THE SHERLOCK HOLMES VAULT COLLECTION Collects Four Early Holmes Feature Films, plus Numerous Shorts

The Sherlock Holmes Vault Collection collects four Sherlock films from the 1930s. These are not the oldest Holmes feature films, but they are among the first that had sound as cinema emerged from the silent era. Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (1931), The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935), and Silver Blaze (1937) are from the same series starring Arthur Wontner and Ian Fleming (not to be confused with the James Bond creator) as the Baker Street detective and his faithful companion Dr. Watson. An unrelated fourth film, A Study in Scarlet (1933), is also included, plus numerous shorts and extras.

The Wontner Holmes series included two other films not represented in this set, the ironically titled The Missing Rembrandt (1932) which is a lost film, and The Sign of Four (1932).

The films are quite short, ranging from 71 to 84 minutes, which helps keeps things a little more breezy (in contrast to the lack of musical scores which makes things feel a little more drawn out).

Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (1931)

Holmes is pulled into the mystery of a card cheater threatened by a disembodied voice to join a criminal enterprise, and believes a shadowy underworld figure is behind it — along with most of the crime in London.

Arthur Wontner’s portrayal of Holmes is a very good one, arrogant but without mean-spirited condescension, generally matter-of-fact but sometimes even a little playful, admitting he sometimes likes to have a flair for the dramatic. Similarly, Ian Fleming’s Watson is no dotard, but a capable and likeable fellow who does his best to keep up with Holmes’ intellect.

The film sets up Holmes’ menacing nemesis Moriarty (a latter invention of the literary canon, portrayed here by Norman McKinnel) as a recurring villain who will return in the other films, as well as befuddled ally Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard.

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

My favorite film in this set is based on The Holmes novel The Valley of Fear. Holmes and Watson investigate the death of Pinkteron detective John Douglas, learning about the man’s adventurous past and enemies. Moriarty also returns, now played by Lyn Harding.

It’s the most unique film in the series in terms of genre, incorporating a sizeable chunk (about a third of the film) of flashback to events that took place in the United States, with a rugged western flair, diving into the history of Douglas infiltrating a fraternity of gangsters known as the “Scourers” (based on the historical Molly Maguires).

Silver Blaze (1937)

While based on one of Doyle’s tales, this film version of Silver Blaze takes some interesting liberties. The story concerns the theft of a prized race horse, but what quickly becomes the most unique aspects of this film are its additions.

It’s framed as a sequel of sorts of one of the most famous Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles, incorporating the Baskerville family and relocating the tale to their moor location – a fact which helped it secure US distribution under the alternative title “Murder at the Baskervilles”. Moreover, Moriarty is also injected into the tale as the villain, again played by Harding.

Perhaps the weirdest little aspect of this one is that the baddies brandish a quiet “airgun” with devastating effect — an odd little fictional construct that seems even more anachronistic now.

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

A Study in Scarlet, featuring Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes, is unrelated to the Arthur Wontner series and the odd duck in the box.

The tale involves a secret society of elites with a mutual agreement to divide up share each others’ wealth upon the death of any member. But things start going sideways when the members suddenly start getting killed, making the dwindling survivors richer but also putting the group in a state of increasing alarm and distrust.

The plot is frankly a bit hard to follow (and bears little resemblance to the novel), but there’s some interesting stuff here. Holmes incorporates elaborate disguises for his investigations (which uncover a mysterious secret passage), and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star, features prominently.

The Package

The four films are packed in a handsome box set with numerous extras including featurettes and vintage Sherlock Holmes and detective-themed short films. Each film also has an accompanying art postcards and booklet. You can see more details on the package in our earlier unboxing post.

The picture quality varies pretty wildly with a whole range of contrast and sharpness. None of the films look especially impressive (and seem to have soft focus issues to begin with), but given their age and relative obscurity, these are adequate presentations and likely the best we’re ever going to get.

Special Features and Extras — Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour

  • “The Adventures of Sam Sherman: Part One”
    Each of the films has a short featurette produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. A historically insightful three-part video essay featuring Sam Sherman accompanies the three Arthur Wontner films.
  • Commentary Track with Jennifer Churchill
  • Sherlock Holmes Baffled [1900 Short] (0:38)
    Sherlock Holmes’ first known onscreen appearance is a very short comedic narrative which shows the detective outwitted by a thief who “teleports”, so to speak, popping in and out of the frame.
  • A Black Sherlock Holmes [1918 Short]
    The first short from Chicago’s Ebony Film Corp, a company of some fascinating history. Because of extensive print damage, this silent short is almost unwatchable in its complete form. For its inclusion here two versions are offered, both uncut (13:24) and edited for clarity (14:28). Oddly, the edited version is actually longer because it’s shown at a slower framerate.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle [Audio Drama] (39:47)
    A Sherlock Holmes Christmas tale in the form of an audio drama by Redfield Studios, with Mark Redfield as Holmes.

Special Features and Extras — The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes

  • The Adventures of Sam Sherman: Part Two” (6:08)
  • Commentary Track w/ Jason A. Ney
  • “The Case of the Blind Man’s Bluff” (26:29)
    An episode of the 1954 Sherlock Holmes Television Series. Very good quality print.
  • Copper Beeches [1912 short] (19:09)
    A governess grows concerned that her employer has a terrifying secret. It’s kind of a bizarre narrative, a two part short which is told completely chronologically in a way that not only demystifies the mystery, but delays Holmes’ entrance until the second part.

Special Features and Extras — Silver Blaze

  • The Adventures of Sam Sherman: Part Three”
  • Commentary Track w/ Phoef Sutton & Jordan Legan
  • Cousins of Sherlocko [1913 Short] (9:47)
    This comedic short from narrative film pioneer Alice Guy Blaché is a zippy whirlwind of cross-dressing and mistaken identities. Picture quality is notably incredible.
  • Felix the Cat: “Sure Luck Holmes” [1928 Short] (7:38)
    aka “Sure-Locked Holmes”. On a spooky moonlit night, Felix investigates a series of weird shadowy figures.

Special Features and Extras — A Study in Scarlet

  • Elementary Cinema: The Early Films of Sherlock Holmes (26:29)
    This video essay explores the screen history of Sherlock Holmes as cinema emerged from the silent era into talkies, touching on the latter days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the various actors that played Holmes and Watson.
  • Commentary Track w/ Peter Atkins & David Breckman
  • Mutt and Jeff: “Slick Sleuths” [1926 short] (7:15)
    Bud Fisher’s comic duo investigate a shadowy phantom whose transformative powers prove difficult challenge. The plot is nearly identical to the Felix cartoon on Disc 3 (which was made a couple years later), though each has its own twist ending.

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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