The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)



As I mentioned in my last review, even before the first of Fox’s Sherlock Holmes movies had reached the cinemas they had begun work on a sequel. This was not unusual for the time, as film production times were much shorter. In fact, the poor critical response to Hound Of The Baskervilles led to Fox dropping the series, although that wasn’t the end of Rathbone and Bruce’s portrayal of the characters, as we’ll see.

They chose to base their screenplay on what was the first ever adaptation of Sherlock Holmes to the stage, a play written by William Gillette in collaboration with Arthur Conan Doyle himself. The play both added to and departed from the canon – it was the first mention of Billy the pageboy, who would later go on to appear in several stories, but it also featured such departures as a love interest for Holmes, and a first name for Moriarty (Robert) that predated the books naming him as James. Perhaps the most lasting impact of the play, however, was that it had the first use of what was to become Holmes’ most famous phrase: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (And indeed, since Doyle was co-author on the play this allows you to thumb your nose at those who claim “Holmes never said that in Doyle’s works”. You’re welcome.) The movie actually uses very little of the plot from the play, but it does retain the phrase; and in fact it is this film that some credit with making it so popular and associated with the character.


The film opens with Moriarty on trial for murder. In this film, Moriarty is played by George Zucco. Zucco was a British actor who went on to appear in many of Universal’s horror movies of the 40s, before reappearing in another of the films starring Rathbone as Holmes as an entirely different character. In fact he was not the first choice for the role of Moriarty, which was originally to be played by Lionel Atwill (who had also played the villain in the previous film). Atwill would later go on to play Moriarty in a later film in the series.  Zucco plays Moriarty as an urbane character with an edge of menace, a classic portrayal that would help to establish the character as the pre-eminent villain of the Holmes franchise.

(Spoilers from here on out)

Naturally, Moriarty is found innocent, although both judge and jury are outraged at being forced to give this verdict. Holmes runs into the court with vital evidence, but for once is too late. Defeated, he meets with Moriarty outside the court, and the two share a cab as they discuss their mutual loathing. Holmes expresses admiration for Moriarty’s brain, declaring that he would like “to present it, pickled in alcohol, to the Royal Society.” Moriarty responds with his intention to “break” Holmes, by perpetrating the crime of the century under his nose.


We then see Moriarty in his greenhouse, inspecting the state of his plants, before ordering one of his underlings one of his underlings to send a mysterious letter. The underling asks Moriarty what the plan is, and Moriarty threatens him for daring to question him (mentioning a previous employee who asked questions, and who disappeared save for a single boot). However Moriarty then does go on to explain his plan, in what some regard as a misstep on the film’s part. He explains that he intends to deliberately reveal the seed of his crime to Holmes, before distracting him with a much more peculiar crime. He reveals a drawing of a man with a bird hanging from a rope around his neck, declaring that Holmes will find this “toy” much more entrancing. While the scene is well acted by Zucco, who does give a good impression of the unfailingly polite yet deadly criminal mastermind, the revelation of this twist does rob the remainder of the film of most of its tension. However, since Moriarty will be absent for a large portion of the film, this does allow us to see his hand in the upcoming events, which helps to keep him in our minds as events unfold. The messenger leaves, while Moriarty berates his manservant for letting one of his plants die while he was in police custody.

The scene shifts to Holmes, who is plucking the strings of his violin to see whether any of the notes will scare some flies he has trapped (a scene later copied for the Robert Downey Jr films). Watson arrives, and Holmes tells him that they are to be called on by a woman, who wants to know whether she should attend a garden party. Watson is incredulous, asking why Holmes is not out tracking Moriarty, but Holmes is confident that Moriarty will be unable to resist coming to him. Before the young woman arrives, however, they are first visited by an official from the Tower of London, Sir Ronald Ramsgate, who asks Holmes to help them guard a diamond that is arriving to join the Crown Jewels. Holmes does not believe there is much threat, but agrees. They are interrupted by a knock at the door. Watson opens it, only to be pushed aside by a young lady who quickly closes the door, and then runs past him to gaze fearfully out the window.


Ann Brandon is played by Ida Lupino, a British-born actress who described herself at the time as “the poor man’s Bette Davis”. This self-deprecating sense of realism clearly served her well in the film business, as she would go on to become possibly the first famous female film director. Her first four films were “social issue” films from a proto-feminist viewpoint, followed by several noir films. She became involved in TV production and directed episodes of shows as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bewitched, The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive and Gilligan’s Island. She also guest-starred in many TV shows including an appearance as the villainous Dr Cassandra in the Adam West Batman, and an episode of The Twilight Zone (making her the only person in the history of the show to both direct an episode and appear on-screen, although not in the same episode). She has two stars on the Hollywood Hall of Fame, was born under a table during a World War I bombing raid and died in 1995 at the age of 77.

Miss Brandon explains to Holmes that she is sure that she has been followed. Sir Robert excuses himself and leaves. Miss Brandon then explains that she is afraid to go to the garden part, and that she is frightened. When asked of what, she says “Murder”. She reveals a letter – the drawing of the man with the albatross we saw before, this time with a date, “May 11th”. She reveals that this is the anniversary of her father’s death, and that he received a similar note before he died. Holmes is concerned at this, although Watson is unconvinced. Another knock at the door signals the arrival of Jerrold Hunter, a lawyer and her fiancé. He is upset that she came to see Holmes when he asked her not to, but Watson assures him that “murder is the concern of every right-minded person”. Holmes decides to accept her case, and Jerrold leaves in a huff. Holmes decides to go to the museum of Natural History to identify the bird in the drawing, and Miss Brandon departs there ahead of him in a cab. Watson protests that Holmes should be concentrating on the Star of Delhi, but Holmes is no longer concerned with that. We can clearly see that this is Holmes following the course Moriarty had predicted – although not without his suspicions, as we see him at the museum asking Miss Brandon is she has ever heard the name “Moriarty”. Although she has not, he clearly still has his doubts.

Meanwhile, Watson has followed Jerrold to his office, where he sees Moriarty shaking hands with Jerrold and then leaving. At the sight, Watson leaves (as we later find out, to tell Holmes), while we cut inside to see Ann’s brother Lloyd who is clearly as worried by the note as she is. Jerrold tries to reassure him, but he leaves for home in a fey mood, after getting Jerrold to assure him that he will take care of his sister. After he leaves, Jerrold takes a revolver from a drawer and follows.


At the museum, Holmes and Ann Brandon have identified the bird as an albatross. While Ann does not recognise the bird as having any specific significance to her family, she is reminded of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which Holmes realises is the significance of the note, meaning it as a threat of deadly revenge. They rush out, encountering Watson on the way. As they ride in a cab, Watson reveals that he saw Moriarty at Jerrold’s office. Holmes is excited, although he is distressed that Watson left before he saw what Jerrold did next. Ann defends Jerrold, asking them not to condemn him too quickly. Holmes accuses Watson of being an “incorrigible bungler”, before patting him on the shoulder to indicate that he isn’t so serious in his accusation. It’s a very nice character moment between the two men that speaks to the real-life friendship they shared.

We see Lloyd, crossing a busy London street and entering into a foggy park. Jerrold trails after him, taking care not to be seen. Suddenly a scream pierces the darkness. Holmes, Watson and Ann arrive only to find Lloyd dead. Ann faints, and Holmes takes her back to her home, which appears in this interpretation to be a large mansion of some kind. Holmes finds one Inspector Bristol interviewing Jerrold, who was found bending over Lloyd’s body with a gun in his hand. Naturally the Inspector thinks that he did it, although this does mean that he claims the gun was used not to shoot Lloyd but rather to smash his head in. Holmes interrupts this to point out that Lloyd wasn’t clubbed to death but rather strangled, with the blow to the head coming after his death. The Inspector leaves to verify that, leaving Holmes alone with Jerrold. Holmes explains to Jerrold that the police suspicion is that he killed Lloyd so that Ann inherits and he can marry her. Jerrold reveals that he did think that the threat was real, a fact overheard by Ann. She appeals to him to explain what’s going on. Watson appears to say that he has found out something about Mr Hunter, but Holmes interrupts him before he can reveal it. Holmes rushes Watson out, and tells him that he wishes to keep Moriarty out of it for the moment. Holmes then persuades the Inspector to leave Jerrold at large for a few days. Jerrold tries to use this to reassure Ann, but she remains unconvinced. She asks why he didn’t want her to see Holmes, but he remains evasive.

Holmes and Watson reconstruct the scene of the crime, with Watson lying in the street playing the part of the corpse. A concerned passer-by asks if should find a doctor, to which Watson responds irritably “I’m a doctor, what’s the matter with you?” The man leaves confused, while Holmes calls Watson to observe some peculiar footprints in the park, with a view directly to the site of the murder. He theorises that the murderer used some ranged weapon. Watson asks what weapon could both strangle and club a man, a question which any D&D nerd can immediately answer. They also find a lost chinchilla foot, possibly a lucky charm belonging to the murderer.


Ann is left alone in the house with her brother’s body. She wanders from room to room, seemingly aimlessly at first, but then clearly searching for something. Ida is amazing in this scene, conveying all this without saying a word. She comes to window and looks out, and we see a mysterious man playing a flute, revealing that what we thought was the soundtrack was actually what Ann was trying to find the source of. Ann screams at the sight of him, and Holmes and Watson come running from the park. She tells them of the strange music she heard from the street, and that she heard the music once before, in South America the night her father was killed. She plays the tune for Holmes, before asking him and Watson to go. They depart, leaving her staring into space.

Back at 221B Baker Street, Holmes picks out the melody on the strings of his violin, writing it out as he does so. He claims that it is “an ancient Inca funeral dirge”, still played by the natives in the Andes as a funeral dirge. Sir Ronald Ramsgate arrives, asking Holmes if he has had any thoughts in relation to the Star of Delhi. Holmes agrees to be on hand the following night when the jewel arrives, and says that he will also arrange for some policemen to be on hand. Sir Ronald leave, and Ann arrives with another albatross drawing, and the date of May 13th on it – the following day, and the day of the party she originally asked Holmes about. They discuss the question of Jerrold’s guilt, and Holmes then declares that she must go to the party, and take a walk through the grounds. He warns her that it may be dangerous, but she agrees to do it. “Of course I’m afraid,” she says, “but I’ll go through with it.” She leaves, and Watson asks Holmes what he intends to do about the clash between the party and the delivery of the Star of Delhi. The answer is that he will delegate the Star to Watson, while he protects Ann.


Moriarty finally reappears, having his beard removed by his cringing manservant. He taunts the man, declaring that he must be a coward, or he would cut his throat while he shaved him. The shave completed, he leaves, getting into a cab driven by his messenger from earlier (who we have also seen driving cabs throughout the story – yet more evidence of Moriarty’s hidden hand). The cabby at first does not recognise him without the beard. They share some vague discussion about the men for his plan being in place, before they depart.

Ann arrives at the garden part to be greeted with condolences by the hostess. Her son then takes her off to see a somewhat irritating music hall act by a man with an outrageous moustache singing the somewhat anachronistic “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” (which was written in 1904, some seven years after the film was set). Ann is left alone, and the music hall performer appears behind a bush and reveals himself to be Holmes (in a surprisingly convincing disguise).  Ann then spies the South American band playing at the other end of the garden – including a somewhat familiar flute player.

At the Tower Of London, Sir Ronald is somewhat upset to find that he had asked for the organ grinder and got the monkey, but Watson reassures him of his capability. The three policemen that Holmes had arranged arrived, but we see that the sergeant leading them is actually the shaved Moriarty, who Watson does not recognise. The Star arrives, transported by a Captain Mainwaring (Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!). Sir Ronald and his men bring the Star to the vault, where he unlocks it to place the Star within. As soon as he does, the lights go out and the three policemen grab the Star and disappear. When the lights come back on, Sir Ronald immediately sends his men off in pursuit, only to find the Star dropped by the stairs. Somehow Sir Ronald takes that to mean that the note was a hoax, ignoring the three disappearing policemen. (Yes, this is a bit of a plot-hole in the movie. Let’s move on.) Sir Ronald, Watson and the guards depart, at which point Moriarty reveals himself – hidden inside the vault. He easily opens the door, having inserted a pin to prevent it fully closing, and then begins to load the Crown Jewels into a sack.


The garden party has ended, although Ann (who had arranged to stay at the house) remains. The hostess sends her up to bed. She sits down at the mirror and begins removing her jewellery, before she hears the mysterious flute playing outside her window. She runs to the balcony and sees a mysterious figure, before running out to the garden. She meets Jerrold, and is surprised to see him there. He becomes angry at her being afraid of him, and she flees with him calling after her. A mysterious figure comes up behind him and knocks him unconscious. Holmes tracks the same mysterious footprints through the garden that he had seen in the park, while Watson inexplicably appears with two policemen, urging them to “come along, quick!”

Ann flees through the trees, eventually stumbling to a halt. The mysterious flute player appears, and takes a set of bolas (yes, the weapon I said that D&D nerds would remember) from his belt. He begins spinning them to throw while Ann stands in a daze, unable to flee, until Holmes dives and pulls her out of the way. The bolas wrap themselves around the neck of a handy statue, decapitating it. The flute player tries to flee, but Holmes wings him. Holmes questions him, discovering that he is a man from South America whose father was killed by Ann’s father. He killed their father there, but it was Moriarty who brought him over here to complete his vengeance. On hearing this, Holmes declares that the case “has only just begun”. He grabs Watson and runs off.

The two men break into Moriarty’s home through the greenhouse (which we recognise from an earlier scene). They find the evidence of his shaving, along with a guidebook to the Tower of London. Watson realises that the Sergeant from earlier must have been a beardless Moriarty, and Holmes realises that something is happening, right now. He realises that Moriarty’s goal is not just the Star, but the entire Crown jewels. The two dash off.

Meanwhile, Moriarty still hasn’t finished putting the Crown Jewels into a sack. Holmes and Watson crash the cab they have commandeered into the gate of the Tower, Watson letting himself be captured while Holmes sneaks in. He makes his way up the Tower, but Moriarty sees his light approaching and lays in wait. His shot misses but disarms Holmes, and Holmes flees to the roof.  There, he climbs a battlement and springs onto Moriarty. The two men struggle, and Moriarty falls from the roof to his (apparent) death.


The film ends with Holmes and Watson in a restaurant, reading of Jerrold and Ann’s wedding in the paper. Holmes explains that Moriarty had gone to Jerrold with a trumped up lawsuit, simply to confuse the issue, and the air of suspiciousness had been generated simply by Jerrold’s attempts at over-protectiveness. During this, Holmes has borrowed a violin from a waiter and is trying to scare a fly on the table away with the trick he was practising earlier. Watson smashes the fly with a paper, declaring that solution “Elementary, my dear Holmes”.


Overall, I really like this film, and it’s definitely miles above Hound of the Baskervilles. Zucco is a very good Moriarty (although the beard does definitely help), and Ida Lupino’s performance elevates Ann Brandon far above the position of “Damsel in Distress”. Holmes and Watson are both well written, and both Rathbone and Bruce had gotten into the characters at this point. Sadly, the poor critical reception Hound had received led Fox to pull the plug on the series. Rathbone and Bruce went on to play Holmes and Watson on the radio, however, and it was this that led Universal to put them back onto the big screen three years later. More on that next time.


One final note. Some elements of this (Moriarty on trial, the theft of the Crown Jewels) may seem familiar. If so, that’s because this film inspired the opening of the Season 2 finale of the series Sherlock (The Reichenbach Fall), where Moriarty first steals the Crown Jewels, and then goes on trial and gets acquitted. For my money, though, Zucco is a better Moriarty.

2 thoughts on “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

  1. Pingback: Today’s Scribbling: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) – Daily Scribbling

  2. Pingback: Today’s Scribbling: Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) – Daily Scribbling

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