Sherlock Holmes currently holds the world record for most filmed fictional human. There is a Holmes for every taste and mood: Funny Holmes, Modern Holmes, Classic Holmes, Romantic Holmes…
While Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, actor and playwright William Gillette was responsible for many of the quirks that we associate with our favorite sleuth: the deerstalker cap, calabash pipe and the words “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette made his own Holmes film (sadly lost) in 1916 but the character was too famous and too enticing to be left to just one screen performer. It was almost inevitable that the greatest detective would be played by an actor who was laying claim to the title of greatest motion picture performer.
John Barrymore was famous on the stage for his Hamlet, but his screen career did not really ignite until his gutsy double role in the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Barrymore was a handsome man but he was also willing to do anything, and I mean anything, for his roles. This all-in approach makes Mr. Barrymore an actor that most viewers have a very strong opinion about, either positive or negative. Me? I adore his performances.
This 1922 version of Sherlock Holmes was thought lost for decades before being recovered in the 1970s. But what was found was not a print. No, it was reels and reels of footage. Multiple takes of the same sequence jumbled out of order… My word! In a virtuoso bit of restoration, Kevin Brownlow was able to piece together the film with some help from the original director, Albert Parker. There is some footage missing but most of the picture is intact. So, how will Barrymore’s Holmes hold up?
The plot of the film (and the play upon which it was based) borrows dribs and drabs from assorted Holmes tales. We have the European prince who is the victim of blackmail (A Scandal in Bohemia) and the nasty criminal mastermind, Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem) creating the backbone of the scenario, but the plot does not really follow either one of these stories.
In a very, very brief nutshell, Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is planning shenanigans, as is his custom. Meanwhile, royal college student Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny, better known for his silent comedies than his cad roles) is accused of theft. His pal, John Watson (Roland Young) decides to ask another student, Sherlock Holmes (Barrymore), to help clear the prince. Sherlock investigates and his search leads him to Moriarty. Instead of killing the young detective, Moriarty warns him to back off. We all know how well that works.
Anyway, the prince then dumps his fiancée, who commits suicide. Her sister, Alice (Carol Dempster), has a collection of very naughty letters from the prince and she means to use them to ruin his life. The prince engages Holmes to get the letters back. Holmes has no interest in helping again until he realizes that Alice is the girl he admired back in his college days. However, Alice has been taken prisoner by the Larrabees (Anders Randolf and Hedda Hopper), agents of Moriarty. Our villain means to use the letters to further his own mwahaha ends. It’s up to Holmes to save Alice and get those letters back.
As stated before, Sherlock Holmes was based on William Gillette’s stage play, though the film takes considerable liberties with the material. While the play begins with Holmes confronting the Larrabees about their treatment of Alice, the film opens with Holmes and Watson still at university. The idea that our heroes started as school chums would later be used in the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes. (Holmes also falls in love in that film, but the ending is less than happy.)
I am usually in favor of opening up plays as a stage production can be static if adapted as-is. However, Sherlock Holmes goes a little too far. Introducing Moriaty so early and letting him meet Holmes in the first act is a mistake. We are deprived of the suspense of waiting for the inevitable showdown. Plus, having Holmes pine away for Alice means that we have far less time for actual, you know, detective work. This means that we hear a good deal about Holmes’ campaign against Moriarty but we see very little of it for ourselves.
The plot is a whole lot of telling and very little showing but oh the cast, the cast! William Powell and Roland Young both make their debuts and we have the ever-welcome presence of Reginald Denny. Plus, we have the interesting casting of Hedda Hopper (pre-column days) and Carol Dempster (her first and only loan-out from D.W. Griffith). Wow.
First, though, let’s talk about our Sherlock. My biggest problem with John Barrymore performance is his appearance.
Mr. Barrymore at this point in his career was ridiculously handsome. I mean, I’m not complaining about his looks, but they are a bit distracting. Holmes was never meant to stop traffic. (Yes, I realize that many incredibly handsome men have played the character but you must admit that Mr. Barrymore is in the very top tier lookswise.)
Okay, so perhaps he is too attractive but what about his character? This is where the poor adaptation rears its head again. By spending so much time in college, we are not able to get to know Barrymore’s Sherlock on his home turf. While 221B looks the ticket, it does not really feel like Holmes’ lair. This is the problem that often hamstrings origin stories. They take so darn long establishing what makes the hero a hero that the audience forgets why they ever cared.
Barrymore is further hampered by the shoehorned romantic subplot and a lack of chemistry with Carol Dempster (more on that later). On the plus side, I did enjoy his investigation scenes and Barrymore is a refreshingly physical Holmes. I am going to say that Barrymore gave the role an excellent attempt but he simply could not overcome the issues with the script and pacing.
Of course, this fiddling with the Holmes orthodoxy must be taken in the context of the time. Holmes had first appeared in 1887 but Doyle was publishing new stories until just three years before his death in 1930. In short, this 1922 version of Holmes was made while the character was still “live” and whose screen image was still being built.
While the role of Sherlock is essential, I must admit that I usually judge Holmes adaptations by the quality of their Watson. Watson was, of course, the narrator of the majority of the Holmes stories and he serves as a bridge between the audience and the eccentric hero. Watson is smart and capable (he was a military surgeon after all) but he is also an ordinary man. I cannot stand the Watson-is-a-dummy takes on the character. My ideal Watson is smart and sensible, astonished by Holmes’ abilities but also amused by his eccentricities.
Roland Young is absolutely an ideal Watson. You may be familiar with him as Topper but I can assure you that he excels in his dramatic debut. His character’s role is significantly cut due to the length of the prologue but I liked what I saw.
William Powell fans are going to be delighted with what they see in this film. In spite of it being his debut, his part is quite large and juicy. (A bit larger, in fact, than the Watson role.) He plays Wells, an orphan taken in by Moriarty and groomed to enter high society and politics as an operative. Wells tries to escape his fate by stealing money from his university. Holmes saves him from the consequences of his crime– as well as Moriarty’s vengeance– and sets him up as one of his own agents. I told you it’s a juicy role. Young Mr. Powell does quite well in it.
I was pleasantly surprised by Hedda Hopper. I often say that her turn from acting to writing was hardly a loss for the film industry. She is simply a middling actress. However, I thought she was good as the scheming Mrs. Larrabee, an Australian agent in Moriarty’s employ.
Sherlock Holmes is significant for Carol Dempster because it is the only film she made outside of the Griffith stable. (She appeared in The Hope Chest in 1918, a Dorothy Gish vehicle directed by Griffith protégé Elmer Clifton. Still very much in the Griffith fold, I think.) John Barrymore reportedly took such a dislike to his leading lady that he demanded a stand-in for the final embrace. I don’t usually buy these colorful tales on on-set feuds but the final scene is rather awkwardly shot which leads me to believe that the story is true.
John Barrymore was, of course, an actor of extraordinary power and beauty and it took a very special kind of performer to be able to share a scene with him. Simply put, he could blow less charismatic or talented players right off the screen. Mary Astor could hold her own, as could Camilla Horn, Estelle Taylor, Conrad Veidt and Frank Morgan. Carol Dempster, on the other hand, was not up to the challenge. Whether by accident or design, she is barely in the first two-thirds of the film at all. She and Barrymore certainly have no chemistry, which leaves the love scenes antiseptic and even more unnecessary than they were already.
Sherlock Holmes is a high-quality bit of film-making but I did not really feel like I had seen a Holmes film. Gillette’s story takes the character too far from his eccentric origins and the Barrymore adaptation drags it still further into the conventional. What we are left with is a Holmes who is certainly a bit quirky but not at all opposed to settling down with a wife and 2.5 children. (The Barrymore/Dempster union would have produced some utterly marvelous proboscises, I must say.) All I can say is that I far prefer my Holmes to be bizarre, outrageous, cocained and monk-like.
Is it a good movie? Yes. Is it a good Sherlock Holmes movie? Not really.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, my favorite traditional Sherlock is Jeremy Brett. As for a more modern version, I greatly enjoy the BBC’s clever Sherlock. For off-kilter, I like the uproarious Without a Clue (Michael Caine as Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Watson) and the opaque They Might Be Giants (George C. Scott as a man who thinks he is Holmes and Joanne Woodward as a psychiatrist, Dr. Watson).
Fritzi Kramer lives in California and blogs about silent movies at MoviesSilently.com. She specializes in detailed film discussions, silent movie myth-busting, video reviews and zany GIFs.