The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
1939 US theatrical poster
Directed byAlfred L. Werker
Written byCharacters:
Arthur Conan Doyle
William Gillette
Edwin Blum[1]
William A. Drake
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
StarringBasil Rathbone
Nigel Bruce
Ida Lupino
George Zucco
Alan Marshal
CinematographyLeon Shamroy
Edited byRobert Bischoff
Music byRobert Russell Bennett
Cyril J. Mockridge
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • September 1, 1939 (1939-09-01)
Running time
81 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (released theatrically as Sherlock Holmes in the United Kingdom) is a 1939 American mystery adventure film[2] based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Although claiming to be an adaptation of the 1899 play Sherlock Holmes by William Gillette, the film bears little resemblance to the play.[3]

Released by 20th Century Fox, the film is the second of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films produced between 1939 and 1946, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. John Watson. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the final film in the series to be released by 20th Century Fox and the final to be set in the Victorian period of Doyle’s stories (all subsequent films would be released by Universal Pictures and set in contemporaneous times (i.e. the 1940s).

The film co-stars George Zucco as Holmes's nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to foil Moriarty’s plans to target a wealthy family and steal the Crown Jewels.[4]


The film is set in 1894. The picture begins with Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes verbally sparring on the steps outside the Old Bailey, where Moriarty has just been acquitted on a charge of murder owing to lack of evidence. Holmes remarks, "You have a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it, pickled in alcohol, to the London Medical Society." "It would make an impressive exhibit," replies Moriarty.

Holmes and Watson are visited at 221B Baker Street by Ann Brandon. She tells him that her brother Lloyd has received a strange note: a drawing of a man with an albatross hanging around his neck, identical to one received by her father just before his brutal murder ten years before. Holmes deduces that the note is a warning and rushes to find Lloyd Brandon. He is too late, as Lloyd has been murdered by being strangled and having his skull crushed.

Holmes, disguised as a music-hall entertainer, attends a garden party, where he correctly believes an attempt will be made on Ann's life. Hearing her cries from a nearby park, he captures her assailant, who turns out to be Gabriel Mateo, out for revenge on the Brandons for the murder of his father by Ann's father in a dispute over ownership of their South American mine. His murder weapon was a bola. Mateo also reveals that it was Moriarty who urged him to seek revenge.

Holmes realises that Moriarty is using the case as a distraction from his real crime, a crime that will stir the British Empire: an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels. Holmes rushes to the Tower of London, where, during a struggle, Moriarty falls, presumably to his death. In the end, Ann is married and Holmes tries to shoo a fly by playing the violin, only to have Watson swat it with his newspaper, remarking, "Elementary, my dear Holmes, elementary."[5]



The film was supposedly based on the stage play by William Gillette, though little of the play's original plot remains aside from the Holmes/Moriarty conflict.[6] The play featured a very young Charlie Chaplin in one of his very first acting roles during its first London production, playing the character of Billy,[7] who, in this movie, is played by Terry Kilburn.


"Elementary, my dear Watson." was ranked 65th in the American Film Institute 2005 list AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.[8]


The quote "Elementary, my dear Watson" was made popular by this film. Although it was spoken in the 1929 talkie The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring Clive Brook and in the films featuring Arthur Wontner, it was never featured in a canonical Arthur Conan Doyle story, although once Holmes said, in the 1893 story "The Adventure of the Crooked Man", "Elementary".[9]

During the scene in which Holmes crashes the garden party dressed as a music hall performer, he sings "I Do Like To be Beside the Seaside". This is an anachronism, since the film is set in 1894, but the song was written in 1907.[10]

The scene in which Holmes experiments with the flies in the glass while playing the violin is recreated in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, in which Holmes is played by Robert Downey Jr.[11]

In the episode "The Reichenbach Fall" of the BBC/PBS series, Sherlock is heavily inspired by the film and other Rathbone-Bruce films (creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have named the films as the show's primary inspiration).


  1. ^ "Edwin Blum, 89, Writer for Stage And the Screen". The New York Times. May 6, 1995.
  2. ^ "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)". AllMovie. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  3. ^ Thompson, Dave (2013). Sherlock Holmes FAQ. Applause. p. 203. ISBN 978-1-4803-3149-5.
  4. ^ S. Nugent, Frank (September 2, 1939). "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Davies, David Stuart, Holmes of the Movies (New English Library, 1976) ISBN 0-450-03358-9
  6. ^ Barnes, Alan (2002). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. p. 17. ISBN 1-903111-04-8.
  7. ^ Eyles, Allen (1986). Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. Harper & Row. pp. 39. ISBN 0-06-015620-1.
  8. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-29.
  9. ^ Mikkelson, David (July 2, 2006). "Sherlock Holmes and 'Elementary, My Dear Watson'". Retrieved November 22, 2018.
  10. ^ "© I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, English Music Hall Song, MIDI and Lyrics". December 19, 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-12-19.
  11. ^ Obrecht, Jas (October 6, 2011). "Sherlock Holmes' Favorite Music". The Jas Obrecht Music Archive. Retrieved November 22, 2018.