Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Case: The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips
According to the credits, Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear is based on Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, but aside from the use of orange pips to foretell death, the film bears little resemblance to the original story. In the House of Fear, Holmes and Watson head to Scotland to investigate several murders. These murders are linked together in that the deceased all belong to a club called the Good Comrades, and each man, on the night of his murder, received a dire warning in the form of an envelope filled with orange pips. However, as Holmes and Watson begin their investigation, they soon discover that not all is as it seems. In the end, it’ll take an empty tobacco container for Holmes to put the final pieces together.
Basil Rathbone, as Sherlock Holmes
As always, Rathbone is delightful as Sherlock Holmes. Complete with his now trademarked pimp hat, Rathbone continues to impress audience with his ability to become Sherlock Holmes. The House of Fear has the added bonus of featuring Holmes’ sense of humour, which Rathbone pulls off brilliantly; his smirk an incredibly endearing feature.
Nigel Bruce, as Dr. Watson
In The House of Fear, Bruce tends to vary between two extremes. The film opens with an introduction to a very intelligent, very coherent Watson, and yet, by the middle of the film we are once again forced to endure Watson’s bumbling tom-foolery. That being said, Bruce did the best he could with a limited script, and so he cannot be faulted for some of Watson’s more cringe-worthy scenes (I refer here, of course, to the sitting room shoot-out scene).
While not my favourite Rathbone film, The House of Fear is remarkable in that it is exceptionally slashy.
Holmes and Watson, having agreed to head up to Scotland (via the Flying Scotsman, and this itself was quite squee-worthy) to investigate the mysterious deaths of several members of the Good Comrades Club, immediately fall into the role of honeymooning couple.
They cuddle in their dogcart, and book a single room at the hotel. Later, when they are invited to leave their hotel and stay with the Good Comrades, Holmes manages to sneak into Watson’s room in the middle of the night (for how else would he know that Watson snored like a pig?).
The subtext does not end there, for time and time again we are treated to glimpses of their intimacy. They sit side by side, often in the most romantic of settings. At one point, they are practically sitting shoulder to shoulder, but turned towards one another so that, if either of them were to lean forward, even an inch, their lips would meet. With a fireplace as the backdrop, this entire season is reminiscent of the covers on romance novels.
They walk, arms brushing, along the beach. They cling to one another whenever danger threatens (such as the plummeting rock scene). Indeed, at one point Holmes fondles Watson’s buttock (granted, he had just jumped into a grave and did need something to catch himself on). That this scene is followed by hand-holding cannot be mere coincidence.
And then there is the constant gazing, the shared looks of affection and Rathbone’s inability to keep his hands to himself. In fact, not a single scene passes without Rathbone, in some manner, touching Bruce.
And finally, in what is perhaps the most prevalent occurrence of slash in the entire film, there are Holmes’ rescue scenes.
Twice Holmes is forced to rescue Watson, and it is interesting to note that, on both occasions, Holmes neglects the criminals (and his own safety) in favour of first saving Watson. This is accentuated by the sheer brilliance of Rathbone’s acting, for he manages to convey an expression of utter terror at the prospect of Holmes losing his Watson.
We have yet to touch on Watson’s role in these rescues, and here I shall include an excerpt from an essay I wrote, entitled: Gay-coding during Hollywood’s Golden Era: Watson’s role as Damsel in Distress in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes Films.
If you’re up to date on your feminist history, you will have likely studied the role of damsel in distress in film and television. In fact, the topic will likely make you quite angry. Damsel in distress is hardly a new theme, but it keeps cropping up, over and over again (for various reasons that we won’t get into here).
This was particularly true in Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s (or the so called golden age of Hollywood). [Nearly] every film had to have a fainting damsel in need of rescue, and [nearly] every film had to have a wayward hero willing to rush in (guns a’blazing) to save this poor, helpless maiden. We look back on this now and find it rather ridiculous, but given the era (especially the 40s, when war threatened the very existence of society) it was quite popular (with males and female alike).
Unfortunately, Sherlock Holmes does not lend himself well to the damsel in distress scenario. Holmes is a purely logical being (not coded for love and/or lust) and so it is unrealistic to show him rescuing a helpless woman. There is, however, one person that Holmes does care for, and that [person] is Watson. And so, the producers/writers/directors, in their infinite wisdom, decided to cast Watson into the role of distressed damsel.
The result is an utterly hilarious and heavily subtextual theme which runs throughout all of the Rathbone/Bruce films. Time and time again Watson is kidnapped, or taken hostage, or nearly killed, and time and time again Holmes is forced to rush to Watson’s aid, showing the true depths of his feelings as he frantically worries for Watson’s safety.
This is quite interesting from the point of view of subtext, because, while the casting of Watson as the stereotypical 1940s woman was intentional, the homoerotism of such an act likely never once occurred to those involved in making the film. And yet, homoerotic it was, for, given the era, the casting of any male into the role of female automatically inferred sexual deviance (and I speak here from a socio-historical point of view, rather than one of personal opinion, for in modern society we understand that gender roles are far more flexible).
In essence, then, the writers/producers/directors (possibly actors) were subconsciously creating slash simply by trying to fill a role that audiences were demanding.
Watson’s role as the woman is taken a step further, for each of these rescue scenes are often followed by Holmes’ pronouncement that he is quite glad Watson has survived unscathed. This is immediately followed by a bashful looking Watson who blushes and then flutters his eyelashes. Watson, in these scenes, encompasses the stereotype of damsel in distress.
This is important, for when we examine the stereotype behind a distressed damsel, we see that, in almost every adaptation, the hero, having saved the damsel, wins the damsel’s love and the damsel inevitably ends the film in the hero’s arms (implying, of course, that she will also end in the hero’s bed).
In the case of Sherlock Holmes, this has been replaced by a simple fade to black and the role of the credits. The implication, however, is still there. For the student of subtext, this is quite staggering, for we have essentially been given a series of SH film adaptations that depict Holmes and Watson as gay-coded.
The production quality of this film, when compared to Universal’s other SH films, was rather sub-par. This was evident throughout the production; from the opening narrative which was delivered almost entirely in monotone, to the flaming dummy being thrown over a cliff, to the sheets of rain battering against the home of the Good Comrades. It distracted from the film itself, and given that the plot was lacking as well, this was quite frustrating.
We mentioned the plot above, and it was quite convoluted at times; indeed, on several occasions I had to pause so that I could remember exactly what the film was trying to accomplish. To make matters worse, the script included several elements which were simply too fantastical to suspend disbelief (the dynamite scene comes to mind). The ending was also quite predictable.
One of my biggest complaints, however, was the characterization of Lestrade. Lestrade is even more dumbed-down than Watson in this film, and it was quite frustrating to watch him flounder while Holmes laughed at his expense. It is true that Holmes was Lestrade’s superior (in terms of deduction), but Lestrade was still a reasonably intelligent man, capable of far more than this film gives him credit for. The treatment of his character, then, was quite disparaging.
Finally, what broke this film for me was the treatment of Watson in the latter half of the film. At one point Watson pulls out his service revolver and goes on what amounts to a shooting rampage. He very nearly kills a cat, and manages to destroy several suits of armor, all in an effort to convince the audience that he was frightened. A seasoned war veteran and lifelong companion of Sherlock Holmes, and we expect Watson to fall apart over a storm? I literally shed a tear during this scene.
There were dozens of other, little incidences which took away from this film (the owl joke comes to mind, as does the use of the phrase ‘flower of his manhood’), and it for this reason that the film earns only 2 out of 5 pipes. It should be noted that both pipes give are for the slash. I fact, if we were to rank this film in terms of slash, it would easily earn a full five pipes.