VOL. 13, No. 29
Century on Screen
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.
...the current big screen Sherlock
...played Holmes in 47 films
....he tackled Sherlock in 1922
...the movies' definitive Holmes?
...TV's definitive Holmes?
Sherlock may never wear
out his welcome on screen
By RON MILLER
Every year or so, just for fun, I dig out my copy of "Sherlock Holmes Baffled," the very first bit of film footage in which Conan Doyle's immortal detective appears on screen. It's always an amusing reminder that Confucius was right when he said, "Out of the mud grows the lotus."
I mean, it's hard to believe that this absurd little bit of film was i;ntroducing a new screen character who still would be "hot" in Hollywood terms 112 years later. Yes, you read that right: 112 years!
"Sherlock Holmes Baffled" was filmed in 1900--it was copyrighted three years later, so some folks consider it a 1903 movie--and it lasts only 30 seconds. It wasn't made for movie theaters because there really weren't any in 1900. It was made for a machine called the Mutascope, which showed primitive little films that lasted less than a minute.
An unidentified actor plays Sherlock Holmes--you can tell he's Sherlock because he's smoking a rather elaborate pipe==and he's basically just trying to cope with a thief who keeps appearing and disappearing at will in Sherlock's home. I can't say it spoke very well of the future promise of Sherlcok as a screen icon.
But now we know better, don't we? Robert Downey; Jr. is starring in a series of big screen Sherlock Holmes movies--two so far--that are very big box office. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch is starring as Sherlock Holmes in the hit British TV series called "Sherlock," which depicts Holmes in contemporary times. And now we have CBS's new weekly series "Elementary," in which Jonny Lee Miller is a modern Sherlock, fresh from drug rehab and living in New York under the watchful eye of a female Dr. Watson, played by Lucy Liu. (See Donna J. Plesh's column this week)
According to the Internet Movie DataBase (www.imdb.com), "Elementary" represents the 261st time Sherlock Holmes has appeared on screen. I feel comfortably safe in suggesting he must be the all-time record holder for screen appearances of any fictional character.
I grew up with Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by the great English actor Basil Rathbone, who made his debut as Holmes in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" in 1939, the year I was born, and made the role his for the better part of the next decade. By the time Rathbone made his final Holmes movie ("Dressed to Kill") in 1946, television had begun to change the marketplace. Ronald Howard, the son of actor Leslie Howard ("Gone With the Wind," etc.), took over the role for a long-running TV series that played widely in the U.S. and around the world.
But there had been dozens of other Sherlocks before Rathbone, including Britain's Eille Norwood, who probably owned the character more than anyone else in his day, starring as Holmes in 45 short silent films and two features, all in the years 1921-23. Many of the Norwood films still survive and I own a couple, but I must say he wasn't my idea of Sherlock.
Perhaps the most distinguished of all the Sherlocks before Rathbone was the great stage and screen actor John Barrymore, who played Holmes in a lavish 1922 silent called "Sherlock Holmes," which was adapted from the famous stage play of the same name by actor-playwright William Gillette, who toured the world with the show and even repreised his stage role once on the silent movie screen.
I have a very dark and fuzzy VCD copy of the Barrymore "Sherlock Holmes" and can only report that Barrymore certainly looked Sherlocky enough to suit me. He had the "great profile" nose that Doyle gave Holmes in his many stories. He resembled the popular illustrations of Holmes that accompanied the stories in their iinitial appearances in print in The Strand magazine.
Clive Brook, another popular British actor, played Holmes on screen a few times between 1929 and 1934, but is best remembered for "Sherlock Holmes" (1932), the first talkie version of the Gillette stage play. It's a pretty lively film--with a very nasty Prof. Moriarty (Ernest Torrence) and a wineome leading lady (Miriam Jordan), who Holmes is engaged to marry. (Egad!)
It also has the marvelous English actor Reginald Owen as an older, somewhat codgery Dr. Watson. This is an important moment in Holmes movie history because Owen was summoned back to the Doyle canon just a year later, this time to play Sherlock Holmes, in "A Study in Scarlet" (1933), a film very loosely adapted from the very first Holmes novel, published in 1887.
I had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Reginald Owen many years later when he was pretty much retired from movies, but still appearing in regional theater in his 80s. He was very proud of having been, at that time, the only actor ever to play both Holmes and Dr. Watson, though he is now probably best remembered for his wonderful performance as Ebeneezer Scrooge in MGM's 1938 "A Christmas Carol."
Another English actor, Arthur Wontner, also had a pretty good run at the Holmes character in a series of 1930s British films, but his receding hairline and reserved acting style do not make his portrayal very memorable.
Hammer films also gave the Holmes persona a good try with the 1959 version of "Hound of the Baskervilles," with horror movie titans Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee teamed as Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville. (Andree Morell played Dr. Watson.) This was the very first Holmes story to be filmed in color.
Christopher Lee himself had a chance to play Holmes a couple of times in the 1990s, starting with "Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady" (1990).
Two other very likeable actors that I had the opportunity to meet over the years also played Sherlock more than once each. One was the late Ian Richardson, best remembered today for his oily prime minister role in the British TV miniseries "House of Cards" and its two sequels ("To Play the King," "The Final Cut"). Richardson, wo was a warm and witty gentleman, played Holmes in a pair of 1983 films adapted from two of Doyle's four Holmes novels--"The Sign of Four" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles." He told me he much enjoyed the chance to inhabit such an iconic mystery figure and especially relished his even more interesting assignment as Dr. Joseph Bell, the real-life Edinburgh University physician who was Doyle's inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Richardson played Dr. Bell in "Murder Rooms," the intriguing 2000-2001 TV series in which the youthful student Doyle joins Dr. Bell in solving a series of Holmes-like mysteries before Doyle creates the famous detective character.
The other fine "Sherlock" actor I've met is Matt Frewer, the American-born Canadian who is best remembered for his title role in the "Max Headroom" series that began first on HBO, then became a sci-fi series on ABC in 1987. I met Frewer before he played Sherlock Holmes in a series of four Canadian TV movies, starting with "Hound of the Baskervilles" (2000) and ending with "The Case of the Whitechapel Vampire" (2002), so; I was never able to ask what he thought of that assignment. As it turned out, I didn't care much for those movies and don't think Frewer took on the proper Holmes persona, as good as he was in his other roles, including the CBS sitcom "Doctor, Doctor" (1989-91).
In the past 50 years, lots of other actors have tackled the Holmes role in one-shot movies or TV programs. most notably John Neville in "A Study in Terror" (1965), which pitted Holmes against Jack the Ripper; Stewart Granger in "Honnd of the Baskervilles" (1972); Nicol Williamson in "The Seven Percent Solution" (1976); Roger Moore in "Sherlock Holmes in New York" (1976) with Patrick Macnee as Watson, and Christopher Plummer in "Murder by Decree" (1979) with James Mason as Dr. Watson (another case involving Jack the Ripper).
And, of course, lots of actors have played Holmes in parodies of the stories, including Peter Cook in Paul Morrissey's 1978 "Hound of the Baskervilles" sendup, in which Dudley Moore plays Dr Watson. I'm not sure exactly who Gene Wilder played in "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" (1975) and I found the whole thing distasteful enough to not care.
By far the best of the Sherlocks of the TV era was the late Jeremy Brett, who had almost filmed all the existing Doyle stories (41 TV appearances altogether!) before his untimely death in 1995 at age 59. Brett took the role quite seriously and was insistent upon keeping the character reasonably faithful to Doyle's original notions. Tall and imposing, he was an excellent Holmes, though not as lean and ascetic-looking as Rathbone, because he almost always nailed the right attitude for the quirky consulting detective. During Brett's 10-year run as Sherlock. he had two Watsons--David Burke of the Royal Shakespeare Company and, later, Edward Hardwicke, son of the great film and stage actor Cedric Hardwicke,
The Jeremy Brett Holmes episodes first appeared in 1985 and are still widely seen on TV and in the home video market. They set a standard I don't think will be topped for some time.
That brings me to TV's current "Sherlock," Benedict Cumberbatch, who strikes me as too arrogant and unlikeable for Holmes. I prefer Holmes to stay in the gaslit era of Victorian England. At this writing, I haven't seen Jonny Lee Miller in "Elementary," but I'll confess to a bias against any modern day version of the great detective.
As fo;r Robert Downey Jr. on the big screen, let me just say that I really; like Downey as an actor and can find some enjoyment in whatever he does, but, again, I'm not keen on modern Sherlocks and certainly dislike seeing him morphed into an action hero with comic book overtones.
Suffice it to say, I'm sure Sherlock Holmes will be with us for as long as I live and most likely for a century or two beyond that. Doyle created a great character who continues to thrive in literary pastiches like Laurie R. King's fabulous series of novels about a "retired" Sherlock returning to crime-solving with the help of his plucky young wife. Now why nobody has put them on film yet is a mystery to me.
©2012 by Ron Miller. This column first posted Sept. 24, 2012.
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