The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (film)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (released theatrically as Sherlock Holmes in the United Kingdom) is a 1939 mystery-adventure film released by Twentieth Century Fox.[2] It is a pastiche featuring the characters of the Sherlock Holmes series of books written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The film is an adaptation of the 1899 play Sherlock Holmes by William Gillette, though there is little resemblance in the plots.[3]

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
1939 US theatrical poster
Directed byAlfred L. Werker
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Written byCharacters:
Arthur Conan Doyle
William Gillette
Edwin Blum[1]
William A. Drake
StarringBasil Rathbone
Nigel Bruce
Ida Lupino
George Zucco
Alan Marshal
Music byRobert Russell Bennett
Cyril J. Mockridge
CinematographyLeon Shamroy
Edited byRobert Bischoff
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • September 1, 1939 (1939-09-01)
Running time
81 minutes
CountryUnited States

The picture is the second installment to the series of fourteen Sherlock Holmes film series released between 1939 and 1946, the first being The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the second picture to feature Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. John Watson. It was the final Holmes film produced by Fox and the last in the Rathbone/Bruce series to be set in the original Victorian London period. The further twelve films produced by Universal Pictures and starring Rathbone/Bruce would take place in contemporaneous times (i.e., the 1940s). George Zucco stars as Holmes's nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

The picture follows famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Doctor Watson as they attempt to foil their archenemy Professor Moriarty, who targets a wealthy family and plots the theft of the Crown Jewels.


The film was supposedly based on the stage play by William Gillette, though little of the play's original plot remains aside from the Holmes/Moriarty conflict.[4] The play featured a very young Charlie Chaplin in one of his very first acting roles during its first London production, playing the character of Billy,[5] who, in this movie, is played by Terry Kilburn.


The film is set in 1894. The picture begins with Moriarty and Holmes verbally sparring on the steps outside the Old Bailey, where Moriarty has just been acquitted on a charge of murder owing to lack of evidence. Holmes remarks, "You have a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it, pickled in alcohol, to the London Medical Society." "It would make an impressive exhibit," replies Moriarty.

Holmes and Watson are visited at 221B Baker Street by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino). She tells him that her brother Lloyd has received a strange note: a drawing of a man with an albatross hanging around his neck, identical to one received by her father just before his brutal murder ten years before. Holmes deduces that the note is a warning and rushes to find Lloyd Brandon. He is too late, as Lloyd has been murdered by being strangled and having his skull crushed.

Holmes, disguised as a music-hall entertainer, attends a garden party, where he correctly believes an attempt will be made on Ann's life. Hearing her cries from a nearby park, he captures her assailant, who turns out to be Gabriel Mateo, out for revenge on the Brandons for the murder of his father by Ann's father in a dispute over ownership of their South American mine. His murder weapon was a bolas. Mateo also reveals that it was Moriarty who urged him to seek revenge.

Holmes realises that Moriarty is using the case as a distraction from his real crime, a crime that will stir the British Empire: an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels. Holmes rushes to the Tower of London, where, during a struggle, Moriarty falls, presumably to his death. In the end, Ann is married and Holmes tries to shoo a fly by playing the violin, only to have Watson swat it with his newspaper, remarking, "Elementary, my dear Holmes, elementary."[6]



"Elementary, my dear Watson." was ranked 65th in the American Film Institute 2005 list AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.[7]


The quote "Elementary, my dear Watson" was made popular by this film. Although it was spoken in the 1929 talkie The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring Clive Brook, it was never featured in a canonical Arthur Conan Doyle story, although once Holmes said, in "The Adventure of the Crooked Man", "Elementary".[8]

During the scene in which Holmes crashes the garden party dressed as a music hall performer, he sings "I Do Like To be Beside the Seaside". This is an anachronism, since the film is set in 1894 but the song was written in 1907.

The scene in which Holmes experiments with the flies in the glass while playing the violin is recreated in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, in which Holmes is played by Robert Downey, Jr.[9]


  1. "Edwin Blum, 89, Writer for Stage And the Screen". The New York Times. May 6, 1995.
  2. S. Nugent, Frank (September 2, 1939). "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes". The New York Times.
  3. Thompson, Dave (2013). Sherlock Holmes FAQ. Applause. p. 203. ISBN 978-1-4803-3149-5.
  4. Barnes, Alan (2002). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. p. 17. ISBN 1-903111-04-8.
  5. Eyles, Allen (1986). Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. Harper & Row. pp. 39. ISBN 0-06-015620-1.
  6. Davies, David Stuart, Holmes of the Movies (New English Library, 1976) ISBN 0-450-03358-9
  7. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-29.
  8. Mikkelson, David (July 2, 2006). "Sherlock Holmes and 'Elementary, My Dear Watson'". Retrieved November 22, 2018.
  9. Obrecht, Jas (October 6, 2011). "Sherlock Holmes' Favorite Music". The Jas Obrecht Music Archive. Retrieved November 22, 2018.
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