155 years ago today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born.
The Scottish author and poet wrote many stories and brought many characters to life. A classic novel like The Lost World would be enough to guarantee its creator immortality, while few authors have sketched a character more memorable and likable than Brigadier Gerard, that gallant buffoon. Yet, in the case of Doyle, these are merely accomplished aperitifs. For one creation of his towers above all other entries in the list, and that’s what he’ll always be remembered for.
Using superlatives is generally a recipe for disaster; exuberance and enthusiasm maim judgment, and proclamations are made that can’t withstand any inspection. However, when referring to Doyle’s greatest achievement, they are justified—even necessary. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic characters in fiction. He is definitely the most famous detective of all time. (Sorry, Hercule Poirot acolytes.) And the stories supposedly written down by Holmes’ trusty companion, Dr. Watson, are the biggest milestone in crime fiction.
Published in 1887, A Study in Scarlet was the first Sherlock Holmes title penned by Doyle and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes the last. The author passed away in 1930, three years after the publication of The Case-Book. Over those forty years, Sherlock Holmes appeared in four novels and fifty-six short stories by Doyle, which were until recently the extent of the canon. Of course, there are innumerable extracanonical Sherlock Holmes titles, as artistes all over the world have repeatedly sought to pastiche Doyle, parody him, put their own stamp on their favorite literary character or invert him.
The first Holmes adaptation was the Mutoscope film Sherlock Holmes Baffled, which released in 1900 and set in motion a train that hasn’t stopped since. Not for nothing has the Guinness Book of World Records often recognized the world’s first “consulting detective” as the “most portrayed movie character.” We can talk about any number of iterations of the crime-solving duo residing at 221B, Baker Street. Should we delve into Sherlock, the BBC show set in present day that stars (and made stars out of) Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman? A quick glance at Tumblr and Facebook reveals this series has already received more than its fair share of attention. How about the 1984 Granada Television series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? For many people (some colleagues and my mother included), Jeremy Brett’s portrayal remains the definitive version of the character. Therein lies the rub. Something that’s definitive, by definition, doesn’t need more light thrown upon it.
Instead, let’s look at a less-known and even lesser-seen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved genius: Albert Parker’s Sherlock Holmes, starring legend John Barrymore in one of his most prestigious roles. That this 1922 feature has been viewed so rarely is not anyone’s fault. The film was considered lost for several decades, with just a few production stills offering a tantalizing glimpse of what might be. Things changed in 1970, when the George Eastman House discovered cans of the film’s negative and a restoration was possible. However, there was one problem: not only were the reels incomplete, they were also out of order.
Kevin Brownlow and William K. Everson, producers of the reconstruction, screened these clips for Parker. The director, then in his late eighties, offered them pointers and thus began an assembling process that lasted decades. In 1975, far from the finish line, Everson described the process this way, “A few years ago all that existed of this film were rolls and rolls of negative sections, in which every take—not every sequence, but every take—were jumbled out of order, with only a few flash titles for guidance […] and a script that in many ways differed from the play, adding to the herculean task of putting it all together.”
The play being referred to here is William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is credited as a co-writer for this 1899 production, the first stage adaptation featuring Sherlock Holmes (played by Gillette himself). This collaboration birthed many things now considered trademarks of the character. Gillette first uttered the line “Elementary, my dear Watson!” and Holmes’ curved pipe popped up here too. In fact, Doyle was so taken with some of Gillette’s modifications that he incorporated them in subsequent short stories, such as the name “Billy” for the unnamed pageboy from A Case of Identity. Today, the play is best remembered for giving Charlie Chaplin one of his first stage roles; during its London leg, a thirteen-year old Chaplin played Billy.
Parker’s film is about a prince who is ensnared in a scandal, and could be blackmailed with threats of humiliation on an international platform. To escape this denouement, his Cambridge classmate, Dr. Watson, suggests enlisting the help of Sherlock Holmes. As Holmes peeks into this affair, he realizes the complexity and twistedness of this scheme, for behind the curtains lurks a criminal mastermind with anarchic intentions.
Sherlock Holmes is not a great film. It is barely even a good film. The New York Times thoroughly panned it upon release in this rather melodramatic review. (Favorite line: “How stands ‘Sherlock Holmes’ as a dramatic […] composition? […] It falls to pieces.”) The main culprit is the haphazard screenplay, which incorporates too much for its own good. From the birth of Holmes’ sleuthing career, the script jumps years forward to establish his fame and moves on to a “long running” rivalry between him and Moriarty. Subplots either feel half-baked or are covered with appalling cursoriness. Holmes’ realization that the purpose of his life is to defeat Moriarty is jarring because of how unearned it is. One newspaper clipping of Holmes successfully solving a case is supposed to imply he’s become an invaluable asset to Scotland Yard. There’s a solipsism to the story’s proclamations that is at odds with the ellipses in the screenplay’s structure.
Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes is one of those titles that are fascinating because of their shortcomings. This charming misfire never aims low, and is thus essential viewing not just for aficionados of the laconic detective but also for John Barrymore fans. For one, the slapdash nature of the plot means this film features several aspects that make for an intriguing comparison-and-contrast with various other Holmes adaptations.
The film was released in the UK with its name changed to Moriarty, and it’s a fortuitous move despite the mundane reasons behind it. (The producers either didn’t have rights to use the protagonist’s name or wanted to avoid grouping with a recent spate of mediocre Holmes adaptations.) A lot of Sherlock Holmes is spent with his arch nemesis instead. The film’s beginning tracks Moriarty’s plans and organization meticulously; we discover Holmes much later. This is nothing like Kim Newman’s delightfully wicked book, Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles, which completely turns the tables on Doyle’s conventions and writing style, but the film still lends an ear to the villain with patience atypical of most Holmes adaptations. German actor Gustav von Seyffertitz plays the dangerous professor as a freak of nature. From the nightmarish makeup to the heightened mannerisms, this avatar of Moriarty is in stark contrast to, say, the sexy maverick in BBC’s Sherlock, as essayed by Andrew Scott.
While writing the play, Gillette sought Doyle’s permission to marry Holmes. Doyle agreed. Gillette took the character of Irene Adler, remixed it and came up with Alice Faulkner. In the plot, Holmes’ infatuation with Alice is what drives him; he is obsessed. The film even ends with Holmes kissing Alice! Given that one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the character has been his sexual orientation, the devout straight stance exhibited by the film—a product of its time?—is notable. After all, even a renowned adaptation such as Roy William Neill’s Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon from 1942 has Basil Rathbone act almost asexual, despite having the cheek to insert a snide remark about Holmes’ cocaine addiction. (“The needle to the end, eh, Holmes?” taunts Lionel Atwill’s Moriarty.)
The film is undeniably impressive in the technical departments. In an eyebrow-raising move for its time, Sherlock Holmes shot on location in Switzerland and London and that naturalism comes across. Even the sets are fastidiously designed and evocative. Our first encounter with Holmes takes place in a lovely looking farm, as the lad is reading a book about deduction, much like Buster Keaton in 1924’s Sherlock Jr. What follows is a moment of physical comedy that is out of place in this amorphous script but wouldn’t be remiss in Keaton’s masterpiece.
Sherlock Holmes is such a larger-than-life character that it’s easy even for an actor with a bashful personality to be lost inside the violin-fiddling, cocaine-addicted, disguise-prone sociopath. Perhaps it’s another weakness of the script that John Barrymore never subsumes himself inside Holmes. Like how it’s impossible to unsee Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline-hopped, testosterone-fueled series, overlooking Barrymore in favor of Holmes is a fruitless endeavor. The actor’s pantomiming skills are beyond reproach and he can emote like few others could, or ever will. Yet, he doesn’t seem to be having fun in the role, even in an obligatory scene where Holmes dresses up. The introduction of Rathbone’s Holmes in Secret Weapon has more twinkle and joy than the Barrymore’s Holmes displays here even in his happy ending. But, it’s still a performance worth watching. We have precious few leading turns by the American great as is; ignoring one, especially as a character worthy of his stature, is folly. Moreover, Sherlock Holmes introduced the world to Roland Young and William Powell (brilliant in The Thin Man). Reason enough to be grateful.
It’s foolish to expect perfection from each film ever made, or believe that something is “essential” or a “classic” solely based on internal text. A work’s place in the larger media narrative, its impact on the art form and the lessons to be learnt from its failures are all factors equally important in revisiting an old film. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, one can see eighty-five minutes of a script not gelling well together, a lead actor not capitalizing on the character given and a mystery that neither invokes curiosity nor provides closure. But, that there are eighty-five minutes of this for us to see is something unbelievable a few years ago, and for that we have to be thankful. Warts and all, Albert Parker’s Sherlock Holmes deserves a watch.