Sherlock Holmes' (1932): Clive Brook and the Great Detective
For a brief time in the early days of talking movies, Hollywood's sole portrayer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, was British actor Clive Brook, who had become a screen idol in the latter days of silents thanks to some high-profile pictures, made primarily for Paramount. Dubbed "The Perfect Englishman" by U.S. media for his stern, stiff-upper-lip delineation of roles that appeared to suit his personality, Brook played the Great Detective three times before making his last appearance in Fox's SHERLOCK HOLMES (1932), a grandly melodramatic thriller that did not concern itself so much with Holmes' deductive brilliance as it did with thrills, intrigue and his intense rivalry with the "Napoleon of Crime," Professor James Moriarty.
Gauging Brook's performance in SHERLOCK HOLMES is difficult at first. Lower-keyed but more waspish than Basil Rathbone's conception of Holmes, and to contemporary audiences, a study in antiquity given the television images provided by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, Brook's authoritative approach as Doyle's consulting detective is a bit off-putting following our initial meeting with the man. However, the performance grows upon the viewer after a short while and offers a reminder of an acting style audiences of the time seemed to expect from such a character.
Although keenly human, the Holmes of the Canon still summons a vision of commanding intellect and ability that actors of the time sought to emulate. Much later performances that explored the psychological motivations of Holmes' brilliance and seeming disconnect with the general run of humanity, such as those of Robert Stephens in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) and Nicol Williamson in THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION (1976), paved the way for Cumberbatch's portrayal of Holmes as a highly functional yet acceptable sociopath.
However, in Brook's day, none of the mental whys and wherefores of Holmes' particular genius were even considered. Indeed, any tampering with the character would have probably been shot down by Doyle, who died in 1930, or his estate. And audiences appeared to prefer their screen adaptations of literary classics to carry a ring of familiarity with the source. Thus, Brook's supercilious and at times dismissive Holmes found favor with moviegoers who weren't looking for a kinder, gentler dimension to a sleuth who, in SHERLOCK HOLMES, must not only combat a vengeance-bent Moriarty but the introduction of American-style crime into British society.
Doyle fans were perturbed to hear their normally unemotional hero advocate a shoot-first, ask-questions-later policy in dealing with "alien invaders," as the gangsters are called in this film, but more undemanding members of the audience reveled at the promise of upcoming thrills, in which SHERLOCK HOLMES did not disappoint. As historian William K. Everson pointed out, SHERLOCK HOLMES was "one of the most enjoyable and stylish of all Holmes films, though possibly a disappointment for true Doyle devotees."*
SHERLOCK HOLMES, directed by William K. Howard from a screenplay by Bertram Millhauser -- the scripting mainstay of Rathbone's series of Holmes adventures at Universal in the '40s -- opens in a contemporary London and with an artfully conceived sequence in which Moriarty, played by the grandly villainous Ernest Torrence, appears to meet his doom. As Big Ben chimes the hour in the background, Moriarty and bailiffs are seen in silhouette advancing past an arched window in the Old Bailey. The judge is next seen with black crepe being placed on his head, signifying he will condemn Moriarty. The judge is at first viewed as a piece of black veil is lifted; the same applies to the prosecutor Erskine. Each of these men are glimpsed in a stark close-up, reminiscent of the visual approach of Carl Dreyer's silent PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928).
The next close-up is of Moriarty, who, allowed a moment to speak after sentence has been passed, congratulates the prosecutor and Colonel Gore-King (Alan Mowbray) of Scotland Yard for having finally built a hanging offense case against him. Dripping with a Uriah Heep-like humility masking evil intent, the professor also offers his thanks to an absent Holmes for his role in bringing about the criminal mastermind's downfall. But, Moriarty adds, "the rope that will hang me has not yet been made," and he promises that Erskine, Gore-King and Holmes will all die before him. In fact, Moriarty pledges he will ruin Holmes' reputation before doing away with him. The professor is led back to his cell in a repeat of the opening scene.
And why was Holmes not present for the greatest triumph of his career? Well, he's getting married! The Great Detective is engaged to Alice Faulkner (Miriam Jordan), daughter of a major London banker, and now that Moriarty's threat to society has been eliminated, Holmes and Alice will tie the knot, retire to the country as farmers and sell fresh eggs (beekeeping having apparently lost its attraction for Holmes). We adjourn from the courtroom to Holmes' laboratory where he's testing some of Kenneth Strickfaden's famous electric equipment as Alice slinks into the room to get his attention. Billy (Howard Leeds), the young pageboy learning criminology under Holmes' tutelage, makes his entrance, as does Dr. Watson (Reginald Owen), a blustery, excitable type who attended Moriarty's sentencing in place of his friend. Moriarty's threat to dispose of Holmes and the others is dismissed.
Not so fast, though. An evil genius like Moriarty has a plan up his sleeve, and its execution forms another terrific set-piece in which little is shown but the meaning is clear. In the prison where Moriarty awaits his execution, the sound of alarms, bells and whistles going off are accompanied by shots of prisoners clutching at their cell doors, guards rushing about, a whistle dangling from a slain jailer's fingers, and general pandemonium signifying an escape has occurred. George Barnes' camera then pans slowly from the crumpled body of a murdered guard to a nearby wall where the escapee has scrawled a grim message: "Tell Sherlock Holmes I'm OUT! -- Moriarty."
Holmes, unaware of his enemy's break, is enjoying a weekend at his prospective father-in-law's (Ivan Simpson) country estate when he gets a telephone call that Prosecutor Erskine has gone missing. Taking Billy in tow to Erskine's house, Holmes and the youth solve the disappearance by following clues to a sliding panel in the man's study -- where Erskine has been left hanging. Learning Moriarty is at large, an understandably annoyed Holmes ("Why must I always be brought in after the mischief has occurred?") then tries to fathom the professor's next move while exchanging barbs with Gore-King, with whom the detective has previously (and publicly) clashed over procedural matters. "Still muddling with the old-fashioned methods, eh, Holmes?" Gore-King scornfully inquires.
Four criminals of international disrepute (Stanley Fields, Roy D'Arcy, Robert Graves and Lucien Prival) are summoned by Moriarty. American gangster Tony Ardetti (Fields) has been imported to introduce a U.S.-style protection racket, preying on public house operators to help finance a larger scheme the professor is formulating. Moriarty still pursues his grudge against Holmes and Gore-King also utilizing the gang for this purpose, which is okay with Ardetti since he once tangled unsuccessfully with Holmes. Leading Holmes to believe Ardetti will break into the detective's home to settle the score, Holmes arms himself, but when the door to his laboratory opens, it's Gore-King, deceived by a fake summons from Holmes, who enters the room and is shot dead by the detective.
Holmes is taken into custody to face trial and disgrace before his expected execution, thus allowing Moriarty to dispose of two birds with a single gunshot. Emboldened, Moriarty implements his larger scheme to break into the Faulkner bank, whose vaults are swollen with money and jewels, using his gang to tunnel their way in from an adjoining pet store. To seal the deal, Moriarty visits Faulkner to inform him of his crime, and that Alice and Billy have been taken to ensure Faulkner's silence. This conversation is witnessed by an elderly (and supposedly deaf) aunt of Faulkner's who is, of course, Holmes in disguise.
Holmes disrupts the theft, and as the (surprise!) still-kicking Gore-King and his men dispose of the gang in a gun battle, Holmes pursues the professor through the tunnel and disposes of him as the captive Alice and Billy watch. The "murder" of Gore-King was staged by Holmes to force Moriarty into the open. In a concluding scene, Holmes learns from Billy that Watson cannot be Holmes' best man at the wedding due to his mother-in-law's sudden attack of "talking sickness," and Gore-King gladly takes his place. And yet Holmes still pays a back-handed compliment to his former nemesis: "Some people, without possessing genius themselves, have the amazing ability of stimulating it in others. I shall miss him."
Exciting and handsomely crafted, with sequences of true screen ingenuity to enhance the mood, SHERLOCK HOLMES is quick and fun, and one grows accustomed to Brook's initially frosty demeanor as the Great Detective. What is distressing to Doyle purists are its departures from accepted norms about the character, particularly a dispensing with his deductive powers. Only two sequences highlight the all-important facet of Holmes' power of observation to reach his correct conclusions. The first is when Holmes, upon examining Faulkner's unusually unkempt appearance, explains the man's current feelings of ill health, and the second soon follows when Holmes bests Gore-King in finding the body of the ill-fated Erskine. Otherwise, Holmes is the man of action whose exploits in bringing about Moriarty's demise were more in line with audience expectations of the day in dealing with ruthless criminals. And given the need for romance, the jolt over the eternal bachelor heading for the altar with Alice shouldn't have been too keen, as the character and plot device had been widely accepted in the popular play SHERLOCK HOLMES used as a basis for the film.
Millhauser drew upon the stage production by the American actor-playwright-manager William Gillette (1853-1937) that first hit the boards in 1899 and became Gillette's signature role; the last of his several tours with the play had ended earlier in 1932, and Gillette was first heard as Holmes on radio in 1930. However, little of the play, which had Doyle's approval, was used in the film SHERLOCK HOLMES, barring Alice's participation. Rather, it's the deadly game in which Holmes and Moriarty engage that forms the tension of the movie, along with several borrowings from the Canon. Holmes fans will recognize the inspiration for the climax from "The Red-Headed League," while Holmes' observation that his Baker Street lodgings are being closely watched by the professor's cohorts carries an echo of "The Empty House." The carnival setting in which the criminals aiding Moriarty meet at a shooting gallery was re-used by Millhauser for the climactic sequence of his Rathbone entry THE SPIDER WOMAN (1944).
In fact, the next time Fox utilized the Gillette play, in 1939's THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, the idea of Moriarty (George Zucco) distracting his enemy's attention with a baffling crime to mask an even bigger caper was retained. THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was the second and last of Fox's attempts to revitalize Holmes with Rathbone in the lead, and like its predecessor from earlier in the year, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, it was set in the heyday of the Victorian era in which Doyle created Holmes. Yet it too seems to have little inspiration from the play. There is no hint of Alice here, and the romantic leads were entirely new characters portrayed by Ida Lupino and Alan Marshal.
Brook's fling at playing Holmes occurred within the first few years of sound. His initial encounter with the part was in 1929's THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES for Paramount, and then in PARAMOUNT ON PARADE (1930). The latter featured Brook in a comedy skit in which he and the studio's other lead detective of the day, Philo Vance (William Powell), are dispatched by an enraged Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland), who's been unable to convince either of the great sleuths that he's the slayer of the unfortunate lying on the floor in front of them (which turns out to be the film's master of ceremonies, Jack Oakie).
Brook, of course, gave the audience and studios their money's worth with his Holmes, although Everson sensed the actor's heart wasn't in it, observing that Brook "fell somewhat short of being the ideal movie Holmes. His diction was fine, the detached imperturbability just right, and yet there was an air of condescension in his interpretation, as though the role wasn't quite worth taking seriously."** Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels, in their survey of Sherlockian cinema, found him "the most urbane of the Holmesian imitators; he was the very image of imperial solidity..."***
Born June 1, 1887, Clifford Hardman Brook was a World War I veteran who made his professional acting debut in 1918 and his first British film a year later. He had become something of a screen idol in his native country by the time Paramount signed him in 1925, employing him in numerous productions that included Josef Von Sternberg's UNDERWORLD (1927), considered by some critics a precursor to film noir, and THE FOUR FEATHERS (1928) before making a successful transition to sound movies. Von Sternberg, who also guided Brook and Marlene Dietrich in 1932's SHANGHAI EXPRESS, may have borne out Everson's contention that Brook tended to give more to parts he really believed in, such as his role in Frank Lloyd's generational drama CAVALCADE (1933) for Fox. "He had come to know the more ability an actor has, the more I like it. The inspiration an actor gets from me is only the reflection of the inspiration I receive from him," Von Sternberg said about Brook in his autobiography.@
A strong heroic performance in SHERLOCK HOLMES demanded an equally commanding job from the actor enacting Moriarty, and Fox did itself proud in casting Ernest Torrence. An Edinburgh-born thespian whose 6-foot-4 frame and expressive eyes made him memorable in numerous stage roles on both sides of the Atlantic, Torrence made his film debut as despicable mountain bully Luke Hatburn in the smash adaptation of the Joseph Hergesheimer story TOL'ABLE DAVID (1921) and from then on was in demand as a villain or character man in the U.S. film capitol. His credits included some of the silent cinema's top classics, including THE COVERED WAGON and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (both 1923), THE KING OF KINGS (1927) and STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928).
Like Brook, Torrence had a speaking voice to accompany his physical appearance, and his casting as a deceptively humble Moriarty was perhaps inevitable. His gaze and stance, however, signified him as the embodiment of twisted genius and his single portrayal of the role has remained one of the most memorable features of SHERLOCK HOLMES, in large part for the restrained manner in which he addressed the role, never lapsing into melodramatic excess.
Torrence was then cast in a key role as smuggler Eli Kirk in James Cruze's independently-made I COVER THE WATERFRONT in support of Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert. After completing his colorfully villainous role, Torrence boarded ship for a vacation in Scotland. Coming down with a severe case of gall stones while at sea, Torrence was returned to New York for an operation on his gall bladder. He fell into a coma following the procedure and died May 15, 1933, at 54. I COVER THE WATERFRONT was released by United Artists four days later. His older brother, David Torrence (1864-1951), who entered films even earlier than his sibling, continued working until the end of the decade.
Miriam Jordan (1907-1987) was at the beginning of a very brief film career when cast as Alice. A former office worker, her fortunes improved after winning a beauty contest in her native England. A stint on Broadway was followed with a Fox contract, and when her association with the studio ended in 1934, she returned to the stage and to London, reportedly remaining active until the late '40s. The part of Alice, transformed some from the original Gillette conception, is well-handled by Jordan as a match for her imperious husband-to-be.
And now we come to a real bone of contention from fans of the Canon with SHERLOCK HOLMES: its treatment of poor old Dr. John H. Watson as a minor character portrayed by Reginald Owen. Watson, like Alice, appears only in a few scenes, is portrayed as something of a dunce (Holmes, who doesn't suffer fools well in this film, even refers to him as an "idiot" at one point) and serves no other function than to annoy his so-called friend. Early Hollywood approaches to Holmes tended to downplay Watson's contribution until Nigel Bruce became Rathbone's Watson in the two Fox films of 1939 and the Universal series of 1942-1946 (not to mention the pair's teaming on radio for several years). And while Bruce is often scorned for his comic relief role and slow-witted nature (to better highlight Holmes' brilliance), the movie series also endowed Watson with heroic qualities, paving the way for less buffoon-like treatment in later Holmes adventures. But when SHERLOCK HOLMES was produced, Hollywood's use for Watson appeared to be nil, a marked contrast to the good doctor's significant role in several UK films of the same time, including the series featuring Arthur Wontner as Holmes.
Yet Owen (1887-1972) had the last laugh, becoming the only actor to date to have played both Watson and Holmes on the screen. He was cast as the Great Detective in A STUDY IN SCARLET (1933) for World Wide Pictures, one of the B movie companies not yet shuttered by the Great Depression that even allowed Owen to write the wonderfully original screenplay. Admittedly, the picture, directed by Robert Florey, takes nothing from the Doyle original other than the title, and Owen himself was more physically attuned to Watson than Holmes.
But it deserves more notice than Everson's dismissal as a "talkative and tedious film (that) had little to recommend it."@@ Everson overlooked the sinister atmosphere Florey built into the proceedings, a strongly British cast that makes it more transatlantic than Hollywood in feeling, and Owen's own tower of strength performance in the Brook mold, offering a superiority not born of aristocratic bearing but from true deductive genius. Alan Mowbray (1896-1969), then a relative newcomer to Hollywood, made his Inspector Lestrade in A STUDY IN SCARLET much less testy than Gore-King in SHERLOCK HOLMES. In the midst of a busy career in which he often played comical butlers (e.g., TOPPER, 1937) or pompous thespians (I WAKE UP SCREAMING, 1941), Mowbray won a change-of-pace role in TERROR BY NIGHT (1946), the next-to-last Holmes adventure in the Universal series. A STUDY IN SCARLET was distributed by Fox.
SHERLOCK HOLMES is one of the movies that gave its director a latter-day appreciation from cineastes and critics, and the man who called the shots on the brilliant opening and climax of the film is deserving of such recognition. Ohio-born William K. Howard was in his early 20s when he turned to creating silent films in 1922 and by the time he was handed SHERLOCK HOLMES, he was noted in Hollywood for what Steinbrunner and Michaels called "a special feeling for melodramatic darkness and tension, an almost Germanic gloom, and a sure movement of player and camera."@@@ Much of Howard's reputation is also attributable to one of his best endeavors for Fox, THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1933), an original screenplay by Preston Sturges often considered the inspiration for the flashback structure of Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE (1941).
Sturges created a format called "narratage" in which the rise and fall of a U.S. railroad magnate (Spencer Tracy) is related by his longtime friend and secretary (Ralph Morgan) in a series of dramatic sequences. But as one historian commented, narratage "failed to revolutionize screen technique" and was mostly forgotten until CITIZEN KANE again made it fashionable and a critical feature of the film noir movement in Hollywood for the bulk of the '40s. Despite the uniqueness of THE POWER AND THE GLORY, Howard was not interested in launching a useful gimmick but in making a powerful human drama, succeeding with rich images to illustrate portions of the film where Morgan's voice is the only one heard as he tells his story.#
Sadly, Howard did not become one of the great directors of the golden age in his lifetime, leaving Hollywood in the late '30s to direct some UK productions such as FIRE OVER ENGLAND and THE SQUEAKER (both 1937). Upon his return to the U.S., he produced and directed the New York-shot BACK DOOR TO HEAVEN (1939), a social drama of great personal meaning to Howard that failed to catch on with audiences. Warner Bros. hired him to direct a few films, including KNUTE ROCKNE -- ALL-AMERICAN (1940), but he was replaced in mid-shoot by Lloyd Bacon following a disagreement with the studio. His last film in the director's chair was a Republic programmer, A GUY COULD CHANGE (1946) starring Allan Lane; he was 54 when he passed in 1954.
And as for Clive Brook? He never again played Holmes, which he may very well have viewed as a diversion from more important parts that came his way. Nevertheless, the impression he left with moviegoers either as Holmes or in other screen projects remains undeniable. He returned to England in 1935 to make more movies, and in the midst of World War II, he wrote, produced, directed and starred in the screen version of the Frederick Lonsdale comedy ON APPROVAL (1943), which was warmly greeted by a laugh-starved movie public.
It was also his last picture for nearly two decades until John Huston successfully cajoled Brook from retirement to take a major role in the director's gimmicky mystery THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (1963). Brook died at 87 on Nov. 17, 1974. Both of his children, Faith Brook (1922-2012) and Lyndon Brook (1926-2004), pursued notable acting careers.
* William K. Everson, THE DETECTIVE IN FILM, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972, p. 12.
** THE DETECTIVE IN FILM, p. 14.
*** Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels, THE FILMS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1978, p. 24.
@ Josef Von Sternberg, FUN IN A CHINESE LAUNDRY, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1988, p. 165.
@@ THE DETECTIVE IN FILM, p. 14.
@@@ THE FILMS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, p. 38.
# Romano Tozzi, SPENCER TRACY: PYRAMID ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE MOVIES, New York: Pyramid Publications, 1973, pp. 45-47.