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A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen (give or take a month): Why Sherlock Holmes?
by Jay Seaver

This Christmas, Warner Brothers is releasing a new Sherlock Holmes movie to theaters that promises to be a bit different. It stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, is directed by Guy Ritchie, and promises us a different Holmes than we've seen on screen before, one who is just as much action hero as armchair detective. Perhaps you've seen a trailer. Some who have decry it as more evidence that Hollywood lacks original ideas, but as we'll demonstrate this month, making movies about Sherlock Holmes is a tradition that goes back to the medium's earliest days and has never been far out of favor. Not bad for a character famously despised by his creator.

Still, "Why Sherlock Holmes?" is a fair question; he's not the only character from his time still having new stories told in grand, expensive fashion, but his enduring popularity dwarfs all but one. And even when compared to Dracula, the amount of film and television devoted to Sherlock's adventures likely comes out on top. Why is this guy still in the common vernacular - I figure he's reference roughly a million times more often than then-popular gentleman thief Raffles on "no shit, Sherlock" alone.

To start with, he's one of the first great pulp heroes, even a superhero. His superpower, of course, is his amazing intellect, but a quick stroll through the original stories reveals that he is also a master of disguise, a skilled fighter both as a bareknuckle boxer and in the eastern fighting art of bartitsu, and capable of incredible feats of strength. He has a small army of street urchins who serve as his eyes and ears in the criminal underworld. He's even got an archnemesis who serves as his twisted reflection, so nefarious that not only was Holmes the only man who could defeat him, but nobody else could actually deduce Moriarty's very existence!

The character is also flawed, of course - he's rude, more than a bit egotistical, creepily eccentric, and sometimes takes his good friend Watson for granted. He's so focused on his science of detection that there is no room in his life for romance, and when too much time passes between cases, he fills it with cocaine. As much as the end of that list is hardly fantasy material, Holmes's flaws make him even more appealing; even when he's being a jerk - maybe especially when he's being a jerk - it would be fun to be Sherlock Holmes, and as we watch him work, we tell ourselves that we could be: As Holmes constantly points out, most of what he does come from observation, and after he explains things, it never sounds too much like something only he could do.

Even great characters sometimes don't age well, though, but where other characters have survived because they are adaptable - compare Batman and Superman today to what they were when they first debuted in the late 1930s, for example - Sherlock Holmes has never required much effort to stay relevant. Film adaptations tended to set stories in the "present day" until the 1950s - the Basil Rathbone series of 14 films, considered the standard for the character on-screen until Jeremy Brett took up the character for television in the 1980s, often had him ferreting out Nazi agents. Sherlock Holmes movies have been made not just in English-speaking countries, but in France, China, Italy, Germany, Finland, and even the Soviet Union. But even now that most new projects place the character back in the Victorian Age, it sometimes seems as though the world is just now catching up to his methods; the crime scene investigators that fill the television schedule now are his spiritual descendants.

They're not alone - House frequently tips its hat to Sherlock Holmes as its inspiration, and this summer I saw a clearly Holmes-inspired film from South Korea at a film festival. The basic template of a temperamental genius solving a mystery with the help of his capable best friend and partner works so well, though one must be careful with it: It works best when Watson is capable, rather than a buffoon to whom Sherlock must explain obvious things, as that lets Watson be a stand-in for the audience and makes Holmes appear even smarter. Doctor Watson is, in fact, a huge part of the appeal of Sherlock Holmes - he's a perfect partner and proxy for the audience.

As you may have guessed by now, I'm a fan, and have been since junior high when I found the books in the school library and Jeremy Brett on PBS's Mystery! series in practically the same week. Like many fans, I approach the new film with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, but it has at least inspired us to do something fun while we wait: During the month of December, we will be posting a new review of a Sherlock Holmes movie every weekday, with feature articles on the weekend. We invite you to rediscover old favorites, learn about the history of one of the greatest characters ever to grace the page or the screen, and if the new movie makes you a fan (or disappoints), this will give you a place to start looking for more.

We've reviewed some of these movies and others in the past - see The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, The Last Vampyre, Murder By Decree, Silver Blaze, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, and Young Sherlock Holmes. This month, we'll be working through the films in mostly chronological order, starting with John Barrymore in a silent 1922 feature which, like the new film, is simply called Sherlock Holmes.

We invite you to come back daily, in part because I, at least, am discovering something fascinating as I start from the silent era and work my way forward - the history of Sherlock Holmes on film is the history of the medium itself, starting in silent shorts, moving to sound, color, television, and ultimately "everything old is new again" reboots, with stops in Hammer Studios and deconstruction along the way. It's an exciting journey, and we hope you will all stick around until the new film arrives this Christmas.

Reviews and features in this series:

01 - Jay Seaver reviews Sherlock Holmes (1922), featuring John Barrymore as Holmes
02 - Jay Seaver reviews The Sleeping Cardinal (1931), featuring Arthur Wontner
03 - Jay Seaver reviews The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932), featuring Arthur Wontner
04 - Jay Seaver reviews A Study in Scarlet (1933), featuring Reginald Owen

05 - Jay Seaver reviews "Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection" DVD set

07 - Jay Seaver reviews Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), featuring Basil Rathbone
09 - Jay Seaver reviews Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), featuring Basil Rathbone
09 - Jay Seaver reviews The Spider Woman (1944), featuring Basil Rathbone
10 - Jay Seaver reviews Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), featuring Peter Cushing
11 - Jay Seaver reviews The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), featuring Robert Stephens

14 - Alexandre Paquin reviews The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976), featuring Nicol Williamson
15 - Jay Seaver reviews The Great Mouse Detective (1986), featuring Barrie Ingham as Basil of Baker Street
16 - Jay Seaver reviews The Sign of Four (1987), featuring Jeremy Brett
17 - Jay Seaver reviews The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988), featuring Jeremy Brett
18 - Jay Seaver reviews Without a Clue (1988), featuring Michael Caine
19 - Jay Seaver reviews The Master Blackmailer (1992), featuring Jeremy Brett

20 - Jay Seaver reviews The Last Vampyre (1993), featuring Jeremy Brett
21 - Jay Seaver reviews The Eligible Bachelor (1993), featuring Jeremy Brett
22 - Jay Seaver reviews The Hound of the Baskervilles (2000), featuring Matt Frewer
23 - Jay Seaver reviews Sherlock: A Case of Evil (2002), featuring James D'Arcy
24 - Jay Seaver reviews Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004), featuring Rupert Everett

25 - Peter Sobczynski reviews Sherlock Holmes (2009), featuring Robert Downey Jr.
25 - Mel Valentin reviews Sherlock Holmes (2009), featuring Robert Downey Jr.
29 - Jay Seaver reviews Sherlock Holmes (2009), featuring Robert Downey Jr.
1/3 - Brian Orndorf reviews Sherlock Holmes (2009), featuring Robert Downey Jr.
2/10 - Jay Seaver reviews Sherlock Holmes (2010), featuring Ben Syder


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2888
originally posted: 12/01/09 16:05:02
last updated: 01/06/11 04:15:15
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