Sunday, January 21, 2018

Born Today January 21: Arthur Wontner

[Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London*]


Most people remember British actor Arthur Wontner as being the Sherlock Holmes that preceded Basil Rathbone; but, in fact, he was involved with film acting as early as 1916.  Born Arthur Wontner Smith on this day in London; he shortened his name when he started his acting career on the stage in 1897 (he legally changed his name in 1909).  His film debut came in Sidney Morgan's Temptation's Hour (1916).  He appeared in two more films in 1916, including an early adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan.  Wontner would not appear in film again for another 6 years, when he was given a part in Bonnie Prince Charles (1923).  He worked in films for a couple of years, before again returning to the stage.  Wontner next showed up in film in 1928 in The Infamous Lady as the star of the picture.  This would be his last silent film and his last film in the 1920's.  His first sound film came in 1930 with the crime short The Message; it would represent his only film work of that year.  His next film appearance came as that character that he is so associated with to this day:  Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour, which was released in February 1931.  He would go on the play the character in five films that spanned from 1931 to 1937; the last of which was Silver Blaze (now known as Murder at the Baskervilles, due to the appearance of the character of Henry Baskerville as a plot device).  The role temporarily type-cast him in crime films, but this didn't last; by the 1940's he was assaying roles such as ambassadors or senior military men.  He was, for example, cast in a very early made for television film in 1939 The Day Is Gone as Major Warminside (the film stars Torin Thatcher).  During the war years in the 1940's, he appeared in only one film--The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).  Wontner spent a good deal of his time in front of the camera after the war in one Shakespeare character or other--almost all of the films made for British television.  Wontner was even part of a television series ensemble cast in 1951; his character Bishop of Barchester was in every episode of short lived The Warden (the series is now considered lost).  He would also go on to make multiple appearances on BBC Sunday-Night Theater, which ran from 1950 through 1954.  His last appearance on film came in a segment of the 1955 horror-mystery anthology film Three Cases Of Murder, a UK film that curiously features Orson Welles in one of the stories.  Wontner retired after this.  He lived a further five years before passing away in London on the 19th of July in London.  There is no information currently available on a interment or cremation.

The two future Sherlock's together on the stage in 1926.  Wontner with Basil Rathbone in The Captive. [photo by: vandamm]


*To check out all the great stuff The National Portrait Gallery has online, please click here.

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