Something scary is happening. Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings have pooled their considerable talents to bring us The Great Villain Blogathon, running April 20th to 26th.
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce first embodied Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for Twentieth Century Fox in 1939s The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The Victorian-era tales were well made and popular, but a series idea did not continue past those two excellent movies. In 1942 Universal took up the mantle with Rathbone and Bruce, updating the pair to a contemporary setting with the majority of the films directed by Roy William Neill. Holmes was free to pursue various nefarious villains from Professor Moriarty to Nazis. In 1944 Holmes was pitted against one of the most fiendish of them all - The Spider Woman!
Gale Sondergaard, Basil Rathbone
Holmes: I suspect a woman.
Watson: A woman? You amaze me, Holmes. Why a woman?
Holmes: Because the method, whatever it is, is peculiarly subtle and cruel. Feline, not canine.
Well, if that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.
London newspapers are full of reports of mysterious deaths known as "pajama suicides". Eminent men of means retire for the evening and, with no apparent cause, leap to their deaths. What is behind it all? Only one man can solve the puzzle, but that one man is dead. While on a fishing vacation in Scotland, Sherlock Holmes falls to his death leaving behind a baffled constabulary and a bereft John Watson. Of course, we know he's an old faker. Holmes wouldn't go and die on us. He wants to lull the criminal element behind the "pajama suicides" into a false sense of security. A disguised Holmes will follow up on his one lead by placing himself in harm's way. Holmes, in his everlasting confidence, does not fear the "female Moriarty" of crime.
Dennis Hoey, Basil Rathbone
Gale Sondergaard stars as Adrea Spedding, the Spider Woman. Ms. Spedding has quite the lucrative racket. Through the auspices of a gaming establishment she induces the eminent men of means to sign over their insurance policies and then on a luckless night frightens them into causing their own deaths to escape the lycosa carnivora, the deadliest insect known to science. Creepy and effective.
It is a deadly game of cat and mouse between Holmes and the Spider Woman. They see through each others disguises and ploys easily, and their enjoyment in the game is as great as ours is in watching the sparring. Holmes comes very close to underestimating his adversary in this adventure. Adrea Spedding is a brilliant manipulator and exceedingly clever. She controls her organization with an uncanny ability to anticipate her enemy's moves and an easy access to her dark side. A mad scientist, an annoying child, and an arcade shooting gallery all figure in the match-up between the two masterminds, which gives us one of the most entertaining entries in the Universal Holmes series.
Vernon Downing, Basil Rathbone, Alec Craig, Gale Sondergaard
Holmes aficionados will have fun looking for nods to 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 in Bertram Millhauser's screenplay.
(1898 - 1985)
When stage actress Gale Sondergaard came to Hollywood in the 1930s it was for her husband, writer/director Herbert Biberman's career. However, it was Gale's screen career that started off brilliantly when Mervyn LeRoy cast her in the 1936 epic Anthony Adverse. Her peers saw something in her portrayal of the manipulative and avaricious Faith that moved them to nominate her for a Best Supporting Actress Award in the first year of that category. For her first film Gale was the first winner of the, at the time, plaque. Less than two decades later her peers would not be so kind when Herbert Biberman was jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten and Gale was blacklisted. Her last movie role for many years before the blacklisting set in was as Barbara Stanwyck sympathetic mother in Mervyn LeRoy's East Side, West Side.
Gale Sondergaard was an actress of versatility and intelligence who could and did play a variety of roles, including the mysterious Mrs. Hammond in The Letter, Lady Thiang in Anna and the King of Siam (another Oscar nomination) and the possessive Mrs. Manette in Christmas Holiday. It is for the classy relish she brought to her villains for which Gale Sondergaard is best remembered. Whether played in earnest or played for laughs her presence is as welcome and comforting as any on the screen. You know what you are getting when Gale shows up in The Cat and the Canary, The Road to Rio or The Time of Their Lives as surely as when you are watching The Mark of Zorro and The Spider Woman. In the 1970s, Gale Sondergaard returned to our screens with guest spots on television programs including Get Smart, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, the mini-series Centennial and the daytime drama Ryan's Hope.
Once a Spider Woman, always a Spider Woman. Originally a freelance actress, during the 1940s Gale Sondergaard signed with Universal who capitalized on her appearance in the Holmes series by again presenting her as the "Spider Woman". However, in the 1946 film The Spider Woman Strikes Back she plays a different character named Zenobia Dollard. Ms. Dollard is even more mad than Ms. Spedding. Does anyone else feel a chill?