Last week was part one of my the series on Arthur Wontner, which I wrote for the Austin (TX) Sherlock Holmes society. Here’s part two, with the conclusion coming next Thursday.
The Missing Rembrandt
Realizing that they had a hot property, Twickenham quickly filmed a second Wontner project, The Missing Rembrandt. The source material was much closer to the original tale chosen; this time, Charles Augustus Milverton. The villain, however, is Baron von Guntermann, and he is not only a blackmailer, but also an art thief (thus, the title). Presumably the plot was expanded because the original short story didn’t provide enough substance for an extended length film. The Granada folks would discover this problem a half century later. Unfortunately, there is no known surviving print of this film.
The Sign of Four
Oddly enough, Twickenham did not have either Wontner or Holmes under contract, so even before the actor had begun shooting Rembrandt, he had signed a contract to make a version of The Sign of Four for Associated Radio Pictures. A soon as he finished his Twickenham film, Wontner began shooting Sign, which was shot in England, but with an American producer, Rowland V. Lee. Lee had a superhero conception of Holmes:
This was the only Holmes film that Wontner was to make with a reasonable budget. It was also the one in which he was most physically active. Gone was the introspective pipe smoker. The boat chase upon the Thames has quite a different ending; more like something from the 1960’s Batman television show. Basil Rathbone fans can trace a bit of their energetic favorite back to this Wontner film.
Ian Hunter replaced Ian Fleming as Watson, the producers feeling that a more romantic man was needed to woo Mary Morstan. Hunter played a goofy, love-addled sidekick and served as a preview of Nigel Bruce. Fortunately he would not be cast again as Watson.
Picturegoer magazine said of Wontner, “Arthur Wontner, is as usual, a perfect Holmes.”
Arthur Wontner had made three Sherlock Holmes films: The Sleeping Cardinal, The Missing Rembrandt and The Sign of the Four. He would don the deerstalker twice more. Unfortunately, the remaining films would not compare favorably with the earlier ones.
The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes
The next film, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, came in 1934, from Real Art Productions. This was actually Twickenham under a new name. Wontner returned to his more sedate impersonation. The film was a reasonably faithful adaptation of The Valley of Fear.
“Arthur Wontner is the only Sherlock Holmes. His playing throughout is in perfect character and he seems to have walked straight out of the Sidney Paget illustrations which made Sherlock Holmes universally recognizable.”
A notable improvement occurs at the beginning of the movie. Holmes is retiring and 221B Baker Street is in a state of disarray, although the thought of that esteemed address being nothing more than Watson’s medical office seems wrong. Moriarty (played by Lyn Harding) is still at large and pays a visit to the great detective. The filmmakers then give us a recreation of the classic exchange from The Final Problem. It is a wonderful scene. Of course, it had also been used, almost exactly alike, in The Sleeping Cardinal! Why mess with what works?
Like A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is absent for much of The Valley of Fear because of long flashback sequences set in America. However, Triumph does not seem to suffer from Birdie Edwards’ carrying a significant part of the narration. There is a major deviation from the original novel when Moriarty rushes to Birlstone Manor, flees up a ruined tower to escape and is shot by Holmes, after which he plunges to his death. Except of course, he appears in the next Wontner film!
Lyn Harding had created quite a niche for himself in playing villains opposite Holmes. In 1910, Doyle’s play The House of Temperley folded. Stuck with a long-term lease and no production, Doyle turned to Sherlock Holmes to stave off financial disaster. He adapted The Speckled Band into a play and ended up with a valuable property that more than paid for itself and Temperley. Harding was chosen to play the evil Dr. Grimesby Rylott. Harding received rave reviews, though by more modern standards he was quite an over-actor. Though popular with the playgoers, it was certainly not the Moriarty of Doyle’s stories. Harding reprised the role in Massey’s filmed version of the play, which is still available today. Again, compliments were paid to Wontner’s work:
Kinematograph Weekly – ‘excellent…exceedingly fascinating…great.”
Monthly Film Bulletin – “Arthur Wontner is the only Sherlock Holmes. His playing throughout is in perfect character and he seems to have walked straight out of the Sidney Paget illustrations. “
Picturegoer Weekly – “Arthur Wontner is a perfect Sherlock Holmes.”