‘Sherlock Holmes’: Hollywood finally plays by the book with Watson

Jan. 06, 2012 | 9:48 a.m.

Nigel Bruce, right, played Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in 14 films. The pair are shown here in 1939's "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." (American Cinematheque)

Nigel Bruce, right, and Basil Rathbone in the 1944 film "The Scarlet Claw." (UCLA Film & Television Archive)

André Morell played Dr. Watson to Peter Cushing's Sherlock in the 1959 film "The Hound of the Baskervilles." (MGM)

In Billy Wilder's 1970 film "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," Robert Stephens played Sherlock and Colin Blakely played Dr. Watson. (MGM)

Robert Duvall played Dr. Watson opposite Nicol Williamson's Sherlock Holmes in the 1976 Oscar-nominated film "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," based on the novel by "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" director Nicholas Meyer. In the film, Watson tricks Holmes into going under the care of Dr. Sigmund Freud. (Universal Pictures)

James Mason, left, played Dr. Watson, and Christopher Plummer, right, portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the 1979 movie "Murder by Decree." (Los Angeles Times Archive)

Edward Hardwicke, right, played Dr. Watson to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock in several television series, including "The Return of Sherlock Holmes," "The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes" and "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" in the 1980s and '90s. (Frank Goodman)

Patrick Macnee, right, best known for his role as "John Steed" in "The Avengers" series, portrayed Dr. Watson in several TV movies, including "Incident at Victoria Falls." Christopher Lee, left, played Holmes in the films. (Revelation Films; Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

Ian Hart played a young, strong Dr. Watson in two TV movies: "The Hound of the Baskervilles" in 2002 and "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking" in 2004. (BBC)

Jude Law took the mantle of Dr. Watson opposite Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock in the 2009 Guy Ritchie film "Sherlock Holmes." (Warner Bros.)

Martin Freeman, right, plays Dr. John Watson alongside Benedict Cumberbatch's Baker Street sleuth in the acclaimed British television series "Sherlock." (Hartswood Films/BBC)

Jude Law, right, returns as Dr. John Watson with Robert Downey Jr. in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." (Christopher Raphael / Warner Bros.)

It’s a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes — you might call it “The Doltish Doctor of Baker Street” — and the scene of the crime was in Hollywood the day before April Fools’ Day 1939.

That’s when 20th Century Fox released “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the first of 14 films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson, that daring duo from Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed books. Doyle has deeply devoted fans across the globe and through generations, and the eager ones who went to see “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in theaters back in ’39 were surely shocked when they realized there was something very different about this new Watson: The man was a complete idiot.

Doyle readers since 1887 had known John Watson as a bright, handsome man of the world, a battlefield surgeon and former rugby player who had yet to reach his 30th birthday when he set out for adventure with his eccentric and brilliant friend. But that hale and hearty Watson never made it to the screen with the plump performance of Bruce, who played the sidekick as an endearing but daft uncle whose primary functions were to express baffled amazement and get into trouble. Doyle purists jeered at the parlor nitwit (they nicknamed him “Boobus Britannicus”) but moviegoers adored the elementary appeal of the character, as did the radio listeners who tuned in to hear Bruce (paired at first with Rathbone, then later with other Holmes actors) put on jolly good shows in 259 weekly episodes.

Over the last seven decades, Bruce’s portrayal of Watson has maintained more traction in the public imagination than any other version in any medium. That may change, however, with the unfolding success story of director Guy Ritchie’s revival of the great detective and his physician friend, played now by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, respectively. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” opened Dec. 16 and has grossed $254 million worldwide, which adds to the $545 million brought in by the first installment in 2009.

Today’s young moviegoers may have bought into the franchise’s Victorian Era adventures because they connect with Downey’s dark, bratty charisma and Ritchie’s trademark slo-mo / fast-mo mayhem, but it is Law’s Watson that has created the biggest stir among silver-haired Sherlockians.

“For years, Sherlockians have wrung their hands and bemoaned the fate of poor Watson on screen in films and television and told anyone who would listen that this wasn’t the real Watson,” said Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” and an advisor on both Ritchie films. “The thing that Sherlockians say is, ‘Why would a genius like Sherlock Holmes want to hang around with a fool like Nigel Bruce’s Watson?’ It doesn’t make any sense…. The way we have always thought of him is as an intelligent person, young and certainly not older than Holmes, someone who is stalwart and courageous, a little bit physical. He’s someone who can mostly give back as good as he gets from Holmes…. I’m on the payroll so I am not unbiased, but I think Jude Law is probably the finest on-screen Watson ever.”

Naming the best Watson in film or television would lead to spirited debate for members of the Baker Street Irregulars, the invitation-only literary society with a name inspired by the Doyle detective’s famed street address, and many would point out that the redemption of a capable Watson has been achieved in the past. In the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, first David Burke and then Edward Hardwicke played Watson with distinction in the highly regarded Granada productions for British television.

Still, when Law took on the role, many Sherlockians felt that Hollywood had finally delivered a Watson who was more buff than buffoonish.

In “A Game of Shadows,” Holmes most certainly wants Watson around, but the doctor’s impending marriage threatens to smother their adventures. There’s also a rising danger as Professor Moriarty, played by Jared Harris, sets in motion a plot to create massive strife for all of Europe and massive profits for himself. Stephen Fry joins the cast as Mycroft Holmes, brother of Sherlock, and at one point in the film, right after meeting Watson, he finds himself impressed by the doctor’s incisive deductions. Turning to his brother, Mycroft points out that Watson is not nearly “as slow-witted as you’ve led me to believe” — a fitting sentiment for the celluloid career of Watson.

Nigel Bruce, right, played Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes in 14 films. The pair are shown here in 1939's "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." (American Cinematheque)

There have been more than 200 movies featuring the character of Sherlock Holmes (and more than 75 actors), and by most citations he is the most persistent fictional character in film history, ahead of Dracula, Tarzan and old Ebenezer Scrooge. And, Klinger points out, Dr. Watson is in almost every one of those Holmes films. With each new portrayal, the creative team and the actor have looked at the past (with Doyle’s writings and Bruce’s performances looming most large there) and decided what to leave in and what to leave out. André Morell, Robert Duvall, James Mason and Colin Blakely are among the actors who have played Watson on the big screen.

There’s no end in sight. CBS announced in September it was moving forward with plans for a prime-time Holmes series from the producers of “Unforgettable.”

The fact that CBS’ approach will be to move the detective to a modern-day setting was not received well by the creative team behind ’Sherlock,” the Emmy-winning U.K. series that premiered on BBC One in summer 2010 and later aired in the United States under the PBS “Masterpiece” banner. “Sherlock” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the cerebral sleuth and Martin Freeman as Watson, and, yes, that show transplants the tandem’s exploits to contemporary England.

Jude Law, right, returns as Dr. John Watson with Robert Downey Jr. in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." (Christopher Raphael / Warner Bros.)

If the two television projects look to bring the 19th century hero up to modern times, the Ritchie films try to transport a modern sensibility back to old London. For Downey, who is already turning his sights to a third Holmes film, the key to the franchise’s success is respecting the rhythms of Doyle’s universe and being brave enough to “not treat it like a museum piece that might break.” During an interview at his Venice Beach office last spring, Downey said it was amusing to note the number of reviewers who have criticized the movies for making the detective duo younger and edgier when in fact they were returning to the core of the source material.

“I’m a big believer in literary significance and Doyle is a standalone innovator in the art of reverse storytelling, and Guy is not a linear thinker, so that suited him,” Downey said. “Working with Jude is just a delight and we have this adventure, this expedition into character, and if we do to it correctly we have something that really works. There’s a reason Doyle and Holmes and Watson endure.”

The Holmes and Watson canon not only endures, it has just expanded. In November, “The House of Silk” by Anthony Horowitz became the first new Holmes adventure to be sanctioned by the late author’s estate and became an official addition to Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels featuring the detective, which were first collected and published in 1930 as “The Complete Sherlock Holmes.” The new bestseller earned strong reviews for its macabre tale that opens years after the death of Holmes with aged Watson revealing for the first time details of a shocking early case.

To Lionel Wigram, a producer of the Ritchie films, there was no great mystery to solve in the salvation of Watson — it just required a respectful reading of Doyle.

“This is the 115th anniversary of the first Sherlock Holmes story and it all comes down to the brilliance of Arthur Conan Doyle,” Wigram said. “In Watson we see ourselves, the reader or the audience; he is our way into the adventure, and in Holmes we see the very best of all of us, the power of intellect. The friendship and the writing of Doyle, which is underrated, is why Holmes and Watson still matter and will continue to matter.”

– Geoff Boucher


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15 Responses to ‘Sherlock Holmes’: Hollywood finally plays by the book with Watson

  1. Tbloom says:

    A new book will be released by MX Publishing in May of this year that would make an excellent addition to the Guy Ritchie series of Holmes movies. The book is titled "SHERLOCK HOLMES and the WHITECHAPEL VAMPIRE".

  2. Steven Smith says:

    Excellent piece. One lingering mystery: why is 1976's THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION such a video rarity? Robert Duvall's Watson beautifully captures the intelligence, loyalty and courage of Conan Doyle's character (he's also one of the few screen Watsons with a limp, a result of his service in Afghanistan).

  3. Laer Carroll says:

    Then there's "The Mentalist" on TV. Played by Aussie Simon Baker, Patrick Jane solves crimes by deduction and hutzpah. He has FOUR Watsons – two women & two men detectives in California's Criminal Bureau of Investigation.

  4. airjafo says:

    Great article. My wife and I thought Sherlock Holmes II was better than SH I. I think Downey and Law are perfectly cast. The actor who played was Moriarty was fiendishly cast and portrayed as well. My wife was 8 months pregnant when we saw the movie and our unborn child was excited by the movie and felt like he was doing kung fu moves throughout the two hour plus movie. Oy vey!

  5. hdtrailerteasers says:

    there are too many talking from inside again?

  6. Guest says:

    The statement "..In November, “The House of Silk” by Anthony Horowitz became the first new Holmes adventure to be sanctioned by the late author’s estate" is pure nonsense. There has been other 'adventures' in print sanctioned by the late author's estate. Check your facts, please.

  7. Darkmoor Fan says:

    I lived in the same house on the Duke campus as Jared, and must say that EVERYONE knew
    wh ate background he came from and whose son he was.

    He actually directed a (relatively) expensive full-length feature entitled "Darkmoor," which some
    wags referred to as "The Film Of the Son Of the Man Called Horse."

  8. Joshua says:

    Sherlock Holmes is my favorite movie

  9. MORES says:

    i love the movie but its kind lame

  10. mores says:

    my bad this movie is shelock omg how can this movie be lame its the must amazing movie ever i watch it every week and he is so cute wow?

  11. LaurieK says:

    Klinger is, I think, correct that Jude Law's wonderfully stalwart and prickly Watson is the finest we've had. Downey is basically being his delightful self (no complaints here) with the occasional Holmesian flourish. Law embodies the character thoroughly — of all of the elements in the films, his performance is the one Conan Doyle would recognize as closest to his creation.

  12. Tsvett says:

    The BBC modern version of Sherlock is the best! :)

  13. Barry Waterfield says:

    I liked Nigel Bruce as Watson and I don't like the latest Sherlock Holmes. He's unwashed and scruffy, Sherlock Holmes was never unwashed and scruffy. In any case Sherlock Holmes has rather been done to death don't you think, or at least he should have been. Let the old fellow pass into the long sleep, he must be worn out. I don't wonder Sir Arthur grew tired of him. He'll be appearing on Mars at this rate.

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