's downright timeless.

Maybe it's just viewer envy. I wish I could just take one look at somebody and tell them everything about themselves...

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