Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bertram Millhauser and the Sherlock Holmes Films

Bertram Millhauser is a familar name to any mystery fan, for he penned five scripts for the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s. Millhauser obviously loved mysteries himself. His personal life is shrouded in mystery and even his portrait bears a striking resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe, looking like it belongs hanging on the walls of the Haunted Mansion. 

Millhauser was born in New York City in 1892. He began his career as a stenographer in the advertising department of Pathe films. While still a teenager, he worked his way up to the script department penning scenarios and then full scripts to a number of short films starring Pearl White, including the famous serial The Perils of Pauline ( 1914 ).

Throughout the 1920s Bertram Millhauser kept busy at Pathe devising story plots for dramas and action and adventure flickers such as The Timber Queen ( 1922 ), The Eagle's Talons ( 1923 ), Code of the Sea ( 1924 ) and Feet of Clay ( 1924 ). He also tried his hand at producing, and he put the money down on a film he helped write, The Leopard Lady ( 1928 ) for the DeMille Corporation. 

Millhauser got a foretaste of his future bread-and-butter, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes, when he was called upon to write the script for the last Holmes film to feature the stone-faced English actor, Clive Brooks - Conan Doyle's Master Detective Sherlock Holmes - in 1932. This script was far removed from the Holmes scenarios that Arthur Conan Doyle had made so popular in his serialization of the character in the Strand Magazine. It pitted Holmes against his arch-nemesis Moriarty who unleashed a group of international criminals in London, plotting to introduce the "American method" of organized crime - protection rackets - unto the public. Gone was the Victorian London of yor, for Holmes was now a detective in a modern 1930s setting.

While Holmes remained true to character, Millhauser obviously must have had very little regard for Dr. Watson ( portrayed admirably by Reginald Owen) because he gives the old boy the brush-off after only two scenes. When Holmes learns of the American hoodlums plotting their mob rule in London, this exchange takes place : 

Sherlock

"There's only one way to deal with these alien butchers.....Their own way. Shoot first, investigate afterwards."

Dr. Watson

"But is it sporting, old chap?"

Sherlock

"Oh, get out, Watson."

Times have indeed changed from Conan Doyle's days! Poor Watson leaves the scene, never to appear again in the film. 

While the production values to Conan Doyle's Master Detective Sherlock Holmes were high, the script bogged the film down, and Clive Brook would later confess that his last outing as Holmes was in "a terrible film". 


Perhaps Millhauser's mind was on a project more dear to his heart at the moment. In 1932 he was adapting his own novel - "The Life of Jimmy Dolan" - into a film starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Loretta Young. Millhauser was no longer devising merely scenarios for budget action films and was now working steadily on scripts for productions that starred top-drawing actors such as Kay Francis ( Storm at Daybreak ), Barbara Stanwyck ( Ever in My Heart ) and James Cagney ( Jimmy the Gent ). 

It was during this time that Millhauser hit his stride, penning a number of great budget mystery films including The Garden Murder Case ( one of the Phylo Vance series ), Magnificent Brute ( 1936 ), Under Cover of Night ( 1937 ), The Crime Nobody Saw ( 1937 ), and Nick Carter, Master Detective ( 1939 ). 

Universal Studios beckoned in 1942 when they called Bertram over to pen a screenplay for the next entry in their popular Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce - Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Universal made an exclusive $300,000 deal with the Conan Doyle estate which gave the studio title to the characters for a seven-year period, along with rights to 21 of Doyle's original stories. Universal quickly decided to depart from the traditional Victorian era setting that the 20th Century Fox films had established ( The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ) and feature the detecting duo in a series of brashly up-to-the-minute espionage intrigues : Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

Sherlock Holmes in Washington was the last in the series to feature Nazis as the main antagonists, and also the last in which Rathbone sports his Caesarian haircut. Millhauser fancied himself capable of creating his very own Holmes yarn without referring to the Conan Doyle stories, but sadly, his ego would be wounded. The story to Sherlock Holmes in Washington ( 1943 ) relied too heavily on coincidence to generate much excitement, and Millhauser's script was surprisingly lackluster considering the premise itself was quite clever. It concerned an all-important piece of microfilm hidden in a matchbox. The British have it, then lose it; the Americans want it, and the Nazis will fight for it; but only Sherlock obtains it in the end. 


Undeterred by this stilted script, Universal assigned Bertram Millhauser to create another Holmes mystery, and their faith in his writing ability paid off....Sherlock Holmes Faces Death was one of the best in the series. This time Millhauser worked from a Conan Doyle story - "The Sign of Four" - to create a really taut screenplay set in an army officers convalescence home called Musgrave House, in which three murders have taken place - always after the clock strikes thirteen! Holmes ingeniously discovers - with the aid of boozy butler Brunton - that an old spoken inheritance ritual is in fact a clue, passed down from generation to generation, pointing the way to a long forgotten land grant buried in the cellar of the manor. 

"Hurlstone? Grim old pile. Very spooky"
Dr. Watson

"Don't tell me you met a ghost?"
Sherlock Holmes

"No, not so spooky as that. Ghosts don't stab people in the neck, do they? Or do they?"
Dr. Watson

"Not well-bred ghosts, Watson."
Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death dispensed with the Nazis and had Sherlock using his powers of deduction to solve crimes committed by devious criminals. This film captured an almost Gothic atmosphere and the script implied an acceptance of the supernatural, for the first four lines of the Musgrave ritual - "Who first shall find it, were better dead; who next shall find it, perils his head; the last to find it, defies dark powers; and brings good fortune to Hurlstone Towers" take on the air of prophecy when it comes true. Bertram wove a number of great classic mystery elements together - the dark stormy night, secluded manor, hidden passages, and the old chestnut of the clock striking 13 - into an engrossing and sprightly paced film. 


Since he was so successful in adapting a Conan Doyle story, Millhauser decided to use them as reference again for the sixth Sherlock Holmes film, The Pearl of Death ( 1944 ), which had Holmes chasing after a stolen pearl hidden within the bust of a Napoleon statue. This scenario, based upon "The Six Napoleons", had the elements of being a highly entertaining film, but Millhauser did not expand on some of its most promising plot innovations ( the public 'disgrace' of Holmes, for example ) and instead chose to throw in the brutish Oxton Creeper to give the film more of the Universal horror touch. 

Millhauser's last Sherlock Holmes script was undoubtably his best. He combined elements from six of Conan Doyle stories into one of the most delightful Sherlock Holmes films in the series - The Spider Woman ( 1944 ). This film pitted Holmes against Adrea Spedding, a female Moriarity, who selects gamblers down in their luck as her victims in a series of "pyjama murders". The film itself is only 63 minutes and yet it included some of the most memorable scenes in the entire series - Holmes' "demise" in a roaring turrent ( taken from "The Final Problem" ) and the mourning by Mrs. Hudson, Watson, and Lestrade ( each of whom wanted his pipe ); the pygmy killer; Holmes' disguise as Maharajah Singh; the fake entomologist; and the smoke-bomb ruse Ms. Spadding employed at 221B Baker Street. 

"Of all the transparent old fakers I ever saw!...."Gilflower" what a name to pick!..."Bullflower"...."Bullfrog"...."Wiggle-woggle"! Why, you can do better than that....those dark glasses! That preposterous wig! Come out from behind those silly whiskers - I know you!"

Dr. Watson, talking to an aged entomologist he believes is Holmes in disguise

In 1944, Bertram Millhauser took a brief break from the Sherlock Holmes series to pen two other mysteries for Universal : The Invisible Man's Revenge and Enter Arsene Lupin, before he completed his last Holmes film, The Woman in Green ( 1945 ). This was certainly the most ghoulish premise in the series with Holmes hunting for a killer who blackmails innocent people by convincing them, with the placement of a severed finger in their pocket and some clever hypnotizing, that they committed the crimes themselves. This film had its memorable moments, but it lazily approached its climax and Sherlock Holmes himself seemed rather tired with the whole mystery. 

Millhauser typed out the scripts to a few other mysteries in the late 1940s such as The Web ( 1948 ) and Toyko Joe ( 1949 ) starring Humphrey Bogart, before he decided that television would provide him with more creative opportunities. He worked on several episodes of Chevron Theatre, and the Lux Video Theatre, and worked as story editor on over 39 episodes of The Lone Ranger before he put the dust cover on his typewriter for good. Millhauser passed away in 1958 at the age of 66. 

This post is our contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's spring blogathon "Words, Words, Words" running from April 11th to April 15th. Be sure to head on over to CMBA's website to check out more posts on screenwriters, authors, and writers featured in movies. 

10 comments:

  1. Mr. Millhauser provided more than his fair share of entertainment to the masses, and I really appreciate his work and yours in this informative article.

    It is fun to break down his inspiration and homages in the Holmes pictures. In "Spider Woman" I came up with "The Adventure of the Final Problem", "The Sign of Four", "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" and "The Adventure of the Empty House", and I probably missed some! As you say, he packed a lot into that 63 minute time frame.

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    1. I, too, love how Millhauser mushed several Holmes stories into one condensed plot. The Spider Woman especially packed a lot of story into its short runtime and kudos to you for recognizing each of them!

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  2. I'm going to watch these Sherlock Holmes films again, with Bertram Millhauser specifically in mind. Your post might make me see these in a whole new light. :)

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  3. Very interesting post! I knew nothing about his earlier work (and I'm a fan of the Philo Vance books). SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH and SPIDER WOMAN are two of the finest entries in Universal's contemporary Holmes series. THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE also has its merits. I think it's the first one in that series in which the title character is villainous from start to finish.

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    1. My father and I have watched the SHerlock Holmes series over and over again, but I never tire of The Spider Woman ( it being my favorite ) while my dad likes S.H Faces Death. I do believe those were two of the best in the series.

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  4. I gotta find Sherlock Holmes and The Spider Woman. Sounds really cool. I think I've seen all the rest. Definitely have seen The Invisible Man's Revenge.

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    1. It's easy enough to find on DVD. I hope you like it as much as I do!

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  5. Awesome post! It's always fun to learn more about a name I barely paid attention to.

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