Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Overlooked Films: The Sign of Four (1932) starring Arthur Wontner
Before Basil Rathbone became THE Sherlock Holmes in 1939, the screen's busiest Holmes impersonator was Arthur Wontner. The Sign of Four was the third of five films, preceded by The Sleeping Cardinal (U.S. title Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour), and The Missing Rembrandt (a lost film), and followed by The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes and Silver Blaze (U.S. title Murder at the Baskervilles), all made in the UK.
As Holmes, Wontner is a mixed bag. He looks the part. If he were a few inches taller he might be mistaken for the model of the illustrations that appeared in The Strand. And he shows flashes of humor that make him almost believable. Unfortunately, his voice is a bit high and squeaky, and he sometimes sounds like he has a lisp. Wontner does a good job portraying Holmes in disguise, first as an old salt (seen in the lobby card below), which fools police detective Athelney Jones, and later as a carnival patron, fooling Watson. The main problem, I guess, is that he simply is not Basil Rathbone.
Ian Hunter makes an okay Watson, though he looks more like a leading man than a sidekick. He has a couple of nice humorous moments with Wontner, but for most of the film he's merely drooling over their client Mary Morstan, whom we all know is fated to become Mrs. Watson.
It's been a coon age since I read the book, so I can't offer an in-depth comparison. But the major difference seems to be that the book opens with mysterious goings on, and we follow Holmes as he figures things out, while the film opens with the back story, showing us whodunnit and why. The only mystery left is how Holmes is going to catch the villains. The weirdest deviation from the book (and the entire canon) is that Holmes lives at 22A Baker Street.
Bottom line: The Sign of Four is far from a great film, but for hardcore Holmes fans (like me) it has certain points of interest that make it required viewing.
See SWEET FREEDOM for this week's batch of other Overlooked Entertainment.