Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (Goldwyn, 1922)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Eventually I unwrapped the birthday package from Charles … which turned out to be the Kino on Video boxed set of four John Barrymore silents: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which we already had on a Kino DVD we got years ago), Sherlock Holmes, Beloved Rogue (with Barrymore as François Villon) and Tempest (the really intriguing movie he made in 1928, just before sound came in, based on a story by an uncredited Erich von Stroheim and featuring him as a lowly cadet elevated to the Russian officer corps on the eve of World War I and the Revolution, then busted again and forced to spend the rest of the war in prison until the Revolution happens and bails him out, which we’d seen on a Video Yesteryear VHS tape with a live organ accompaniment by Rosa Rio).

Naturally the one I was the most eager to watch was the 1922 Sherlock Holmes, especially since this was a long-lost film that had taken on the aura of an impressive mystery on its own. I first heard of it in William K. Everson’s 1972 book The Detective in Film, which described how the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York “was able to salvage several cans of negative of the film, each can consisting of short, unconnected rolls. They were printed up, spliced together for viewing purposes, and found to be most intriguing but virtually incomprehensible. There was a little of everything — but not very much of anything. Some scenes ran but a few seconds; others would reappear with variations at regular intervals. … All told, there were about 50 minutes of surviving footage, seemingly representing most of the sequences, but only about half of the total.”

After piecing together the film as best he could, film historian and restorationist Kevin Brownlow made an appointment with the director, Albert Parker — who in 1970 was fortunately not only still alive but active in the movie business (as an agent) — to screen the footage and see if Parker could help him reconstruct the original film as much as possible from the extant scenes. For at least two years after that, Brownlow worked on the film. In 1972 Everson wrote, “Brownlow — poring over the fragments of film, matching up minute scene numbers printed on to the celluloid, shooting and inserting stills to bridge gaps, restoring titles — has completed the major part of the reassembly process.”

This version was actually premiered in 1975 at a showing sponsored by the Theodore Huff Memorial Society (Huff was an early film critic from the 1920’s to the 1940’s and wrote a quite good biography of Chaplin) with both Brownlow and Everson in attendance, but what we have on the Kino on Video DVD is a further restoration from 2001, done at the George Eastman House with credits for funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Parks Service of the Department of the Interior, and Hugh Hefner, though the DVD package itself contains nothing on the history of the restoration (unlike previous Kino releases of long-thought-lost silent films, which have generally come with essays either on printed inserts or as text screens on the DVD’s themselves explaining just what the sources were for what we were seeing and how much work had to be done to create the “new” version of the film) and the DVD is merely “bare-bones,” without any of the special features (including recordings of speeches from the play on which it was based and clips or trailers from other films of the same story) that made Kino’s release of the 1920 Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde so appealing.

The restoration is certainly quite watchable — even though Kino’s DVD times out at 82 minutes, still well short of the 107-minute running time imdb.com gives for the original release — and it’s hard to tell whether some of the lacunae in the plot, abrupt transitions and narrative titles telling us about action that should have been shown are the fault of director Parker and his original writers (Earle Browne and Marion Fairfax) or simply represent missing scenes Brownlow (who isn’t credited here) and the people who’ve worked on the film since tried to fill in the best they could with titles. (I didn’t detect any still photos in the film standing in for missing scenes, as has sometimes been done in restorations.)

The plot of the 1922 Sherlock Holmes began in 1897 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it as a play, not adapting any one Holmes story but creating a pastiche of incidents and themes from all the Holmes stories he’d written to that point. Conan Doyle first offered it to Sir Henry Irving, who requested that the entire role of Holmes be rewritten for him, then put the manuscript aside until 1899, when American-born actor William Gillette was scheduled to appear in London and decided that a Holmes play would make an excellent vehicle for him. Gillette asked Conan Doyle for permission to rewrite the play however he liked, and, in the words of Conan Doyle biographer Russell Miller, “crafted the play into a conventional melodrama, with a strong romantic interest. When he wrote to Conan Doyle asking if, for the purposes of the play, Sherlock Holmes could marry, Conan Doyle famously replied by telegram: ‘You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.’”

Gillette opened Sherlock Holmes in London in 1901 and the critics savaged the play — but the public loved it and flocked to it. Later Gillette came up with another Holmes vehicle, a one-act called The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes, and for that one’s London opening he hired a then-unknown child actor named Charles Chaplin to play Holmes’ houseboy, Billy. Later Chaplin repeated this role in a revival of the full-length Sherlock Holmes play as well. The first film version of the play was shot by the Chicago-based Essanay Studios in 1916 (coincidentally, just after Chaplin — now an adult and a world-famous comedy star — had left their employ), with Arthur Berthelet directing and Gillette himself as Holmes, but that version is well and truly lost.

In 1922 the Goldwyn studios — right in the middle of a struggle for control between Sam Goldwyn (née Goldfish), the company’s co-founder; and Joe Godsol, an investor who’d muscled his way into the company and was busy forcing Goldwyn out (he did, but without Goldwyn the person Goldwyn the company only survived two years longer until it was absorbed into what became MGM) — decided to remake the play as a film and hired Barrymore, fresh from his 1916 stage triumph in Peter Ibbetson and his first major film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for Paramount in 1920, to star as Holmes. (Sherlock Holmes contains an intriguing visual quote from the Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: in the earlier film a spider is shown dissolving into the face of the sleeping Dr. Jekyll just before he wakes up as Hyde; and in Sherlock Holmes we see a large prop spider in an artificial web and the spider dissolves into the face of Professor Moriarty, illustrating Conan Doyle’s metaphor of Moriarty as the spider at the center of a web of crime.)

Writers Browne and Fairfax added an elaborate prologue sequence, showing Holmes and Watson (Roland Young, making his film debut) in college, where Holmes is fond of taking long walks and writing philosophical observations about himself in his journal (the list of his weaknesses that Watson writes in Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, is written by Holmes himself here) and where he finds his métier as a detective by exonerating fellow student Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny) of an accusation that he stole the school’s athletic fund. Holmes proves that the theft was actually committed by Forman Wells (William Powell, making his film debut and billed as William H. Powell), son of safecracker John Peg, who was adopted — and his name changed — by Professor Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who trained him to pose as a gentleman so he could infiltrate Cambridge University and gather information on people it would be worthwhile for Moriarty’s gang to rob.

The film then jumpily flashes forward several years; Holmes and Watson are now ensconced at 221 B Baker Street, Holmes’ success in the case of Prince Alexis has led to his career as a consulting detective, but he’s still bound and determined to expose Moriarty’s crime ring and bring the Professor to justice. Meanwhile, Prince Alexis himself has received word that his two older brothers have both been killed in a car accident (the setting is contemporary enough that there are cars in the film, though they look more like the vehicles of 1912 than 1922 and they still share the streets with horse-drawn carriages) and, as the Crown Prince, he must return to his homeland (one of those fictitious mittel-Europan principalities that abounded in movies of this era) and abandon his British girlfriend, Rose Faulkner (Peggy Bayfield), who forthwith flees to Switzerland and there commits suicide. (Presumably she was pregnant with Prince Alexis’s child, but there’s no explanation of that in the film itself — or at least in the version we have.)

Faulkner’s sister Alice (Carol Dempster, D. W. Griffith’s second wife and frequent star in the 1920’s, borrowed from him for this film) — who previously met Holmes while in college and got a crush on him which, it was hinted, he reciprocated — naturally hates Alexis for driving her sister to suicide, and she decides to get revenge by selling the letters Alexis wrote Rose to Moriarty for blackmail purposes. Alexis hires Holmes to stop her, and apparently out of love for Holmes she’s willing to drop the whole thing — but Moriarty fights back by having her kidnapped and held in an isolated house by James and Madge Larrabee (Anders Randolf and Hedda Hopper), from which Holmes has to free her before finally confronting Moriarty, busting his gang and eventually building the case against Moriarty so that Scotland Yard, in the person of Inspector Gregson (John Willard), can arrest him. (This is one of the few Holmes films in which Moriarty is actually taken alive; in most others he either dies or escapes in such a way that he appears dead but can be revived by screenwriters’ fiat for a sequel.) Holmes declares his love for Alice Faulkner and proposes to her, she accepts and the film ends in a way that to Holmes fans over a century after the play premiered seems defiantly anti-canonical but which wowed ’em at the time.

It’s really nice to have this film back — almost none of the other Holmes features from the silent era are extant (about the only other one I know of is the 1922 The Hound of the Baskervilles, made in Britain and ostensibly co-produced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself — though I suspect all he contributed to the productions were the rights to the stories — as a way of kicking off a series of short films based on each of the canonical Holmes stories; Eille Norwood played Holmes throughout the series and thus became the first of only two actors to play Holmes in every story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about him; Jeremy Brett, in his Granada TV series in the 1970’s, was the other) — and though still 27 minutes short of its original running time and with plenty of outrageous jumps in continuity in the plot (notably the lack of any explanation as to why William Powell’s character, Forman Wells, was an agent of Moriarty in the prologue and switched sides and went to work for Holmes in the bulk of the film), the version we have is nonetheless easy to follow and without any readily noticeable gaps in the story.

The problem is it’s simply not a particularly good movie; director Parker is too easy-going and not suited to a suspense thriller; the play itself is a creaky vehicle and hardly as strong a story as the best of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories; and though Barrymore acts with authority and power (as does von Seyffertitz as his principal adversary), the rather talky world of Holmes, with its sweeping deductions expressed in fire-breathing dramatic language couched in simple terms, really demanded sound to be realized on screen adequately. (One imdb.com poster wished John Barrymore would have got to remake the role 10 years later after sound came in; that would have been nice — especially if they could have got his brother Lionel to play Moriarty!) It’s an O.K. movie that takes advantage of a surprising amount of footage shot on real London locations — though the interiors are studio-bound and there are so few closeups and cuts that sometimes this looks like a film from 1912 rather than one from 1922 — and it’s also nice to see a film with so many stars of the future getting their starts (or near-starts) in it.

It’s just not as exciting as it should be, and quite frankly John Barrymore was less interesting as a hero (especially a cerebral hero rather than the action heroes he played in Beau Brummell and Don Juan) than as a multidimensional villain-hero like Jekyll/Hyde, Ahab, Svengali or the murderously jealous impresario Nicolai Nazarov in Maytime — or as the figure of pathos he would frequently appear as in the 1930’s (as the real-life effects of alcoholism took their toll on him and unwittingly fitted him to play the dissolute but still sympathetic roles he had in Grand Hotel, A Bill of Divorcement, Dinner at Eight, Long Lost Father and The Great Man Votes).

The Kino release has a background score composed (improvised, really, if his note on his blog, http://www.silentfilmmusicblog.com/2009/05/sherlock-holmes-with-john-barrymore.html, can be believed) and played by Ben Model on something called a “Miditzer,” which I take to mean a computerized synthesizer designed to sound like a theatre organ — and it’s an effective accompaniment that blessedly stays away from familiar songs. (Some silent-film accompanists actually add to the appeal of their scores by quoting from suitable songs from the period, but in a film like this one that is not definitively set in the 1920’s those sorts of things would be detrimental.) Also, the cinematographer is J. Roy Hunt, who two decades later would be one of the two go-to cameramen at RKO for noirs, and while there’s a bit of the half-lit chiaroscuro sensibility that in 1922 would have been called “the German look,” the film hasn’t survived in good enough shape to do justice to Hunt’s work, most of which is pretty straightforward anyway.

It’s also interesting to note that the 1929 film Bulldog Drummond has a similar plotline — a debonair detective finds that the heroine he has a crush on is being held captive in an isolated location by a criminal couple in the employ of a super-villain — and it’s equally creaky, though a bit more charming than this one because of better direction, sound and a debonair performance by Ronald Colman. Overall, the 1922 Sherlock Holmes is a movie well worth having, even though as recently rediscovered long-thought-lost films go it’s hardly in the same league aesthetically as, say, the 1922 Beyond the Rocks (which not only had Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino and a globe-trotting story by Elinor Glyn but a far more sensitive director, Sam Wood, who unlike Parker did continue his career well into the sound era) — still, as the first truly important Sherlock Holmes movie extant it’s a treasurable artifact.