Mr. Holmes Goes to the Moving Pictures

I'm pretty sure I've read Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels's The Films of Sherlock Holmes some years ago, but when last week I came across it window shopping I had to buy it. As a guide to Holmes movies up till 1978 (when it was published) it's fairly unbeatable, even if there's more than a bit too much attention given to the Rathbone series (which to me seems pretty much the villainous low point in Sherlockian cinema, not to put too fine a point on it). The pictures are glorious, absolutely delicious, and there are plenty of them. They make even the weak movies seem like something one definitely wants to see, nay needs to see.

The history of the Sherlockian cinema is long, if not always particularly edifying. The first Holmes movie hails from as early as 1900. It is a short short comic bit, lasting only a minute or so, called Sherlock Holmes Baffled. In it Holmes takes on a burglar who is audacious enough to break and enter into the sacred Baker Street premises. It's hardly more than a joke. Holmes corners the burglar who then, in an utterly baffling manner, disappears through the cinematic magic of stop-camera action.

In 1905 we have The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with the esteemed American actor Maurice Costello. He repeats the role in the particularly inaptly named 1908 film Sherlock Holmes and the Great Murder Mystery. In the movie Holmes solves the case by revealing that the murderer is in fact - a deranged gorilla. Poe anyone? His client is none other than his "old college chum" Dr Watson. Right. This film sounds so bizarre and ludicrous that I'd definitely want to see it.

In 1908 we get a Scandinavian Holmes - the Danish Sherlock Holmes i livesfare. In the movie Holmes faces not only Moriarty but Raffles as well. Other Danish films follow, Denmark being one of the early super powers of silent film. In 1915 there's a German Holmes movie (bit odd that actually, when one thinks of it, Germany being in a war against England) Der Hund von Baskervilles. Maybe the first movie version of the novel? Other German films follow.

The first British movies seem not to have survived. Georges Treville played Holmes in eight films. Most of them apparently based on the Canon.

The American William Gillette is of course the Sherlock Holmes of the turn of the century. He was a distinguished actor but also an extremely successful playwright whose play Sherlock Holmes (1905) pretty much moulded how Holmes was viewed in those days. He even got the Conanical seal of approval for his treatment of the great detective. When he asked for permission to marry Holmes in the play, Doyle's legendarily nonchalant reply was: "You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him." Carte blanche. At that point Doyle was so fed up with Holmes he just didn't care.

I wonder. Had Doyle's reply been less nonchalant, would Holmes's cinematic fate have been less degrading? Would he, in the subsequent movies, have received a less cavalier treatment?

It was inevitable that the hugely popular Gillette play be turned into a movie. This happened in 1916. The movie was called, plainly, Sherlock Holmes, with Gillette of course in the title role. Sadly, like so many other early silents, it's lost. At the time Gillette was no less than 63. Perhaps a bit long in the tooth to play Holmes? But maybe not entirely past it?

The English Eille Norwood enters the picture in 1921. He too, at the time, is almost in his sixties. But still seems to be able to pull off the role. Between 1921 and 1923 he makes no less than forty-seven films, most of them long destroyed. In the stills he looks quite impressive: lean, brooding, imperial, haughty, beak-nosed and hatchet-profiled - quite the aloof calculating machine. The scripts follow the Canon closely.

The films are short, only 20 minutes a piece, which was probably a good thing. There was no need to invent any extra action for Holmes or unnecessarily convolute the plot, it was quite sufficient to follow the short story in question - it was a perfect fit. As the films were presented in three blocks of fifteen films each - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - they seem to have been a precursor of the television series. Furthermore two longer features were filmed: The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1922 and The Sign of Four in 1923.

Norwood (what a good Canonical name he has!) took his brief with the utmost seriousness. "My idea of Holmes is that he is absolutely quiet. Nothing ruffles him but he is a man who intuitively seizes on points without revealing that he has done so, and nurses them up with complete inaction until the moment when he is called upon to exercise his wonderful detective powers. Then he is like a cat - the person he is after is the only person in all the world, and he is oblivious of everything else till his quarry is run to earth."

He also seems to have been quite the master of disguise. Like Holmes Norwood spent many an hour perfecting his disguises, inventing new methods and devices, and many of his disguises (if the stills are anything to go by) really are quite impressive.

In the book Steinbrunner and Michaels note that most of Norwood's films are falling apart, reel by reel, frame by frame, and urgently need restoration. This was in 1978. I wonder how many films are intact and in perfect viewing condition today, thirty years later?

Then in 1922 it was time to film Gillette's play a second time. Again with the plain title Sherlock Holmes. Now John Barrymore of the famed acting dynasty donned the deerstalker and trusted meerschaum. Interesting choice. I'm not entirely convinced of his greatness as an actor, not as a movie actor anyway, as he's always hamming it up for dear life, though I must admit he's pretty good in Cukor's Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio (which obviously is the perfect choice for a dedicated ham). I haven't seen the film. In the pictures he looks quite convincing - and one must bear in mind that Gillette's Holmes is indeed a romantic hero and the play ends in Holmes proposing to the heroine. The film ends with Holmes shooting off on a honeymoon with his blushing bride. So probably the young Barrymore (young? he's forty actually, but looks far more youthful) is a fine choice in this instance. In the pictures the most interesting thing of the film would be the Moriarty of Gustav von Seyffertitz - who's made up as a protosimian, something primeaeval that's escaped from Doyle's Lost World, a truly ghastly and atavistically terrifying creature. Though, perhaps, not very much to do with Doyle's original creation.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929) gives us the first Holmes, the very British Clive Brook, of the sound era. The film is directed by Basil Dean and based on the short story The Dying Detective. Based? Well sort of. In the movie Holmes dashes to the rescue of Watson's grown-up daughter and Moriarty and his dastardly sidekick Colonel Moran are up to their old tricks again (this time Moriarty heads an international "radio-tapping ring"- with "super criminals using the illicit information to plot huge capers"!). The whole thing takes place on a plush modern ocean liner. So no, it's not really a totally faithful rendition of the Doyle original. Another one I haven't seen. Well worth a look, it sounds like.

Brook, whom one remembers best from Sternberg's movies (he was Marlene Dietrich's love interest in the superb Shanghai Express), did another Holmes film in 1932. This was Sherlock Holmes , the third film version of the Gillette play. Again it's wedding bells for old Sherlock. Watson is played by Reginald Owen.

In 1931 it's time for a different Holmes. This Holmes is a very modern Holmes. Away with the deerstalker, away with the calabash. "Curiously, the house number is not 221B but 107, and there are other far more startling changes as well. Baker Street is "computerized" - in a 1931 version of up-to-the-minute efficiency. The anteroom to Holmes's study is filled with secretaries, stenographers, intercoms and automated filing systems." When Watson comes with the details of the case Holmes informs him that the entire discussion has been recorded over an intercom.

The film is called The Speckled Band and as Holmes we have the Canadian born Raymond Massey. The villain, Rylott (sic), is played by Lyn Harding, later a hissing and particularly hammy Moriarty in the Wontner series. It seems odd to have such a super modern Baker Street clashing with the very eerie atmosphere of the country manor where the villainy takes place - this is after all one of Doyle's most poignantly Gothic tales. Apparently the director Jack Raymond pulls it off quite nicely. Another film I'd dearly like to see.

1931 also gives yet another version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. This time it's pudgy Robert Rendel who plays Sherlock. Rendel doesn't look entirely wrong for the part, he does indeed bear a certain resemblance to the legendary Paget drawings, but he's far too stocky to convince. And, what's far worse, he looks sedentary and middle-aged. That won't do for Holmes who must look alert and ageless, however old he is. The most interesting thing about this film might be that the dialogue is by Edgar Wallace.

Arthur Wontner begins his stint as Sherlock in 1931 (a plentiful year that) with Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour. He goes on to make four more Holmes movies.

Then 1933 it's A Study in Scarlet with Reginald Owen, who played Watson in Brook's Sherlock Holmes the year before - making him the only fellow to do them both.

And after Wontner and Owen it's Basil Rathbone. His first movie, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) isn't actually bad. It is in fact quite good, if one can faze out that infernal idiot Nigel Bruce. (I don't like Nigel Bruce. I really don't like him. He's a living insult to Watson and Doyle, a slap in the face of every true Sherlockian.) And the interesting thing about it, the positively revolutionary thing about it is - it is set in the past, it's a Victorian period piece. This is quite amazing. They'd been doing Holmes on the silver screen for forty years and this is the first Victorian Holmes movie.

Now when one thinks about it a little further it isn't so odd after all. When they started doing the films Holmes was still active. He was a contemporary character, and remained so for almost thirty years. He did his bit in the Great War, as can be read in His Last Bow. The last collection of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, came out in 1927. Small wonder then that Holmes wasn't seen as an exclusively or even primarily Victorian character.

The second Rathbone entry, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, also 1939, was another period movie. Then it changed. The first two movies were produced by Twentieth Century Fox. The next twelve movies were produced by Universal. They had the bright idea to modernize Holmes, have him fight the Nazis. And what rubbish most of the movies are. Blimey. What utter rubbish. The angels weep.


Jussi K. said...

There is a new Sherlock Holmes movie coming soon: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0988045/

Based on the trailer it is also rubbish.

PS said...

Ah, the talented Mr. Ritchie . . .

I wonder who came up with the title of the movie - really must have taken a lot of mental energy coming up with that one.

But, whatever new depths of Sherlockian misery the film plunges, it's still got the seriously yummy Rachel McAdams. Most crappy Holmes films don't.

And, praise Jehovah, no Nigel Bruce.