Saturday, January 22, 2022

SILVER BLAZE On Blu-ray From The Film Detective

 






SILVER BLAZE (1937) was the last film in which English actor Arthur Wontner portrayed Sherlock Holmes. It is included in The Film Detective's THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION Blu-ray set. 

Holmes and Watson (Ian "Not that one" Fleming) are invited to pay a visit to old friend Sir Henry Baskerville in Dartmoor. While there, the great detective becomes involved in a case dealing with murder and a missing race horse named Silver Blaze. Holmes deduces that the man behind it all is his nemesis Prof. Moriarty (Lyn Harding). 

SILVER BLAZE was based on one of Conan Doyle's best Sherlock Holmes stories, and characters such as Henry Baskerville and Moriarty were injected into it to bring the tale to feature length. I personally found this to be the best of the Arthur Wontner/Holmes films made by Twickenham Studios that I have seen. It moves along at a nice pace, it has a fair amount of action, and it gives Wontner as Holmes much more to do. Wontner himself is a bit more energetic in this one, even though he was already 60 when he made it. Holmes fans will appreciate seeing Wontner striding about wearing an overcoat and deerstalker hat. 

SILVER BLAZE was directed by Thomas Bentley, instead of series regular Leslie Hiscott. Bentley brings some visual dash to the proceedings, and yes, Wontner gets to relate the curious incident of the dog during the nighttime. This movie was shown in the U.S. during the early 40s as MURDER AT THE BASKERVILLES, to take advantage of the popular Basil Rathbone version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. 

The visual quality of this Blu-ray is decent--it's not spectacular, but it is better-looking than the other films in this set. The extras include a 1913 comedy short called COUSINS OF SHERLOCKO and a 1928 Felix the Cat cartoon titled SURE LUCK HOLMES. These two novelties actually have nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. 

Also included is the third part of a discussion with independent producer Sam Sherman, who talks about his history with the Arthur Wontner-Holmes series. There's also a booklet, written by Don Stradley, that goes into Arthur Wontner's association with Sherlock Holmes. Finally there's an audio commentary with Phoef Sutton and Mark Jordan Legan. The duo go into various aspects of Sherlockian lore. 

Having gotten through all the movies and the extras in THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION, I have to say that the set didn't overwhelm me. I appreciate that The Film Detective added some extras for each film, but there was a randomness to them, and none of the audio commentaries are what I would call must-listens. The overall visual & audio qualities of the films were not all that much better than what you could find on YouTube. Still, it's a decent effort--the packaging is attractive--and it does shine a light on a forgotten Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Wontner. 


Monday, January 17, 2022

IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE

 


Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the plane crash that took the lives of Carole Lombard and 21 others. Last night I watched one of Lombard's earliest films that she starred in while under contract to Paramount--the 1931 comedy IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE. 

Norman Foster plays Rodney Martin, the fun-loving son of soap magnate Cyrus Martin (Eugene Pallette). Cyrus is so desperate to get his son to take some responsibility, he strikes a deal with his secretary Mary (Carole Lombard). Cyrus will pay Mary a bonus if she can get Rodney to fall for her, then convince him to go to work. In order to win Mary, Rodney and his friend, public relations man Ambrose (Skeets Gallagher) come up with a new soap product, and borrow a bunch of money to advertise it in as many places as possible. Their scheme works too well--the duo have to figure out a way to provide a product that doesn't actually exist, with help from Mary, who actually does fall for Rodney. 

IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE was based on a play, and, except for the opening sequence, is very stagy and talky. The basic idea is one that would work still today (just think of all those "trending topics" that wind up having no significance whatsoever). The comic elements are (in my opinion) only mildly amusing. 

Even at only an hour long, the movie doesn't have the snappy pace it really needs. Norman Foster (who later left acting to become a film director) is okay as Rodney, but he's too nice and mild-mannered for someone who is trying to con folks in supporting a non-existent product. Actors like James Cagney and Lee Tracy would have been better suited for the role. Skeets Gallagher as the PR man has more of the con artist in him, but he's also very silly as well. 

Carole Lombard doesn't get much of a chance to shine here. Her Mary is the practical type, and (as it would so often be throughout Carole's screen career) she has far more sense than her leading man does. Eugene Pallette is always fun to watch, and he and Carole would be reunited as father and daughter in the much more famous MY MAN GODFREY. 

The opening sequence of IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE features a car chase and a crash-landing of a plane. Both events are publicity stunts cooked up by Ambrose and Rodney, in order for the star of a stage musical to get attention. The musical star is played by none other than Louise Brooks--this happened to be her first American film role after her European sojourn. This sequence makes the viewers think that they are in for a wild & crazy comedy--which they are not. After the opening Brooks unfortunately does not appear in the rest of the film....but you do get to see her show off her legs. 



Louise Brooks and Norman Foster

A movie that has both Carole Lombard and Louise Brooks in it will certainly be of interest to film buffs, but IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE has a lot of early-talkie creakiness to it. If it had been made a couple years later, with a more charismatic leading man, it probably would have been faster and funnier. 


Sunday, January 16, 2022

INTERNATIONAL LADY

 



INTERNATIONAL LADY, released in the fall of 1941, is WWII espionage tale, produced by Edward Small, directed by Tim Whelan, and released by United Artists. 

The story opens in London during the blitz. Glamorous Norwegian concert pianist/singer Carla Nillsson (Ilona Massey) has attracted the attention of FBI agent Tim Hanley (George Brent) and Scotland Yard investigator Reggis Oliver (Basil Rathbone). The two men believe that the lady is an agent somehow sending top secret info to her German controllers. Hanley and Oliver follow Carla to Lisbon, and then to America. On the way Tim and Carla fall for each other, despite their mutual suspicion of the other's motives. Carla finally risks her life for Tim--she realizes she's not as cold-blooded or as vicious as the men she's taking orders from. 

INTERNATIONAL LADY is an okay spy tale, without a lot of suspense (the viewer is informed at every point who the bad guys are and what their plot is). This movie has a lighter tone than most other such tales made during the period, with George Brent and Basil Rathbone having a friendly and somewhat comedic rivalry. Rathbone is surprisingly peppy and jovial here, and he seems to be enjoying himself immensely. (Basil does get to use a Sherlock Holmes-style disguise at one point, and Brent even calls him "Sherlock" in an off-handed manner.) This tone also means that the story isn't as exciting or dramatic as it ought to be. It must be pointed out that this film was made before the U.S. officially entered the war--if it had been made after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I'm sure it would have been much darker. 

Ilona Massey, due to her engaging screen personality, just doesn't seem dangerous enough to be an Axis femme fatale--you just know that she isn't really that bad. The major villainy is provided by George Zucco, who of course was a master at the art. Here Zucco does way more than oversee events--he gets to do a lot of physical action as well. Martin Kosleck plays (what else?) another German agent, and future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore has a small role. 

I've never understood how George Brent got to be a major Hollywood leading man--I've always thought he was rather drab. His performance here didn't change my opinion. When it comes to onscreen charisma, Brent falls way behind the likes of Rathbone, Zucco, and Massey. (In my opinion Rathbone and Massey would have been a much better romantic couple.) 

INTERNATIONAL LADY isn't a low-budget B picture. It's a well-crafted production, but it is overlong at 102 minutes, and the climax isn't very thrilling. The main attraction here is for Universal horror buffs to see Rathbone, Massey, Zucco, and Martin Kosleck. 



Basil Rathbone, Ilona Massey, and George Brent 




Saturday, January 15, 2022

THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES On Blu-ray From The Film Detective

 






THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1935) is the fourth film in which English actor Arthur Wontner starred as Holmes. It is included in THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION from The Film Detective. 

At the beginning of this film Holmes is moving out of his rooms at Baker Street, and preparing to start his retirement in the English countryside. The great detective's nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Lyn Harding) shows up to gives Holmes a stern warning. Later, Holmes' beekeeping activities are interrupted by Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade, who interest him in a case that involves murder. Holmes convinces the victim's wife to tell a long flashback about the couple's past in America. At the climax Holmes reveals all, including the fact that Moriarty was behind the nefarious doings. 

THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel THE VALLEY OF FEAR. It's a fairly close adaptation, which means that Holmes appears only in the first and last parts of the story. The middle of the story is taken up with the flashback dealing with the murder victim and his wife, in which Doyle was inspired by the historical incident involving the Irish-American group called "The Molly Maguires". This flashback is very melodramatic and hammily acted, with a bunch of British performers trying to be American tough guys. 

Arthur Wontner is a fine Holmes, especially for those who prefer their Sherlock to be thoughtful and stately. Wontner is much suited to play a Holmes on the verge of retirement. Lyn Harding is a bulky and blustery Moriarty, and Ian Fleming (not that one) and Minnie Rayner return as Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson. 

The visual quality on this Blu-ray of THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is above-average for a title that has had plenty of public domain home video releases. The picture is clear, if not very sharp. It does look as if the print used has been somewhat smoothed out digitally. The sound quality is not impressive...at times it's hard to make out what the actors are saying. 

The extras include a 1912 silent short film called THE COPPER BEECHES, based on Doyle's story. The visual quality of this short is excellent--it looks better than the main feature--but unfortunately it has a music score attached to it that is much more suited to a slapstick comedy. A half-hour episode of the 1954 TV series SHERLOCK HOLMES is on this disc as well. The episode is entitled "The Case of the Blind Man's Bluff", and Ronald Howard plays a rather lightweight Holmes. 

Also included is the second part of a featurette involving independent producer Sam Sherman, who gives some background detail on THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. There's also a booklet with an essay by Jason A. Ney, who examines the lasting appeal of the Holmes character. Ney also does the audio commentary, and it's a fine one, well-paced and filled with info about the making of the film and the novel if was based on. 

THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES is a decent Holmes picture, but it is dragged down by the mediocre flashback. 


Saturday, January 8, 2022

A STUDY IN SCARLET (1933) On Blu-ray From The Film Detective

 






The only film in THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION Blu-ray set that does not have Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes is A STUDY IN SCARLET (1933), made at the low-budget Tiffany Studio in Hollywood. Character actor Reginald Owen plays Holmes. 

Members of a secretive group called the Scarlet Ring are being killed--and, due to the group's rules, the money the victims have left behind are distributed to the rest of the association. Sherlock Holmes takes up the case, which leads him to a nefarious lawyer named Thaddeus Merrydew (Alan Dinehart) and the mysterious widow of one of the victims (Anna May Wong). 

A STUDY IN SCARLET only uses the title of Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story. The plot is jettisoned for a tale that in some ways anticipates Agatha Christie's TEN LITTLE INDIANS. The screenplay for the film was co-written by noted director Robert Florey (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE) and Reginald Owen himself. 

Owen had in fact just played the role of Dr. Watson the previous year in SHERLOCK HOLMES, which starred Clive Brook as the detective. Owen was much more suited to play Watson than Holmes. The actor is bulky, and his voice and physical mannerisms are unlike what one expects from a person portraying Sherlock Holmes. Owen's Holmes does disguise himself in the middle of the film, but this sequence goes on too long and brings the story to a halt. 

What helps elevate this movie from other low-budget mysteries made in the same period is its ensemble cast, which includes Alan Mowbray, J.M. Kerrigan, Billy Bevan, Halliwell Hobbes, and Leila Bennett (who basically reprises her comic scared maid bit from DOCTOR X). Anna May Wong makes the biggest impression--one wishes she had more scenes instead of Owen's mediocre Holmes. 

A STUDY IN SCARLET was directed by Edwin L. Marin (THE DEATH KISS) and the cinematographer was Arthur Edeson (CASABLANCA). Because of these two men, the film has a bit more visual flair than the usual B movie murder mystery. Unfortunately it's hard to appreciate Marin and Edeson's work on this Blu-ray, due to the print that was used. It lacks sharpness and detail, and it comes off as more grey than black & white. The sound is also very hollow and indistinct. 

The extras on this Blu-ray include a 10 page booklet written by C. Courtney Joyner. In it Joyner discusses how and why A STUDY IN SCARLET has been one of the least adapted of the Conan Doyle Holmes stories. A card with poster artwork from the film is also provided. 

There's also a featuette entitled ELEMENTARY CINEMA: THE FIRST CINEMATIC ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, from Ballyhoo Pictures. The title is misleading, since it mainly covers Sherlock Holmes films made in the 1930s. (Movies featuring the character had been made since the start of the 20th Century.) Nevertheless, it is one of the better extras on the entire box set. A 1926 Mutt & Jeff cartoon called SLICK SLEUTHS is here as well. 

This disc also has a new audio commentary, with Peter Atkins and David Breckham. The duo attempt to talk about various aspects of the production, but they get sidetracked quite easily, and they spend a lot of time cracking each other up. 

Reginald Owen, in my opinion, is one of the least effective Holmes (his address in this film is even 221A Baker Street!). A STUDY IN SCARLET, however, is of interest due to the supporting cast and the names involved that were behind the camera. One does wish that a much-better looking print (if one exists) was used for this Blu-ray. 


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

SHERLOCK HOLMES' FATAL HOUR On Blu-ray From The Film Detective

 







Included in The Film Detective's THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION Blu-ray set is the first film starring English actor Arthur Wontner as the Great Detective. SHERLOCK HOLMES' FATAL HOUR (1931) was a British production, released in that country as THE SLEEPING CARDINAL. 

The story is loosely based on two of Conan Doyle's Holmes tales: "The Empty House" and "The Final Problem". A lady friend of Dr. Watson's asks Holmes to try and convince her brother, one Ronald Adair, to stop cheating at cards. Adair is killed, and during his investigation Holmes discovers a plot involving counterfeit money overseen by the notorious Professor Moriarty. 

Arthur Wontner played Sherlock Holmes in five different films in the 1930s (this set from The Film Detective contains three of them). The actor was already 56 years old when he first took on the role, and his Holmes is more avuncular than forceful and incisive. Wontner is very laid back here (but the same could also be said for everything else in the film). He does looks remarkably like the original Sidney Paget illustrations of Holmes that accompanied the Conan Doyle stories. 

Dr. Watson, who doesn't get all that much to do in this movie, is played by an actor named Ian Fleming (no, not that one). Minnie Rayner plays Mrs. Hudson, and she gives a much more working-class portrayal of the woman than one usually sees. 

I'll avoid naming the actor who plays Prof. Moriarty, since the character is in disguise for most of the story, and he is not revealed until the very end. The addition of the Professor does give some interest to a very slow-moving script. 

While watching SHERLOCK HOLMES' FATAL HOUR, one does have to take into account that this is an early sound film made in England, not in Hollywood. It is very talky and static, and Wontner's Holmes is not particularly energetic. The movie was directed by Leslie S. Hiscott, who would work on later Wontner/Holmes entries. 

I would rate the visual and audio quality of the film on this Blu-ray as only fair. It's not terrible....but I wouldn't say it is far better than the versions of this title that can be found on YouTube. One thing I noticed is that in a few scenes there is a framing problem--the tops of actors' heads were not on view at the top of the screen. 

The Blu-ray comes with a card that has original advertising artwork, and a 10-page booklet entitled ARTHUR WONTNER: TRUE BRIT PART I. In it author Don Stradley gives some basic info on Wontner and his portrayal of Holmes. The booklet is illustrated with a few stills. 

The rest of the extras include an audio adaptation of the original Conan Doyle story "The Blue Carbuncle", and the first part of a set-wide interview with independent producer Sam Sherman, who discusses how he first became aware of the Arthur Wontner Holmes films. What is claimed to be the very first Sherlock Holmes film of all, SHERLOCK HOLMES BAFFLED (1900), is here as well. It lasts less than a minute, and it involves a fellow (apparently Holmes) being perplexed by a robber who has the ability to appear and disappear at will. This short was obviously influenced by the work of George Melies. 

There's also another silent Holmes-inspired short, this one called A BLACK SHERLOCK HOLMES, produced by the Ebony Film Company and featuring an all African-American cast. This Blu-ray has edited and uncut versions of the short, but the print has deteriorated so badly it is almost unwatchable. Finally, there's an audio commentary by author Jennifer Churchill, who spends most of her time relating various bits of Sherlockian trivia. 

The folks at The Film Detective certainly realized that if they were going to come out with a Blu-ray set of movies that are all on YouTube, they had better add some extras to them. The extras are welcome, but there's a sort of randomness to them--I wouldn't say any of them stands out among the others. 

The main audience for this set, and this Blu-ray, is those who are absolute Sherlock Holmes fanatics. Arthur Wontner is a very good Holmes, but it must be pointed out that he is more relaxed and kindly than better-known actors who have played the immortal sleuth. 

Monday, January 3, 2022

THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION On Blu-ray From The Film Detective

 





THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION is a new Blu-ray set from The Film Detective company, and it contains four films featuring the great detective that were made in the 1930s. Three of the films were made in England, and star Arthur Wontner as Holmes: SHERLOCK HOLMES' FATAL HOUR (aka THE SLEEPING CARDINAL) released in 1931, THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1935), and SILVER BLAZE (aka MURDER AT THE BASKERVILLES) which was made in 1937. 

The other film in the set was made in America, at the low-budget Tiffany Studios. A STUDY IN SCARLET (1933) stars Reginald Owen as one of the most unlikely Sherlocks ever. 

All four films get their own disc case, and each cover features artwork from the particular film's original advertising. A card included in every disc case also features advertising artwork, and each disc has a small booklet pertaining to each film. 

Each movie gets a collection of extras, which I have to say have a bit of a grab-bag quality to them. Some of the extras included are silent films featuring Sherlock Holmes (or at least a satirical version of the character), an interview with independent producer Sam Sherman (which is in three parts, spread out on the Arthur Wontner movies), and brand new audio commentaries for each film. The discs are marked Region Free. 

I have noticed in the publicity for this set that the films contained in it have been called rare. The thing is, all four of the features can be found on YouTube. The set box claims that the films are newly restored. I've so far viewed only two of them--SHERLOCK HOLMES' FATAL HOUR and A STUDY IN SCARLET--and I have to say that the visual and audio quality is not very good. 

I'll go into more detail about how the individual films look and sound when I write blog posts on each individual disc, which I plan to do in the near future. 

I will give The Film Detective credit on trying to do something different with a quartet of films that have had several public domain home video releases, but so far I wouldn't put this set on the same level as ones put together by Arrow or Severin. Look for my reviews on each film in this set in the next couple weeks.