Guest Post: Jaime Mahoney on “Sherlock Holmes in Washington”

We’re pleased to present out first ever guest blog post! Jaime Mahoney of Better Holmes and Gardens graciously offered this piece to us on the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce film, Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Enjoy!

“It’s not my idea of a method of transportation.”
“Sherlock Holmes in Washington” (1943)

Like many Washingtonians, I feel as if I have an intimate relationship with the transportation systems in the D.C. metro area – or at least, a better than average understanding of them. I’ve spent so many hours sitting in my car on I-495 that I feel like that particular stretch of interstate should just buy me a ring and make an honest woman out of me. For a long while I worked in Georgetown, and the escalators at the Foggy Bottom metro station – so often and notoriously out of service – are still the cause of sweat-soaked night terrors in which I wake up screaming, “Stand back, doors closing!” And once, in one of my more shameful moments, I hailed a cab to take me from Capitol Hill to the Judiciary Square metro station – when everyone knows that Union Station is within spitting distance of the Capitol – simply because my feet hurt and I couldn’t bear the thought of making the short trek in my poorly-selected four-inch heels. At least the cab driver found my situation amusing, and I tipped well.

There is an overabundance of transit in the 1943 film, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, and if the film has one connecting thread, it’s probably that. Planes, trains and automobiles are available in copious amounts. The film’s female lead arrives in D.C. aboard a train, and at a station whose familiar stone façade and proximity to the Capitol Building (plainly visible on the horizon) immediately identify it as Union Station – there are no young women in the background shamefully weeping and limping as they try to hail a cab, I’m pleased to announce. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson make a picturesque descent into Washington National Airport aboard a British medium bomber, and then climb aboard an automobile with several members of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. They then proceed upon a scenic, if somewhat logistically impossible tour of D.C. – their self-appointed tour guide pointing out notable landmarks in a stilted way, as they drive past back-projected views of the famous sites. The amount of time the pair simply spend traveling in this film makes it somewhat relatable, even familiar.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington - Sightseeing

But that is seemingly the end of all that is familiar in this film. According to David Stuart Davies in Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, “Apart from the deductions, there are no familiar elements left. Watson chews gum and becomes interested in baseball, and Holmes uses modern equipment in the FBI laboratory in his investigations” (48). Sherlock Holmes in Washington is the third, and also the last, of the Universal Pictures wartime films featuring the Great Detective. The next Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce vehicle would find them returned to, if not the Victorian era, a somewhat Victorian-esque setting in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. But, for the time being, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were trapped in the middle of the twentieth century, and in the United States, no less. The picture is marked by the distinctive and strange “windswept” hairstyle that Rathbone sported during his war films. And Bruce’s Watson also makes some bumbling forays into American culture, by studying colonial etiquette, loudly slurping milkshakes, spouting boorish phrases like “How are you, buddy? What’s cooking?,” and as Davies points out, chewing gum of all hideous crimes. Indeed, Holmes looks more disgusted by this last act, then he does when a corpse is literally delivered to his hotel suite just moments later.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington - At 221B
What’d you say about my hair?

On a related note, the mystery that drives the film is somewhat plodding and not perfectly plotted, but has some rather compelling moments. The scene in which the body of a British agent – brutally murdered and then neatly packed in a truck – is delivered to Sherlock Holmes, is so well-acted and visceral, that the viewer need not even see the body to know that something rather horrendous has been visited upon him. Nancy Partridge (played by Marjorie Lord) artfully plays a young woman who is mortally terrified, but not completely cowed by the man holding her against her will. The villain Richard Stanley (played by George Zucco, who also played Professor Moriarty in the 1939 film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) is unnervingly single-minded and focused in his pursuit of his quarry – a secret document that has been cleverly disguised. The emotionless and often even-tempered manner in which he doles out violence makes him a compelling villain in a somewhat indifferent film.

There is also a very entertaining scene in which the secret document – transferred to film and tucked inside a match-folder – is neatly and unknowingly passed around at a dinner party on a tray of champagne flutes conveyed by a waiter. It is momentarily picked up the British diplomat who is most desperate to have it found. He says, “I’d give anything to get my hands on that document, or at least know it’s in safe hands.” As he says this, he picks up the folder off the tray, lights his cigar, and returns it to the tray. It is then born away from him, and he is none the wiser. And, of course, the film closes with another dramatic, patriotic denouement at which Rathbone was so acutely adept – passionately quoting Winston Churchill as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson drive past the Capitol Building on their way back to Washington National, and Baker Street.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington - the Matchbook
Poor, unsuspecting matchbook.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington was supposedly originally titled Sherlock Holmes in the USA (Barnes 229), which says a rather lot about some of the generic American attitudes and behaviors that are put forth in the film. It goes a long way towards explaining why it’s funny that Dr. Watson starts chewing gum and takes an interest in baseball. It could be argued that there is nothing about this film that is particularly Sherlockian, and that Holmes could be taken out of this film and replaced easily with any generic detective. But this movie is a vehicle for Washington, D.C., and a platform for its own unique landscape and experiences in a time of war. This is not the strongest or the best of the Rathbone/Bruce pictures, but it is also accessible in a way that the rest of them are not. Is it simply because, as Washingtonians, we have walked those streets that Holmes and Watson are driving past, or have taken a train into the same station?

Or is it simply because watching Sherlock Holmes in Washington feels like we have traveled with the Great Detective and his doctor? And that we can do so again and again?

oOo

Sources:

  • Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen. (September 2011).
  • Stuart Davies, David. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (January 2006).
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