Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes in 14 films made between 1939 and 1946. The first two films were made by 20th Century Fox and set in the late Victorian era, while the following 12 were made by Universal Pictures and set in contemporary (1940s) London. They dealt with the then present-day issues of war, spies, secret weapons and so on. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who played Dr Watson, also appeared in 213 episodes of the Sherlock Holmes radio series (1939-46) as well as cameoing as themselves playing their characters in the film Crazy House (1943). Rathbone's last appearance as Holmes occurred after his death when his recorded voice was used for the character in Basil the Great Mouse Detective.
Sherlock Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and many of the films claim to be 'based on' one of his stories. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about Holmes between 1887 and 1927, but only the first film in the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles, can be considered a true adaptation of one of his works.
Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes in every film in the series, with Nigel Bruce playing Dr Watson. Other recurring characters included Mrs Hudson who was played by Mary Gordon in ten films1, though often uncredited. She also played Mrs Hudson in some episodes of the radio series. Dennis Hoey played Inspector Lestrade in six films2 from 1942.
To avoid repetition these four actors are not credited in the cast lists below. Similarly, all but the first three films were directed by Roy William Neill. Only when Neill did not direct the film is the director listed. The character of Moriarty appeared in three films in the series, each time played by a different actor. Disappointingly, Sherlock's brother Mycroft and the 'Baker Street Irregulars' urchins never feature. Many of the actors appeared in the series more than once playing a variety of roles, in keeping with the repertory studio system in which actors were under exclusive contracts to specific studios. Actors who had been in more than one film are shown in Bold.
Disappointingly, the way that was chosen to make Sherlock Holmes look clever is by making those closest to him, namely Dr Watson and Inspector Lestrade, appear unbelievably daft. This makes it hard to discern why Holmes puts up with Watson's company.
The Game is Afoot: The Films
The 14 films in the series are listed below. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more named female characters who have a conversation together that is not focused on men.
Many of the Universal Pictures films are commonly known by two titles. These are: an abbreviated title, such as Voice of Terror, and a longer title including 'Sherlock Holmes in', so in this case Sherlock Holmes in the Voice of Terror. This is because three title cards were used at the start of each film. The first said 'Sherlock Holmes', the second 'Basil Rathbone Nigel Bruce in' and the third the film title. On the one hand, always using 'Sherlock Holmes in...' in the titles would mean two films would be titled Sherlock Holmes in the Spider Woman and Sherlock Holmes in the Woman in Green, which sounds rude. On the other hand, consistently deleting the 'Sherlock Holmes in' prefix renames Sherlock Holmes in Washington to just Washington, so neither approach works well overall.
1. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
After the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, his nephew inherits the estate. Yet an old legend from 1650 foretells that the Baskerville family are haunted by a hound from Hell that will kill the family off, one by one. What is the sinister sound on the Moors? Is it nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time?
|Setting||1889, London and Dartmoor|
|Based On||The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle|
The novel, when published, was a prequel as Conan Doyle, fed up of Sherlock Holmes' success, had killed him off in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in 1893. This is also Bruce's least bumbling portrayal of Dr Watson. The character of Barrymore in the novel is renamed Barryman here because actor John Barrymore had played Holmes in earlier film Sherlock Holmes (1922).
This adaptation was long considered the definitive version of The Hound of the Baskervilles until it was filmed in colour for the first time by Hammer in 1959, starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes. Unusually Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are credited second and fourth. The lead actor, Richard Greene, is now best-known for playing Robin Hood in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59) as well as the film Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960). Lionel Atwill would later return to the series to play Moriarty.
The film's ending is controversial, disappointing and weak. The murderer is seen to run out of the house carrying a gun only for Holmes to say that he has posted a policeman at either end of the road and the only other escape is via the mire. It doesn't sound difficult for the armed murderer to kill the (probably unarmed) constable and escape. The controversy comes from the very last line, 'Oh, Watson, the needle!', which is shouted to a gathering of the main characters and refers to Holmes' suggested drug habit. This line is edited out of censored versions of the film.
Of all the Sherlock Holmes films Basil Rathbone made, this was his favourite. He later said:
Had I made but the one Holmes picture, my first, 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', I should probably not be as well-known as I am today. But within myself as an artist, I should have been well content.
2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
Professor Moriarty wants to defeat Holmes and plans the ultimate crime. He believes that if he distracts Holmes with one riddle of a case, involving murder attempts on a young heiress and her brother, then Holmes will be out of the way allowing him to steal the Crown Jewels unopposed.
Will Sherlock Holmes perform the Edwardian song 'Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside' at a garden party, or guard the crown jewels? What does Holmes value more, precious metals or a young woman whose life is in danger? Can the crown be trusted to Captain Mainwaring – who do you think you are kidding? Will it be a close shave for Professor Moriarty? Or will he fall to his death?
|Setting||9-13 May, 1894, London|
|Based On||William Gillette's play Sherlock Holmes (1899) (supposedly)|
Despite theoretically being based on William Gillette's famous play, which was the first to present Holmes as smoking a dropped pipe simply to allow the audience to see his face better, none of that play's plot is in this film. It popularised the line 'Elementary, my dear Watson', which never appears in Conan Doyle's stories. The actor playing the minor role of Captain Mainwaring is uncredited; British viewers may wish to speculate whether this fictional character is related to the character in sitcom Dad's Army.
Once again the film ends abruptly, this time without really explaining the motives behind the Brandon murder attempts. Scenes were written to explain the loopholes, but were never filmed as explaining the motives was felt to be anticlimactic. These would have explained that Moriarty visited Hunter's office purely to throw suspicion on him. They would also have explained that Mateo sought revenge on the Brandon family as he blamed Miss Brandon's father for his own father's death, which Mateo believed allowed Mr Brandon to steal the mine that made the Brandon family wealthy. The audience does not know the motives nor how Moriarty convinced Mateo to seek revenge in a way that would occupy Holmes so thoroughly. Similarly, one moment Ann Brandon is so convinced her fiancé is the murderer, planning to marry her for her inheritance and then kill her immediately afterwards, that she screams at him and flees when she sees him. Then the next moment the audience are told that Ann and Hunter got married.
The Case of the Changing Studio
Perhaps because of this muddled mess the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose not to renew their contract with 20th Century Fox, who lost the right to make more Sherlock Holmes films. On their side 20th Century Fox felt that with the world at war, films about a 19th Century detective would seem irrelevantly anachronistic.
In 1942 the film rights were acquired by Universal Pictures5, a studio then closely associated with horror films featuring characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and the Mummy, and whose horror style would influence the subsequent series. Universal Pictures considered the Sherlock Holmes series to be B-Movies, churned out cheap and quick, even though they proved more popular and are regarded with greater affection than their more prestigious productions. As well as re-using actors, the same sets were used again and again.
Universal signed a seven year contract with the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, purchasing the film rights to 21 stories by the author. They agreed to make three Sherlock Holmes films per year, promising two out of the three would be adaptations of the stories they had purchased. Between 1942 and 1946 they made a dozen films. None of them followed the plots of Conan Doyle's stories particularly closely. Universal decided to keep the same established cast members of Rathbone, Bruce and even Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson based on their continued success on the radio series. Holmes' hair would now become wavy and unruly while Watson's had turned grey. Instead of retaining the Victorian setting, they chose to set their films in contemporary Britain during the Second World War, introducing this with the words:
Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving the significant problems of the present day he remains – as ever – the supreme master of deductive reasoning.
This seems a deliberate attempt to cash in on the then-popular spy thriller genre popularised by Alfred Hitchcock in films such as The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), as well as Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942), which feature Nazis as villains. Night Train to Munich (1940) is another example. Many of these films were made in Britain and often a key clue to the villain's identity was that the baddy was the character with a fake British accent. In Universal's Sherlock Holmes films, made in Hollywood, virtually everyone has a fake British accent.
Universal quickly learned that, although the character of Sherlock Holmes as played by Basil Rathbone was extremely popular, the wartime setting wasn't. The films retained a vague 1940s setting, but the style gradually changed to be much more Victorian Gothic, with spooky houses, unexplained deaths, horse-drawn carriages and peasouper fog.
Many of Universal's films end with Holmes delivering a stirring speech.
3. The Voice of Terror (1942)
The Voice of Terror is a German broadcaster who predicts and reports on the activities of German saboteurs and agents in Britain, hoping to weaken morale. Asked by the Inner Council of British Intelligence to discover and stop this master spy and his network of fifth columnists, Holmes believes that there must be a traitor high-up in a position of confidence and that there is more to the Voice of Terror than first appears.
|Setting||London circa 1940|
|Based On||Short story 'His Last Bow' (1917)|
Filmed under the title Sherlock Holmes Saves London and then renamed before release, the film's popularity at the box office soon convinced Universal Pictures that they were onto a winner. Loosely inspired by a Conan Doyle short story set during the First World War, the Second World War setting is not entirely inappropriate, yet the film does not have the Victorian charm of the earlier age. Particularly disappointing is a scene in which Watson prevents Holmes from wearing a deerstalker hat for a more common type.
The film effectively uses stock footage showing fires and bombings, both genuine and models, such as a train crash sequence re-used from The Invisible Man (1933). The plot also appears inspired by William Joyce, who broadcast Nazi propaganda to Britain under the name Lord Haw-Haw; after the war he was hanged for treason. Holmes solves the case with help from the BBC broadcasting a recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and comparing it to a live broadcast of the same symphony, which proves to him that the Voice of Terror's broadcasts are recorded and not live as claimed. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was extensively used by the Allies to symbolise victory. The Roman Numeral for 5 is 'V', and the Morse code for 'V' is '... –', which perfectly fits the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, da da da dum6. First adopted for this use by the BBC, this practice soon spread worldwide and was even used by the Walt Disney Studio.
The plot does have strong film noir elements, particularly the character of Kitty who is prepared to go to any lengths to infiltrate herself into the German agent's trust so as to be able to betray him for her country. She was loosely inspired by Kitty Winter, a character in Conan Doyle's 1924 story 'The Illustrious Client'. Played by Universal's 'scream queen' Evelyn Ankers, after appearing in the studio's Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man and Invisible Man film series she returned to Sherlock Holmes and appeared in The Pearl of Death. Thomas Gomez who plays Meade would later play Professor Moriarty in a 1953 stage adaptation titled Sherlock Holmes, starring opposite Basil Rathbone.
4. The Secret Weapon (1942)
Swiss scientist Dr Tobel has developed a new bombsight that promises to transform aerial bombing from potluck as to whether the bomb hits the target to being meticulously precise. Holmes brings Tobel to London. Moriarty, who wishes to sell the invention to Nazi Germany, kidnaps Tobel. Yet four scientists in London each have the plan to duplicate a quarter of the bombsight, and their identity is hidden inside an apparently impenetrable cryptograph left behind by Tobel. Who will crack the code first, Moriarty or Holmes? Will Moriarty fall off something to his death?
|Setting||Switzerland and London, early 1940s|
|Based On||Short story 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' (1905)|
As well as using the secret message idea from 'The Dancing Men', the plot takes inspiration from other Sherlock Holmes stories: Holmes is disguised as a bookseller, similar to 'The Empty House' (1903), a false-bottomed coffin idea was used in 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax' (1911) and a trail of luminous paint being muddled at a crossroads had featured in the novel The Sign of Four (1890).
The film features stock footage purporting to show a variety of Allied aircraft using the bombsight. In truth precision bombing would only become possible in the 21st Century; though news broadcasters showed a plethora of footage showing smart bombs and precision missiles being guided to hit their targets during the 1991 Gulf War, over 90% of munitions used in that war by the allies were dumb bombs of the 'drop from a plane and hope it hits the right thing' variety.
This is the only Universal film which refers to Holmes' drug use; when Moriarty is about to shoot him, Holmes, stalling for time, suggests a long, drawn out end by bleeding to death one drop at a time would be more fitting. Moriarty replies: 'The needle to the last, eh Holmes?'
Lionel Atwill, the actor playing Moriarty who had first appeared as Dr Mortimer in Hound of the Baskervilles, had a scandalous reputation; in 1940, after divorcing his third wife, he hosted a number of sex parties during which one of his guests committed statutory rape with a 16-year-old girl, and several others sexually molested her. A week after finishing portraying Moriarty in this film he was imprisoned for perjury for denying that he was showing erotic films or hosting orgies, and afterwards struggled to find work. Universal Studios did not cast him to play Moriarty again, though he was given lesser roles; he died of pneumonia in 1946. Due to a typo in the closing credits, Atwill is credited as playing 'Moriarity'.
Dennis Hoey makes his first appearance as Lestrade. He would wear exactly the same costume the following year when playing Inspector Owen in Universal Horror Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), which also featured Atwill. From this point onwards every film in the series was directed by Roy William Neill, with all but Sherlock Holmes in Washington also produced by him.
5. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
A British agent travels to Washington DC carrying vitally important documents for the war effort, but he is kidnapped and killed by the head of a German international spy ring shortly after hiding them. Holmes is sent to Washington to locate the documents and deduces that they were hidden on microfilm inside a matchbox. Has Holmes met his match? Will his enemy strike or can Watson bring light to the mystery?
|Setting||Predominantly Washington DC, also London|
The inspiration for this film seems not to be a story by Conan Doyle but rather the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (1938). A young woman about to be married unwittingly carries the vital matchbox around Washington under everyone's noses; it seems to contain enough matches for everyone in the city to use. Actors Marjorie Lord and John Archer who played the happy couple were married in real life when making this film and are the parents of Academy Award-nominated actress Anne Archer.
This is one of the weaker entries in the series. Holmes and Watson do not even appear until almost quarter of an hour into the film. Director Neill was unsurprisingly disappointed with the script - he believed that the series should move away from the Second World War spies and Nazi stories and return closer to its roots in Victorian Britain even though many higher up at Universal were considering having Holmes relocate to the US permanently. Seeing him smoking cigarettes rather than his classic pipe just isn't the same.
Even the title Sherlock Holmes in Washington is decidedly dull. The other names in the film include dramatic words particularly 'Terror' and 'Death' but also 'kill', 'hound', 'claw', 'fear' and 'pursuit'. 'In Washington' lacks drama.
6. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
Dr Watson is working at a stately home, which is being used as a convalescent home for officers whose mental health has been affected by conflict, when the owner is murdered. It appears that whenever the neighbouring church's clock strikes '13' a member of the Musgrave family is murdered. But why? And what is the meaning of the Musgrave Ritual, in which the heirs to the Musgrave fortune must recite a baffling formula?
|Setting||Musgrave Manor, Northumberland|
|Based On||Short Story 'The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual' (1893)|
This is one of the highlights of the series. Holmes' hair has been restored to its Fox glory, the drop-pipe is back and instead of battling Nazi spies once again, Holmes is at home solving the puzzles of a murder. There is a dramatic Gothic atmosphere, complete with underground crypts, fierce electrical storms during the bizarre funeral and a raven who loves to say the word 'Blood'. While Watson isn't too bumbling for once, Lestrade is at his most incompetent, getting lost in a secret passage of all things.
Director/producer Neill had hoped to cast Marjorie Lord as the female lead but she was unavailable, so the role went to former model Hillary Brooke. She had briefly appeared in an uncredited role as Holmes' driver in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. When interviewed in 1995 about her role in the Sherlock Holmes films, and particularly about working with Rathbone and Bruce, she said:
I adored them both, of course... I've always felt such a warm spot in my heart for them because they were so good to me. Basil Rathbone and I both loved animals and, many times, when we weren't working, we would... go down to the backlot. Universal had a little menagerie and we'd go down and see the lions.
7. The Spider Woman (1944)
Sherlock Holmes is dead! He fell over by a very small waterfall just as several gamblers all apparently killed themselves at nighttime in a series of deaths the newspapers are calling the Pyjama Suicides. Yet Holmes believes that driving someone to suicide is murder and behind it all is a woman. How is she committing murders in locked rooms? Are people doglike? Can the Spider Woman get Dr Watson to shoot Sherlock in the heart, having mistaken him for Adolf Hitler?
|Setting||Early 1940s London and environs|
|Based On||Novel The Sign of Four (1890) and short story 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot' (1910)|
The Spider Woman is a crafty black widow who doesn't even marry her victims to inherit their fortune. She proved to be so popular that Gale Sondergaard would star in The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1947) as a similar character with a different alias who kills cows rather than people. Though Universal had hoped to make a series of Spider Woman films her career was ended abruptly by McCarthy's witch-hunt when her husband nobly refused to answer their questions.
This film borrowed plot elements from several of Conan Doyle's stories. However, in some ways it has dated the most due to its use of blackface makeup.
8. The Scarlet Claw (1944)
A meeting at the Royal Canadian Occult Society is held by Lord Penrose, who insists his home village has a ghostly, glowing monster that kills sheep, leaving claw marks. Holmes learns that the occultist's wife, a former actress, has been murdered, just before he receives a letter from her asking for his help as she feels her life is in danger. In the village, everyone believes the death was caused by a glowing monster in the marshes, yet Holmes believes Lady Penrose' death is just the first.
|Setting||La Mort Rouge, Quebec, Canada, in February in the 1940s|
Watson is at his most bumbling in this film, falling in a bog (twice) and also down the stairs. The story is strongly influenced by The Hound of the Baskervilles and similarly is set in an area surrounded by a fatal marsh in an almost Victorian Gothic vein, with horse-drawn carts and bobbies on the beat, even though the film is set in the 1940s. Yet the French-Canadian setting was also inspired by Universal Horror/detective film The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942), which was loosely inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's 1842 short story; both films have the same murder weapon and a character named Marie. The elements of the occult reflect the fact that Conan Doyle was a strong believer in spiritualism.
9. The Pearl of Death (1944)
The priceless Borgia pearl, said to be cursed, is stolen! The thief, unable to pass the pearl to an accomplice, must have hidden it somewhere in a plaster shop, but where? With innocent people murdered all over London, Holmes must find the pearl before the curse claims more victims.
|Based On||Short Story 'The Six Napoleons' (1905)|
Another effective story that plays to Holmes' strengths in solving crimes, and humbling the detective as it was his smug superiority that led to the pearl being stolen in the first place. Rondo Hatton was cast as a monster by Universal Pictures because of his unusual appearance; having been poison-gassed during the Great War he developed acromegaly, in which his bones did not stop growing. He was cast as 'The Creeper' in two more (unrelated) films, House of Horrors (1946) and The Brute Man (1946). Hatton died, aged 51, in early 1946, so those films were released posthumously.
10. The House of Fear (1945)
Seven old men are in a club called 'The Good Comrades' and live together in supposedly-haunted Drearcliffe House on the remote Scottish coast. They all have extremely valuable life insurance policies naming the others as their beneficiaries. Two of them are found murdered and mutilated after first receiving an envelope containing orange pips in accordance with the local legend that 'no man goes whole unto his grave'. The insurance agent asks Holmes to investigate, believing that one is murdering the others for the money. Can Holmes deduce who is murdering the others and solve the case?
|Setting||London and Drearcliffe House, Inverneill, Scotland|
|Based On||Short Story 'Adventures of the Five Orange Pips' (1891)|
A story that owes as much to Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians as the work of Conan Doyle, this film is one of the more likely to keep viewers guessing rather than working out at once who the baddie is. Despite Watson panicking in the dark and shooting at cats and a suit of armour, he manages to spot the conclusive clue before Holmes does, for once, and then promptly gets himself captured and almost executed.
From the outside the House of Fear looks identical to the ruined church of Voice of Terror, while the interior was designed by the same architect who made all the large houses that Holmes visits - as each has the exact same staircase and the hall floor has the same chessboard design of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death7.
11. The Woman in Green (1945)
The women of London are being murdered! Several women have been killed and the only thing in common is that their right forefinger has been cut off. Holmes investigates and realises that the victims are being murdered and mutilated so that their severed fingers can be planted on innocent, wealthy, hypnotised targets who will be blackmailed into handing over their fortune on pain of being framed as the murderer. Will Holmes be hypnotised? Who is behind the diabolical scheme? Will Watson do his humpty dumpty impression and fall off a wall, or will Moriarty plummet to his death again?
|Based On||Short Story 'The Adventure of the Empty House' (1903)|
During this film Sherlock is shocked to be offered some cannabis to help him relax, which implies he has changed his stance on drug use entirely, although he does apparently take some. His brother Mycroft is also mentioned for the first and only time in the series, but does not appear.
12. Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
Following the assassination of the king of the Mediterranean country of Rovinia, Holmes agrees to escort his son, the heir to the throne, from England where he has been schooled to neighbouring Algiers. Yet the radical group behind his father's death will stop at nothing to kill the prince. When Holmes, Watson and the prince disguised as young 'Nikolas Watson' take a liner there, have the villains found their way on board also? Who on the ship are the villains? Can Holmes keep the prince safe from assassins? Why won't Watson eat fish and chips? The case isn't solved 'til the fat Watson sings!
|Setting||Ship SS Friesland from London to Algiers|
The nearest thing to a Sherlock Holmes musical as the passengers are frequently entertained by a professional singer, with Dr Watson singing the final song 'Loch Lomond'. The SS Friesland was briefly mentioned in 1903 story 'The Norwood Builder' as well as in The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Wee Willie Davis was a professional wrestler who enjoyed a career as an actor, but does very little in this story. His accomplices Gregor and Mirko were inspired by Gutman and Cairo from The Maltese Falcon (1940). Martin Kosleck, who plays Mirko, almost died when his wife defenestrated him and he fell two floors to land on the pavement.
13. Terror by Night (1946)
Following an attempt to steal priceless diamond the Star of Rhodesia, which is apparently cursed, Roland Carstairs asks Holmes to accompanying him and his mother back to Edinburgh to protect it. Believing that Moriarty's right-hand man Colonel Sebastian Moran is behind the theft, Holmes agrees, while Lestrade also boards the train. Soon, though, Carstairs is murdered and the stone has vanished. Can Holmes find the murderer? Can Watson catch the train? How was the theft arranged and the murders committed? Why is Lady Carstairs more concerned about her missing trinket than the murder of her son on the Flying Scotsman?
|Setting||Flying Scotsman train from London to Edinburgh|
The character of Colonel Moran is mentioned in a few Sherlock Holmes tales but only appears in person once, and also only appears in this film in the series. Sadly there are loose ends as the characters' motivations are never fully explored, and instead they all act in strange ways purely so everyone will seem like the villain.
14. Dressed to Kill (1946)
A man is murdered in London after purchasing one of three music boxes made in Dartmoor Prison by the man who stole the means to make counterfeit £5 notes, leading Holmes to suspect the music boxes each contain a secret code. Can Holmes find the boxes and decipher the message before the murderers do?
Originally released as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code in the UK due to films titled 'Dressed to Kill' having been released in 1928 and 1941, this was the closest the series came to featuring Conan Doyle's popular character Irene Adler. Adler was the inspiration for this film's femme fatale Hilda Courtney and is also mentioned by name, as is magazine The Strand, the publication that first published stories featuring Sherlock Holmes.
Between 1939 when the series started and 1946 when it came to an end, filmmaking had changed substantially. One major change was the price. In 1939 in America it cost an average 23 cents for a cinema ticket; by 1946 this had almost doubled to 40 cents. Audiences were now more discerning when it came to choosing which films they saw and demanded to be entertained for longer, especially as television was beginning to become a real rival to the cinema.
In 1946 Universal Pictures, feeling that they were becoming old-fashioned and redundant, merged with International Pictures in order to rejuvenate the studio. Several new, sweeping changes to Universal's films were introduced. Firstly it was announced that no films lasting under 70 minutes would be made; of Universal's dozen Sherlock Holmes films, only Sherlock Holmes in Washington and The Scarlet Claw were 70 minutes or longer. Several of the studio's stars of the 1940s were unceremoniously dumped and discarded. Faux-British films were also no longer in vogue as one of the first acts of Universal-International was to secure the US distribution rights to real, prestigious British films made by J Arthur Rank8. On 14 December, 1946, Roy William Neill, the director/producer behind almost all the films in the series, died of a heart attack.
It was in this atmosphere of change that Rathbone announced that he would no longer play Sherlock Holmes. As a classical actor, he preferred the theatre to film. He also stated that he felt typecast by the role which was becoming increasingly repetitive to play. After all, he had also played Holmes for 200 episodes on radio, and had quit the radio series. Bruce continued to play Dr Watson for another 39 radio episodes with Tom Conway playing the detective. Universal considered having Conway play Holmes on film too, as they held the rights until 1949, but felt that the series had naturally ended.