Detecting Past and Future Sherlock Holmes
Thanks to Lee Pfeiffer at the always terrific Cinema Retro, I’ve just seen the first advance trailer for Sherlock Holmes, due Christmas Day from Warners (so how many previews will this generate between now and release date? --- for all I know, there may be a half-dozen teasers to come). Robert Downey, Jr. plays Holmes. He will be my primary, if not sole, reason for seeing it. The star system thrives as long as this man works. Downey got me through Iron Man. He’s the only actor outside of George Reeves to uplift superheroes from boring and/or silly. Now they’ve made an Inverness-caped crusader of Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect it will be Downey’s burden to push panic buttons installed by writers ramping up noise in lieu of coherence (that excess of volume having banished me from theatres long ago). I found its trailer as stressful as Sherlock Holmes likely will be. There are multiple explosions and what’s at stake is no less than the end of the world itself, a mere theft of crown jewels presumably unworthy of CGI effects brought to bear upon such a filmic leviathan. Fear does have a distinct aroma, as witness big bangs spent in opening thirds by shows lacking narrative confidence and hollowed out by committees looking to protect this job or secure the next. Too much corporate money rides on event movies for them to turn out any good. I envision an army of C.C. Baxters assigned the task of introducing kids to Sherlock Holmes during run-up to Christmas. He’s another of those icons we figured would be around forever, though I’m wondering how many Warner publicity youths resorted to Wikipedia cheat-sheets upon learning that Holmes was the Yule product they’d be selling. Greenbriar readers might assume everyone knows SH and I’d guess WB to be counting on that as well, but I’d hate to have my studio paycheck hanging on the outcome.
So who is Sherlock Holmes? I’ve not read the Doyle stories, having squandered life so far just watching movies, though teen years chose Basil Rathbone for my role model, so impressive was his carriage and diction as Holmes. That’s an aspect that makes me optimistic for Downey. He speaks well, when they’re not making him run about with swords and dive out windows (please Warners, don’t cut his dialogue when you tighten Sherlock Holmes to a brisk 155 minutes). Downey’s detective is an apparent devil with women, so no more sexual ambivalence as was explored to United Artists’ eventual (and considerable) loss by Billy Wilder in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. There was for years a presumption that Holmes was at best asexual, due as much to programmer movies rushing through six reels with little time for mush. Maybe it was that oversight that got Wilder interested, even if audiences didn’t follow suit. Love found Holmes in days when studios saw not the need to discard romance in favor of sleuthing. John Barrymore and Clive Brook adapted the role to existing personas, with leading ladies accorded status equal to that of deerstalkers and confrontation with revolving Moriartys. To these actors, it was just another impersonation, Holmes not having been around long enough to become sacred text (though Barrymore did apply himself to serious study of the Doyle character and even designed sets for Holmes’ Baker Street digs). The 1922 Sherlock Holmes arrives on DVD in July from Kino. It was/is/always will be profoundly disappointing for those who fondly imagined what Barrymore in his prime might do with such opportunity. A mess of a surviving print figures into the letdown. Kevin Brownlow found that in the early seventies and did a reconstruction. William K. Everson (who participated) said it was like a giant jigsaw puzzle. My own interest had piqued sooner when Bill published the tantalizing above still of Barrymore’s showdown with Gustav von Seyffertitz in The Bad Guys. To finally catch up with Sherlock Holmes is to endure and dutifully mark it off a long-standing must-see list. I wish the film were as fascinating as its rescue. Brownlow could have entertained me better with an 85-minute account of how that was managed. What’s left is still a privileged glimpse. It’s honestly enough (for me) sitting there and regarding William Powell’s screen debut if nothing else, but there is also Moriarty in and out of torture chambers and trap doors (too little of that) along with location shooting in London and surrounding environs. To enjoy Sherlock Holmes best is to expect the worst. Savor its nibbles but don’t expect any bites (and enjoy outstanding music composed and performed by Ben Model).
The 1922 Sherlock Holmes was a daylight rescue performed openly and applauded by media. DVD credits recognize Hugh M. Hefner and The George Eastman House (but where’s Brownlow and Everson’s credit?). With no copyright to worry about, there’s not the secrecy necessary when studio ignored backlog is salvaged despite owner indifference to it. Heroes of such enterprise go quietly about missions to put treasures aboard underground railroads to a collector market all out of patience with dilatory conglomerates. I went subterranean after Moriarty’s own fashion by following Kino’s spiffy DVD with a dark cousin acquired by post from a firm less constrained by strict application of rights restrictions. My bounty was Fox’s Sherlock Holmes circa 1932, with Clive Brook as the master sleuth. This one’s almost never been shown legit. It circulates largely among dealers in robber mask. I wonder if Fox even knows they own it. There was limited (and I do mean limited) television exposure when that company included Sherlock Holmes in its Golden Century syndicated package beginning in September 1971 with other early talkers. That venture went floperoo with single-digit station sales and prints largely pristine for not being used. The latter got liberated during warehouse dumps years later and wound up with 16mm collectors, the DVD’s being booted off these. If 1932’s Sherlock Holmes had a champion, it was Alex Gordon, who worked for Fox during the late sixties and saved much of their vintage library despite then bureaucratic resistance. There should be a statue erected of Alex at 10201 W. Pico Blvd, but I’ll not hold my breath waiting for it. His handiwork that is Sherlock Holmes requires digging amongst DVD contraband to find, and though I’d give much (well, at least the price of a Fox-label DVD) to own an authorized copy, chances are remote in view of the company’s recent backing off classic titles. I wouldn’t expect Fox to ride Warner coattails and release a disc in tandem with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, though they did finally get Man Hunt out in response, it’s said, to Valkyrie, and that was a UA pic, so hope springs eternal. The 1932 Sherlock Holmes may actually be one of the best all-round Holmes adaptations, being briskly directed by William K. Howard and crisply played by Clive Brook and model Moriarty Ernest Torrence. It’s a must-see SH that too few have seen, and I’m reminded of another obscurity, this one from Paramount, The Return Of Sherlock Holmes (1929), which also featured Brook and has been tied up in rights quagmire for many decades. Just try locating a pirated DVD of that (come to think of it, I don’t know of anyone who’s even seen Return).