It is, perhaps, appropriate that the friend and confidante of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, should–like the man whose exploits he chronicled–also be the subject of several mysteries surrounding his personal life. Was Dr. John H. Watson born in England or, as some Sherlockian scholars have postulated, in Australia or even North America? Where exactly was he shot, in the shoulder or the leg, while serving as a British Army medical officer during the Second Afghan War? Was he married once, twice, or three or more times? And–of primary importance to film buffs–why have most of Watson’s depicitions in movies and on TV given the public the impression that he was a befuddled sidekick whom one critic called a prime specimen of “Boobus Britainnicus”? With last week’s release of director Guy Ritchie’s big-budget Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the sleuth and Jude Law as Watson, the time is right to look back on the good doctor’s screen depictions and at some of the more memorable actors who have played him.
The character of Watson, rather inauspiciously, didn’t even appear in the very first of the over 200 cinematic appearances by Holmes to date, a 1903 short entitled Sherlock Holmes Baffled. This 30-second exercise in trick photography was typical of the detective’s films for the next dozen or so years, most of them parodies or unauthorized tales in which he and Watson would battle such non-contemporaneous adversaries as Poe’s Arsen Lupin and gentleman thief Raffles. That pattern would change in 1916, when Edward Fielding played Watson opposite William Gillette, re-creating his acclaimed stage turn as Holmes, in the lost Essanay filming of Gillette’s play Sherlock Holmes, and in 1922, when Roland Young, future star of the Topper comedies, made his screen debut as the doctor to John Barrymore’s sleuth in the Goldwyn Co.’s Sherlock Holmes, which took as many liberties with Gillette’s stage drama as did he with the Conan Doyle stories on which it was based. The most prolific of the silent sidekicks–indeed of all movie Watsons–was Hubert Willis, who starred opposite fellow Englishman Eille Norwood in more than 40 film adaptation of Doyle’s mysteries between 1921 and 1923.
The crimesolving team’s first sound feature, 1929’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes, starred Clive Brook as a Holmes attending the wedding of Watson’s grown daughter (!) and finding his old nemesis Professor Moriarty lurking. As Watson, H. Reeves-Smith was perhaps the first of the screen doctors to come off as a doddering, older man. Brook would “return” again in the title role of a 1932 remake of Sherlock Holmes, with veteran character actor Reginald Owen as Watson (who, interestingly, got the chance to play Holmes the following year in A Study in Scarlet, one of only a few to essay both parts). Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Ian Fleming–no, not the creator of James Bond!–would portray Watson four times in British films, from 1931’s Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour to Silver Blaze in 1937, opposite Arthur Wontner.
In 1939 moviegoers were introduced to the definitive big-screen Holmes and Watson, as 20th Century-Fox’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, premiered. Set in the original novel’s late Victorian era (a rarity, as nearly all previous Holmes films had been contemporary affairs), Hound’s moody atmosphere and Rathbone and Bruce’s on-screen chemistry led to a sequel that same year, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The series would be picked up by Universal in 1942 (and moved to an incongruous WWII setting), with the actors co-starring in 12 more whodunits of varying quality.
It was the amiable Bruce, who played Watson as an extension of the genially befuddled British gentlemen that made him one of Hollywood’s busiest supporting actors, who fixed in the public eye the idea that Watson was an incompetent who would wind up needing to be rescued from the villain’s clutches by Holmes. To be fair, this was also a fault of Universal’s scriptwriters, although one entry in the series, 1944’s The Spider Woman, gave the doctor the rare chance to one-up his clue-seeking compatriot, when Holmes mistakes a pygmy skeleton diorama for that of a child:
HOLMES: Why a chart of the skeleton of a child?
WATSON: Because it isn’t.
WATSON: It isn’t a child.
HOLMES: Are you sure?
WATSON: Look at all its teeth. And the skull of a normal child of this size…would be much larger in proportion to the circumference of its chest.
Score one for Watson.
After the Universal series ended in 1946, the next key Watson player would be one of the first on the small screen. 1955’s Sherlock Holmes TV series, a mix of Doyle adaptations and original stories, featured Ronald Howard (son of Gone with the Wind co-star Leslie Howard) as the detective and an effective H. Marion-Crawford as Watson. Four years later, Andre Morell was an adequate albeit underutilized Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes in Hammer Films’ remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
1965 saw the first of two movies pitting Holmes against Victorian London’s most infamous real-life criminal, Jack the Ripper–A Study in Terror–debut in 1965, with John Neville as Holmes and a rather Bruce-like Donald Houston as his somewhat dense Watson. A more edgy depiction of the character came courtesy of director Billy Wilder’s 1970 mix of homage and pastiche, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which Colin Blakely’s Watson is continually put out by Holmes’ (played by Robert Stephens) dismissal of his literary accounts of their cases and less-than-hygienic living arrangements. Blakely’s breaking point comes, in a scene many purists winced at, when Stephens avoids a Russian ballerina’s request that he sire her child by stating that he is “a bachelor…living with another bachelor…for five years. Five very happy years,” and an apoplectic Watson nearly moves out of Baker Street before matters are settled. The most unique doctor of this period was undoubtedly Joanne Woodward, playing a psychiatrist named Watson treating a judge (George C. Scott) who believes he is the great detective, in the charming 1971 comedy They Might Be Giants. Meanwhile, American TV boasted fine performances by Bernard Fox, opposite a miscast Stewart Granger as Holmes, in a 1972 remake of Hound and Avengers leading man Patrick Macnee co-starring with 007 himself, Roger Moore, in 1976’s underrated Sherlock Holmes in New York .
The trend of more independent and strong-willed Watsons continued with the 1976 film version of Nicholas Meyer’s best-seller The Seven Per-Cent Solution, with dedicated doctor Robert Duvall teaming with an obscure Vienna physician named Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) to try and wean a delusional Holmes (Nicol Williamson) off his dangerous cocaine habit. Three years later, the great James Mason brought his own “pawky sense of humor” to the role, with Christopher Plummer donning the deerstalker and Inverness cape, as Holmes and Watson again entered London’s Whitechapel district to stop Jack the Ripper’s bloody rampage, in the very effective Murder by Decree. 1988 saw this trend reach its (il)logical zenith with the comedy Without a Clue, in which it’s revealed that Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the true brains of the duo and Holmes (Michael Caine) was merely a boozy actor hired to play the detective that the medico-turned-author concocted as a hero for his stories.
The 1980s would see British TV give fans the most acclaimed Holmes/Watson team yet, in a faithfully executed and superbly acted string of series–starting with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes–adapting Doyle’s writings. Jeremy Brett was lauded for bringing Holmes’ quirky persona and fitfully energetic nature to life, but equally fine at fleshing out the character of Watson were the two actors who portrayed him over the program’s run, David Burke (who left after the first season for stage commitments) and Edward Hardwicke.
All of which brings us to Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the duo of Downey and Law. In keeping with the film’s emphasis on Holmes as a man of action as well as reason (a depiction not out of sync with the original stories, in which the sleuth was a former bare-knuckle boxer and well-versed in the [imaginary] martial art of baritsu), the Watson seen here is a two-fisted colleague who has had his fill of Holmes’ eccentricities and is ready to start a more subdued life with fiancée Mary Morstan (the client in Doyle’s second novel, The Sign of Four). The banter between Downey and Law at times borders on a 19th-century version of The Odd Couple, but both actors manage to acquit themselves and show the true bond of friendship between the pair. Law’s performance is a fine one in the continuing screen evolution of a character whom Holmes–in a rare inaccuracy–once referred to as “the one fixed point in a changing age.”