Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

The Case of the Lost Film

- The character of Sherlock Holmes has been featured in so many film adaptations that he is credited as the most portrayed film character in history. Personally, I cannot get enough of Sherlock Holmes on screen and I enjoy viewing the cinematic Holmes antiques as much as I anticipate the newest screen adaptations of the character. Based on William Gillette's play "Sherlock Holmes" (assembled with significant input from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself) the 1922 silent film Sherlock Holmes holds a unique position within Holmes history but only moderately succeeds as a mildly entertaining film.

Sherlock Holmes is a unique addition to the large collection of screen versions of the world's most famous detective in that it is an adaptation of the famous play of the same name rather than one of Doyle's stories. The play itself was basically a composition of a number of Doyle's Holmes stories but it is not remembered for any kind of faithfulness to what Doyle created. Instead, "Sherlock Holmes" played a substantial role in how the character of Sherlock Holmes would be remembered for generations; most significantly introducing the character's trademark deerstalker cap and calabash pipe (which were in fact absent from Doyle's original books) and further cementing Professor Moriarty as the most recognizable villain in the world of Holmes. "Sherlock Holmes" would define the character for decades ahead of Doyle's own writings and its 1922 silent film adaptation Sherlock Holmes followed suit.

The story as presented on screen in this 1922 adaptation of the play however can only be described as.... 'huh?' The plot is convoluted, jumps around a lot and hardly makes enough sense for the viewer to keep up. I can say for certain that Holmes' arch enemy Professor Moriarty definitely has some sort of evil scheme in play and that Holmes has a thing for the damsel in distress at the center of it all.... Other than that, I am not exactly positive as to the specifics of the plot.

It is possible that Sherlock Holmes made a bit more sense to its original 1920s audience due to the fact that the only currently available version of this film is incomplete. Sherlock Holmes was considered a lost film for decades. The only reason that the film is even accessible today is because a number of the film's negatives were discovered in the 1970s. It took many decades afterward to restore Sherlock Holmes to a viewable product and a number of reels were never even found. The film subsequently exists in its present incomplete state.

The sketchy plot aside, Sherlock Holmes is not a complete write-off when it comes to screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes. Silent star John Barrymore makes a convincing Sherlock Holmes in this film. His physical qualifications give him a great advantage with the character, with his lanky physique and sharp facial features screaming Sherlock Holmes, but Barrymore also carries an energy and air of thoughtfulness essential to the character. However, the character that Barrymore plays is but a shell of the literary Sherlock Holmes. Barrymore gives Holmes a refreshing visually tangible sense of vulnerability but his is a romanticized early Hollywood Holmes, a hopeless romantic lacking the definitive calculating complexity and eccentricity. Perhaps not one of the screen's best Sherlock Holmes, Barrymore does leave a notable mark in Holmes history with his undoubtedly strong screen presence.

The rest of the supporting cast fits their roles just as well as Mr. Barrymore. Gustave von Syffertitz plays a very creepy Professor Moriarty. The Moriarty depicted in this film is not a very good recreation of the character in Doyle's books, presented as an almost walking dead-type figure; but the character is effective at representing the latter side of this tale of good vs. evil. One of the proteges of silent film legend D.W. Griffith (of The Birth of a Nation (1915) fame), Carol Dempster makes for a good damsel in distress for Holmes to save but not much of an interesting individual character. Future Oscar-nominated character actor Roland Young makes his film debut with a very satisfying performance of Dr. Watson. The character of Watson had not yet fallen into the dull role of playing Laurel to Holmes' Hardy and Young portrays a strong, capable Watson. Also making a memorable film debut in Sherlock Holmes is future Hollywood legend William Powell who would go on to star in his own series of detective films.

The character of Sherlock Holmes has a relationship with silent film that I feel yielded mixed results. One major advantage of silent film in the telling of a Sherlock Holmes story is the attention to detail in the visuals and atmosphere. Workhorse silent era director Albert Parker does not create anything ground-breaking for the time but he certainly does not disappoint when it comes to the photography and tone of the film. The silent quality of Sherlock Holmes contributed greatly to the film's cold Victorian atmosphere and brought about some great moments of disturbingly quiet tension. However, what I enjoyed the most about Sherlock Holmes was its incredible look. Absolutely essential to the success of a medium that has no sound is the effectiveness of the lighting and production design of each scene and Sherlock Holmes is complete with exquisite mood-setting black-and-white lighting and rich detail-laden mise-en-scene. Although Doyle never wrote Holmes as a hopeless romantic, he did write him as untidy and 1922's Sherlock Holmes brings this aspect out of the character better than the vast majority of Holmes screen adaptations.

The characters and especially the look of Sherlock Holmes are quite entertaining; however, one major problem exists with this film that exists in other silent film Holmes adaptations. Sherlock Holmes stories simply do not translate well onto the silent screen. This is what I deduce, anyway; although I will admit that I am biased as not just a 21st Century film viewer but as a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books. The character of Holmes is very cerebral. To display Holmes' incredible abilities of observation through such flat means as dialogue on title cards simply does not do the character or story justice. Sherlock Holmes at least valiantly attempts to display Holmes' deduction skills but still commits the same errors as other silent Holmes films by failing to unravel an engaging mystery through Holmes' mindful methods. Although the likable characters, strong visuals and place within Holmes history definitely makes 1922's Sherlock Holmes worth checking out, the patched-together story and unsuccessful depiction of what makes the stories of Sherlock Holmes great equals a middling Holmes screen adventure at best.

CBC Rating: 6/10

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