Wontner made his fifth and final film as Sherlock Holmes in 1937. It is justly considered the weakest of the series. Perhaps again feeling that there simply wasn’t enough source material in the original short story, a few liberties are taken. Sir Henry Baskerville is introduced, and things take a radical turn after Holmes finds the missing horse. Moriarty has Moran use his air gun to kill the horse just before the finish of the race. Watson follows one of the henchmen and finds Moriarty. However, he is captured. Holmes arrives to save him just as Watson is about to be thrown down an empty elevator shaft.
The film did not do particularly well, and it was not even released in America. Wontner was 62 and perhaps without a strong script, not as able to carry the load as in previous films. The movie did have a revival, however. Basil Rathbone scored big in 1939 with his authentic Hound of the Baskervilles. 1940’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes also did well.
Twickenham, with a Sherlock Holmes film never seen in America sitting in a can on the shelf, decided to get a little more mileage out of Silver Blaze. They misleadingly titled it Murder at the Baskervilles and released it in America. Few noticed. Of course, Kinematograph Weekly lavished praise on the actor:
“Arthur Wontner as the detective an unforgettable figure. Wontner’s performance as Sherlock Holmes is easily the best histrionic contribution…he succeeds triumphantly.. Superb performance.”
Wontner would revisit the role one more time in 1942, when he starred in a BBC radio production of The Boscombe Valley Mystery, with Carleton Hobbes as Watson.
One of the Best
Twickenham, which made four of the five films, operated on a small budget. Wontner recalled:
The studio wasn’t much more than a big tin shed, really; not like film studios today. We used to start filming early in the morning and continued until pretty late at night, with very few breaks. Of course, we had to stop shooting quite often when a train went by, because of the noise. But we couldn’t afford much time for retakes, and there were no elaborate rehearsals or anything like that.
However, Wontner’s performances stand up well over a half-century later. He followed William Gillette and Eille Norwood and preceded Basil Rathbone by two years. Along with Jeremy Brett, Arthur Wontner is one of the five great acting Sherlock Holmes’.
His solemn delivery sometimes feels plodding and languid. This is not unreasonable from a man who was in his mid-fifties when he made his first Holmes film. However, he certainly sounds like Holmes when he speaks, and no actor before or since has resembled Sidney Paget’s illustrations so closely. Perhaps had there been more of an on-screen chemistry between Wontner and Ian Fleming, his performance would have seemed more lively. There is very little sense of the underlying bond between the two men that Doyle created.
But when the camera shows Wontner sitting in his chair, smoking a pipe, we feel that we are seeing exactly the man that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pictured. Elements of Wontner’s portrayal can be seen in the Grenada production. Jeremy Brett combined Wontner’s intellectual Holmes with Rathbone’s energetic Sherlock.
It is unfortunate that Wontner was never given the opportunity to make a Holmes film set in the Victorian era with a good-sized budget and a solid script. It is likely he would have turned in a definitive performance. Unfortunately his legacy has not been as lasting for non-Holmes devotees. Sherlockian Michael Pointer relates being at the 1951 Sherlock Holmes Exhibition opening with Wontner. The organizer informed the audience that the actor had appeared in five Sherlock Holmes films. A reporter next to Pointer said to Wontner, “Oh, yes, and what part did you play?”
In 1933, famous Sherlockian Vincent Starrett said, “The great Sherlock Holmes picture has not as yet been made…But Mr. Arthur Wontner is still available. Will not someone send a special, fast steamer for Mr. Arthur Wontner?”
About which Wontner himself later commented, “Well, they never did, you know, they never did.”