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Monday, 25 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

Director: Albert Parker
Star: John Barrymore
'Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent,' prompts the introductory title card, but the mind of man has a go here, even giving Sherlock Holmes a love interest of all things. We meet Moriarty before we meet Holmes though. In the twisted form of Gustav von Seyffertitz, he isn't remotely like the elegant Napoleon of Crime that we meet in later films, being far more of a Dickensian villain like Fagin or Scrooge. Perhaps he's a little more reminiscent of John Barrymore's version of Mr Hyde, especially given that we meet him in the underground torture chamber he maintains below his lodgings in a forgotten thoroughfare of Limehouse. Given the limp figure hanging in shadow, he's apparently been doing something sick and twisted to his prisoner with the assistance of the trusted Bassick, his chief lieutenant of crime.

He's also a old man, already hunched and walking with a cane, though Holmes is merely a student at Cambridge University, 'groping for his place in the scheme of things'. He finds it in Moriarty, meeting him in a hidden room behind a Chinese merchant's shop while helping out a fellow student, Prince Alexis of Harlstein. Prince Alexis is presumed guilty of the theft of the university's athletic funds and will be charged, thus casting doubt on his imminent marriage in Switzerland. To save himself he consults Watson, not yet a doctor and in the same year as Holmes at Cambridge, who in turn calls in the future detective to assist. He locates the real thief pretty easily but we're too busy watching who's playing him in wonder.

He's Forman Wells, the first screen role for William Powell. Hardly the sophisticated gentleman he would soon become, Powell looks more like a taller version of Mr Bean with a Buster Keaton haircut and hollow eyes caused by scarily heavy application of makeup. He looks a little better when we skip forward in years and he gets to play a butler, but it's stunning to realise that My Man Godfrey was only 14 years away because there's hardly a comparison. Anyway, Wells is under the thumb of Moriarty because he's the son of a master cracksman who died in Dartmoor, sent to Cambridge under a false name. Holmes saves him too, of course.

Sherlock Holmes himself is played by no less a star than John Barrymore, who much preferred the stage at this point and until the late twenties appeared only rarely on screen. Perhaps that general reluctance to appear in front of the camera is one reason why he's not very good here at all, much better two years earlier as the title characters in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and also two years later in his next film as the title character in Beau Brummel. Another reason is that he was forty years old and being called upon to play a college student, at least initially, and at that he isn't credible in the slightest.

He's better after we skip forward through the years to Holmes as the established detective working out of 221 Baker St (they forgot the B), but he's still not great, hardly even attempting to flesh out the character. There's a little preparation for the future in early scenes, philosophising in the countryside, even keeping a list of his strengths and limitations. Apparently his knowledge of sensational literature is immense and he can run really fast, but other more needy talents are more lacking. We get one decent disguise scene, hardly surprising as Barrymore had already proved himself in that regard in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but mostly he spends his time merely posed in intense thought or pining for the girlfriend that might have been.

Yes, you read that right. Sherlock Holmes gets a crush on Alice Faulkner during one of those countryside trips to find himself, literally falling for her from a window ledge and never forgetting their brief moment together with him stunned on the ground and her climbing down from her carriage to check to see if he's OK. She's conveniently the sister of Rose Faulkner, who is the pivot around which this story revolves. Rose is the young lady that Prince Alexis was going to marry in Switzerland before being called back to Harlstein to become Crown Prince after the untimely death of his two brothers in a car accident.

That doesn't bode well for Rose. While he could marry her as a third son, such an idea is utterly out of the question now that he's heir to the throne, so disgraced through no fault of her own she commits suicide, leaving her love letters from her prince with Alice for safe keeping and so we can have a second half to our plot. Now Prince Alexis is engaged to someone more suitable for his current status, Princess Olga of Brünwald-Torbay, a rather bizarre location that would appear to be half German and half Welsh, Alice is happy to blackmail the man she sees as responsible for the death of her sister.

Holmes thinks the same way, seeing Prince Alexis as nothing more than a blackguard, but he lets the prince hire him to recover the letters in order to set a trap for Moriarty, who has escaped his every attempt to bring him down. Quite what he plans to do with the letters once acquired we really don't know, because they're as much of a McGuffin as Rose Faulkner herself. This is all about Moriarty, the suggestion being that Holmes really has no purpose other than to catch this self appointed nemesis, who seems to get miraculously younger as the film runs on.

This film was adapted from a play by William Gillette, who was at the time the vision most people had of Sherlock Holmes, given that he had played the detective on stage for a couple of decades. In fact he wrote, directed and starred in a play about the character as far back as 1899, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was still actively contributing stories to the official canon. Titled Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner, it was a conglomeration of a few Conan Doyle stories that added certain details that would come to be associated with the character such as his deerstalker and meerschaum pipe. Gillette played the role on stage around 1,300 times and even made the transition to the screen for a 1916 film called simply Sherlock Holmes, a movie that has become the only preserved record of Gillette playing the part that made him famous.

While he lived until 1937, he wasn't involved in this version at all and I can't speak to how closely it follows his play. Certainly other versions differ strongly from this. It's an adventurous piece, deeply plotted and certainly worthy of a viewing but it's far more important a film than a decent one. Bizarrely it's not particularly important for John Barrymore, possibly the best actor in the film, being far more important for both William Powell and Roland Young, who also debuted here, playing Dr Watson. Watson is married in this film, something that apparently stops him doing anything else, so we hardly see him. There are hints of who Young would become but the lack of sound doesn't help him.

Only two years into his Hollywood career, Gustav von Seyffertitz is recognisable this early, as is Louis Wolheim, whose broken nose could never be mistaken for anyone else. He turns up towards the end as one of Moriarty's thugs and he's perfect for the part. Unfortunately we don't get to see too much of him. We don't get to see too much of Reginald Denny either, as Prince Alexis, or other recognisable names like Hedda Hopper and Lumsden Hare. The part of Alice Faulkner went to Carol Dempster, a paramour of D W Griffith who retired from the screen in 1926. It isn't difficult to see why.

The biggest problem with the film though is how unlike Sherlock Holmes it gets in places, Gillette's liberties not being minor. I'm going to leave it wondering just why he felt it important to add in a romance for a detective who so notably only ever had anything to do with one woman, not this one. The ending of the film was painful enough for me as a mere fan of the character, but it must be truly cringeworthy for any serious Holmes afficionados. If you're one, stop watching once the natural ending finishes. Don't wait for the Hollywood one afterwards. Interesting? Sure. Important? Certainly. Unforgivable? Without a doubt.

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