Category_Uncategorized -

Your Key to Classic Mysteries: Key Video’s Early Approach to Sherlock Holmes & Charlie Chan

So this past Christmas my younger brother, feeling the strain that the economic crisis has placed on most recently graduated art majors, decided to go for the budget approach. The budget approach in this case meant giving me something he had literally found in the garbage. Luckily for me, my brother is very attuned to my passions and interests, and luckily for him, I do not have very expensive taste. The gift was a heaping box of VHS tapes that he had recovered from the dump. There were somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 tapes, nothing too spectacularly rare or unique, but a lot of Hitchcock and Clint Eastwood, and many items missing from my collection, so it was well received. However, there was a selection of videos that stood out to me: 6 items from the Key Video collection of Sherlock Holmes features starring Basil Rathbone, and 2 from the Key Video Charlie Chan Collection. The films didn’t strike me as rare but the packaging and the uniformity of the collections drew me in so I did a little more research to try to put these releases in context.

Always a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I was familiar enough with the classic Basil Rathbone movies, but in my mind I have always connected those movies to bargain bin budget DVD collections (I own a few myself), as it turns out however, the films in those collections barely scratch the surface. Universal still holds the rights to most of these Holmes features, its just a select 3 or 4 that somehow fell through cracks into the public domain, and its this small handful of tapes that repeatedly circulates the budget DVD circuit. There were a lot of Holmes films starring Rathbone, however, and, including the six I own, I’ve found no less than 15 different Key Video releases in this series. You can get the Universal owned films on DVD, as well as the master prints of the public domain films, but it isn’t cheap, the complete DVD collection runs at $129.98 new. While doing this research I came across a set of 14 of the VHS tapes on eBay for $28.00, making this Key Video set by the far the most affordable way to get your hands on these classics. The Key Video collection also seems to be the first time these movies were all released as a set, so one can only imagine how thrilled Sherlock Holmes collectors (a massive collector culture in and of itself) were back in 1988 when these became available.

I am less familiar with Charlie Chan as a character, but he was quite popular in the 1940s. There were dozens of Charlie Chan films made over the three decades between the 30s and the 50s. This set spotlights the fox-produced films starring Sidney Toler. Film critics generally consider Chan to be important because he was one of the first leading non-white characters portrayed as intelligent and benevolent in American films, despite the fact that in the most popular films in the series Chan was played by non-Asian actors. Key Video took a similar approach to the one they used with the Rathbone films when they released their Charlie Chan Collection, which came out a year later in the form of single movies with sharp, uniform covers. But unlike the Holmes tapes, these had a nice promotional gimmick that makes them of particular interest to collectors. The front cover of each tape folds out book style to reveal a “special case dossier” which seduces the prospective buyer with the details of the case, the suspects, the motives, the clues, and of course, the questions, just to whet their appetite for all the intrigue and excitement to come! - Ted Gilbert (7.26.11)

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published