B&W, 1931, 81 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Leslie S. Hiscott
Starring Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, Minnie Rayner, Leslie Perrins, Jane Welsh

B&W, 1933, 72 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Starring Reginald Owen, Anna May Wong, June Clyde, Alan Dinehart, John Warburton, Alan Mowbray, Warburton Gamble

B&W, 1935, 83 mins.
Directed by Leslie S. Hiscott
Starring Arthur Wortner, Ian Fleming, Leslie Perrins, Jane Carr, Charles Mortimer

B&W,1937, 69 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by Thomas Bentley
Starring Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, Lyn Harding, John Turnbull, Minnie Rayner
The Film Detective (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)

Since the dawn of the 20th century, filmmakers have been churning out numerous adaptations, spoofs, and imitations revolving around Sherlock Holmes, the world-famous sleuth created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and made famous in a string of stories published in The Strand Magazine. To this day fans argue over who made for the best Holmes with contenders like Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Cushing in the mix (not to mention more recent contenders like Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr.). However, the pre-Rathbone era is often overlooked these days, a situation The Film Detective Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Houris attempting to rectify with its four-disc Blu-ray set, Sherlock Holmes: The Vault Collection, rescuing a handful of worthy titles from dupey public domain neglect with a hefty batch of bonus features to boot. Sherlock Holmes' Fatal HourThe first talkie U.K. Holmes films arrived in 1931 (mere months after Doyle's death) with Arthur Wontner playing the consulting detective in a total of five films, one of which (The Missing Rembrandt) is now considered lost. Three of the remainders (minus The Sign of the Four, which is out there elsewhere) are compiled here along with another one-off title, providing a fascinating look at how the portrayal of Holmes was shaped throughout the decade.

Originally filmed and released in the U.K. as The Sleeping Cardinal, Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour marked the debut of Wontner as the sleuth in one of several productions made at Twickenham Studios. The story is cited as an adaptation of Doyle's The Empty House and The Final Problem, which is a pretty loose claim but fair enough since it does involve Holmes locking intellectual horns with Moriarty and using one significant lifted plot point, as well as lifting several dialogue passages verbatim. The film is a mixture of drawing-room chattiness and bursts of German Expressionism as Holmes attempts to sort out a puzzling nocturnal murder in a bank vault, which doesn't seem to have resulted in any financial theft. Along with Watson (played by Ian Fleming - no, not that one, and credited here as "Jan Fleming" for some reason), which ties in with a low-level diplomat, Ronald (Perrins), who's been cheating his friends at cards. Ronald's sister, Kathleen (Welsh), doesn't realize that bringing in Holmes will put him face to face with Moriarty himself, though the master of disguise could be anyone involved in the challenging case.

Considered a lost film for years until an American print turned up (framed at 1.33:1 which obviously crops the more common silent Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Houraspect ratio of 1.20:1 that was still hanging around at that point), this is obviously a Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hourstagier Holmes than what we're used to but still a very worthwhile viewing experience for the star performance and those little dashes of visual style. The climax is actually nicely handled as well with Holmes undertaking a battle of wits with his nemesis under constrained circumstances, and the story has enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. Given that there's only one element left in existence, the Blu-ray is about as good as it's going to get and watchable enough given its rarity and vintage. The English audio is lossy Dolby Digital (as with the others in the set) which would normally be a minus here but not all that big a deal given that this comes from an aged print. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided for the feature as well as the audio commentary by Jennifer Churchill, who chats about various Sherlockiana tidbits connected to the film as well as the backgrounds of the major players. There's a fair amount of silent gaps here but what she does offer is definitely handy. First up in the video extras is a new radio production of Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle from Redfield Arts Audio (39m47s), offering a solid dramatization of the perennial Christmastime mystery tale. In The Adventures of Sam Sherman Part One (7m40s), the Independent-International head chats about how he first encountered the films and tried to figure out where they wandered off to after their appearances on New York TV in the '50s. Then you get two versions of the 1918 short A Black Sherlock Holmes (14m38s and 13m24s), or rather what remains of it since it's more like a moving slideshow given the extensive amount of damage. 1900's Sherlock Holmes Baffled (38s) is a very quick silent blackout sketch involving trick photography. Also included is an insert booklet with an essay by Don Stradley A Study in Scarletabout A Study in ScarletWontner's background and the film's theatrical release.

Another actor took a crack at the role soon after in 1933's A Study in Scarlet, a Hollywood poverty row production with Reginald Owen taking over for a purported adaptation of the very first Holmes-Watson adventure. Actually it only retains the title, instead offering a tale about a secret London society (a la The Wrong Box) who share the assets of each member when one dies. Of course, now they're all getting knocked off (starting with a faked suicide on a train) with a dizzying array of clues left behind as well as odd characters like a mysterious widow played by none other than Anna May Wong, Hollywood's first Asian star. Easily the least of the four films in the set, it's of some interest for the presence of Wong and the odd dynamic of Holmes and the mostly sidelined Watson (Gamble). Perhaps fittingly, it's also the weakest of the set in a/v terms with a contrasty and chalky appearance indicating the source elements haven't been kept in terribly good shape over the A Study in Scarletyears.

A Study in ScarletThe film also comes with an audio commentary by authors-screenwriters Peter Atkins and David Breckman who talk about Twickenham Studios, the nature of early poverty row filmmaking, the variations from the novel, and the various actors in the film. Unfortunately the audio from the film itself is running behind them throughout and tends to get loud at times, so it's hard to make out what they're saying now and then. Elementary Cinema: The First Cinematic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (26m29s) takes a look at Doyle's life and the nascent cinematic attempts at bringing his most famous creation to life, not always with initially great results (including some other early titles not included here like The Speckled Band). Also included is Slick Sleuths (7m15s), a 1926 animated short with Mutt and Jeff doing their best Holmes and Watson routines in search of a nefarious villain called The Phantom. C. Courtney Joyner provides the liner notes this time for a very interesting look at why this story has been so seldom adapted, primarily for its depiction of Mormonism and a variety of legal snags.

The Triumph of Sherlock HolmesThe Triumph of Sherlock HolmesNow it's back to Wontner with 1935's The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, this time a surprisingly faithful adaptation of The Valley of Fear and arguably the star's best turn in the role. This time Moriarty (Harding, who's quite good) is out in the open and pining to get Sherlock Holmes out of retirement... but how? Moriarty decides to take advantage of "an American society who wishes to remove one of its members," which involves a $50,000 fee, the mysterious death of a man at his estate, regular Holmes character Colonel Moran, and a lengthy flashback involving a gang called the Scowlers. The quality of this one (and the fourth film in the set) is by far the best this has looked on home video, though you should still keep your expectations in check as it's still soft and, given the absence of visible film grain or damage, the recipient of visible noise reduction.

This time you get an audio commentary by Jason A. Ney (who also provides the liner notes, a general overview of Doyle's character) in which he dives into the Wontner cycle, some aborted Holmes projects, the elements of Sherlock that filtered The Triumph of Sherlock Holmesthroughout pop culture, the budgetary constraints at play here, the critical reception to The Triumph of Sherlock Holmesthese films at the time, and plenty more. The video extras start with 1912's The Cooper Beeches (19m10s), a two-part silent serial based on the Doyle story that doesn't introduce our hero until halfway through. It's in very nice quality and comes with a period-appropriate music score. The Adventures of Sam Sherman Part Two (6m8s) continues his appraisal of the Wontner series with memories of his first TV viewing and his justifiable opinion of this as the best of the bunch. Finally 1954's The Case of the Blind Man's Bluff (26m30s) is a bonus TV episode from the single-season Sherlock Holmes series with Ronald Howard as Holmes recruited to investigate a stabbing murder outside a sea tavern involving a sinister chicken's foot and a sword cane. (Note the packaging and menu erroneously cite this one as 1964.) Extra weird points here for what may be the only Holmes adventure where you have to see Watson (played by Howard Marion-Crawford of Silver Blazethe Fu Manchu films) Silver Blazetaking a bath.

The final film in the set (and the Wontner cycle) is Silver Blaze, which was released as Murder at the Baskervilles in the U.S. As you can probably guess, it's kind of a mash-up with Moriarty (Harding again) and the character of Henry Baskerville tossed into the plot of the short story The Silver Blaze, about horse racing tampering and kidnapping. Since we see Moriarty and Moran at work right form the outset, it's more of a "how" and "why"-dunit when a trainer is murdered and his prize steed goes missing with Holmes' life put in peril as he looks into the case.

A worthy enough finale, Silver Blaze sticks to the basics of the original story while giving Holmes and Watson a lot more business to do with the added villainous forces at work. It's also easier to appreciate thanks to a new commentary by writer-producers Phoef Sutton and Mark Jordan Legan who cover all the bases including the source story, the bizarre array of actors who played Holmes over the years, the connections to the prior Wontner films, the parallel connections to Agatha Christie, the state of Silver BlazeBritish Silver Blazedistribution, and more. The Adventures of Sam Sherman Part Three (7m14s) finishes us off with a look at his first experiences with this film and the elements about it that appealed to him, especially the "sci-fi gun." Then Felix the Cat pops up for the 1928 cartoon short Sure Luck Holmes (7m38s), with the immortal feline spending a very spooky night in the woods. The 1913 comedy short Cousins of Sherlocko (9m47s) -- which is in shockingly pristine condition, by the way -- is a cute little diversion about a couple of inept Sherlock wannabes who decide to go after the local pickpocket by... uh, cavorting around in drag. Finally Stradley returns for the final insert booklet essay, covering the tail end of the Wontner Sherlock era and explaining how major distribution changes made it harder for these films to be seen by U.S. audiences.

Reviewed on December 12, 2021.