Because I’m in graduate school now, I can call my weird obsessions ‘scholarly’ and they’re not so weirdly obsessive. One of those in Sherlock Holmes, which branched into a strange love for late nineteenth and early twentieth century obscure detective fiction. It’s very specific. Anyway, Sherlock Holmes is another love I think I acquired from my father – although he told me Sherlock died at the Reichenbach Fall before I’d seen or read any of the stories – it’s a trick! – but my dad had several books, including a few of the fun Holmes ‘scholarly’ books in which they pretend he is real. I am clearly aware that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, constructed out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s brain, but the scholarship that pretends he is real – and possibly ‘posed’ for some of the early illustrations done by Doyle’s father – amuse me. This spring I’d like to share with you some of my experiences of the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, expansive as it is. I’ll be participating in two blogathons over the course of the series – Movies Silently’s Sleuthathon and the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Speakeasy, and Shadows & Satin (talk about awesome blog names).
Let’s start with John Barrymore. In 1922, Barrymore portrayed Holmes on screen in a film entitled, cleverly enough, Sherlock Holmes. Goldwyn produced the film, based loosely on the “Scandal in Boehmia” story, which features a foreign prince attempting to suppress a photograph that could create an international scandal. Irene Adler is in possession of the photograph.
Sherlock’s first appearance on screen was much earlier, though, in a brief short in 1900, a Biograph film. In 1905 Vitagraph produced a longer short also featuring Holmes. In 1911, American Biograph produced a series of short comedies about Holmes, starring Mack Sennett. Yes, that Mack Sennett. Holmes continued to be a popular character in early cinema, most likely because of his recognizability – the stories were published in the US as well as Britain – and later because the copyright lapsed and they became part of the public domain.
Raymond Massey was the next Hollywood star to play Holmes – in 1930’s The Speckled Band. Many, many shorts and British versions were produced between 1911 and 1930, but aside from Barrymore, the actors were not screen stars. Massey only made one Holmes film, before Arthur Wontner took over in 1931. He made five films in Britain between 1931 and 1937, but more on his portrayal will be another post.
In 1939 (that magical year for movies), Fox produced The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The two would made fourteen films as Holmes and Watson and become the quintessential portrayals of the two. In fact, one of my personal favorite Holmes adaptations is based upon these two – The Great Mouse Detective (1986). The ‘Sherlock’ character is even named Basil – despite being a mouse he bears a remarkable resemblance. Of course, Basil Rathbone will be a separate post later in the spring.
After Basil Rathbone established the Holmes character, most production companies and actors shied away from challenging it, instead opting for comedic or noncanonical portrayals. Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) starred Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely in a decidedly noncanonical (not based on any of the Doyle stories) story, in which Holmes discovers his brother Mycroft is building a submarine in World War I England. They Might Be Giants (1971) stars George C. Scott as a man in modern New York who believes he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother attempts to have him committed in order to inherit his money, but the committing doctor, Dr. (Mildred) Watson (played by Joanne Woodward), gets caught up in the charade of Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty. Christopher Plummer also played Holmes, in 1979’s Murder by Decree, in a movement back to more serious, thriller-type films; although Murder by Decree is not a Doyle story and sees Holmes investigating Jack the Ripper.
A series for British television called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes aired from 1984-1994 and starred Jeremy Brett. In 2009, the next major milestone in Holmes history came with Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Both portrayed large departures from the typical Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce performances. Even the casting was somewhat ‘against type’ – Jude Law as a young, fit man with a mustache was a far cry from Nigel Bruce. Robert Downey Jr. and Guy Ritchie also portrayed Holmes as more rough-and-tumble – we see Holmes engaged in a bloody boxing match. The device of slowing down the action to allow us to see events as Holmes sees them, presumably (although how being able to see in slow-motion is equivalent to being super observant and having a superhuman memory is beyond me). Rachel McAdams also appears as Irene Adler. Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows – the follow-up – came out in 2011.
Current television adaptations include the BBC’s Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch (from basically everything, but lately he was in Star Trek: Into Darkness, played Julian Assange, and voiced Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and Martin Freeman (who catapulted to fame as Biblo Baggins in The Hobbit films, but most ladies will recognize as the awkward naked stand-in from Love Actually) as the duo living in modern day London and CBS’s Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy in Trainspotting) as Holmes and Lucy Liu (Alias, Charlie’s Angels) as ‘Joan’ Watson, in modern day New York City. More on both of these Holmeses and the modern settings in separate posts.
The Holmes tradition is much messier and more complicated than many other recurring screen characters – definitely more so than the less popular Philo Vance. The allure of the character and of mysteries in general is undeniable, and with only so many stories written by Doyle and only so many really good for adapting into film – liberties are taken often. Rewriting the canon – say by casting a young, thin, smart Watson as opposed to a bumbling, portly gentleman – upsets some Holmes ‘scholars’ (fans), but I think the reinvention is necessary for such a recognizable and well-used character. Even if you’ve never seen a Holmes film, you probably know the name Moriarty. Their names, and Rathbone’s appearance in particular, entered into popular culture and common memory long ago. Doyle never intended the Holmes stories to be his legacy, and they’ve become even bigger than an author’s legacy through the thousands of screen portrayals and adaptations.