Friday 28 January 2011

The Sleeping Cardinal (1931)

Director: Leslie S Hiscott
Star: Arthur Wontner

The Guinness Book of Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the 'most portrayed movie character' of all time, with no less than 75 actors portraying Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective in over two hundred pictures. This trend seems unlikely to abate, given that Robert Downey Jr is about to reprise the role, Sacha Baron Cohen is planning a comedy version and the Asylum will likely cash in on both. The most remembered screen Holmes is Basil Rathbone, who played the part in fourteen popular features during Hollywood's golden age, but he was neither the first actor to take on the role nor to reprise it. Most prolific was Eille Norwood, who played Holmes 47 times in the silent era, but most of those films were two reelers running about twenty minutes in length. The first film star to play Holmes was John Barrymore in the 1922 Sherlock Holmes but that took liberties. Only in the thirties did feature length films begin to do the character justice.

A slew of British actors took the role in the early days of sound. Clive Brook was the first, in two films for different studios: The Return of Sherlock Holmes for Paramount in 1929 and Sherlock Holmes for Fox in 1932. Raymond Massey earned his first credit as the detective in The Speckled Band in 1931, when Robert Rendel made The Hound of the Baskervilles. Reginald Owen, Watson to Brook's Holmes in 1932, was promoted in 1933 for A Study in Scarlet. These actors met with varying levels of success, but the actor who became Sherlock Holmes to both the critics and the fans, at least before the heady days of Rathbone, was Arthur Wontner, who began in 1931 with The Sleeping Cardinal and returned to the role four more times, ending with Silver Blaze in 1937. He reportedly won the part by playing Holmes knockoff Sexton Blake in 1930, but Arthur Conan Doyle had suggested the role to Wontner a decade earlier, aiming at a stage portrayal.

The best of the five Wontner films is supposedly 1935's The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, but I'll find that out as I work through them. Four of the five are readily available in public domain box sets, though the second of them, 1932's The Missing Rembrandt, is considered lost. I'm not sure if The Sleeping Cardinal is also lost under its original title, or whether the American release, with a more commercial name, Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour, is simply easier to find. It's a fair opener to the series, albeit mostly because of Wontner's memorable portrayal. He's more pixie-like than we expect Holmes to be, as well as much older given that Wontner was 56 at the time. He also shines above the material even though he's inevitably tasked with wheeling out the usual in his first outing. He gets to correct Watson's false impressions, conjure up an 'elementary, my dear Watson' and introduce Prof Moriarty (here named Robert), both to Watson and to us.

Unfortunately it takes us a while to get to Holmes and what precedes him is hardly essential. A man is murdered in the strong room of the London and Commercial Bank, though the £70,000 it contains is left mysteriously intact. We switch to a game of bridge, a genteel one in a large room with ornately carved chairs and a butler. Ronald Adair is the host and he's a cheat, inexcusable behaviour for an English gentleman, even if he and his sister Kathleen were left penniless when their father, governor general of the Bengal, died and the ensuing trustee absconded with all the money. The pace is slow and leisurely, but unfortunately it doesn't indicate more story. Instead the script hammers its point home, apparently for the sake of hearing some of the characters talk. Ronnie isn't far above a nonentity and Kathy is overly melodramatic. We are bludgeoned with, 'I can't believe you're cheating but you must be... oh I can't believe it!' shenanigans.
Fortunately things pick up when we get to 221B Baker St. Even the set is glorious, far better to my eyes than Rathbone's equivalent most of a decade later. I'd much rather move into these, with floor to ceiling bookcases and a number of nooks. Rathbone's apartments always felt like a movie set to me but Wontner's feel lived in. Housekeeper Mrs Hudson is a jovial woman, short and rotund, with Minnie Rayner as down to earth as she should be in the part. Thankfully Watson is no bumbling fool, though he still fails to get the right end of a whole collection of sticks. Nigel Bruce could bumble better than anyone but he turned Watson into a buffoon. Ian Fleming (no, not the creator of James Bond) is capable as much more than just a sidekick, being believably different things to different people: gentlemanly to Kathy, genuinely assistive to Holmes. Philip Hewland is less memorable as Insp Lestrade, but still acquits himself well.

It's here that the writing shows its highest quality too. Three writers worked on the script, which is spun out of two Conan Doyle stories, The Empty House and The Final Problem. Initial scenes at the Adair's are typical overblown early sound era nonsense, from a time when studios adapted every stage play they could find, regardless of the quality, and all viewers saw was interminable talk. Once in Baker St, the talking works. The mystery unfolds well, with Wontner and Fleming interesting foils, and Lestrade a worthy third wheel, a man of action who doesn't buy into all Holmes's ideas. He thinks the detective is obsessed, especially when he wheels out his Moriarty theories, but of course Holmes is way ahead of everyone. The biggest problem with the plot is that it's all entirely obvious. There are no red herrings, just a gradual unfolding of the truth to Lestrade and Watson. Holmes keeps his secrets from them but we're in on them from the start.

At least there are a plethora of little crimes to keep us interested, while waiting for the big one to be revealed. The reviewer for the Times enjoyed these details immensely, listing 'a potpourri of all known social and domestic crimes. There is a bit of card cheating, some counterfeiting, bank robbery, Foreign Office dalliance, murder, and simple assault with attempt to kill.' Holmes has an uncanny talent at connecting the dots because there is simply no attempt made to link disparate parts of the plot except through the detective announcing a connection, but at least the dots are kept coming. For some reason the one thing that escapes him for a while is the painting of the recumbent Cardinal Richelieu which provides the original title to the film. Moriarty hides behind it to issue orders, especially to characters he attempts to blackmail, like Ronald Adair. The retitle served only to put the detective into the film's name for those who hadn't read the original story.

With a plot that remains continually interesting but unchallenging, it's Wontner who dominates. The writer Vincent Starrett, who wrote a number of Holmes pastiches as far back as 1920, wrote that, 'No better Sherlock Holmes than Arthur Wontner is likely to be seen and heard in pictures in our time.' While Rathbone would claim that honour within a decade, Wontner wriggled inside the skin of the detective better than anyone thus far and it's easy to see this film as little more than his emphatic stamp of ownership on the character. Certainly, in comparison, Norman McKinnel is a particularly poor Moriarty. He's as melodramatic as Kathy Adair, full of cheap theatricality and wild threats. His first appearance is bad, visiting 221B Baker St in a terribly overdone disguise, and he gets worse from there. Fortunately McKinnel was replaced for his return in a later film. I look forward to seeing the series develop, even without the missing The Missing Rembrandt.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

Thats the interesting thing about this site, you dont reveiw anything for 5 weeks and then you finally return with 2 films that were (incredibly) made 80 years apart. Now thats what i call having a genuine love for the medium of the moving image in all its astonishing diversity.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Actually I've snuck in a few Cinematic Hell reviews over the last week or so, posted on the dates I should have posted them to begin with, but mostly the last month has been eaten up by real work.

I just posted another thirties movie and the next should be a seventies Japanese film, so yeah, all over the map. That's how I like it.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I used to be the same but now i only watch horror and science-fiction, non-genre movies seem so ludicrously out-moded and totally unwatchable to me now.

Anna Schafer said...

I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!!! I definately enjoy every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff of your blog a must read blog!
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