Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Universal Sherlock Holmes Repertory Company

Without question, my single favourite thing about the Rathbone-Bruce Universal Studios series of Sherlock Holmes films is the fact that it drew on a pool of actors, almost exclusively British character actors in Hollywood, and that the same familiar faces would crop up again and again in different roles. Some of the actors were rather typecast as villains, or as meek victims, but most of this rotating squad got to play pretty much everything - from unbilled desk clerks right up to people with the fate of the Empire in their hands.

Today's list, then, is my celebration of these hard-working souls. The majority of these actors never made it big in American cinema, so I'm sure appearing here will be viewed as the next best thing. Here's my top ten familiar faces.

10. MILES MANDER (2 appearances)

In numerical terms, Miles Mander lags significantly behind many of his fellows, but he more than makes up for this in his impact in the series. His first appearance was in the series' 8th film, The Scarlet Claw, as the frightened recluse Judge Brisson, but he really went over the top in the following feature, The Pearl of Death. His character there, the implacably suave villain Giles Connover, is undeniably one of the most unforgettable foes in any of the 14 pictures.

Mander was born in Wolverhampton in 1888. In addition to acting, he was also an author and playwright, a Captain in the nascent RAF during the Great War, and a sheep farmer in New Zealand. Moving into films, he'd made over 25 films before the dawn of the talkies - including the starring role in Alfred Hitchcock's directorial debut The Pleasure Garden. In all he acted in over 100 films, as well as writing, directing and producing a dozen more. He died of a heart attack, aged 57, in Los Angeles in 1946.

9. GAVIN MUIR (4 appearances)

Gavin Muir is one of those actors you just don't find any more - so impossibly suave it's a wonder they can stand up. His first appearance in the series was a fairly unlikely one - an uncredited and unseen turn as a radio announcer in Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror. His subsequent performances were much more visible - a US agent in Sherlock Holmes in Washington, the unfortunate heir to a huge fortune in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and a concerned insurance man in The House of Fear.

Gavin Muir, in spite of his cut-glass British accent, was an American actor, born in Chicago in 1900. He appeared in 71 films, usually playing characters so laid-back that they couldn't help but arouse suspicion. Muir died, aged 71, in Florida in 1972.

8. HOLMES HERBERT (5 appearances)

The perfectly-named Herbert was, alas, the stage name of Horace Jenner, an English character actor. Tall and distinguished of appearance, Herbert mainly played authority figures throughout the series, but he also managed to throw one or two scoundrels and bounders in for good measure, most notably as the scheming Alan Cosgrave in The House of Fear.

Herbert was born in Mansfield in 1882. Originally seen as a leading man in silent films, once the talking picture arrived he was reduced to supporting cast, a role he nevertheless played with some gusto and longevity - he appeared in over 200 films in a 37-year movie career. Herbert died, aged 74, in Hollywood in 1956.

7. OLAF HYTTEN (6 appearances)

Hytten's case is an interesting one. Making his bow as a member of the British inner security council in The Voice of Terror, each of Hytton's subsequent appearances in the series were in markedly less significant roles. By the end he was playing hotel desk clerks (The Scarlet Claw) and auction house ledger monkeys (Dressed to Kill). Nevertheless, his big, surprised face was a welcome presence in any of the films.

Hytten was a Scot, born in Glasgow in 1888. He appeared in almost 300 roles across films and American television. He died aged 67, in Los Angeles in 1955.

6. FREDERICK WORLOCK (6 appearances)

The splendidly-named Worlock carved out something of a niche for himself in the later films, playing officious, supercilious types who could - and did - lurch over into the realms of outright villainy. He perhaps reached his peak in the final two entries: a suspiciously short-tempered maths professor in Terror By Night and then as an impossibly well-mannered heavy in Dressed to Kill.

Worlock - sometimes credited as Frederic Worlock - was born in London in 1886 and enjoyed a long career in film and television. As well as Holmes, he appeared in Spartacus as Laelius and as a voice actor in Disney's animated adaptation of A Hundred and One Dalmatians. His last film appearance was in the pioneering disaster movie Airport. He died, aged 86 in Los Angeles in 1973.

5. HARRY CORDING (6 appearances)

The powerful Cording was a regular sight in the series. Often impressively bearded and with deep set, dark eyes, he made for a textbook henchman. That's normally how he was cast, too - although he made two appearances as craftsmen, a coffin maker in Terror By Night and a potter in The Pearl of Death. My favourite of all, though, is his performance as the pipe-chuffing bluff old salty seadog Captain Simpson in The House of Fear.

Cording was born in Somerset in 1891 and blustered and menaced his way through well over 250 feature films, first coming to prominence (along with a number of his Universal Studios repertory company fellows) in Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. Cording died in California in 1954, aged 63.

4. HENRY DANIELL (3 appearances)

Like Miles Mander, Daniell is set apart by quality rather than quantity. His well-bred menace frequently stole any scene he was in, quite distracting the viewer from the fact that he looked quite a lot like Tommy Boyd. Daniell's most notable appearance was as Professor Moriarty in The Woman In Green, but he was equally effective in his other roles on either side of the thin blue line - a council member in The Voice of Terror and a Nazi spy's henchman in Sherlock Holmes in Washington.

Daniell was born in London in 1894, making countless film appearances before commencing an equally impressive American TV career - usually exuding his peculiar brand of sang froid. Stand out moments from his acting CV: an appearance in Charlie Chaplin's first talkie, The Great Dictator and a starring role alongside Boris Karloff in Universal's magnificent horror, The Body Snatcher. He died aged 69 in California in 1963.

3. MARY GORDON (9 appearances)

Gordon is the holder of a number of distinctions in this list. As well as being the cast member with more appearances than anyone other than Basil Rathbone or Nigel Bruce, she is also the only actor here to have made appearances in both the 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes films. In addition, she is one of only two people in this list to have always played the same role - in this case that of Holmes' long suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson.

Gordon, born in 1882 in Glasgow, was a loyal member of the Universal repertory, appearing (frequently without fanfare or a screen credit) in almost 300 titles. As well as being the Mrs. Hudson, she also crops up in classic Universal horror films Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. The Sherlock Holmes films would simply not have been the same without her. Gordon died aged 81 in 1963, in Pasadena.

2. DENNIS HOEY (6 appearances)

Alongside Mary Gordon, Hoey is the only other recurring actor in the series to have played the same role throughout - the preposterously bungling Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. A character quite unlike the Lestrade of the books, Hoey makes the role very much his own with a flurry of slow-witted misunderstandings and pratfalls, which nevertheless never outstay their welcome.

Hoey was born Samuel Hyams in London in 1893. He appeared in over 60 feature films, often as police officers and the like. He died, aged 67, in Florida in 1960.

1. GERALD HAMER
(5 appearances)

The skeletal Hamer made surprisingly few Sherlock Holmes films, but his impact is unforgettable. Often a very periphery supporting character - his (vital) role as Alfred Pettibone of the British secret service in Sherlock Holmes in Washington even went uncredited - Hamer came into his own in The Scarlet Claw as Holmes' implacable foe Alistair Ramson. Hamer's other appearances came as an eccentric Egyptologist in Pursuit to Algiers, a twitchy invalided serviceman with shell shock in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and a meekly contrite teapot thief in Terror By Night.

Hamer was a Welshman, born Geoffrey Watton in 1886. He made fewer than 30 films, having spent much of his career as a serious stage actor in Britain. He died, aged 88 in Hollywood in 1972.

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