Saturday, December 05, 2009

Week one of "A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen": The Early Years

A few weeks ago on the eFilmCritic/Hollywood Bitch-slap Derby board (where the site's writers communicate with each other), I mentioned that I had reviewed three different versions of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, and had anyone done four of the same movie. Someone else mentioned that they were working on a couple of Sherlock Holmes movies in anticipation of the new movie with Robert Downey Jr., I figured that expanding on this might be fun, and suggested that it might be a fun and hit-inducing project to review a different Sherlock Holmes movie every day in December, in chronological order. There was some initial enthusiasm, then people got busy...

Well, I've filled my Amazon shopping cart with a bunch of different Sherlock films, and I'm having a grand time watching them. We'll soon see whether I can keep up the pace with just one other fellow definitely signed up to contribute; I've scaled the size of the project down a bit, with reviews going up on weekdays and features planned for the weekend.

In addition to the reviews below, I've written two features for the site so far. The first, "Why Sherlock Holmes?, provides a rambling overview of why this character is still having movies produced a century after the first (and a hundred twenty years after he first appeared); the second is a review of "Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection", the nifty collection of rarities that included The Sleeping Cardinal, reviewed below.

One thing I've rediscovered while doing this: I am a big ol' nerd where Holmes is concerned. This is not a huge surprise, as I'm a big ol' nerd in many areas, but I doubt many other reviewers looking at these films would spend so much time on how they corresponded to the original stories. Being a lover of old movies, the stuff I've looked up to fill in these things may make these some of the dorkiest things I've ever written.

Anyway, click through to HBS for the full Holmes nerdiness, as this series was conceived for them.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted Kino DVD)

This silent film from 1922 is not the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes on the silver screen; it is not even the first adaptation of William Gillette's famed stage play (Gillette himself had performed the role on screen six years earlier). It's one of the earliest feature-length Sherlock Holmes movies that we can piece together, though, and it mostly holds up. And as a bonus, it does feature a pair of impressive debuts in the cast.

We start not with Holmes, but with Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), the untouchable master of the London Underworld literally controlling his operations from an underground lair. His influence extends far from the city; at Cambridge, for instance, young Prince Alexis of Harlstein (Reginald Denny) is framed for a theft and threatened with deportation. He laments the twenty-four hour deadline to return the money to his friend Watson (Roland Young), who suggests that there is a man in his year with unusual skill in solving this kind of puzzle, one Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore). He quickly deduces that the actual thief was one Foreman Wells (William Powell), but the point soon becomes moot - a tragedy recalls Alexis to Harlstein. Years later, on the eve of Alexis's marriage to a princess, he returns to London to hire Holmes - one Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster) is in possession of letters that Alexis wrote to her sister which could cause a scandal. Moriarty also desires these letters, thus giving Holmes the opportunity to finally capture his nemesis, as well as save the girl who captured his heart back in school...

Wait, what? Fans of the great detective know that there was only one woman for him, and Alice Faulkner isn't quite Irene Adler, although a fair amount of the plot is taken from the story in which Adler appeared, "A Scandal in Bohemia". Of course, fans will also recall that Holmes and Watson were not schoolmates, either. Moriarty also only appeared in one story, despite being implied as an influence on others. Gillette's play is, suffice it to say, a rather liberal adaptation of the Holmes canon, and screenwriters Earle Browne and Marion Fairfax take further liberties. Despite being somewhat removed from the stories as Doyle wrote them, it does give the film a certain amount of shape and scope for a movie designed as a one-off encompassing Holmes's career, casting it as a struggle against Moriarty, rather than as the start of a franchise. It's still got its flaws - too much Moriarty, not enough Watson, and they appear to have a hard time adapting a talky play into a silent production - but the story itself is good, incorporating familiar bits from several Holmes stories, and finding a good balance between deduction and action.

Full review at HBS.

The Sign of Four (1932)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

Before Basil Rathbone made the role of Sherlock Holmes his own in the late thirties and forties, a number of different actors had the role - in at least one case, with two different series existing in competition with each other (at least in the United States, things went into the public domain much more quickly back then)! During the 1930s, the most prolific Holmes was Arthur Wontner; he did five films. Of those, The Missing Rembrandt is lost, and The Sleeping Cardinal is extremely rare. The other three vary wildly in quality, sometimes within the same film, as is the case with this version of The Sign of Four.

Many years ago, convict Johnathan Small (Graham Soutten) lets his jailors in on a secret - the location of a hoard of treasure. Though the group agrees to split it, double-crosses abound - one kills another, and Small is left in prison. Years later, Small and his cellmate (Roy Emerton) escape, an event that frightens the elderly Maj. Sholto (Herbert Lomas) to death - but not before confesses to his sons (Miles Malleson and Kynaston Reeves), and encourages them to make amends to Mary (Isla Bevan), the daughter of Maj. Marston. They do so anonymously, but when another note bearing the "sign of four" accompanies the ransacking of her West End flower shop, she turns to Sherlock Holmes (Wontner) and his friend Watson (Ian Hunter).

The film actually adheres fairly closely to the events of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, but rearranges the presentation into chronological order, which means that we don't see Holmes and Watson until nearly twenty minutes into a movie that doesn't quite make an hour and a quarter all told. There's good and bad to that approach; the bad is that Holmes's deductions are a little less amazing when he's arriving at conclusions we already know, although it does counter the feeling that the author and/or filmmakers are cheating by having the detective base those deductions on facts that we are not privy to. There is still rather too much of that, and there are bits in the screenplay that feel flat out like holes - for example, based upon just what we see in the film, it seems that "The Sign of Three" would be a more logical title.

Full review at HBS.

The Sleeping Cardinal (aka Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

When one hears about lost films, one tends to romanticize them. We think of movies from the start of the twentieth century as wonderful, since the bad ones seldom play TCM, repertory theaters, or show up in very prominent locations at the video store. In truth, most of them are far more likely to resemble The Sleeping Cardinal. Not so much because it's the bad ones that got lost, but because previous years had no more masterpieces per hundred films made than today.

In the dark of night, a bank guard is killed. But before we learn that nothing appears to have been taken, we cut to a game of high-stakes bridge, where diplomatic service employee Ronald Adair (Leslie Perrins) is once again winning. His sister Kathleen (Jane Welsh) is starting to worry - after all, no-one wins every time - and asks old friend Doctor John Watson (Ian Fleming) if he might have his friend Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Wontner). Holmes agrees, though he is more interested in convincing Inspector Lestrade (Philip Hewland) that the bank robbery was more than it appears, and that Professor Moriarty was responsible.

The Sleeping Cardinal is also known as "Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour" (dodgy punctuation and all), and that's the title printed on the version available on DVD. It comes by that by being an adaptation of the stories "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House", although the writers have rearranged parts of the two stories and invented other bits to fill it out. In some ways, that is to the film's benefit: One of the weaknesses of "The Final Problem" as a story is that we seem to come in toward the end, with Holmes ready to smash Moriarty's organization; here we get to see Holmes tracking the Professor down, while the villain pulls his strings.

Full review at HBS.

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

One would imagine A Study in Scarlet to be one of the most frequently adapted Sherlock Holmes stories. It's novel-length, the first one written by Arthur Conan Doyle, and the one where Holmes first made the acquaintance of Dr. John H. Watson. Adaptations are rare, though; even the very faithful television series starring Jeremy Brett skipped over it. And, of course, there's an argument to be made that even this 1933 film doesn't actually have much to do with it.

We start in London's Victoria Station; the sleeping compartment of a train is locked up tight, and when the conductor breaks in, he finds the body of a man who apparently hanged himself. Later, across town, Miss Eileen Forrester (June Clyde) arrives with her fiancé for a meeting of the secret society to which the dead man and her own late father belonged. The group's leader, Merrydew (Alan Dinehart) declares that the dead man's share of the group's wealth will be divided among the seven remaining members. This doesn't sit so well with the widow, who takes the matter to Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen) and Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble). It may soon have to be divided in even fewer shares, and the widow of the next man to fall, Mrs. Pyke (Anna May Wong), seems rather cool to the interest of Holmes and the police.

It has been some time since I've read the original novel, but I remember it well enough to note that all of its more famous elements are missing: We do not see Holmes and Watson meet and take up residence at 221B Baker Street (the movie gives their address as 221A, for that matter), the German word for "revenge" is not scrawled upon the wall in blood, and the solution of the crime is not interrupted for a long flashback. KBS Productions apparently only secured the rights to the title "A Study in Scarlet", as opposed to the actual story.

Full review at HBS.

1 comment:

Lin said...

nice movie series.