A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen: "Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection" (DVD Review)
By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/06/09 10:39:28
For the bulk of "100 Years of Sherlock Holmes", we'll be doing what this site does best - reviewing feature length movies, whether created for theaters or television. That only covers the most visible part of what has been done with Holmes in the media, though; and while other works may have faded because they either weren't very good or the forms they took fell out of favor, they are certainly interesting to the fan. Which brings us to "Sherlock Holmes: The Archive Collection".
A number of boxed sets of Holmes material were and are being released in 2009 as a tie-in to the new feature (and since that comes out at Christmas, serve as potential gifts), but this one from Synergy Entertainment is among the more interesting, as it contains about six hours of material that is very difficult to find anywhere else. It is, by and large, material for the hardcore fan - those of us that read that The Sleeping Cardinal is not very good but want to see it anyway, or look at the Sherlock Holmes character page on IMDB, see that Eille Norwood did a whole long series of silent adaptations of what fans call "the canon" and want to get their hands on it, or are curious enough about previous decades to see what film and television were like before settling into their current forms. If you're looking for the famous and familiar, there are nice boxed sets of the Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett series. They make nice gifts for the person who likes Sherlock Holmes; the one who loves him probably already has them but might be interested in this.
For that audience, I approve of it. It contains twelve programs that either feature or are inspired by Sherlock Holmes, from a French/English 1912 silent to a 1955 live television production, all in black & white. The picture and sound are generally impressive given the age and rarity of what's included - many have never been released on home video (not even VHS); indeed, The Sleeping Cardinal was long thought to be lost until a single print was found - and the package boasts that the films have been restored from archive materials. It won't jump at the audience like a new release on Blu-ray, but an impressive amount of effort has been put into this release.
That is the most important part of the presentation, and it's handled well enough that some of the other deficiencies are more annoying than they perhaps should be. There's no timecode or chapter stops on even the feature-length Sleeping Cardinal. The collectors' audience that this package appeals to might have appreciated a booklet with documentation on the films and their history, or at least credits for the musical scores added to the silents. Synapse also places a watermark or "bug" on the screen intermittently in order to discourage piracy, as all these works have entered the public domain via either time or neglect, and there's no legal way to keep other distributors from copying it to their own DVDs (Synergy itself has been accused of to taking this route).
But enough about the presentation; how is the actual five and a half hours of stuff?
"The Copper Beeches", 1912
So, here's the silent that lets this series get within shouting distance of actually covering "a hundred years" of Sherlock Holmes films. Made in 1912, while Arthur Conan Doyle was still actively publishing new Holmes stories and Holmes was still active (though Doyle continued publishing until 1927, the last story took place in 1914), the film stars French actor Georges Tréville as Holmes and does without Watson entirely.
It's far from the greatest Sherlock Holmes movie ever made - it's one where we see the plan for the crime presented and partly executed before we ever meet Holmes, and his unraveling of the mystery therefore isn't really impressive. Many elements of the story are cut, and the actor playing Mr. Rucastle, the man who hires a governess to impersonate his daughter as bait for her suitor, mugs for the camera in classic silent film fashion.
It's an interesting thing to see, although the source print is in the most obvious disrepair of all the films featured in the set. That's to be expected of a film that has nearly reached the century mark, although the damage is mostly confined to the ends of reels.
"The Man with the Twisted Lip", 1921
Eille Norwood was the actor who portrayed Sherlock Holmes the most, appearing in at least forty-seven silent adaptations of Doyle's stories between 1921 and 1923, more even than Jeremy Brett. Supposedly, he had Doyle's personal endorsement.
Out of those forty-seven, I have some doubts that this is among the best. It starts awkwardly, with a great deal of conversation delivered via intertitles before even the first image appears, and the placement of intertitles is inconsistent - sometimes before what's being said, sometimes after. The finale is somewhat rushed and awkward.
Still, there's a great deal to like about it. Norwood, known as something of a Lon Chaney-like chameleon, demonstrates his and Holmes's skill at disguise in the start, which provides clever foreshadowing for what is to come later. It's an entertaining short, one which leaves me curious to see more.
"Limehouse Mystery" (aka "Who Spat in Grandfather's Porridge", aka "Herlock Sholmes in Be-a-Live Crook", aka "Anna Went Wrong"), 1930
You don't see much puppet theater today, either on the streets and definitely not on movie screens. So this one, which involves a Holmes knock-off ("Herlock Sholmes") investigating a murder in Limehouse (Chinatown, more or less), is something of a novelty to modern audiences, if nothing else. Truth be told, the story is something not far from incomprehensible, especially since it is being told completely without dialog. Some of the puppetry is actually rather impressive, though - in particular, the dancing Anna is handled extremely well.
Of course, for all I know, this nine-minute short might be packed with stuff that was considered extremely clever eighty years ago, with only the joke that one of the puppets is meant to be a play on the name of Anna May Wong (one of the first Chinese-American stars) making any sense today.
Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour (aka The Sleeping Cardinal), 1931
I have already reviewed the presumed highlight of the set here; to reiterate, it is not quite so bad as its reputation but is no lost classic. It was successful enough that it would be followed by four further films with Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes, for the most part well-intentioned but lacking the resources to become really great movies. If you like the other Wontner films, you'll probably at least want to see it.
Unfortunately, seeing it is rather hard at times; despite the generally high-quality restorations and transfers of the set, this film features an extremely dark picture, although given the quality of the rest of the set, that's likely to be an issue with either the original photography or surviving print. Note that the print was found in the United States, so the title card contains not the original title of "The Sleeping Cardinal", but the American title "Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour".
"Strange Case of Hennessy", 1933
This one is so obscure that it doesn't even seem to have an IMDB page, and has only the slightest connection to Sherlock Holmes: Cliff Edwards's "Silo Dance" wears a cape that is not completely unlike the cloak Holmes is commonly depicted wearing. This comedy short is musical, with half the lines sung rather than spoken, and that's kind of a novelty. It's very silly and the songs are far from great, but it was probably entertaining enough when fit between a cartoon, newsreel, and feature.
"Lost In Limehouse" (aka "Lady Esmerelda's Predicament"), 1933
A frantic burlesque of the stage melodramas of the day, "Lost in Limehouse" features Olaf Hytten's "Sheerluck Jones" attempting to rescue a kidnapped girl from those nasty Chinese people in London's Limehouse district. It's a form not much seen today - heck, say "burlesque" and many today will take it to mean "striptease" rather than "parody" (and, no, there's not much skin put on display here) - at least not on film or television, where there's no place for a 20-minute production these days. "Limehouse" is solidly entertaining, though - the cast is genial and energetic, and despite being over seventy-five years old and lampooning something even more alien to today's audience, it's still funny rather than incomprehensible.
"The Case of the Screaming Bishop", 1944
This is a cute little cartoon, of the variety where the characters have infinite morphability and logic can go straight out the window for the service of gag. It features "Hairlock Combs" and "Dr. Gotsum" investigating the theft of an entire dinosaur skeleton from the British Museum. It is, of course, never really solved, but provides fodder for a few amusing gags and musical bits.
"The Adventure of the Speckled Band", 1949
Though it apparently played some theaters a week after it was first telecast in 1949, the version of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" that appears in this collection is the television version, complete with cigarette ads and bookends by Arthur Shields. Still, it is rather spiffy-looking for a television production of the time; it was shot on sets that had previously been used for shooting Joan of Arc, giving Holmes and Watson a snazzy-looking manor house to investigate.
They're played by Alan Napier and Melville Cooper, and it's the first English-language Sherlock film after the Rathbone/Bruce series finished. The influence that those two had on the perception of Holmes is obvious, especially in Cooper's Watson; while many of the films of the twenties and thirties portrayed Watson as easily flustered, Bruce solidified the image of Watson as a buffoon, which is the direction Cooper goes with the character.
It doesn't detract from a decent telling of the story. "The Speckled Band" is one of the more straightforward tales Doyle wrote, if perhaps a bit fantastical. Director Sobey Martin and screenwriter Walter Doniger don't do much to overcomplicate it, telling a simple locked-room murder mystery that is done and satisfactory in under a half hour.
"The Man Who Disappeared", 1951
A pilot for a television series that never got picked up, "The Man Who Disappeared' is an adaptation of "The Man with the Twisted Lip", though one which has had a couple extra twists and plot complications grafted onto it. It's not bad at all, though it is fairly convoluted, when all is said and done. I'm not sure whether the blackmail plot that has been grafted on makes the story more or less believable.
John Longden makes a decent Holmes, at least. The BBC would produce a different Sherlock Holmes series the same year, starring Alan Wheatley, and another would be produced in America four years later, starring Ronald Howard. Apparently, nobody wanted to tackle Holmes on the big screen until thirteen years after Basil Rathbone had set the role aside, though he was a regular presence on television.
"A Case of Hypnosis", 1952
Hey, kids! The next time your grandparents tell you that they don't make quality family entertainment like they used to, remind them that in their day, dressing chimpanzees up in costumes, giving them something to chew on, and then dubbing it like they were reciting truly awful lines was what passed for children's television. Somehow, cartoons that doubled as toy commercials don't seem quite so terrible in comparison.
This one features a Holmes-chimp and a Watson-chimp tracking down a swami chimp whose hypnosis turns other chimps into animals. It's just as good/bad as it sounds.
"The General's Boots", 1943
Even more loosely connected to Holmes than even "Hennessy", this is apparently included on the set because it features Basil Rathbone, the most famous screen Holmes. It's a passable little story about a man (John Dehner) returning home from war on the same plane as the strict general who made his service a living hell.
It's a simple story, but told reasonably well. It's unfortunate that Synergy was unable to dig up a television appearance by Rathbone form a year earlier, when he once again portrayed Holmes on the series Suspense, but that one appears to be lost.
"The Sting of Death", 1955
This one - an episode of the television program "The Elgin Hour" (named for its sponsor, a maker of watches) - features an aged beekeeper played by Boris Karloff who introduces himself as "Mr. Mycroft"; perhaps not technically Sherlock Holmes, but definitely a wink in that direction, as Myrcroft was the name of Holmes's corpulent brother, and Holmes is described in "His Last Bow" as having retired to Sussex to raise bees. Mycroft has come to suspect that another local beekeeper (Martyn Green) has bred his bees to predate as well as pollinate, and means to stop him, recruiting a meek local professor who loves his honey (Robert Flemyng) to help.
Not having seen a lot of live TV from the period, I'm not sure how "Sting of Death" compares to the norm, but it is fun to watch. The sets are a bit cobbled together and sometimes the actors (Flemyng especially) and crew seem more concerned about making sure the show fit snugly inside its timeslot than making a well-paced show, but Karloff rises above as a hero who seems both diabolically intelligent and like a lonely old man (Holmeses need their Watsons).
Considering that "Sting of Death" was broadcast live, it's somewhat surprising that it has survived at all; an announcement at the end tells us that it was chosen to be shown for the troops overseas, so maybe that is why a print was made. It appears to be a kinescope; the picture occasionally shows distortion one might expect from pointing a movie camera at a TV screen that, back then, wasn't flat, though the image is fairly sharp. It's still enjoyable, however it managed to survive.
The same can be said for the collection in its entirety. Very little on it is great, but nearly all of it is, at least, interesting. Fans of Holmes and early film and television will likely get a kick out of it.