A row with the Conan-Doyle estate – 80 years ago – led to Universal’s classic film series that inspired today’s Sherlock

Voice of Terror 01Sherlock creators, Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffatt say that the inspiration for their acclaimed adaptation of the Conan-Doyle stories came, in part, from an admiration of the 1940s films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. But, a row eighty years ago with the Conan-Doyle estate meant the series nearly didn’t get made and the world could have been deprived of two Holmesian classics.

A series of fourteen iconic Sherlock Holmes films that starred Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were initially produced by 20th Century Fox. In December 1938 the pair were cast in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was released in March 1939. The film was set in the Victorian era and had a relatively high budget, which gave the picture production values that were well above it B picture status.

The success of the first picture led to a quick follow-up. In 1939 Fox released The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with a script that was based upon William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, Sherlock Holmes. Fox remained committed to the stories, but a row with the Conan-Doyle estate led to a breakdown in contract negotiations and the studio decided to withdraw from any further productions. This put Holmes related film output in Hollywood into a hiatus, while the estate looked for a new studio partner.

Two years later, in February 1942, Universal Studios concluded contract negotiations with Conan-Doyle’s two sons and secured the rights to the stories. Universal signed a seven-year deal, worth a rumoured $300,000, that allowed them to produce up to 21 pictures, at a rate of three per year, of which two were required to be adaptations of original Conan-Doyle stories. Crucially, Universal’s contract enabled them to update the stores and bring them into the modern-day.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

With the second world war at its height, the studio chose to pit Holmes and Watson against evil Nazi spies in London and created Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, which was inspired by Conan-Doyle’s story His Last Bow, originally published in 1917. The film was released in September 1942. The shift in time was overcome by captions at the start of the film explaining that Sherlock Holmes is “ageless, invincible and unchanging” and that he was dedicated to “solving significant problems of the present day”.

Audiences warmed to the pictures immediately, their mix of adventure and intrigue sat well against their patriotic, inspirational feel. Universal quickly added to the success with the release of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon in February 1943. The second film was directed by Roy William Neill, who went on to direct a further ten films.

Eventually, in 1946, Basil Rathbone tired of the repetitive nature of the series and stepped down from the role saying that his “first picture was, as it were, a negative from which I merely continued to produce endless positives of the same photograph”.

Universal’s series is still widely regarded as one of the best film adaptations of the stories of the world’s greatest consulting detective. The series’ impact continues to this day, not only by inspiring some of the UK’s best TV writers to create a new television drama, but by continuing to captivate audiences around the world, whether on DVD or TV.