My Christmas gift from my friend Ross this year was The Sherlock Holmes Archive Collection, three DVDs of obscure Holmesian material. I’ve been watching the mix of films, short films and TV episodes gradually through the month, waiting until it was all done to make a total review. So here we go, starting with the films.
THE COPPER BEECHES (1912)is an uninspired adaptation with George Treville getting very little chance to show what he can do as Holmes. By focusing on the backstory in this mystery — a villain’s scheme to get his daughter’s inheritance — and leaving Holmes out until midway through, it becomes less a Holmes story than a dull melodrama.
Norwegian Eille Norwood was one of the first actors to be hailed as a Definitive Holmes. THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIP (1921) is the first time I’ve seen one of his films, a fairly faithful silent adaptation. Norwood has more screen presence than Treville, but he doesn’t hold up to Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone.
Or for that matter, Arthur Wontner, who launched a series of Holmesian adventures with SHERLOCK HOLMES FATAL HOUR (1931), known when it was made in England as The Sleeping Cardinal. A mix of The Final Problem with The Adventure of the Empty House, it has Holmes’ investigation into the criminal mastermind named Moriarty (“He has a thousand disguises — many men know Moriarty without being aware of it.”) overlaps with Holmes and Watson’s efforts to cure a compulsive gambler of his habit. I can’t help thinking this was influenced by Dr. Mabuse — The Gambler, which likewise involved gambling, cheating, a villain with a hundred faces and communication with his henchman while unseen.
The film, alas is very talky, with some of the scenes running way too long. As I recall, the later Wontner films were better. “Never give way to sudden impulses — they’re more dangerous to you than I am.”
Next, the shorts. THE LIMEJUICE MYSTERY or WHO SPAT IN GRANDFATHER’S PORRIDGE (1930) is a fairly plotless (and dialog-less) puppet-show short in which Herlock Sholmes investigates a Limehouse riot (the opium den really was ubiquitous in Chinese stereotypes back then) and encounters the puppet Anna Went Wrong (a joke on Anna Mae Wong, a Chinese actor of the day). Barely worth mentioning.
THE STRANGE CASE OF HENNESSY (1933) is a ringer as the detective is “Silo Dance,” a takeoff on W.S. Van Dyne’s Philo Vance, so there’s no Holmes connection. The brief musical comedy about Vance searching for a vanished wealthy man was amusing enough, though. “Make a note of it.”
LOST IN LIMEHOUSE or LADY ESMERELDA’S PREDICAMENT (1933) is a melodrama parody in which lecherous Sir Marmaduke Rakes kidnaps Lady Esmeralda as Step One to forcing her into marriage. Can Sheetluck Jones and a poor but honest suitor save the day? Watching this made me realize I’m familiar with this kind of melodrama almost entirely through parodies like this; pretty funny but the Chinese stereotypes (more opium dens!) and names such as Hoo Flung have not aged well. This was one of several shorts made by the Masquers, a Hollywood actors’ club. “I trow he is an honest youth, for he has an open face that bespeaks a noble soul.”
THE SCREAMING BISHOP (1944) is one I’ve seen before, on PBS’ Matinee At the Bijou series, a cartoon in which HHairlock Holmes and Gotsome investigate the theft of a dinosaur skeleton and discover the zany thief is using the bones to make the world’s largest xylophone. Loony but entertaining. “The best bones of all go to symphony hall!”
And then the TV (not in chronological order). The one I wanted this set for was THE ELGIN HOUR: The Sting of Death an episode adapted from HF Heard’s first novel about retiree-turned-beekeeper “Mr. Mycroft.” Here, Mycroft (Boris Karloff) discovers beekeeper Martyn Greene has bred a deadly strain of killer bees and is feeling the itch to test them on human beings; can he be stopped? Karloff’s not one of the great Holmes but he’s satisfactory. I blogged about this in more detail over at Atomic Junkshop. “I am a man whose loquaciousness makes him a constant martyr to a sore throat.”
THE MAN WHO DISAPPEARED was a British one-off adaptation of The Man With the Twisted Lip. John Longden makes an adequate Holmes but throwing in murder and blackmail on top of the original plot makes this overly complicated. “In your heart of hearts, do you think Neville is alive?”
A CASE OF HYPNOSIS was another one-shot in which master detective Professor Lightskull and his sidekick Twiddle battle a criminal psychiatrist. Forgettable except that it uses chimps in all the roles, with Paul Frees and Daws Butler providing the voices. “It’s not that he saw anything worthwhile through that magnifying glass, I think it just made him feel like a detective.”
YOUR SHOW TIME: Adventure of the Speckled Band does a decent job adapting the story with Alan Napier — later Alfred to Adam West’s Bruce Wayne — as Holmes. “That sir, unless you are a crystal gazer, you shall never know.”
Finally another ringer, SCHLITZ PLAYHOUSE OF STARS: The General’s Boots. This has Basil Rathbone as an arrogant, officious general flying home from the Far East with former subordinate John Dehner on the same plane. When the plane goes down in the ocean, Rathbone takes charge of rationing the water — or is he really planning to drink it all himself? A good cast, but minor (the series was well-regarded but this episode came from its years of decline). In a type of advertising I’m familiar with, the series’ host waxes prolific about the wonders of drinking Schlitz beer — just as the general set high standards for his men, so Schlitz sets high standards for its brew! “I believe every individual is put on Earth with a purpose, to help with the survival of his species!”
#SFWApro. Illustration by Sidney Paget.