Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Adventure Of The Rediscovered Cinema!

The success of Sherlock Holmes is and has been remarkable for the entirety of the great detective's fictional career. He's survived success, the disdain of his creator who tried to kill him off, and even the often dreadful lampooning of lesser lights over the decades. The Sherlock Holmes franchise is as robust today as it ever has been I suspect due to such successful TV adaptations such as Sherlock and Elementary. Pastiches appear seemingly daily, too much to keep up with really save for the most ardent and dedicated Sherlockian. Sherlock Holmes is so sturdy that even the seeming disappearance of early films starring him which seemed lost for decades have in recent times been uncovered and cleaned up for our consumption.

Holmes and Moriarty
The first of these lost rarities to be found was the 1922 silent flick titled simply Sherlock Holmes which stars John Barrymore in the titular role. This movie was thought lost but was found in bits and pieces in the 1970's and was painstakingly reassembled by folks at Eastman House. Further bits were found and it was refurbished again in 2001. I recently got to see this one thanks to Turner Classic Movies.

Holmes and Watson
The story is taken from a stage adaptation of the great detectives adventures, one authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. The story echoes classic adventures when we discover that ill-considered letters of romance sent by a royal heir and held by the sister of a jilted lover are the focus of criminals seeking to get hold of the letters for the ultimate aim of blackmail. Holmes is engaged to retrieve the letters from the criminals who it turns out also work in league with the Professor Moriarty.

Our heroine and William Powell as a loyal butler
This story also takes time to introduce us to Holmes as a college student, still learning and honing his craft of detection. This is a Holmes who falls in love with a woman who shows courage in the face of dangerous types who seek to uncover her secrets by force. Little is seen of Watson in this adventure, and frankly little is seen of Holmes for significant stretches of the narrative.

Barrymore as Holmes
Barrymore is a dandy Holmes, physically ideal for the part and when he's on screen the flick holds interest quite well. And that's what the film needs, more Holmes, much more Watson and a great deal more detection and far less pure melodrama.

But having seen the 1922 Sherlock Holmes, I learned it was not only an adaptation of a stage production, but in fact a remake of sorts of an earlier film from 1916 also titled Sherlock Holmes. This one stars William Gillette, an actor who was most closely identified with the role on stage before film stole all that thunder. Gillette even was responsible for writing the play on which this movie and the later 1922 one are based. Seeing this one, I appreciate the 1922 production much more and see clearly that the producers of that movie were trying as they might to fix problems with the narrative.

Gillette as Holmes
This movie was lost for an even longer period of time and rediscovered in France only a few years ago. It was cut up for presentation as a serial, but reassembled in the form which I got to see only recently, again thanks to TCM. But this one is for Sherlock Holmes devotees only alas. For all the great reputation, I found William Gillette's Holmes portrayal rather bland and his looks are not in the classic mold, in fact in some scenes he appears shorter than Watson. But that's not often as Watson is even more absent in this one.

Another Holmes and another Moriarty
The story is the same, letters and blackmailers and a lovely heroine and such, but the plodding nature of the story takes some getting used to. Holmes is absent for huge segments of the story as we are invited to see the villains work out and tinker with every detail of elaborate schemes which in some instance come to naught. I was reminded frankly of Ed Wood, who often spent time explaining things in the story which clearly bothered him, but were details the audience would most likely discount if the rhythm of the narrative were more briskly delivered.

Holmes saves a damsel in distress
This movie is simply screaming for more detection and far less pure melodrama. Holmes accomplishes what he does by dint of organization rather than his intellect. We almost never see him do anything really remarkable and frankly he does things for the sake of the plot which seem downright dim. It is interesting at some level to compare the scenes of these two movies since they are derived from the same source material, but in this instance it becomes a dreary exercise. I thought the Barrymore movie was slow moving until I saw this one and realized how wrong I'd been.

As curiosities these are top notch. As Sherlock Holmes movies, the 1922 Barrymore is okay because his portrayal is pretty good, but the 1916 version is strictly off-beat and rather dull. To be brutally honest, take away the names of Holmes, Moriarty, and Watson, and the 1916 effort might not even be taken immediately for a Sherlock adventure.

Here is a link to the 1922 version. 

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  1. Watch a film made in 1916, are you serious ? By the way, did you know that Arthur Conan Doyle based Holmes on a real person - a professor at Edinburgh university.

    1. Yes I did indeed, a Professor Bell or something like that.

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