The Sleeping Cardinal (aka Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour) (1931)

Sherlock Holmes: Arthur Wontner
Dr. Watson: Ian Fleming
Year: 1931
Case: Pastiche with elements borrowed from Canon (specifically, The Final Problem and The Empty House)


In a loosely Canon-based adaptation, Sherlock Holmes battles his nemesis, Moriarty.  The plot borrows heavily from both The Final Problem and The Empty House, but somehow manages to weave together these two stories into a tale that is both original, and recognizable as Canon.  This is not done particularly well, the writers abusing cliches as often as not (although, perhaps given the year this was written, these cliches were not yet, well, cliche).  That being said, the story does hold the viewer’s attention, and the plot does come across as something Conan Doyle might have written.

Delightful Elements

Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes:

Although Holmes’ first appearance comes several long minutes into the film, words cannot express how delightful it was to once again see Arthur Wontner in the role.  I suspect my obsession with this man is somewhat unhealthy, but it really cannot be helped.  Wontner is, quite simply, the best Holmes of his generation.

Ian Fleming as Dr. Watson:

Ian Fleming is easily the prettiest Watson on record.  I simply adore him in the role, and not just for the eye candy.  The man is brilliant, playing off Wontner with such charisma you would think he was born for the role.  It is delightful, too, to find that his Watson is so thoroughly competent –and not just as Holmes’ partner, Watson playing the role of doctor quite admirably as well.

The Slash:

Honestly, the main reason I love Wontner in the role of Holmes is that his Holmes is a tactile Holmes.  Combine this with Fleming’s prettiness, and their combined chemistry, and you have one of the most slash-friendly actor-pairings to ever grace the screen.  There is hand-holding.  There is touching.  Their are longing glances.  At one point, Holmes even ushers Watson through a door, hand against his back.  Even the criminals seem to sense the depth of Holmes and Watson’s relationship, Moriarty kidnapping Watson, forcing Holmes to come to Watson’s rescue.  Combine this with Watson’s heartfelt ejaculation of Holmes’ marvelous-ness (he really does call Holmes marvelous) and you have a series bound to convert even the most skeptical slasher.

Less Delightful Elements

Norman McKinnel as Professor Moriarty:

Sadly, this role was poorly cast.  McKinnel’s performance was quite uninspired.  At no point did I fear Moriarty.  At no point did I question Holmes’ ability to outwit Moriarty.  In fact, were it not for the annoyance of seeing Moriarty used in yet another film, I doubt I would have noticed his presence at all.  Truly, McKinnel’s performance was quite forgettable.

The Plot:

As mentioned above, the biggest problem with this film was its plot.  The story itself is mediocre; it engaged my attention, but only because I am an avid Holmes (and Wontner) fan.  Were it not for that, I doubt I would have finished it.  Oddly, most of the problems weren’t in the main story line.  They were in the details.  The talking painting (sleeping cardinal) for example, was utterly ridiculous and completely unbelievable.  Then, there is the fact that Mrs. Hudson (notably young in this film) seemed to be head over heels in love with Holmes –a subplot to be sure, but one that distracted largely from the main story.  Combine this smaller details together with the fact that the main plot moved so damned slowly, yet often without sufficient explanation, and you have a story that really isn’t worth following.  A shame, really, given the excellence of Wontner and Fleming, as well as the ridiculously obvious subtext littered throughout the film.


Despite the film’s many problem, The Sleeping Cardinal still earns three out of five pipes.  One for Wontner.  One for Fleming.  And one for Wontner and Fleming, who have me (once again) utterly convinced that Holmes and Watson are as queer as a three dollar bill.