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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Arthur Wontner - The First 'Definitive' Sherlock Holmes (Part One)


I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere

Due to the smashing success of the two Guy Ritchie-helmed films, Robert Downey, Jr. is now the face of  Sherlock Holmes to many, if not most, people. He succeeds Jeremy Brett in that role; Brett himself followed Basil Rathbone. We're going to look at a few depictions of the great detective in film and television. We'll start with the first major Holmes star of the "talkies" era: Arthur Wontner.

PART ONE - A Holmes On Every Corner (or Stage..)

In the days before cinema took firm hold of the entertainment seeking public, stage plays were the major source of work for actors of all levels. Arthur Wontner was the last film Holmes before Basil Rathbone laid claim to the role. But as we’ll see below, Wontner’s stage career would directly and indirectly cross paths with many Sherlockian-related performers.

In the late 1890’s, a young Wontner served in Louis Calvert’s theater troupe (the great Eille Norwood was also a member at one time). Both would also perform at different times for Edward Compton. In 1906, Wontner played Raffles (Norwood, John Barrymore), the gentleman thief created by E.W. Hornung, Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother in-law.

Wontner first worked with Lyn Harding (who twice appeared opposite him in films as Professor Moriarty) at the Shakespeare Festival in 1910. In 1912 he played Orsino (Basil Rathbone) in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Also in the cast was Dennis Neilson-Terry (Holmes in Doyle’s play, The Crown Diamond) and Felix Aylmer (Holmes in the 1933 play, The Holmeses of Baker Street).

In 1913, he played Hilary Cutts in The New Sin. Norwood would play the part the very next year.  And in 1916, Wontner portrayed an enduring villain, Peter Pan’s Captain Hook. The role would be shared with two screen Moriarty’s, Ernest Torrence and Harding. That same year, Wontner appeared in the movie, Frailty, which also included Norwood in the cast!

In 1920, Wontner went into management and was involved in several plays. They were not overwhelmingly successful and thankfully for Holmes fans, he returned to the stage. In 1922 he was cast as Detective Anderson in Mary Robert Rinehart’s mystery play, The Bat. This was a hugely successful play based upon her earlier novel, The Circular Staircase. Largely forgotten today, it was one of the most popular plays of its time and Wontner was the male lead.

He continued to appear in the UK and America throughout the twenties; there were always parts available for Arthur Wontner. It is unlikely that New York theatergoers, attending The Captive in September of 1926, realized they were seeing two future great Holmes’ when Wontner and Rathbone shared the same stage! In 1924, Wontner appeared in The Ware Case. His own future Watson, Ian Fleming, would make his film debut in the same story in 1928 (albeit in a different role. Clive Brook later filmed it as well).

In 1930 he played one of history’s greatest villains, Cardinal Richelieu (H.A. Saintsbury, Raymond Massey, Christopher Lee) in The Three Musketeers. Following that play, he was cast as detective Sexton Blake. It was directly from that role that he would go on to play the greatest of all detectives in The Sleeping Cardinal.

In 1934, between Holmes films, he was Pontius Pilate in the play Good Friday. Rathbone would follow in a filmed version the following year. Later that year Wontner played King Louis XI (Rathbone, Saintsbury).

Wontner focused on movies for the rest of his career, with occasional appearances in plays. He filmed Blanche Fury in 1947, appearing with future Holmes Stewart Granger. His last film came in 1955. Three Cases of Murder included Andre Morrell, who would play a non Nigel Bruce-like Watson opposite Peter Cushing.

Clive Brook, Raymond Massey, Robert Rendel and Reginald Owen had all made undistinguished “talkies” featuring Holmes. Brook’s first effort (he made two Holmes films) was the most commercially successful, but beyond a doubt it was Wontner who came closest to the realization of Doyle’s creation.

For Twickenham, it was certainly an inspired choice. As Wontner had said himself, “People had remarked so frequently, ‘You really ought to play Sherlock Holmes. I’ve never seen anyone so like Sidney Paget’s drawings.’” In fact, Wontner was Joseph Simpson’s drawing for The Red Circle come to life. About his casting, Wontner said:

I knew the stories very well. You couldn’t say I was an expert or anything like that, but I liked them very much, and it helped with getting the dialogue right. I found quite a lot of dialogue in the stories that we were able to use…I was keen to see that the dialogue was authentic.

Next up: the first film, The Sleeping Cardinal.


The Sleeping Cardinal was renamed Sherlock Holmes'
Fatal Hour
for its American release

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