Friday, June 18, 2010

Sherlock Holmes on 1950’s TV: Two Episodes

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I came home at 10 last night and we ended up watching dueling 1950’s versions of Sherlock Holmes stories. His was a 26-minute adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Man with the Twisted Lip” filmed in Britain in 1951 as the pilot for a proposed Holmes TV series that was never made. Retitled “The Man Who Disappeared” for TV, the show was an estimable try even though the uncredited screenwriter made some small but crucial alterations in the story line that actually weakened it. In the original, Neville St. Clair (played in the film by Hector Ross) turns out to have been an aspiring journalist who was assigned by his editor to write an article about London beggars. To learn about them he decided to become a beggar himself, adopting a disguise that made him look suitably pathetic and pitiable so people would give him money — and in fact so many people gave him money that he realized he could make more money as a beggar than as a reporter, so he quit his job at the paper, rented a room above an opium den (making its proprietor his confidante), went out to work every weekday and changed into the disguise that would allow him to collect from passers-by big-time.

He kept this up so long that he was even able to marry, telling his fiancée that he had a job as a stockbroker in The City (London’s financial district) and somehow convincing her that she should never inquire any more than that about where he worked or how he made his living. The film, directed by Richard M. Grey, follows the story fairly closely for the first half but changes St. Clair's motivation for begging — in this version he sells matchboxes and he’s been blackmailed by the opium-den proprietor into using this business as a cover for drug dealing (the drugs are concealed inside the matchboxes) — and ends in a big fight scene quite different from the quieter and more effective conclusion of the story. The show is surprisingly well cast: Holmes is played by John Longden, and though he was a bit long in the tooth for the part (this was 22 years after he made the only film on his résumé anyone is likely to have seen today, as the detective in Hitchcock’s Blackmail) he’s effective in this virtually impossible role. His Watson is Campbell Singer, a bit overbearing but at least not Nigel Bruce-level stupid, thank goodness, and the rest of the cast and Grey’s direction are effective within the limits of the script.

Afterwards I trotted out mine, an download of episode 6 in the much more famous 1954 Holmes series featuring Ronald Howard (Leslie Howard’s son) as Holmes and H. Marion Crawford (the "H." stands for "Howard," in case you were wondering — which is probably why they went with just the initial: a TV series cast list in which the second-billed actor had the same first name as the first-billed actor’s last name might have got confusing) as Watson. The episode we were watching was number six out of 39 (the show was apparently a success but lasted only one season) and was called “The Case of the Shy Ballerina.” It suffered from the fact that, like all the other episodes in this series, it did not take its storyline from one of the original Conan Doyle Holmes tales. Instead it told a seriocomic story of Watson and another man accidentally leaving their club with each other’s hats and coats, and when Watson traces the man whose coat he has on instead of his own he goes out to his home to retrieve it — only to find that the man, an aspiring ballet composer, is dead.

Holmes and Watson take the case on behalf of the widow, Elaine Chelton (Natalie Schaefer, who later played the wife of Jim Backus’s millionaire character on Gilligan’s Island), who accuses her husband of having had an affair with ballerina Olga Yaclanoff (Martine Alexis), whom he met in St. Petersburg and took up with again when the Royal Ballet of Russia appeared in London as part of a tour. It turns out that the real adulterer in the Chelton marriage was the Mrs., and her paramour was the ballet’s director, Serge Smernoff (Eugene Deckers, outfitted with one of the most ridiculous arrangements of false facial hair an actor has ever been cursed with having to wear) — and she killed her husband to eliminate him and clear the way between her and Smernoff. Oddly, I didn’t find this one as well cast as the failed pilot with John Longden: Ronald Howard is a good Holmes but he’s a bit too overbearing and nasty to be a great one, and H. Marion Crawford is more or less just there as Watson, with Archie Duncan as a sleazier and nastier Inspector Lestrade than usual, Still, both shows were fun to watch, indications of how well half-hour crime dramas could work with strong enough plots and actors to pull them off.