It is hardly uncommon for famous characters to outlive their creators. The Man of Steel quickly got away from Siegel and Shuster (many of Superman’s greatest moments and features of his universe were not from the comics or the big screen; they came from radio). The original James Bond novels were not enough to satisfy fans, and grew into one of the most successful movie franchises of all times.
Few characters have been as successful for their original author and beyond than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The Guinness Book Of World Records lists Holmes as “the most portrayed movie character”, having been played by more than 70 actors in an excess of 200 films. The traditional Sherlock Holmes and his companion, Dr. Watson, are residents of the foggy streets of London in the late 19th century, but Holmes has found modern incarnations in the BBC’s Sherlock series, and Elementary on CBS.
When fans speak of the “real” Sherlock Holmes, they are referring to either the character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original 4 novels and 56 short stories, or else the characters portrayed by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.
Rathbone and Bruce first appeared together in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). Conceived as a single picture deal, Baskervilles was received so well that the studio followed it up with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the same year. Adventures was not taken from original canon, but the 1899 William Gillette play which inspired the movie was written with elements from several of Doyle’s stories. The Mercury Theatre also adapted Gillette’s play the previous summer
The team of Rathbone and Bruce went on to make twelve more Sherlock Holmes films. These later films strayed even further for Doyle’s stories (with Holmes sometimes fighting Nazi’s) but stayed true to the characters.
Holmes had been a favorite on the radio since 1930, just three years after Arthur Conan Doyle’s death, when the Red Network first built a show around the world’s most famous detective. The concept was a popular one, but went through several stars. It was able to hold onto its sponsor, George Washington Coffee, until 1936 when the show changed networks. Holmes lasted for a year on Mutual for Household Finance.
Holmes disappeared from the network schedules until The Hound Of The Baskervilles became a hit film in 1939. Six months after the movie opened, The New Adventures of The New Aventures of Sherlock Holmes appeared on the Blue Network starring Rathbone and Bruce.
New Adventures was more faithful to Doyle’s Holmes than the movie series produced at the same time. An interesting plot device was introduced for New Adventures. Most of the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle were narrated by Watson, who acted as Holmes’ partner and biographer. In New Adventures, the Doctor tells his stories to the show’s announcer, who visits Watson at his retirement home in California. This also gave them a chance to share a glass of the sponsor’s product, Petri Wines.
By 1946, Basil Rathbone was anxious to move beyond typecasting as Holmes, and left both the movie and radio series’. Nigel Bruce remained as radio’s Dr Watson for two more seasons. The later Holmes never had the same chemistry.