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Wednesday, May 27, 2009




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).

21 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Deany said...

Well, Sony is releasing "A Study in Terror" in November, likely to cash in on Downey's Holmes, so maybe Fox will come to the rescue too.

John, your description of the Clive Brook Holmes movie is mouth watering. I hope we get the chance to see it sometime.

Brook also played Holmes in a mystery skit in "Paramount on Parade", along with William Powell as Philo Vance and Warner Oland as Fu Manchu. I'd love to see that movie too. Does this title ever show up anywhere?

I'm really disappointed that Fox has backed off their release of classic titles. I know they announced "Stars and Stripes Forever" more than a year ago, but there's been no mention of it since. The Fox orchestra under Alfred Newman's direction plays those Sousa marches as well as I've ever heard them.

And yes, I would have sprung for their planned Ritz Brothers collection in a minute. I know, I know, shoot me and put me out of my misery. But "Kentucky Moonshine" is really quite funny, if memory serves.

1:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Donald Benson e-mailed some very interesting observations about Sherlock Holmes which follow ...

Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters who owes a good chunk of his popularity to his quirkiness. Doyle made no bones about him being arrogant, bullying, eccentric, disinterested in women as such and prone to self-destructive habits when bored. Basil Rathbone's portrayal softens the character, but just barely.


Doyle's trick was to tell nearly all the stories through the eyes of Watson, a very likable human being who dutifully put up with all Holmes' quirks and called attention to the detective's traces of humanity. Watson also compensated for his roommate's asexuality (While he was allowed to win the girl only once, Watson the narrator is very thorough in describing any female who wanders into a story. Even Holmes jokes about it).


The Universal films and most of the later adaptations tended to play Watson as a comedy relief rather than the upright and capable everyman of the stories, but he served the same purpose. If Holmes was a cold and almost abstract figure, he at least had a human affection for his well-intentioned and gloriously useless friend. It's like W.C. Fields being a good father to his onscreen daughters while being W.C. Fields with everybody else.


The mostly excellent TV version with Jeremy Brett went a little deeper, implying that Holmes was one screwed-up Victorian and the better-adjusted Watson was his one connection to a more functional world.


Holmes without Watson is essentially a monster -- a James Bond, but without the occasional sincere sexual encounter. If the Downey film doesn't have a strong Watson countering his Holmes -- or worse, if they decide to "humanize" Holmes directly -- you're just going to have a wimpy 007 in spats.

There was an unfortunate TV movie/pilot a few years back titled "Sherlock: A Case of Evil." It remade young Sherlock Holmes as a womanizing celebrity sleuth and Watson as a low-budget "Q" with a raft of gadgets. Brother Mycroft and Moriarty were also present in unfamiliar form.


Holmes seemed about to become less of an SOB after a standard death-of-girlfriend ending (done artfully by "Private Life of SH" and sloppily by "Young Sherlock Holmes"), but we'll never know because it bombed too badly to allow a sequel.


It probably would have done better if the characters had different names -- Sherlock carries a lot of mythology, and you mess with it at your peril.

THANKS DONALD!

4:46 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

My 13 year-old daughter can't accept anybody other than Rathbone & Bruce in those roles. I tried showing her "Study in Scarlet"
(1933) with Reginald Owen; she wouldn't even give it the time of day. I can only wonder what she'll make of the preview of the new Sherlock Holmes movie.

7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly Downey was perhaps the only actor born to portray Chaplin and it will always be a travesty that he didn't win Best Actor that year. I just hope he's been able to wedge in some acting between explosions and acrobatics in the new Holmes picture. I do wonder if the script will address Sherlock's addiction to the 7% solution in light of Downey's own personal struggle with the "white lady"?

9:49 PM  
Anonymous R.J. said...

To Kevin Deany,

I saw "Paramount On Parade" only once, many-years ago, one night at UCLA's Royce Hall. Practically all-traces of the experience have vanished from my memory. Chevalier, I recall, had the most footage, in several musical-numbers, purportedly directed by Lubitsch. The one thing I DO recall quite vividly, however, was the films' finale,"Sweeping The Clouds Away",again with Maurice, and a line-up of chorus girls in early two-strip Technicolor. Not long afterward, I was talking at our house one night with the wife of my father's then-agent, and attorney, a wonderful man named Leo Lefcourt. Altho the Lefcourt's were old and dear friends of the family, I had known nothing about Sue Lefcourt's prior background as a chorus-girl in those early talkies. She told me of being one of the girls' in that big finale number, (John Springer had just published a book on The History of Hollywood Musicals, I had a copy, and she pointed herself-out to me in a still!) and she described, in some-detail, the difficulty entailed in shooting that scene, because of the intense-heat from the lights inside the soundstage! She said they could only shoot for a few-minutes before they'd have to break, and evacuate, so everyone could get some fresh air and recover!

R.J.

6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's also an interesting German movie from the 1930s (starring Hans Albers and Heinz Rühmann) - although they are actually only pretending to be Holmes and Watson.

I enjoyed Rathbone and Brett and - typical of my generation - the guilty pleasure of Young Sherlock Holmes (which is very non-canon in some regards but also a lot of fun).

My favourite Holmes movie remains Private Life because it was one of the first movies where I was allowed to stay up late and watch it on tv. Very nice story and music!

I also remember a spirited "hunt" for the score by Miklos Rozsa - which, of course, could not succeed until VERY recently! The only thing you COULD get back in the late 80s/early 90s was a re-recording of the main title.

The rather sordid lady in the shop was not even willing to open the record for me - as this was supposed to be a rather "exclusive" (read: expensive) record shop. "We do not allow our customers to listen to the records!" Yeah, whatever, I buy it anway!

Ah, sweet memories indeed! ;)

ZAR.

2:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, Among my many duties is Prime Minister of the local Sherlock Holmes Society, The Stormy Petrels of Maumee Bay. (There is a worldwide Holmes Society, much like The Sons of the Desert, for Laurel & Hardy fans), I deal with the raging debate among Holmes fans who was best in cinema. The best way to formulate an informed opinion is to have read all the 56 short stories and four novels over a period of years.

Arthur Conan Doyle's writing style was a fascinating and colorful use of the English language of over a hundred years ago and really must be savored.

Among our group, the late Jeremy Brett of the BBC series is the most popular. Next is Basil Rathbone. Personally, my choice is Rathbone, since his diction and bearing is what I always associate with Doyle's personification of Holmes.

To try to "update" Holmes' character for 2009 audiences would be a mistake--just as making a Holmes as James Bond in Victorian Times. Reducing the singular life and times of Sherlock Holmes to a 21st century video-game or action movie is just one more reason to reach for a volume of the literary work and really experience what Arthur Conan Doyle created--a multi-dimensional character who far surpasses modern screenwriters' imagination and who lives forever in our minds and hearts.

EC, Toledo

7:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Evan, for speaking for the greater Holmes community, which I know is vast and expert on that topic. Glad to know that Rathbone is still highly regarded by their number, and I do share your apprehension that the forthcoming "Sherlock Holmes" will be another action hero better suited for video games, despite Downey's playing him (and yes, Anonymous, I think his performance as Chaplin is a great one --- the one time I've seen a classic comedian captured perfectly by an actor's portrayal).

7:58 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

John, to my old eyes and tastes, the best version of a Sherlock Holmes story ever put on film was the 1959 Hammer U.A. production "The Hound Of The Baskervilles." Done as a horror/thriller rather than as a conventional mystery worked all to the good of the film. Truely creepy and atmospheric, the film holds up today as a top-notch entry into the Holmes mythos. Peter Cushing and Andre Morell were cast to perfection as Holmes and Christopher Lee was icily "stuck up" as a none-too-likable Sir Henry Baskerville. Shot in very theatrical technicolor (I believe the first Holmes film to be done in color) and with an excellent musical score by James Bernard, this is an often overlooked picture and deserves a re-evaluation.

Keep up the great work!

James

12:23 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I too saw "Paramount on Parade" in an LA theatre, but it was more likely to have been the dearly-departed Vagabond or Encore.

The two things I remember are the Powell/Brook/Oland scene -- where Powell keeps talking about "susPECTS," rather than "SUSpects" -- and John Barrymore doing Richard III's speech from "Henry VI, Part 3." Brilliant, chilling, and (dare I say it?) definitive.

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I'll probably have to see this new Sherlock Holmes in the line of duty, and in any case I'm curious to because it stars four of the best actors in the universe: Downey, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong. But I watched that trailer with growing trepidation, burgeoning into despair. What are they thinking? For starters, casting Downey as Holmes and Law as Watson seems almost perversely contrary -- vice versa would be a much better idea (for my money, the best-ever Watson was in fact an American: Robert Duvall in The Seven Percent Solution). Beyond that, who is the target audience? Neither Downey, Law, McAdams nor (least of all) Guy Ritchie has enough fans to open this movie; in fact, the only one who does is Sherlock Holmes himself, and his fans are going to HATE it. My own prediction (and I admit, my record on such things is only spotty) is a flop of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen proportions. Ah well, Holmes wil survive, and Sherlockians need only remember that Doyle himself wasn't all that protective; asked in 1899 by William Gillette if he could marry Holmes, he replied, "You may marry him or murder him or do anything you want with him."

And what the heck, while I have the floor I might as well weigh in on the Who's the Best Holmes Sweepstakes. Actually, I've only seen two really bad ones: Stewart Granger and Richard Roxburgh -- both, oddly enough, in misbegotten versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles. All the others had at least something to savor, with special kudos to Arthur Wontner, Peter Cushing and John Neville.

But it really does come down to Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone, doesn't it? Brett was an excellent actor, but much of his success in the role is because he profited from his surroundings: first-rate Watsons, and the original stories smartly adapted and deftly decorated (only his version of Baskervilles missed the spirit of the original). Rathbone, on the other hand, had a buffoonish Watson, those corny Nazi-hunter plots (Universal being too cheap to spring for Victorian sets) and, later on, that ridiculous forward-swept hairdo. Still, taken just by himself as a personification of the character, I have to agree with Leslie Halliwell: Basil Rathbone was the one and only Sherlock Holmes.

4:22 AM  
Anonymous R.J. said...

Dear Dave,

I too remember the Encore Theatre, on Melrose Ave.(A great showplace for the old classics, that did much to help "seal" my love of old -- vintage -- classic ? well, you understand, movies "past", shall we say). You have the right slant on Barrymore's "Richard III" speech, but I'm afraid the wrong movie. You're thinking of the previous-year's "Show of Shows" that Warners did. (Barrymore at that time was Warner's top "prestige" attraction). I have good reason to know it, because it's the film that brought my grandfather to Hollywood and to the lot that would remain his home for almost the next-thirty years! He,(M.K. Jerome),was among the earliest "legion" of Broadway songwriters' brought west at that time. Among his contributions to that particular film, was a special number for French heavyweight-champ, Georges Carpentier, with the rather quaint-title, "If I Could Learn To Love As Well As I Fight". This one too, I recall seeing at UCLA, and outside of Barrymore, it was frankly even more forgettable than the slightly more-polished "Paramount On Parade".

I do, now, vaguely recall the Brook/ Oland /Powell sketch. His mis-pronunciation of "Sus-pects" must have been something no one noticed, or bothered correcting at the time, because it carries-forward all the way to a key-line in the 1934 "Thin Man". (And,to tell the truth, I rather like it!)

Best, R.J.

5:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with James Corry about Hound Of The Baskervilles!

Most excellent movie and fantastic actors.

ZAR.

9:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes as to the 1959 "Hound Of The Baskervilles", which was shown recently on the MGM/HD channel. An excellent Hammer Film!

RJ, I've not seen "Paramount On Parade" in years. Do you or anyone else know if the Technicolor sequences from that film survive?

9:45 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

I also recently acquired the Clive Brook Sherlock Holmes and completely concur that it's a pretty nifty piece of work. Brook himself is a bit to prissy and uppercrust to really convince as Holmes, but Torrance's Moriarty is one of the best ever, and it's an incredibly stylish film, especially during the frankly astonishing carnival montage. And Brook's drag act when Holmes disguises himself as an old lady is hilarious. It also just flies by. Movies today could stand to take some lessons from films like Sherlock Holmes when it comes to pacing and length.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I've already gone on too long, but I want to add a "Hear hear!" to James Corry and ZAR's appraisal of the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles. As someone (I forget who) once said, The Hound is the only Sherlock Holmes story where the atmosphere overwhelms the character of Holmes himself, and that atmosphere played right to Hammer's strengths in 1959. Having an outstanding Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell) iced that cake good and proper.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Steven Smith said...

Might we hope for a Greenbriar posting on the Rathbone-Holmes series sometime this year?

12:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Absolutely to that Rathbone/Bruce posting to come, Steven. I've been close to one several times and it's something I very much want to engage this year.

Glad you liked the 1932 "Sherlock Holmes", Jason. What a shame it's not more generally available. Fox really should do a pre-code box along the lines of the Ford and Murnau/Borgaze projects, as well as a set of early and so-far unreleased Cinemascope features (and shorts!).

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I'm being picky, here but... Barrymore's soliloquy mentioned earlier in the talkback was featured in Warners' "Show of Shows" not "Paramount on Parade".
I told you I was picky!

3:55 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Of course it was the "Show of Shows." I guess I've conflated all of those extravaganzas into one -- though I could do with less Gus Edwards, thank you.

8:59 PM  
Blogger David Lawrence said...

While I remain torn as to whether Rathbone or Brett was the best Holmes, my vote for the worst incarnation of Holmes is an easy choice: Edward Woodward in the rather awful "Hands of a Murderer"

11:04 AM  

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