Skelton in the Closet

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.


These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.

33 Responses to “Skelton in the Closet”

  1. jason hyde Says:

    I love Neill’s Holmes films. They’ve really been with me all my life, and I never get tired of them. Like you said, they really pull off the trick of bringing Holmes and Watson into the then-present after the period settings of the first two Fox entries (of course, before those all Holmes films had contemporary settings). I’ve always been of the opinion that the modern Neill ones are a lot more interesting than the period Fox ones. They’re darker, stranger, and offer a wide range of delights like Henry Daniell’s definitive Moriarty in The Woman in Green, Rondo Hatton as The Creeper in Pearl of Death (my personal favorite of Neill’s eleven), and of course Skelton Knaggs’ fey Scottish assassin in Terror By Night. They also have a pretty solid Englishness, for films shot entirely in Hollywood.

    Another interesting Neill film is Black Moon, a pre-code voodoo melodrama with Fay Wray that has inexplicably screened twice here in Chicago within the last 8 months. Also worthwhile is The Black Room with Boris Karloff. Toss in Black Angel, and that’s a whole lot of titles with ‘black’ in them for one filmography.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Neill’s very stylish THE BLACK ROOM (35) has TWO, count ’em TWO, Karloffs for the price of one. And rhubarbing and folkloric peasants galore!

  3. Oh.

    Here I was reading through this entry wondering how all the Holmes and Scottish stuff would tie in with Red Skelton. But Skelton Knaggs is even scarier.

  4. Speaking of genuine Scottish accents, I was struck by the sound of Conan Doyle’s:
    I had always thought Doyle would have had a booming, hearty voice, so his gentle burr is a lovely surprise. The video becomes inadvertently hilarious when he suddenly switches the topic to fairies.

  5. […] · Reply · View dcairns: The Scottishness of the 40s Sherlock Holmes movies… 2010-05-21 11:29:48 · Reply · View alex_mcd93: Watching Sherlock holmes. Quite […]

  6. Neill’s series of “Black” films ties nicely to Cornell Woolrich’s “Black” novels — one of which, Black Angel, was adapted by Neill.

    Doyle’s pleasing voice completely works for m in character terms: his faith in spiritualists and fairies, his fiction, it all somehow fits dramatically with that voice.

    The Sherlock book looks like a good place to search, ExperimentoFilm. I may order a copy.

  7. Christopher Says:

    Its Major Duncan Bleek!…the meat makes the Curry! that tranquil night time train ride to Edinburgh..
    I recently went thru a bunch of Holmes again recently,giving special attention to Pursuit to Algiers this time as it was the only one I’d never seen more than a couple of times in my life..almost reminded me more of a 40s Euro espionage A picture..something about the cast,I think..Watson’s constant crooning of You take the High Road put everything in its place tho..Spider Woman still tops my list and Henry Daniell my fave Moriarty still…

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    Baddie Alan Mowbray had his most memorable screen appearance in Ford’s WAGONMASTER (50), incarnating a ham actor to perfection.

  9. Am shortly going to see, at long last, House of Horrors, with Rondo Hatton again, and am curious to see if there’s any continuity to the Creeper’s adventures outwith the Hoxton area…

    Pursuit to Algiers is very enjoyable, and Martin Kosleck is always a welcome villain. Just saw him in Siodmak’s B-movie Hitchcock rip, Fly By Night, where he unusually gets to play a sympathetic character, pretty much the Lucy Mannheim role in The 39 Steps… an inciting incident in human form.

  10. There were a lot of notably long-time character actors flitting in and out of Neill’s Holmes series (Miles Mander, Ian Wolfe, Arthur Hohl, Holmes Herbert, Henry Daniell) as well as regulars like Mary Gordon and Dennis Hoey. It wasn’t quite a stock company, but close.

  11. I like how actors like Alec Craig and Miles Mander would come back playing other roles. I’m not sure why that was, given the size of the talent pool then, I guess Neill just liked working with friends.

    What’s the connection with Leisen’s Kitty? It features Hoey, Craig, and Gordon…

  12. Christopher Says:

    I’m a bigger fan of the final 2 Holmes than the first 2…give me the universals over the Fox films..altho I do adore The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes..”Hound” always manages to put me to sleep everytime..
    Something about the Universal-Holmes films with all those familiar faces ,universal stock music and Sets makes a fella right at home..surely england is JUST like this…:o))

  13. Only on a foggy night.

    “Hound” is curiously lacking in music, isn’t it? That might have made a difference.

  14. Christopher Says:

    It’s lacking in Sherlock Holmes too for the large part…

  15. George Zucco shines in ADVENTURES – especially those first 15 minutes with the flowers, the butler and the flute. And as for music:

  16. Once more for luck:

  17. Very strange: the vanishing link! This should be it:

  18. Damn! What is this monkey business?

  19. damn if only I could revive my acting career and get out of market research !

  20. Aha, there’s that clip, thanks. Don’t know what happened to it.

  21. Absolutely.

    I think WordPress had some problem with video embedding for an hour or something.

  22. Christopher Says:

    oh of the high points of TAOSH!..Rathbone was pretty good at disguises,but this one would fool the most keen !
    The Lone Ranger,Clayton Moore, was always pretty good in this dept.

  23. Rathbone’s nose tends to give him away! I like the scene in The Spider Woman where Watson mistakes a man, who is indeed wearing a ton of stage makeup, for Holmes in disguise.

  24. If his Wikipedia page is to be believed, Sir Rasil Bathbone was a real-life master of camouflage!!

  25. Fascinating! I love the idea of Basil the Spy.

  26. Christopher Says:

    Basil the tree in From Hell It Came..

  27. Oh, I’ve never seen that one. A wooden performance?

    I find it sad seeing him his last roles where he fumbles a bit with his lines. I presume he just wanted to keep working. I hope he was financially secure and didn’t HAVE to work…

  28. Oh dear. Wikipedia blames Basil’s second wife’s “lavish tastes” for his 50s and 60s work…

    Still, at least he didn’t wind up playing Frankenstein in Jess Franco flicks a la Dennis Price.

  29. “Camouflage can often save your life. Is essential that you learn the art.”

  30. Poor Dennis. I think alcoholism was the main problem there. He really looks a mess in his last films, although he could still give a decent, if fruity perf if the material merited it. Mike Hodges’ Pulp shows him on good form.

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