Howard & Wilmer - and Rathbone too

Managed to catch a few early Holmes episodes. The American series Sherlock Holmes was produced 1954-55 and ran for 39 episodes. The British series Sherlock Holmes (named with equal inventive boldness and sparkling wit) was made 1964-65 and there were 13 episodes.

In the former Holmes is played by Ronald Howard, son of the legendary Leslie Howard, and Watson by H. Marion-Crawford. The series seems quite cheaply produced, there are only a couple of guest actors per episode and virtually all the scenes are indoors, in sets that bear remarkably little or no resemblance at all to Victorian rooms. The scripts are straightforward and tend to lean, very heavily, on redundant banter between Holmes and Watson and Lestrade. Very likely to save money. The crimes are nothing to write home about and seldom seem like cases that would merit the involvement of the great Sherlock Holmes. And what's more, nary a whiff of the Canon is to be observed, but for one or two exceptions. No - new cases for a new Televison Holmes. Lestrade is of course a dimwitted bungler who, upon receiving a case, immediately sets off for Baker Street.

This sort of thing always annoys me greatly. Where's the glory in outwitting Lestrade if the man is so blatantly unfit to tie his own shoe-laces? I ask you.

The best episode of the ones I've so far seen is The Case of the French Interpreter. It is of course The Greek Interpreter but for some mysterious reason done with a French one instead. The script follows the original pretty faithfully, a shrewd move that. Now for once we get genuine tension and excitement, interesting characters and bizarre situations, there's a dynamic in the episode and even some welcome outdoor shots, so the look of this one is far fresher and more lively than is usual. Even the acting seems superior. Of course they've cut corners here as well, no Mycroft for instance, but the result is by no means to be frowned at.

Howard as Holmes looks startlingly like a young Rathbone, or to be even more precise, like a cross between Rathbone and a young Roddy McDowall. He's tall, he's got a profile and is obviously upper crust. It is, however, dashed hard to say if he's a good, bad or indifferent Holmes. This is because the scripts give him precious little to work with. He doesn't dazzle but neither does he stink. Compared to Rathbone he lacks energy and that wonderfully superior attitude, the scathing wit that makes Rathbone's crisp delivery enjoyable even when he's at his hammiest. One does rather suspect that Howard was given the role for his looks, and famous name. Alas.

The Steinbrunner-Michael book on Holmes films calls H. Marion-Crawford's Watson one of the best Watsons. At first this baffled me slightly as I found him a sort of lighter version of Nigel Bruce - less stupid and annoying but still of no use whatsoever to Holmes. And that's what he is, quite frankly, but when he does the narrative bits he's a different man altogether: he's intelligent, sharp, alert and he's got a beautifully mellifluous voice. A pity that he's made to play Watson as a Brucean buffoon the rest of the time. A great pity.

In the UK Douglas Wilmer is considered to be a very fine Holmes indeed. As I've only seen the two first episodes of the series, I have a very incomplete grasp of his performance and of course of the series as a whole.

The first episode, The Speckled Band, I find poorly written and rather boring. It opens with the events leading to the death of Helen Stoner's sister in mysterious circumstances, on the eve of her marriage - and then jumps ahead a couple years to Miss Stoner getting engaged. And we have the stepfather acting suspiciously all over the place, playing the heavy for all he's worth, bullying and intimidating the poor girl at every turn. At which point I'm almost ready to give up. The Speckled Band is always a sure thing. How is it even possible to muck it up? Well we get Holmes, eventually, and the brilliant scene with the sinister Dr. Grimesby Roylott barging in at Baker Street and bending pokers. Then there are more tedious bits with Holmes and Watson discussing the case, and touching upon nothing of remarkable interest or everlasting brilliance. After which they travel to the Hall. And solve the mystery and save the day. Blimey. Hooray for Captain Spaulding.

Not a particularly good episode nor a felicitous beginning for a series. The script drags and both Wilmer and his Watson Nigel Stock are clearly not at ease with their roles. But mostly it's the script. The script doesn't give them anything interesting or worthwhile to do until the very end. And the indoor sets are stuffy and look cheap. The camera work is primitive and doesn't exactly enhance the mood, quite the contrary.

The second episode, The Illustrious Client, is a great improvement. The script is tighter and follows the original story more closely. The sets are lighter and more airy but don't really look like authentic period rooms. Well, that's what Television was like in those days, one supposes. Wilmer and Stock are more comfortable with their parts and seem to have more confidence both in themselves and the production. There's a lively scene in a music hall - which does go on for rather too long and does seem a bit self-indulgent, to be honest, but who's complaining - and one in a Turkish bath. So we have scenery and location which is always nice.

Wilmer as Holmes seems merrier than Holmes usually is depicted as, a man of good cheer and excellent spirit. His profile is perhaps less aquiline than might be and his nose not quite as imperial a beak as Paget would have us believe. Still, those things are secondary. Unfortunately both these episodes prove to be rotten when it comes to judging Wilmer's performance or the perspicaciousness of his Holmes as he isn't given enough Holmesian things to do for one to pass the sentence. In this episode much of the action is given to Watson as Holmes is viciously beaten up by two thugs.

Stock's Watson seems pretty much all right. He isn't a stupid man nor a silly duffer, and neither should he be. Watson is a man of action, a soldier, a doctor and an author. He is an asset to Holmes, otherwise why should Holmes keep him around and rely on him? But in most productions Watson is only kept around for Holmes to show how jolly clever he is compared to Watson. Here the same goes as for Lestrade - where's the merit in being cleverer than a dunce? There is no merit. It only makes Holmes seem a pretentious show-off and, well, a bit dim himself. The stupider the Watson, the stupider the Holmes.

Interesting fact about Douglas Wilmer: he went to Stonyhurst. Stonyhurst is of course the Jesuit school to which Doyle himself went.

And lastly a bit of Rathbone and Bruce. Roy William Neill's The Pearl of Death (1944 - the seventh entry in the Universal series and Rathbone's ninth appearance as the wizard of 221b) is ostensibly based on The Six Napoleons and parts of it actually are, too. As Rathbone movies goes this one isn't too bad. It definitely has its moments, I'll grant you that. It does, however, make Holmes look like a pratt. On several occasions. Which is quite unforgivable.

In order to show how vulnerable a museum's electric system guarding a priceless pearl (a pearl having once belonged to the blood-thirsty Borgias and with an equally bloody history) is, Holmes switches it off on the sly. Purely to demonstrate the folly of the museum's manager. The villain, who is lurking about, just outside the door, of course, hears this and goes off and pinches the unprotected pearl. And Holmes ends up with egg on his face. Now this is a really bad move by the script writer. Why on earth does it have to be Holmes's foolishness that results in the theft? It's utterly pointless and weakens Holmes immeasurably. For what purpose, I ask? And answer there came none.

Well anyway, the thief hides the pearl - and this is where the motif of the six Napoleons comes in - and we have a race between Holmes and the villains as to who will find it first. The best thing in the movie are definitely the villains: head villain Giles Conover (played by Miles Mander - who was the murderer in the previous Holmes movie The Scarlet Claw), his fetching helpmate Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) and especially the gang's gorilla known as The Creeper (the grotesquely misshapen Rondo Hatton).

The Creeper's modus operandi is ghastly. When the villains have established the location of a Napoleon statue,The Creeper breaks in, breaks his hapless victim's back with his bare hands, always at the third vertebrae, then smashes all the china in the house in a maniacal frenzy. The Creeper is as terrible an apparition as one may ever wish to see; this because of Hatton's inhuman affliction, acromegaly, which transformed him inch by inch into something unpleasantly akin to Frankenstein's monster and - a few years after the film - finally killed him. The genius of the film is that we never really see the creeper except for a few shady glimpses and quick shadows - until the very end, that is.

The ending is a bit silly and again makes Holmes look bad. He has Conover at gun point and still manages to loose his gun to the criminal in an extremely silly way. Making him look like a right amateur. Holmes then, somehow knowing that The Creeper carries a torch for Naomi who's in police custody, gets Conover to say that he doesn't care that she goes to prison, she or her fate are of absolutely no importance whatsoever. Whereupon The Creeper breaks Conover's back and Holmes shoots The Creeper.

There is some amount of Sherlockian sleuthing in the movie but mostly it's thrills and dramatic trickery. The atmosphere and scenery are rather better than in an average Rathbone film and The Creeper is obviously a great asset - quite unforgettable in his exquisite hideousness and tragic deformity. It is really he who makes the movie. Or breaks it, if you'll forgive a foolish pun.

But The Pearl of Death does make Holmes look like a fool. And that's no good neither to man nor beast.

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